By Seiji Ishii
Rock climbing has been essentially void of research studies, the lack of commercial gain possible from findings the limiting factor. I recently stumbled across a Training Beta podcast were well known Britsh hardman and crack master Tom Randall and his training business partner and Exercise Ph.D. candidate Ollie Torr revealed their research. Tom Randall, of Wide Boys fame, is a 5.14/V13 climber with 15 years of climbing experience and eight years of coaching under his belt. Ollie Torr is a V13 climber and coach, and he is using the data gathered from their study to pursue his Ph.D. Randall conceived the Lattice Board climbing assessment tool and he and Toor train serious climbers under their Lattice Training banner. Randall and Torr have polled over 500 active rock climbers, and I found their discoveries compelling, some of it counter-intuitive. Here are my notes for your perusal; hopefully some of it may help guide your efforts.
Taller climbers need less finger strength and less lock off strength at the same grade than shorter climbers. There is about a 2.5% reduction for every centimeter gained in height, at each grade of climbing ability, regardless of climber mass.
Taller climbers have the advantage (needing less relative strength) in all metrics measured, except for core strength. Shorter climbers have less core strength at each grade than their taller counterparts.
Taller climbers also have the advantage in local aerobic efficiency, meaning they needed less local forearm muscular endurance than shorter climbers at the same grade.
Caveat: these findings do not apply at the low and high extremes of height.
Conclusion: shorter climbers can focus more time and energy on developing finger and lock off strength compared to taller climbers of the same ability.
MALE vs. FEMALE
Female climbers need less finger strength than their males at each grade. This trend is most likely due to better climbing technique and hip mobility used by women in the study. The greater flexibility allows women to keep their hips closer to the wall, contributing to the superior economy of movement compared to males. “Climb like a girl,” is indeed a compliment to males.
At the 5.13 to 5.14 ability level in females, the limiting factor to reaching the next grade seems to be shoulder girdle stability. The common compensation is dominant upper trapezius muscles. This lack of stability translates to less force produced at the fingers.
Conclusions: males obviously can make great gains by improving flexibility and mobility without a concurrent gain in finger strength. In high-performance female climbers, improvement of shoulder girdle stability via scapular depression and rotation work will yield a total gain than improving finger strength.
JUNIORS vs. ADULTS
At each grade, juniors need just as much local muscular endurance as adults. “No free ride.”
Juniors have less ability to generate maximum force, partly negating their perceived strength to weight ratio advantage.
It is pretty “fair” across all performance related physical factors between juniors and adults, but the former could have mental advantages; less inhibition, they subjectively work harder, they can be more focused on just climbing, they are more likely to train in groups.
Juniors may have less experience knowing when to back off, particularly during bouldering. They haven’t been injured enough, or have climbed long enough to know when to let go of the hold, give up on that problem, etc. Dynamic loading is ALWAYS more injurious than planned loads that are slowly applied. Fingerboard and strength training is much safer for everyone, including juniors than bouldering.
Avoiding campus boards is an accepted guideline for juniors, but there are exceptions; juniors that have years of climbing already under their belt, are closely monitored, cautious, etc.
Caveat on BMI: very loosely regarded as a metric
All data on both juniors and adults showed healthy BMI and weight ranges. Culling the large data set available on 8a.nu reveals that elite female climbers have lower BMI’s than nonelites.
Average male and female BMI in the study is 21, but on 8a.nu it is 18. The range in the study is 20.5-21.5. Displays that all climbers tend to be lean.
Low BMI produced both high performance and low performance.
Highest injury rates occurred when high-intensity training concurred with weight loss.
Low volume/low intensity or tapering phases are the only times where weight loss doesn’t negatively influence training results or raise injury concerns, and the maximum recommended loss is 5%.
Conclusion: climbers need a healthy amount of body fat for consistent performance and gains, and a balanced approach is necessary. Don’t get bogged down with weight loss during training phases aimed at producing gains.
BOULDERERS vs. ROUTE CLIMBERS
Amount and type of load tolerated depends on history. Boulderers cannot tolerate high volumes of medium intensity work and conversely; route climbers cannot tolerate moderate volumes of high-intensity work.
The trick is to avoid raising volume and intensity at the same time. Route climbers will be more efficient at gaining power if they drop volume. Boulderers should drop intensity while raising training volume. Maintain other factors (like strength) with a minimal maintenance schedule, which is highly individualistic and depends on training history.
It is very common for route climbers to do way too much volume while training to make gains in power.
You can learn more about Randall and Torr’s training business, philosophies and the study on latticetraining.com.