As a climbing coach of more than two decades, one of the most common questions I’m asked is “how to train for greater grip strength.”
While gains in grip strength come quickly during your formative days, it’s not uncommon for grip strength to plateau after a few years of regular climbing. While a steady diet of steep climbing (and getting pumped) will lead to continuing adaptive gains in grip endurance, most climbers discover that there’s little further change in grip strength. It’s a dilemma that leaves many passionate climbers perplexed and thinking: why doesn’t my grip strength improve despite all the climbing I’m doing?This is actually a rather simple question to answer: There is a physiological limit to how strong you can become training at a fixed resistance. In climbing, gravity provides a “training resistance” that is limited to your bodyweight (it’s often much less since your feet usually carry much of the weight). Developing a higher level of strength and power, then, demands that you progressively increase resistance or somehow increase the apparent pull of gravity while climbing.
Training on fingery boulder problems with poor feet is a good step in this direction. Still, it’s impossible to obtain a training resistance greater than your bodyweight, short of physically adding weight to your body to create a hypergravity effect. The exercises detailed below do just this by means of a weight belt or vest worn as you train. The long-term benefits of such hypergravity training will be a new found über strength that, in returning to the rock at bodyweight, provides you with a crushing grip like never before!
Here are a few exercises that leverage the hypergravity effect to develop a crushing grip. Use these exercises during the strength-power phase of your training program—limit use to a total one hour, twice per week. Ideally, you should cycle in and out of these exercises every few weeks. Please note that exercises detailed below are inappropriate for novice climbers or anyone with recent history finger, elbow, or shoulder injuries.
1. Overweight Bouldering
While no serious climber would ever want to be called “overweight,” the practice of bouldering overweight (via a 5-, 10-, or 20-pound weight belt) is highly effective for jacking up grip strength. Before strapping on a weight belt, always warm up with a period of bodyweight bouldering. Start with moderate big hold problems and gradually progress to sending a few near-maximum-difficulty routes.
Next, launch into a twenty- to forty-minute session of overweight bouldering. With a two- to four-minute rest between problems, you’ll be able to crank out between ten and twenty sends (or attempts). If using a 5- or 10-pound weight belt, you’ll likely be getting on routes one to three V grades below your bouldering limit at bodyweight. Training with a 20-pound belt (for advanced climbers only) significantly ups the ante, so expect to be climbing on mid-grade routes with fairly positive holds. Pick problems that are hard enough to make you work—you should really have to bear down on the hand holds—but not so difficult and tricky that you are falling a lot (not a good thing with a heavy weight belt on). Strive to climb each problem with crisp technique and smooth execution, despite the fact that your finger, arm, and core muscles are working much harder than usual. Favor problems with medium to long reaches (this will improve lock-off strength), and avoid painfully small holds and out-of-control dynos that might get you injured (Important: Overweight bouldering is an indoor-only exercise!)
2. Overweight Fingerboarding
Same concept as above, except you’re training on a fingerboard rather than an overhanging bouldering wall. The advantage of hypergravity training on a fingerboard is that you can isolate and exhaust a specific grip position with brief, intense “repeaters.” Here’s how to do them.
Determine five to ten grip positions to be trained: for example, open hand, pinch, crimp, sloper, and various two-finger pocket combinations. Begin by training your weakest grip position—the one that is most difficult to use when climbing—and end with your strongest. Execute one set of ten repeaters, by hanging for three to five seconds with a rest of just a few seconds between each hangs. To be effective, the hangs must be high intensity and require that you bear down hard to maintain the grip for a three- to five-second count. You will need to add anywhere from 5 to 50 pounds to become “overweight” enough to make the task this difficult. After completing a set of Repeaters, take a three- to five-minute rest before commencing with your next set of ten repeaters (targeting a different grip). Use the rest breaks to preform light stretching or self-message and to adjust your weight for the next set (i.e. adding weight for your next stronger grip).
3. Overweight System Training
A system wall offers a training hybrid of overweight bouldering and overweight fingerboarding. Using a modular or HIT strip system, you are able to train specific grip and arm positions while climbing up and down on system wall. As with the previous exercises, you’ll want to add enough weight to make this an intense endeavor that causes muscle failure in just ten to twenty seconds. (Climbing for longer intervals will train anaerobic endurance rather than maximum grip strength.) System or HIT walls that overhang between 30 and 50 degrees past vertical are idea; avoid lesser-angled walls since they may require unmanageably high amounts of weight to produce rapid muscle failure.
The training protocol here is to target a specific grip position for an entire set. Do one or two sets for each of the primary grips: pinch, two-finger pocket, full crimp, half crimp, and open hand. Each set should be performed with enough weight added to produce failure of your grip in ten to twenty total hand movements. Climb with open feet (use any foot holds you like) and allow your body to turn naturally during the up and down laps. Take a three-minute rest, and then kick into your next set. It’s important to keep your training progressive, so add weight for future workouts if you are able to climb more than 20 reps (total hand movements) before failure.
Overweight training tips: Use a weight belt (not a weight vest) for overweight bouldering and system training—adding the weight near your center of gravity feels most natural and does little to interfere with proper climbing technique. Buy a couple 10-pound weight belts (easily found on the Internet) and add/subtract weight as needed for each set. A 30- to 60-pound weigh vest works best for advanced fingerboard training, however, since it’s difficult to wear large amounts of weight around your waist.