How to increase finger strength is one of the most common questions when it comes to improving your rock climbing. You may have forearms like tree trunks, biceps like mountains, and colossal shoulders, but without fingers of steel, you’ll struggle to hold on to all manner of holds – jugs, slopers, crimps, pockets. Stronger fingers also improves stamina and the ability to rest on smaller holds.
But what is the best way to strengthen your digits, and not get injured? The Adventure Junkies is here to walk you through finger and hand anatomy, and tell you how to increase finger strength.
KNOW YOUR FINGER ANATOMY
There are no muscles in your fingers, only tendons that attach to muscles in the hand and forearms. This means that working on finger strength also works on the muscles and ligaments in your hands, wrists and forearms.
The tendons in your fingers are connected to bone via a series of connective tissues, known as pulleys. A pulley injury is one of the most common forms of climbing injury, as the tendons and pulleys try to hold a great deal of force, particularly when crimping. There are a number of pulleys, but the one that is under strain the most while climbing, and is injured the most, is the A2 pulley, located between the hand and the first knuckle.
It is important to remember that tendons, ligaments and pulleys take longer than muscles to adapt and become stronger, so slow and steady progress is the key. Trying to do too much, too quickly, is a recipe for injury.
GET STRONGER – CLIMB MORE
Especially when starting out, climbing at your limit and pushing yourself steadily will, over time, build muscle and tendon strength. The best initial strategy is to simply climb a lot, and boulder in particular. Bouldering is the discipline of climbing that focuses on hard problems, meaning that you are often pushing the limits of your strength.
As you progress, you might try harder problems and find that you simply don’t have the base strength to do certain moves. Then it’s time to look at hangboard training.
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GET STRONGER – HANGBOARD TRAINING
Most forms of finger-strength training involve a hangboard of some kind. Hangboards have a number of different holds on which you can do pull-ups or dead-hangs, all designed to make you stronger. There are several different kinds of hangboards, and you’ll probably find a selection of them at your local climbing gym.
Different training programs exist, and you may find that some suit you more than others. The general rule is to start slowly, and add more weight over a period of several weeks. There are different thoughts as to whether to use a sloping open hand, half-crimp or full crimp position while training on small holds. The half- and full-crimp positions hyper-extend the fingers and put added strain on the tendons and pulleys, risking injury.
Some say you should train all three, because you will likely be using all three while climbing. Others say that training open hand will increase your finger strength enough for all three crimp positions, without unduly risking injury.
BUILD ISOMETRIC STRENGTH
Isometric strength is the kind that you build by holding static positions. Fingers tend to stay in the same place once you have gripped a hold, so finger-training tends to focus on holding dead-hangs for several seconds.
An important step in injury prevention is to ensure that you warm up properly – do some push-ups, jumping-jacks, and pull-ups on the large holds. If you’re in a climbing gym, do some gentle bouldering.
When you’re ready to begin, remember that it is important to be near maximum effort to build strength. Most training programs advocate doing several dead-hang sets with an open-hand position on a variety of small holds – crimps, pockets, slopers.
Choose a circuit of about 10 holds, and start on the smallest one. Dead-hang for five to 10 seconds, and then rest for a similar amount of time. (Some say hang for seven seconds, rest for three, while others say hang for 10 seconds, then rest for 30). Repeat, on the same hold, five or six times. You’re doing the right amount if you are close to failure on the last repetition.
After your first set, take a break of a few minutes before starting the next set on a different hold. Cycle through all the holds in your circuit, resting for a few minutes before moving on to the next set. When you’re done, stretch.
Do this twice a week, taking 48 hours to 72 hours in between workouts to ensure that your fingers receive adequate rest.
VIDEO: TYPICAL FINGER BOARD WORKOUT
UP THE DOSE
After a few weeks, you will probably find that that last repetition isn’t bringing you as close to failure as it did in the first week. If this is the case, it’s time to increase the weight, either by using a weight-vest, or simply by wearing a harness and clipping some heavy gear to it. You want to increase the weight by about 5 per cent per month. Remember – doing too much, too soon, is a recipe for injury.
When your training becomes far more advanced, you can play with hanging off three fingers, or two, or one. The principles remain the same – look to be close to failure on the last repetition.
This is a form of training using dynamic movement. It should only be considered if you are at an advanced level – if not, your body is likely to get injured. It is designed to develop raw power, using a campus board – a column of several horizontal wooden rungs on an overhanging wall.
There are many exercises, but the most common is “ladders”. Using an open hand position, start by hanging with both hands on the same piece of wood. Pull up and reach one of your hands to the next wooden rung, and then leap frog your other hand to the rung above it. Move up the board and then back down in one set, and then rest for a few minutes. Do three sets.
As you get stronger, you can skip two, three, or even more rungs in a single movement, and do as many as 10 sets. But if you feel any joint, tendon or finger pain during campusing, you should stop immediately. Like isometric training, you should campus-train no more than two times a week, and only after a thorough warm-up. Finish with stretching.
VIDEO: INTRODUCTION TO CAMPUS BOARD
EXTRA TIPS TO INCREASE FINGER STRENGTH
When dead-hanging, be sure to keep your core tight, elbows slightly bent, and shoulders engaged – squeeze your shoulder blades together slightly. If you don’t engage your shoulders, you are resting your weight on your skeleton and putting undue stress on the soft tissues that connect the bones in the shoulder, which could lead to tissue-related injuries.
EASING THE WEIGHT
If you’re just starting and find that you can’t hold a dead-hang for longer than three seconds, you can lessen the weight on your fingers by placing your feet on a box or chair. Remember to keep your core engaged and don’t allow your body to sag.
As I’ve said many times, don’t try and become the Hulk overnight. Tendons and ligaments develop much more slowly than muscles, so trying to strengthen them too quickly is only going to lead to injury.