Todd Skinner turned me on to this exercise back in 1990, and I’ve since become a believer. Muscular gains from this exercise are reasonably quick and obvious, and they seem to translate fairly well to climbing despite the obvious lack of specificity to climbing.
Todd credits these finger rolls for some of his most significant gains in finger strength, since he first picked up on this exercise from Eastern Bloc climbers he meet on the World Cup circuit in 1987.
The Soviet climbers claimed that heavy finger rolls produce measurable gains in forearm circumference (a sign of muscle hypertrophy), whereas strength gains from fingerboard or campus training are primarily the result of neurological adaptations. This statement seems reasonable since the heavy finger rolls cause repeated, high-intensity eccentric and concentric contractions of the forearm muscles. Also, pairing up heavy finger rolls with plyometric training (e.g. campus training) could produce the synergistic gains that have been shown to result from the Complex Training protocol I advocate for advanced climbers (more on this in a future article!).
Performing these heavy finger rolls is quite simple and requires 20 to 30 minutes. You will need access to a set of free weights and a bench press bar with ball-bearing sleeves–maybe the only good reason for a climber to join a health club or buy a heavy free weight set. A squat rack is also useful as a “spotter.” (See the photo above for my home gym setup. What you don’t see in the photo is my 600+ sq. ft. of training wall, which of course is where I spend most of my training time.)
The body position for this exercise is critical to reduce strain on the lower back, elbows, and wrists. Focus on keeping a slight bend at your knees, elbows, and hips. The motion of the finger curl is only the few inches from the open-hand position to the closed-hand position. Ideally you want to lower the bar as far as possible without it falling from your hand. I’ve found the squat rack quite handy in acting as a “catcher” in case I drop the bar (see photo).
As far as weight is concerned, it must be HEAVY! Maximum strength training demands the use of an appropriately heavy weight that only allows you three to six very intense repetitions. Therefore, while finger rolls with a “light” weight (e.g. 30- or 40-pound dumbbells) may pump you up, they are ineffective for developing maximum finger strength. After a warm-up set with the bar weighted to about 50 percent of your body weight, the goal is six heavy sets with a good rest of three to five minutes between sets. A weight about equal to your bodyweight is a good first guess for a “working weight.” Add more weight if you can do more than six reps, or removed if you can’t do six sets of at least three repetitions. With practice, you should be able to build to 125 to 150 percent of body weight…AND build forearms of steel!
A few other suggestions: never train the heavy finger rolls more than twice a week and, in accordance with The Principle of Variation, cycle “on” and “off” of this exercise every few weeks. Also, tape the base of your fingers (A2 pulleys) and consider placing a few turns of 1.5-inch tape around your wrist when your “working weight” is greater than your body weight. Focus on keeping your wrists nearly straight throughout the range of motion–you are NOT doing wrist curls. Finally, take a week or two off at the first sign of any pain in the finger tendons or wrist.
Copyright 2004 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.