I’m often asked to provide a list of the best exercises for training finger (grip) strength. While there are dozens of different exercises (and variations thereof) that I could describe, in this article I present a generalized list of training techniques. Visit the Training Center archive to find more in-depth articles on some of these exercises.
Bouldering is certainly the most straightforward—and fun—way to train grip strength. Without the constraints of a rope and gear, bouldering allows you to focus on climbing the hardest moves possible. Inherent to hard bouldering, however, are some limiting factors that diminish the potential to build maximum grip strength. Consider that technical difficulties may prevent you from climbing up to the point of muscular failure. Furthermore, the rock dictates use of many different grip positions, thus making it difficult to isolate a single grip position to be worked until failure.
Despite these limitations, bouldering should be a staple of your training program. It builds functional strength while at the same time developing mental and technical skills. Consequently, it’s a good training strategy to couple bouldering with one of the other finger-strength-training exercises on this top 5 list. Use the following strategy to best stimulate gains in finger strength via bouldering.
First, select a boulder problem that appears to be strenuous, but not technically difficult. Overhanging problems place more weight on your hands and maximize the training effect. If you are bouldering indoors, try to locate—or consider setting—problems that isolate a specific grip position. For example, a problem that possesses a lot of crimp holds will be best for training crimp strength. Attempt to climb the problem two or three times with sufficient rest between each ascent to allow a good effort. As a guideline, rest for three minutes between attempts of short bouldering problems and five minutes or more between longer problems. Move on to another strenuous-looking problem that appears to target a different grip position, such as pinch, two finger pockets, open hand, and such. Ascend this problem two or three times, with adequate rest between attempts. Continue bouldering for thirty to ninety minutes, and then finish your finger training with one of the upcoming isolation exercise.
2. Fingerboard Repeaters
The fingerboard is a staple training tool that every serious climber should own. While the large bucket holds on the board can be used for pull-up training, the genius of a good fingerboard is the multitude of finger positions and grips that it enables you to train. There are a number of ways to train on a fingerboard, and one of the very best is the Repeaters protocol which targets specific grip positions with repeated high-intensity contractions. In doing repeaters, you will hang with both hands gripping a pair of identical holds. Select five to ten grip positions to be trained: for example, open hand, pinch, crimp, sloper, three-finger pocket, and various two-finger pocket combinations.
After a complete warm-up, begin by training your weakest grip position. Using the same set of holds, you will do ten hangs each lasting approximately three to five seconds, and taking a rest between each hang for about three to five seconds. Therefore a single set of ten repeaters will take around 90 seconds. To be effective, the hangs must be high intensity and require that you bear down hard to stick the grip for at least three seconds. Therefore, you want to select smallish holds or add add 10 to 20 pounds around your waist to increase resistance. It may take you a few sessions to determine the exact amount of weight needed for a specific grip position, so this is an important detail that you don’t want to overlook. Keep a training notebook and record that amount of weight used for each grip position.
After completing a full set of Repeaters, take a three- to five-minute rest. Perform a light stretching or self-message during this recovery period. Then, select a different pair of holds and begin a second set of Repeaters. Use the exact same training protocol, and continue alternating sets of Repeaters with rest periods for a total of five to ten sets. (Check out the NEXGEN2 hangboard if you need a good board with a wide range of finger grips.)
3. Hypergravity Bouldering
Advanced climbers with several years of bouldering under their belt eventually reach a point where they no longer achieve significant gains in finger strength despite regular, hard bouldering. Fortunately, hypergravity bouldering and the HIT workout are powerful training strategies that will yield further gains in high-end finger strength. To do this, you’ll need to invest in a ten- or twenty-pound weight belt. Here is the best strategy for engaging in hypergravity bouldering—this is an indoor training strategy only!
a. Complete a general and sport-specific warm-up, comprised of some general climbing and bouldering. Then clip on your weight belt and predetermine a target number of “burns” (attempts and ascents) that you will perform at hypergravity. As a guideline, limit yourself to about five burns on your initial session, then build to fifteen to twenty burns as you gain confidence and strength.
b. Select nontechnical, overhanging boulder problems that possess small- to medium-size holds, but avoid tiny and tweaky features. Since you are climbing with a weight belt, favor problems that are well below your limit—they idea problem will be strenuous, but totally doable with a focused effort. It’s important to avoid taking an out-of-control fall while climbing with the extra weight on your body, so step off a problem rather than taking a weird fall with weight on.
c. Climb the problem two or three times with sufficient rest between each ascent to allow a good effort. As a guideline, rest for three minutes between attempts of short bouldering problems and five minutes or more between longer problems.
d. Move on to another strenuous-looking problem that appears to target a different grip position. Consider taking the time to set theme problems comprising only holds of a certain shape and size—this is the best way to target and train a weak grip position. Ascend this problem two or three times, with adequate rest between attempts.
Safety note: Hypergravity bouldering is stressful on the fingers, elbows, and shoulders, and it’s critical that you cease this training at the first sign of pain in any of these areas. And, like any smart climber, regularly engage in the critical antagonist exercises that help maintain muscle balance and prevent injury. Check out my book Conditioning for Climbers for a complete chapter on this important topic.
4. Feet-on Lunging Exercises
Feet-on lunging exercises are a form of reactive training, which trains the nervous system to recruit muscle motor units more quickly. You could think of reactive training as a form of speed training for climbers—really the much-praised “contact strength” is a measure of how fast you can turn on your forearm muscles to full strength to grip a marginal hold. The use of feet-on lunging as an staple exercise is far safer than feet-off campus training (which we’ll discuss next). Here’s how to do it.
a. Select a section of indoor wall that overhangs anywhere from 5 to 25 degrees past vertical—the steeper the wall, the more difficult the exercise—and possesses numerous medium-size hand- and footholds. Ideally, you can set a few modular holds specifically for this lunging exercise. Set two footholds about a foot off the ground, and then set two nontweaky medium-size handholds, one in front of your face and the other about 2 feet above that.
b. Climb onto the wall and balance your weight evenly on the two footholds. Grip the hold in front of your face with one hand, then let go with the other hand and hold it behind your back.
c. Begin lunging up and down between the two handholds using only your one hand. Optimal technique is to draw your body toward the wall and lunge up to the top hold, doing so all in one smooth motion. This drawing-in of the body facilitates a quick grab at the next hold while upward momentum briefly reduces your load—this is commonly called a deadpoint move. Upon catching the top handhold, immediately drop back down to the starting hold and, without pause, explode back up to the top hold.
d. Continue lunging up and down for eight to twelve total hand movements, then step down off the wall. After a brief rest, step back up on the wall and perform a set of one-arm deadpoints with your other hand. Perform two or three total sets with each hand. Once you learn to do this exercise it may begin to feel so easy that you can’t imagine that it’s doing any good. But trust me, it is! Don’t increase the volume of the exercise, simple focusing on speed, especially trying to get off the bottom hold as fast as possible. Like turning a light switch off and on, this exercise teaches your forearm muscles to turn on more quickly. A few sets is all you need to get the training effect you are after.
5. Campus Training
Developed by the late, great Wolfgang Güllich at the Campus Center in Nuremberg Germany, campus training is elite method for develop raw power and contact strength. Unfortunately, campus training has also resulted in many finger injuries due to misused or overtraining. As a guideline, this type of campus training is inappropriate if you are a climber of less than three years’ experience; anyone not climbing at least solid 5.11 or bouldering V5. Furthermore, you should not engage in campus training if you have a recently injured finger, elbow, or shoulder, or lack the maturity to train properly and take adequate rest days.
There are a few different ways of campus training, so I’ll just cover the most common method here. It’s called Laddering. As the name implies, this exercise involves climbing in a hand-over-hand, ladderlike motion up the campus board with no aid from your feet. Unlike the extremely difficult and dynamic Double Dyno method, campus laddering uses controlled dynamic movements that are less likely to result in injury. Consequently, this is a better staple exercise for regular use, and you should only progress to the Double Dyno upon gaining confidence in the capabilities and health of your fingers and arms. Beginning from the bottom rung of the campus board, ladder hand-over-hand up the board using alternating rungs for your left and right hands. Your goal is to ascend the board as quickly as possible. Match hands on the top rung, and then descend carefully by dropping hand by hand down alternating rungs to the bottom position. Perform a total of six to twelve hand moves. To increase difficulty, skip rungs as you hand-over-hand up the board or use smaller rungs. Rest for three to five minutes, before engaging in a second set. Limit yourself to a total of three sets during your formative workouts. As you gain conditioning, you can do up to ten sets or begin a gradual shift to training with the harder Double Dyno method.
Copyright 2011 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.