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Ten Science-Based Exercises to Boost Your Bouldering Game

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10 Science-Backed Exercises To Up Your Bouldering Game

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Introduction

Rock climbing is something you are passionate aboutAt some point, he became a regular at the bouldering wall. Your dream is to send complex bouldering projects that end with a flawlessly executed dyno. Despite your commitment to strength training and practice time on the wall, you seem to have reached an impasse. Only you could get to the next level.

You arrive at the gym on Saturday feeling refreshed and ready to go. You have put in a lot of effort lately to improve your training. Today, you are willing to explore more difficult routes. You are captivated by a problem and get to work. Halfway through the climb you are far from the next handhold. Your only option is to move quickly towards the next handhold, letting go of your solid footholds so that you can rely on your reaching hand to hold you off the ground. You release your right hand with the count of three and lift your body up. Your hand is now flying off the wall, much to your dismay. You now find yourself back on the bouldering floor, wondering what went wrong.

This story may sound familiar. Do you feel like you are putting your effort into training, but not seeing any results on the bouldering wall? You might be strong, have good technique and good climbing technique but lack muscle power. Performance in rock climbing and bouldering is directly related to how much force you can produce.1. The bottom line is that even if your strength is great, it may take too long to generate full force. You might miss the dynamic moves every single time.

This article will give boulderers the information they need to improve their training and increase their upper body power. These exercises mimic the physical demands of bouldering and will help boulderers become more confident on the walls.

Comparison of Bouldering and Sport Climbing

Before you begin a training plan, it is important that you take the time to review your goals and make sure your training methods match them. Different types of climbing require different physiological adaptations. This means that you need unique training focuses to achieve optimal performance. Bouldering performance depends on forearm strength and power.1. While forearm strength in lead climbers is higher than that of non-climbers; boulder climbers exhibit greater finger-flexor maximal strength (RFD) and rate-of-force development (RFD), when compared with lead climbers2. RFD is defined as “the ability of the neuromuscular system to increase contractile force from a low or resting level when muscle activation is performed as quickly as possible3”It is the primary distinguisher between these two climbing styles2.

To meet the demands of bouldering’s dynamic nature, it is important to incorporate power elements into your training. Remember that this article is focused on bouldering. The exercises, dosing, and other related information have been created to facilitate short-term climbs with strong movements. Bouldering situations that have two to three limit moves, or moves at your limit level, are the best for power.4. Power-endurance is the ability to sustain power for longer periods of time, such as when traversing with seven to ten difficult moves or climbing a bouldering problem.4. Power-oriented exercise may be beneficial for sport climbers, but the climbing style will determine whether the focus is on power-endurance or endurance.5. Sport climbing routes that require a lot of crux moves and have plenty of rest stops for recovery would benefit from a strong emphasis on power. For climbing routes with lower intensity and longer durations between rest stops, endurance training and power-endurance are more appropriate.5. Your climbing style and relative performance needs should be reflected in your training style. This article focuses mainly on power, but there are some crossovers into power-endurance.

Important to remember that periodized training can often produce the best results. That is, the emphasis on exercises is constantly changed during a training period.5. This training method minimizes training plateaus and injury risk.5. This is why it’s not a smart decision to constantly train power, no matter how power-oriented your climbing style.

Training considerations

Your training should not only be specific for physiological changes but also need to resemble climbing movements and positions. Climbing performance will be improved if your exercises closely reflect climbing.6. The six exercise guidelines for mirror climbing were developed by Dr. Jared Vagy DPT is the Climbing DoctorHe describes them in his book. “Climb Injury-Free.”These six exercises rules will help you evaluate the effectiveness of your training sessions. You should put weight in your toes, bend and engage your abs, stabilize your shoulder blades and hold your hands high above your shoulders.6. Although not all exercises you perform will adhere to all six of the rules, this can help to improve your ability to analyze and modify the exercises so that you get the best out of your training.

Two factors that are especially relevant to upper body power are stabilizing the shoulder blades and engaging the abdominals. The core musculature is a solid base for extremity function, force transfer and power transmission. This contributes to the upper body’s ability to move with dynamic speed.7. The core controls movement and allows for you to apply forces all directions. This helps you maintain your hand and foot position on the wall6. Static engagement of your core during dynamic upper-body power exercises will help you prepare for difficult boulder problems. The energy transfer from the core into the arms is completed by the shoulders. Stabilization of shoulder blades through muscle engagement can increase performance, take stress off of the arms, and reduce the risk for injury.6.

For maximum benefit and to prevent injury, make sure you include a warm-up and cool down of at least 5-10 minutes.

Strength is the Prerequisite for Power

Muscular power relies on being able to apply high amounts of force quickly and to produce high contraction velocities.8. There is a strong interaction between overall muscular strength and the ability express high power outputs in short time periods. This ability can also be affected by the speed of muscle shrinkage. Overall strength is the most important variable in determining your ability to generate high power outputs.8,9. Muscle strength is essential for the development and maintenance of muscular power.

It makes sense, given the relationship between strength and strength, that ballistic power training should not be done until you have developed foundational levels.10. A relative weak individual can increase their speed and maximal power during athletic movements simply by increasing their max strength, without the need for ballistic power training10. Specific power training, on the other hand, is more beneficial for people who already have baseline strength. The body can adapt to the demands placed upon it. Participating in sport-specific power train results in neural adaptations that enhance sport performance10. Therefore, those who are weaker should concentrate on building strength and not power. Those who are stronger should include aspects of both. Power training can also be modified to meet different difficulty levels. As an example, plyometric pushups can be performed on one’s knees instead of feet to make the exercise easier. Training in a way that suits your goals, fitness, skill level, lifestyle, and personal preferences is the most important thing.

Here are power assessments for climbing and adaptations to make it easier in the gym.

Upper Body Power Assessments

1. RFD for Finger Flexors

  • Because it is more precise to the requirements of the sport, isometric RFD testing using an instrumental hold is preferable to traditional maximal strength measurements to assess muscle function in boulder climbers2.
  • For this type of testing, special equipment is needed. Dynamometry should only be performed with a specific hold for climbing.

Photo by Dr. Jared Vagy

2. Arm-Jump Board Test11

  • Climber starts by hanging from a jug with your arms extended.
  • Climber pulls off an explosive pullup and then releases both his hands to slap the board at the highest possible point.
  • The distance from the lowest hand is a measure of performance.
  • You should complete 3 trials and take 3 minutes off between each one.

Below are a few images showing the arm-jumpboard test as described in the article “Upper-limb power test in rock-climbing”Published in International Journal of Sports Medicine11.

 

3. Powerslap Test12

  • Climber starts by hanging from a jug with your arms extended.
  • Climber does an explosive pull-up, then releases one hand to grab the scaled board at its highest point.
  • Start climbing in a fairly narrow grip position. Then, climb slightly wider.
  • Each hand should be assessed three times with three minutes rest between each one. Record the highest score of each trial.
  • You should measure results to the nearest centimeter. You can calculate power using the Lewis formula, or you could measure your progress by comparing your baseline height with future measurements.

Above are a few images showing the powerslap test as described in the article “Sport-specific power assessment for rock climbing”Published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness12.

Two videos below show an adaptation of the powerslap test on a MoonBoard. This is an example how to modify the powerslap test so that it can be done in a climbing studio. You can use this method to track the MoonBoard angle, distance and time. It is possible to take a video or mark the hold that you were able reach. No matter how you measure your results you should keep enough information so that you can compare the most recent test with your baseline test.

Note: The first video shows an experienced climber, while the second is for a novice climber. The first climber can finish the movement faster than the second and can reach higher elevations. This is due in part to differences in strength and power as well as neuromuscular adaptability.

These assessments can be used as upper body power measures to improve rock climbing performance. These tests may not be possible for everyone due to limited resources. These tests may not be possible for some people. If this happens, ensure that the baseline assessment’s testing protocol is identical to your retest assessments. A good way to evaluate power is counting how many repetitions an exercise is performed within a given time. This is especially helpful for those with limited equipment. Assessments that are based on climbing demands are preferable because they better reflect climbing performance.

4. Repetitions in 30 Seconds

  • A simple and flexible way to measure upper extremity muscle power is to do as many repetitions as possible in a short time.
  • Take a climbing-specific power workout and count how many times you can do it in 30 seconds.
  • Pushups, pullups without or with assistance, inverted rows and medicine ball throws are some of the exercises that you might want to try.
  • Do a baseline assessment, then periodically retest to evaluate progress.
  • Take care when performing these exercises. They should be performed quickly but with good technique and control to avoid injury.

Now it’s time to adjust your training program to target your power goals after you have evaluated your power. Here are ten exercises you can incorporate into your training program in order to improve your power and your bouldering performance.

Exercises

1. 1.

  • Campus board training has many benefits: Increase explosive strength, increase force gradient, and improve intramuscular as well as intermuscular coordination13
  • You can see the variations in the videos below: campus board ladder, one-arm dyno and double dyno.
  • Dosing for exercise: Near maximum intensity, 4-6 repetitions and 2-3 minutes rest between sets13

 

2. Cable pulls

  • Cable pulls should be performed quickly and for 30 seconds.
  • Dosage: Perform 30-second rounds, each time in a different direction. Between sets, take 1-2 minutes to rest.
  • For injury prevention, it is crucial to use proper technique and positioning when performing this exercise. Keep your shoulders slightly bent to the front when pulling from the sides. Your shoulder and abdominal muscles should be engaged during the exercise in order to avoid any weight pulling on the shoulder. It is safe and can be very beneficial if done correctly. However, it should not be used if you feel any discomfort or pain.

3. Plyometric pullup

  • Do an explosive pullup, and then lift your hand off the bar at each end of each pullup.
  • Each repetition requires you to alternate your hands.
  • Modification: Place one foot on a block at the hip and knee heights and use your hands to assist you.
  • Dosing is done in 3-4 sets, 8-12 repetitions at high speed with 2 minutes of recovery between sets

4. Pushups using plyometrics

  • Do a pushup explosively using any of the variations listed below, or your own variation.
  • Pushups on a thicker surface will reduce stress on your wrists.
  • Modification: Do pushups on your knees instead of your feet.
  • Dose of exercise: 2-3 sets of 12-20 repetitions. Between sets, take 2 minutes to rest.

5. 5.

  • Do an explosive inverted squat and raise one hand from the bar at the end of each repetition.
  • Each repetition requires you to alternate your hands.
  • Modification: Inverted rows will be easier if you place your feet lower than the bar.
  • Dosing exercise: 3-4 sets at high speed, 12 repetitions each with 2 minutes rest between sets

6. 6.

  • Begin by squatting down with your weight shifting to your feet.
  • A band should be placed slightly from your body. It should be at a height which allows for resistance when your arm and elbow are fully extended.
  • You should quickly pull the band so your elbow is fully bent and your hand is close to your shoulder.
  • Slowly return your arm to its original position. Keep your shoulder muscles engaged during this exercise.
  • Below are two versions of the same thing. One with double-leg support, and one on one leg for stability and balance.
  • Dose of exercise: 2 sets of 15 repetitions each, followed by 2 minutes of rest.

Photo by Dr. Jared Vagy

7. TRX plank rocker in press-up

  • This exercise is challenging for the upper body and abdominals.
  • Keep your spine neutral as you rock forwards and backwards. Next, press your hands into your hands.
  • Dosing is done in 2-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions and 2 minutes between each set.

8. Throw an overhead medicine ball

  • You will need to be seated on a block and your toes should be on the ground. You can also lean backwards during the exercise to engage your abdominals.
  • Toss the medicine ball at chest level and throw vertically.
  • Release the ball as soon as you can.
  • Modification: Use a partner to drop the medicine ball and catch it from above
  • Dosing exercise: Three sets of 15 repetitions, with a minute rest in between.

9. 9.

  • Start in a chin-hold position, with your chest up at the bar.
  • You can quickly dip down to change your hand position, and then suddenly pull upwards from the starting position.
  • Each hand should be changed between a pronated or supinated grip.
  • Modification: Position your toes on the block facing the opposite end of the bar. Use assistance as necessary.
  • Dosing for exercise: Two sets of 16 total grip movements with 2 minutes rest in between each set

10. 10.

  • Start by placing your fingers in a slightly flexed posture. Next, gently pull your fingers into more flexibility. This can be done by pulling your fingers into a full-crimp, or half-crimp position.
  • Keep your fingers in this position and repeat the process for each repetition.
  • Your equipment may vary, but you may have a portable hangboard or resistance bands to help you set up.
  • Dosing exercises: 3 sets of 5 repetitions each with an 8-10 second isometric hold after each repetition

You can incorporate power exercises into your workout routine

Power exercises should be done 2-3 times per week for best results. This is a good general rule of thumb for all power training. It may not be the best fit for your training schedule. To allow the muscles to heal, it is best to not train the same area twice in a row. Remember that bouldering is a physically demanding sport. Therefore, it is important to allow your body time for recovery. You may need to do these exercises 2-3 days per week in order to make time for the climbing wall.

Power training and strength training can be a great supplement to your bouldering skills. However, bouldering is something you must do to improve your skills. You can do these exercises, and you will continue doing what you love. Limit bouldering is a great way to increase your power and maximize the power of your bouldering sessions.14. Limit bouldering refers to bouldering routes that only have one or two difficult moves. This is a sport-specific technique for increasing power and contact force.14.

Consult a Doctor of Physical Therapy

You should consult a physician if you have pain while doing any of these exercises, or when climbing. A climber who uses repetitive movements and improper technique may be more at risk of injury. You can get help from a physical therapist to reduce pain, increase your climbing ability, improve your exercise and climbing technique and adjust your training to achieve your goals.

About the Authors

This article was drafted during mentorship. The Climbing SIG, a rock climbing special interest group for physical therapy students developed by Dr. Jared Vagy DPT –  The Climbing Doctor.

Claire Lorbiecki

Claire is a third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) student at Regis University in Denver and has graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. Claire loves spending time outside and being active, in addition to her studies. Her favorite activities include hiking, biking and downhill skiing. Combining her love of the outdoors with years of gymnastic experience made rock climbing a natural addition to this list. Claire is looking forward to climbing new heights and learning more about physical therapy as a doctor. To contact Claire with any questions or comments, please email her at [email protected]

Oder Jared

Dr. Jared Vagy “The Climbing Doctor,”He is a doctor in physical therapy and an experienced climber. His career and studies have been devoted to climbing-related injuries prevention, orthopedics and movement science. The Amazon bestseller, he wrote. Climb Injury-FreeClimbing Magazine is his regular contributor. He is also a professor in the University of Southern California. He is an internationally renowned lecturer and a board-certified orthopedic clinic specialist.

For more injury-prevention content, take Dr. Vagy and Climbing Magazine’s 8-week AIM Adventure U course Strength training for injury prevention. You’ll learn how to avoid common climbing injuries by strengthening your shoulders, wrists, fingers, hips, knees, ankles, and abs. Climbing Magazine’s Sasha DiGiulian and Dr. Vagy guide you through world-class warmups. They also teach you how to strengthen your core, upper body, and lower body with the help of expert climber Sasha DiGiulian.

Jennifer Demyanek

Jennifer is a Las Vegas-based physical therapist, college professor and rock climber. She graduated from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she received a Doctorate.

Degree in Physical Therapy. Jennifer is the founder of Onsight Movement in Las Vegas. She specializes in treating injuries to rock climbing and improving climbing performance. A part of her current duties is Adjunct Faculty at College of Southern Nevada, where she teaches Anatomy & Physiology.

Jennifer is an officer of the virtual Rock Climbing Special Interest Group as well as a member of the American Physical Therapy Association’s Orthopedic Section. Additionally, she holds Dry Needling Certification from the American Academy of Manipulative Therapist. Jennifer is a physical therapist, but she can also be found rock climbing in the southwest, or with her husband Dylan. You can contact Jennifer via email at [email protected] or by visiting www.onsightmovement.com.

Kevin Cowell

Kevin is a clinical instructor, a physical therapist and a rock climber. He lives in Broomfield, CO and owns and runs The Climb Clinic at G1 Climbing + Health. Here he specializes on strength and rehab for climbers. After earning his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Regis University, he found his passion in Colorado climbing while completing his Doctorate of Physical Therapy. He has since become a Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach(CSCS), Board-Certified Orthopaedic Clinical Specialists (OCS), and a Fellow of American Academy of Orthopaedic Manipulative Physical Therapy (FAAOMPT).

Refer to 

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(2) Fanchini M, Violette F, Impellizzeri FM, Maffiuletti NA. There are differences in climbing-specific strength among boulder climbers and lead rock climbers. J Strength Cond Res. 2013; 27(2):310-4.

(3) Rodríguez-Rosell D, Pareja-Blanco F, Aagaard P, González-Badillo JJ. Methodological and physiological aspects of rate development assessment in human bone marrow muscle. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2018; 38(5), 743-762.

MoonBoard Your Path to Maximum Power. Climbing website. Accessed May 23, 2021. https://www.climbing.com/skills/moonboard-your-way-to-max-power/

(5) The Making of a ‘Rock Prodigy.’ The Rock Climber’s Training Manual website. Accessed May 23, 2021. https://rockclimberstrainingmanual.com/tools-for-rock-climbing-training/the-making-of-a-rock-prodigy/

(6) Vagy J. Climb Injury-Free: A Proven Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation Method. 2018: The Climbing Doc

(7) Shinkle J, Nesser TW, Demchak TJ, McMannus DM. Effect of core strength upon the measurement of power in extremities J Strength Cond Res. 2012; 26(2), 373-80.

(8) Haff GG. Nimphius S. Training principles for power. Strength Cond J. 2012; 34(6), 2-12.

(9) Kawamori N, Haff GG. The best training load for developing muscular power. J Strength Cond Res. 2004; 18(3).675-84.

(10) Cormie P, McGuigan MR, Newton RU. Adaptations in athletic performance following strength training or ballistic power. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010; 42(8).1582-98.

(11) Laffaye G, Collin JM, Levernier G, Padulo J. Upper-limb power test in rock-climbing. Int J Sports Med. 2014; 35(8).670-5.

(12) Draper N, Dickson T, Blackwell G, et al. Assessment of sport-specific power for rock climbing. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2011; 51(3).

(13) Michailov ML. Workload characteristics, performance limiting factors, and methods for strength- and endurance training in rock climb. Med Sport. 2014; 18 (3):97-106.

(14) Power. The Rock Climber’s Training Manual website. Accessed February 17, 2021. https://rockclimberstrainingmanual.com/training-for-rock-climbing/power/

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