Sure, the best way to train for climbing is still to go climbing, or hit a portable hangboard if you are traveling and can’t climb. But what if you have no space in your bag or nowhere to string up a hangboard, or you’re office-bound with no time or space to train effectively? Should you deploy a grip trainer?
A plethora of rigs exists. Most are monotonous to use and relatively ineffective; however, a few are essential allies. Keep them on the radar.
While specificity is the number-one training principle, grip exercisers won’t work the forearms in the same way as climbing. Most grip trainers involve squeezing and using the forearms with positive movement, whereas climbing demands isometric (static) muscle contractions to resist the load of body weight. Additionally, the majority of grip trainers offer insufficiently high resistance for strength training, which lends them more to the function of injury prevention and general conditioning. However, there is an important distinction between grip “squeezers,” which work the flexors, and forearm extensor trainers.
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Climbing emphasizes the flexor tendons in the forearm, which are used for gripping, and it barely utilizes the extensors, which open out the grip. The result is that most climbers have chronically weak extensors, and thus extensor training is a good way to address imbalances and prevent associated injuries such as elbow and bicep tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and various hand and tendon pulley ills. Furthermore, if performed with high resistance, extensor training can be a powerful tool for improving strength.
This time no gadget is required: Simply submerge your hands in a bucket full of rice and get squeezing! This much-hyped form of supportive training has been described as “the workout every climber should do,” and one online bucket fan suggested that every climbing gym should have one. However, many of the claims are overstated. Rice buckets are ideal for building base strength or getting back up to strength after a forearm injury. Fundamentally, the training feels good and develops the relationship between all the muscles by allowing weak muscles to catch up with stronger ones. The muscles respond quickly to the training, but it’s still advisable to build volume up slowly. Start with two sessions per week, with 45 seconds per exercise, and build up to one-minute intervals and beyond. The training soon gets to where it no longer feels taxing, and at this point you’ll know your forearms are well-balanced and conditioned.
The exercise names are hilarious. Highlights include: the Iron Fist (stab your fingers deep into the rice, and then make a fist); Screaming Talon (stab them in, and then open them wide); Fists of Fury (rotate fists in the rice in one direction); Wax On, Wax Off (move fists side to side); Gouge the Eye (dig your thumbs deep into the rice repeatedly); Crush the Pebble (grab handfuls of rice, and attempt to pulverize it); and, finally, the Essence Absorbing Stance (gently caress the rice, and absorb its natural power)! Google “rice bucket training” for all the info you could ever need and then some.
The Marcy Wedge
$30 | BUY HERE |
This is a popular gadget, which works the flexor and extensor muscle simultaneously, simply by rocking the wrist back and forth. It feels comfortable to use and features an adjustable grip and a variable-resistance system. It doesn’t really allow you to build strength or train the fingers in ways that might benefit climbers. The Marcy Wedge is best for base conditioning after a layoff or recovering from an injury.
$9-$14, subject to model | BUY HERE |
This well-known spring-loaded grip exerciser features individual finger keys and comes in three models, each offering a different level of resistance.
The manufacturer has devised a series of routines that are relatively specific to climbing. Nonetheless, their value lies more in rehab and conditioning than strengthening. The design lends itself to detecting weaknesses and performing isolation work with an injured finger. For this type of work, Gripmaster advises holding each position for three to five seconds, and starting with one set of five to 10 reps, then gradually increasing to three sets of 30 reps. When you move to higher resistance, begin again with five to 10 reps and continue. Stop if you experience pain or fatigue.
The exercises are on the company’s website. A selection includes the Hook Grasp, which strengthens the longer forearm muscles; the Thumb Pinch, Tripod Pinch and Power Pinches, which work the thumb at different angles; and Finger Play, for coordination and dexterity.
Captains of Crush Grippers, aka “CoC”
$70 for a set of three, $110 for a set of five | BUY HERE |
These “nutcracker”-type torsion-spring grippers are aimed at hardcore strengthening rather than rehab and are used extensively by the weight-lifting community. The manufacturer, IronMind, bills them compellingly as the “world’s strongest grippers,” and has developed an accompanying poundage grading system regarded in some spheres as an internationally recognized measure of strength. The “No. 4” gripper has only ever been squeezed shut by five people, and a YouTube clip of the “World’s Strongest Man,” Magnus Samuelsson, closing it has been viewed over 2 million times. Keep trying, Adam Ondra and Chris Sharma!
The company publishes a book, The Mastery of Hand Strength, that goes into detail about how to use the trainer. Again, the degree to which this type of training translates to climbing is limited: A few studies have investigated the potential benefits of combining different types of grip-strength training with no reliable conclusions as far as climbing is concerned. However, a small amount of grip-squeeze training (whether dynamic or static) may help develop climbing- specific finger strength if used in conjunction with hard bouldering and exercises such as deadhanging and campusing.
$30 | BUY HERE |
The PowerFingers are elasticized forearm extensor trainers that feature individual finger loops and come in five different resistance levels. As with most other grip trainers, they can be used for addressing muscular imbalances, base conditioning, injury prevention and rehabilitation. However, these rigs seem to have magical powers when it comes to strengthening, which in my opinion makes them the most important supportive grip-training device. The big difference is that most other extensor trainers don’t work individual fingers and offer low resistance levels, meaning they can only be used for conditioning. With PowerFingers, you can stack them up for high resistance, enabling strength sets of one to eight reps.
The background here is that it isn’t possible to develop the forearm flexors (or any muscle) to their full strength potential if the antagonist (opposition) muscle is disproportionately weak. So by using the Powerfingers to strengthen the extensors, you can indirectly facilitate further strengthening of the flexors. I suggest a minimum of three sessions a week, either on rest days or when resting between climbs. Hold contractions for three to four seconds, and do two or three sets of 10 to 15 reps to warm up, then go for four or five sets of four to six reps, to failure. Many climbers who use PowerFingers are reporting increases in finger strength and reduced susceptibility to injury, and I highly recommend these devices.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 239 (January 2017).