Slowing the Pump Clock: Three Strategies to Prevent the Pump
Training to get stronger is a good thing. Climbing in ways that conserve energy and enable more rapid recovery is a smart thing!
While both of these strategies are valid for improving climbing performance, many climbers obsess on getting stronger while not recognizing the value of optimizing their use of strength and accelerating recovery. It’s a fact that the very best climbers are all strong, yet not every strong climber becomes the very best. The difference often lies in the subtle areas of economy of movement and the ability to prevent the pump and maximize recovery on a climb. The following three strategies do just this. Use them, and you’ll find the pump clock ticking slower, regardless of your current strength or ability.
1. Practice climbing with more economy. This might seem obvious, yet most climbers get poor fuel economy when climbing near their limit. Do you climb more like a Buick or a Honda? Learning to climb more efficiently requires a conscious effort, so get a partner and make a game out of it. The following are energy-conserving techniques to practice on moderate routes or in the safe setting of a gym. 1. Predetermine the rest positions on a route and only chalk-up and rest there. Climb briskly from one rest to the next. 2. Limit your time on any given hold to five seconds or less, the exception being rest positions. Climb past the smallest, pumpy holds as fast as possible. 3. Vary your grip position as often as possible. Alternate between the crimp grip, open hand grip, thumb lock, pinch, pocket grip, and such, as often as the rock allows. Don’t miss a chance to sink a hand jam or finger lock—these are great energy saving grips that many face climbers miss.
2. Flex your fingers and wrist between grips.
For many climbers, recovering on a route is something they just let happen. To take a proactive role in the recovery process, however, is one of the subtle differences that separate the best from the rest. One such strategy is to open-and-close your fingers or flex your wrist between each grip. This is something you must do in just the second or two it takes to reach from one hold to the next. Simply think about flicking water off your fingers or hand as your reach for the next hold—that’s the motion you are after. This simple process spurs on blood flow—which actually stops during times of maximum gripping—through the forearm muscles, and the aggregate effect of doing this between every grip will produce a significant reduction in your accumulated pump.
3. Use the G-Tox to speed recovery at rests.
The “dangling arm” shakeout is the technique universally used to foster recovery from a pump. There is a more effective method for accelerating forearm recovery, however, that I call G-Tox. It involves alternating the position of your resting arm between the normal dangling position and an above-your-head position. Consider that the discomfort and pump you feel in the forearms is largely the result of restricted blood flow and increasing intramuscular acidosis. While the dangling arm shakeout does allow the blood flow into the forearm to resume, flow of “stale” blood out of the forearm is sluggish due to the arm position below your heart. The result is a traffic jam of sorts, which perpetuates the pump and slows recovery. (Have you ever noticed how the pump often increases as you begin the shakeout process with your arm by your side?) The G-Tox technique makes gravity your ally by aiding venous return to the heart. This enhances the removal H+ ion (which lower blood pH and hampers function) and helps restore homeostasis. The effects of this technique are unmistakable—you will literally see your pump “drained” as you elevate your arm. Use the G-Tox at all your mid-climb shakeouts by deliberately alternating the position of your resting arm, between raise-hand and dangling position, every five to ten seconds.
Copyright 2014 Eric J. Hörst
In working with hundreds of climbers over the past five years, I’ve discovered that an increasing number are investing a significant amount of training time on activities and exercises that are not climbing specific. Popular activities, like Cross-Fit, trail running, weight lifting, and mountain biking, can consume a tremendous amount of free time that ultimately leaves less opportunity to climb, boulder, hangboard, and do other forms of climbing-specific training. While I have no issue with non-specific training activities, a serious climber must resist “training tangents” and stay on mission of becoming a stronger rock climber.
No amount of Cross-Fit, running, and such, will advance your climbing as much as time invested in climbing specific activities. Therefore, serious climbers must train and climb in accordance to the “SAID Principle” (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands). The SAID principle describes that a specific exercise or type of training will produce adaptations specific to the activity performed and only in the muscles (and energy systems) that are stressed by the activity. For example, running produces favorable adaptations in the leg muscles and the cardio-vascular system. However, the muscles and systems not stressed show no adaptation; so even heroic amounts of running will produce no favorable changes in, say, the arms. Of course, the adaptations that result from running do transfer somewhat to other sports that depend on the same body parts and systems (e.g. mountain biking). Bottom line: the SAID Principle demands that effective training for climbing must target your body in ways very similar to climbing (e.g. in body position, muscles used, energy systems trained, etc).
Similarly, your body adapts in a specific fashion to the specific demands you place on it while climbing. If you boulder a lot, you will adapt to the specific skill and strength demands of bouldering. If you climb mostly one-pitch sport routes, you adapt to the unique demands of zipping up, say, 30 meters of rock before muscular failure. If you primarily climb multi-pitch routes or big walls, your body will adapt in accordance to the demands of these longer climbs. Or, if your outings are alpine in nature, your physiological response will be specific to the very unique demands of climbing in the mountains.
The vitally important distinction here is that while all these activities fall under the headline of “climbing,” they each have unique demands that produce very specific physical adaptations. Therefore, the training effect from regular bouldering will do nothing to enhance your physical ability for alpine climbing. As shown in the table below, the specific demands of sport climbing are much closer to those of bouldering. Consequently, the adaptations incurred from frequent bouldering will carry over well to sport climbing (especially short sport climbs) and vice versa.
|Continuum of Climbing “Sub-Sports”|
Due to the SAID principle, your practice and training on the rocks should be spent mostly on the type of climbing in which you desire to excel. It is no mistake that the best boulderers in the world rarely tie into a rope. Likewise, the best alpine climbers spend little or no time working on 30-meter sport routes. Targeting your training on the specific demands of your preferred form of climbing is the essence of the SAID Principle.
In the end, you must make a philosophical choice whether you want to specialize–and, therefore, excel–in one climbing “sub-sport,” or become a moderately successful all-around climber. Certainly, there is equal merit and reward in both approaches.
Copyright 2014 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.