Gym rope and inverted ladder climbing is one of the very best ways to develop awesome upper-body power. Legendary boulderer John Gill used rope climbing as a staple training exercise, and years later John Bachar popularized inverted ladder training among climbers. The Bachar Ladder, as it became known, was a popular training exercise of high-end climbers throughout the 1980s. Since the advent of indoor climbing walls and the campus board, however, rope and ladder climbing have fallen largely out of use. Still, serious climbers would be wise to incorporate some arm-only gym rope climbing into their training program—“campusing” up a 1.5-inch-thick gym rope is, in my opinion, one of the best arm-power-training exercises a climber can do!
After a lengthy warm- up of pull-ups and mild upper-body stretching, begin from either a standing or sit-down (harder) position and grip the rope with both arms at near -full extension. Begin with an explosive two-arm pull and then continue upward as fast as possible using quick, crisp arm-over-arm movements. The goal is to maintain smooth, steady upward movement for the duration of the ascent, although it may take some time to develop the necessary arm strength and power. Upon reaching the top, slowly lower back down with controlled hand-under-hand movements—do not drop down in a fast, jerky manner that will shock-load the elbows and shoulders. If you sense a loss of control, in ascending or descending, immediately clamp down on the rope with your feet rather than risk falling.
Perform three to eight (an elite alactic-power workout) total laps on the rope, always taking at least a three-minute rest between ascents. Optimal adaptations (and gains) to power training come from high-quality, full-speed efforts—think of each ascent as a sprint! Therefore, it’s better to do four full-speed sprint ascents, rather than eight low-powered “jogs” up the rope.
Two technical tips: Think about pulling the engaged hand down to meet your upper chest and, in reaching up, grab the rope with your arm less-than-fully extended (an elbow angle of between 120 and 150 degrees is good, the latter being much harder).
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The finger flexor muscles (of the forearm) are the target of most climbing-specific exercises, and rightfully so–lack of finger strength and endurance often seem to be the limiting constraint when climbing near your limit. (Of course, technical and mental deficiencies may be causing you to waste precious grip strength and energy.) Often overlooked–and equally important–are the antagonist muscles of the lateral forearm that extend the fingers and stabilize the wrist. A large strength deficit in these finger/wrist extensor muscles is a covert limiting factor in grip strength and, long-term, can lead to lateral elbow pain and injury. Consequently, a climber serious about increasing grip/pinch strength and reducing injury risk would be wise to engage in some regular strength training of these vital, yet commonly ignored, antagonist muscles.
Following are two exercises that every climber should perform at least twice weekly. (Next month I’ll present two more excellent exercises for training the extensor muscles of the lateral forearm.)
Finger Extension Against Rubber Band
Okay, let me get this one out of the way first, as rubber-band finger extensor training is quite popular. Interestingly, use of a rubber band (or similar) to extend your fingers against is sufficient only for the purposes of warm-up, beginner strength training, and rehabilitation from injury. I recommend use of Powerfingers (see photo) to warm up before climbing and in advance of the more stressful finger extensors exercises. Extend your fingers against the Powerfingers (or a rubber band) for 15 to 25 repetitions. If strength training (rather than warming up), do a second and third set with higher resistance (Powerfingers come in 5 different resistances); although use of the exercise below–and other weighted forearm extensor training–is essential to develop the higher levels of extensor strength and wrist stabilization needed for high-end climbing.
Wide Pinch with Wrist Extension
This novel exercise is absolutely essential, as it strengthens the extensor muscles with the fingers fully extended to mimic grabbing open-hand and wide pinch holds in climbing. It may seem like a small distinction, but the wrist extensors function a bit differently when the fingers are straight (extended) compared with when the fingers are flexed, as in crimping or holding a dumbbell. Of course, doing this exercise will also help you develop crushing grip strength–so doing this exercise kills two birds with one stone!
Until there’s a commercially available device for training the wide pinch grip, you’ll need to kludge something that will work. Screwing together two or three pieces of 2×4 wood blocks is a cheap, effective solution—consider making two sizes, wide and extra-wide. Another option is pinching a thick bumper weight plate. Anyway, the exercise is straightforward: Standing upright with good posture, pinch the wood block or bumper plate with a straight arm and extended wrist; hold this position for ten to thirty seconds.
Initially, I suggest training for endurance, which will require a light weight that allows a full thirty-second hold. Do three with each hand with at least a minute rest in between. Longer term, consider using a heavier weight that allows only a ten-second hold. In this case, do three consecutive ten-second pinches with the same hand, resting only thirty seconds between each one. Do a total of three sets of three reps with each hand, resting for about three minutes between sets.
NOTE: While pinching in an overhead arm position (possible with some fingerboard designs) is a quality pinch-training exercise, hanging from an overhead arm position does not engage the wrist stabilizers in the same (ideal) way as in doing the exercise shown above. An optimal pinch and extensor training program should include pinch training with both arm positions.