Program Design for Climbing Part 3

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Sport-Specific Training continued / Handgrip Exercisers

By Douglas Hunter

In part 2 I listed three basic criteria for specificity:

1)    That the training activity must duplicate the exact movements found in the skill that is being trained for.

2)    The training activity must involve the same type of muscular contraction found in the skills being trained for.

3)     That the training activity needs to have the same range of motion as in the skill being trained for.

As I mentioned in my second post these point show us why sport-specific training is important. We can also use these criteria to get a sense of whether or not a given activity is an example of sport-specific training. Lets use an example. Handgrip exercisers are popularly believed to be a form of sport-specific training for climbing. So lets see how well they fit our criteria.



Do handgrip exercisers match the exact movements found in climbing? Typically hand-grip exercisers involve bracing the device against the Metacarpals bone of the thumb and squeezing the device with active flexion at the Metacarpophalangeal joints and the proximal interphangeal joints. There is also some flexion of the distal interphangeal joint but it doesn’t appear to contribute much to the activity.

In climbing there isn’t really any active flexion of these joints when gripping holds. Using a crimper, for example, often entails holding the Metacarpophalangeal joints and the proximal interphangeal joints joints in a flexed position but it doesn’t move them through a range of motion as a handgrip exerciser does. So handgrip exercisers do not meet our first criteria.

Do handgrip exercisers involve the same type of muscular contraction found in the skills being trained for? Handgrip exercisers use isotonic contractions. That is, the muscle shortens as it contracts. In climbing the muscles that flex the fingers pretty much undergo isometric contractions, in which the muscle stays the same length as it contracts. So hand grip exercisers do not meet our second criteria.

Finally, do hand grip exercisers use the same range of motion as found in gripping climbing holds? When using climbing holds after the initial placement of the fingers on the hold, there is very little movement of the fingers as we typically attempt to hold them in a fixed position. Since hand grip exercisers move the fingers through a range of motion they do not meet our third criteria.

By answering these questions we can see that a handgrip exerciser is not sport-specific training for climbing despite a great deal of conventional wisdom to the contrary. They also may not be training for climbing at all as the work of researcher Phillip B. Watts states “handgrip dynamometry lacks specificity to actual rock climbing.”1 And another study showed that “that grip strength may not be a necessary attribute of elite climbers”

Any training activity can be analyzed using this simple method, and next week I will link to several videos that I hope folks will watch and post there own assessments regarding how sport-specific the activities are.


1- Watts et al. Forearm EMG during rock climbing differs from EMG during handgrip dynamometry. Exercise Science Laboratory; Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation; Northern Michigan University; Marquette, MI, USA.

2- Watts PB, Martin DT, Durtschi S. Anthropometric profiles of elite male and female competitive sport rock climbers. J Sports Sci 1993;11:113–7.

6 Responses to “Program Design for Climbing Part 3”

  1. Dave SandelNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve read all 3 installments, and so far I cannot disagree with any material you have provided. However, I’m anxiously waiting for your analysis of how general movements can contribute to specific movements, as well as how overtraining in one area will most likely hinder overall progression. While grippers, pinches, and thick bar deadlifts are nowhere near specific to climbing, I think you can agree that building tendon strength, in any direction, will be beneficial to a climber overall.

    I think your first post in the series was most magical. ;-)

  2. DouglasNo Gravatar says:


    Thanks for the comment. I am wondering if you could go into a little detail concerning what you said about general movements contributing to specific movement? I’m sure I get you meaning. As for the question of building tendon strength. That is a bit outside of my realm of knowledge, but I did ask a similar question of Dr. Don Reagan in an audio interview that I will be posting in the next week or two. Look for the interview and see what you think about his description. I actually think that its a topic I want to go into more detail with him on. Cheers!

  3. Dave SandelNo Gravatar says:

    I simply meant that building tendon and tissue strength through general strength training methods, such as thick bars, plate curls, pinch plates, etc, will create a positive adaptaion (if done correctly), thereby leading to greater strength when applied to specific climbing stresses like crimpers, slopers, and pinches.

    For a simpler example, a football player that focuses on heavy squats will become a faster sprinter. Squatting is a general movement which contributes to a specific movement (sprinting).

  4. DouglasNo Gravatar says:


    O.k. I get you now. Check out the interview with Done Reagan that I’ll be posting next week and let me know what you think, since wetalked about these topics a bit. The issue you raise is a good one and we should probably give it more attention here.

  5. GupNo Gravatar says:

    While I agree that hand gripers can be useless, I use a Captains of Crush #1 which takes 145lbs to close. The way I use this is by pressing it with my finger tips and the tip of my thumb, to stimulate a pinch. The device barely moves so I think it can be more isometric than regular hand grippers. Some days I use it to build power endurance by making my forearm burn a lot and other days I use it lightly to build endurance.

    While this doesn’t have crimp or open hand, I believe it is convenient to use while watching tv. The downsides is that it doesn’t have any body movements or downward pull like a hang board does. By downward pull, I mean like when you use a hang board or climb, you can feel your body go away from the hold and slip. This doesn’t slip at all. Another example is when you are pinching something shoulder height, you are pulling away from the hold and you can feel the hold slipping.

    I think a better device to use besides the hand grippers is a 2×4 piece of wood.

    Do you think these exercises have any benefits to my power-endurance and/or endurance?

  6. DouglasNo Gravatar says:


    Thanks for the comment. I suspect that the issues you raise are on a lot of climber’s minds. I’m glad that you mentioned the downward pull. In technical terms that is a result of the orientation of the hold to the line of gravity and the moment of force between the body’s COG and the hold. These are issues worth discussing. As for the question of these activities having an impact on power endurance / endurance. I doubt that they will impact your local aerobic endurance, it may have an impact on the power endurance of your forearm flexors, but any gains would be specific to the joint angle used in the activity. Naturally the duration of the work and rest periods matters a great deal as well. Also, power endurance is really an issue that involves a great deal more than the forearm flexors, so the overall effect may be pretty small. I should say that I am not familiar with the device you mention so my comments are speculative in nature.

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