If you engage in serious training for climbing, you’ve no doubt discovered that significant strength gains are harder and harder to come by as you advance in ability. Overcoming a training plateau and achieving a physical breakthrough that pays off on the rock is difficult and, if you don’t train smart, it may elude you.
In terms of the physical aspect of climbing, the key to breaking new ground is tricking your body with a new exercise and novel regimen that imparts a training stimulus the body is not accustom to. Simply flogging your body with a higher volume of the same old thing—a surprisingly common training theme—is usually an ineffective approach (although it might be an effective strategy if you enjoy nagging overuse injuries). If you want to climb harder and hopefully dodge the injury bullet—and Natural Selection—you need to be a smarter about the things you do in the name of climbing.
In this article I’m going to outline one such smart-training strategy that you can employ to target common physical constraints. The training technique is called Long-Duration Isometrics (LDI), and it’s a proven method of shocking the muscles to overcome sticking points and long-held limits in strength.
Isometrics are static contractions—that is, the muscles are contracting without actually moving anything. Isometric contractions are, of course, a big part of the climbing process, as your muscles work in an isometric way with every grip of the rock and lock-off arm position. In climbing (and training for climbing), you only maintain this isometric contract for a second or two, as you move quickly from one hard move or repetition to the next.
Long-duration isometric exercises, however, involve holding a strenuous position—specifically, one that you want to strengthen—for 30 seconds or more. While this training method isn’t very specific to the way you climb (unless make a practice of hanging out at a crux move until you pump out and fall!), it is an excellent way to trick the neuromuscular system to adapt in a favorable way.
Research has confirmed that a maximal isometric contraction can recruit more motor units/muscle fibers than both a concentric and eccentric action. In executing a LDI exercise, you will progressively recruit higher-threshold fibers as lower-threshhold fibers fatigure. So while holding a open-hand grip or lock off for just a few seconds will call only a small number of motor units into play, holding the isometric contract for 30 second, 60 seconds, or longer will recruit the less-frequently used high-threshold fibers into play—and these are the exact fibers you want to activate and train to break through strength plateaus and movement sticking points! What’s more, LDI may improve neural programming (motor unit synchronization), and perhaps even disinhibit the golgi tendon organ (which is a restrictor of maximum strength).
An important caveat to LDI training is that the resultant neurological enhancements and strength gains are limited to joint angles near that of the angle trained. Therefore, in LDI grip training you want to target the open hand, pinch, and half crimp positions, while in lock-off training it would be wise to train both on a vertical plane and in steep-wall position (which fires the back and shoulder muscles a little differently).
Detailed below are four LDI exercises that I’ve found effective; but by all means be creative and come up with others! Maximum LDI sets should be performed at the end of your workout, although a single “short” LDI set (30 – 60 seconds) is highly effective to activate the muscles during a pre-climb warm-up routine. For strength gains, I suggest you hold each LDI for 1 to 3 minutes (hard). Begin by doing one set of each exercise per workout, and then add a second set when you feel able. Doing more than two sets will provide little added benefit, yet create greater neurological fatigue from which to recover. As with any training practice, discontinue LDI if you develop any pain in the fingers, elbows, or shoulders.