Second Post Inspired by the McColl Training Video

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Lock-off training has a long history in climbing, going back to at least the 1970s if not earlier, its one of those things that it seems climbers have “always” done. Part of what has made lock-off training popular has been the top climber’s who have promoted it over the years. John Bachar and his “Bachar ladder” may have been the first climber to broadly popularize lock-off training through photos and videos that showed him not only going hand over hand up the ladder, but also doing one arm pull-ups, one-arm negatives, and lock-offs. In the 1980’s climbers such as Patrick Edlinger and Wolfgang Gullich were shown in famous photos and videos doing one arm lock-offs while dangling from a bar or bit of webbing. In 1993, Goddard and Neumann wrote about J.B. Tribout’s “Le Travail d’Hercule” as a way to build anaerobic strength. (p. 118-119 PRC) since then other authors have also advocated various forms of lock-off training. Thus it’s a form of training that has been in the popular imagination of climbers for forty years or so.

To assess lock-off training we need to begin by doing what we would do with any other move. We need to identify what a lock-off in climbing actually is, and how lock-offs are used by climbers. What role do lock-offs play in climbing movement? What does an analysis of various lock-offs tell us? After we answer these questions we are then prepared to ask if supplemental training is necessary and how it should be structured. No doubt “lock-off” describes moves that we often think of as requiring a good deal of upper body strength; the image comes to mind of a climber holding his body in a static position with one arm, the elbow “locked” at an acute angle, while he reaches for the next handhold. Thing is, there isn’t a rigorous formal definition for locking-off. There is no commonly understood minimum amount of time one needs to hold the position in order for it to be considered to be a lock-off. Lock-offs occur in all sorts of situations so there isn’t a strict mechanical definition  for where lock-offs will occur the way there is for other moves such as inside and outside flags.

Nonetheless, what we are concerned with in any move or position is being able to describe it terms that mean something physically, we seek to find something constant in a move that we can define so we can understand the mechanical function and purpose of the move. In this case we will define a lock-off in terms of balance. In any lock-off the common feature seems to be that the body is held statically in a position that brings the center of gravity (COG) relatively close to the rock, and relatively high in the base of support. So when we lock-off we are holding a position of less stable balance for a longer period of time, and this is what makes lock-off difficult; the ask us to maintain a difficult position for a longer period of time than we normally would.

Over the years my video analysis of climbers has revealed some important facts about lock-offs. The number of situations in which lock-offs are mandatory is limited. Lock-offs turn out to be largely a matter of style, of personal choice. Think of climbers such as Steve Hong and Merrill Bitter as exemplary of a slow, controlled, style punctuated by frequent lock-offs on moves where other climbers (often by necessity) use momentum or other tactics.

Beyond being a matter of individual style there are indeed times when lock-offs are a good solution to a movement problem. The best example is found in moves of extreme off-set balance (where the COG is right at the limit of the current base of support) when the hand holds are slopers. This is a case where using momentum is more than likely to fail because it can be so hard to control momentum on slopers. The solution is to lock-off and maintain maximum stability of the body while you reach for the next hold. (see page 24 of SCC for an illustration.) Locking-off is a means to the end of stabilize the entire body, its about the entire body not just the arm.

In addition there are long moves in which grabbing the next handhold is very difficult, such as complex pockets, or oddly shaped slopers. In these cases locking-off is commonly used to allow enough time to correctly grab the next hold. There are also situations, such as in an on-sight attempt where the climber needs to do a long move to an unknown hold, or a hold that looks to be of poor quality. Climber’s are more likely to lock-off in these situations as a caution, again, to give them time to explore the hold prior to committing to grabbing it a certain way.

So while most lock-offs are a matter of choice, there are these few situations in which lock-offs are a useful tool. Since these situations are clearly defined, we now know how we need to structure our lock-off training, if we choose to do it. Lock-off training needs to simulate those situations just described. I’ll put special emphasis on those positions of off-set balance as that is the one situation in which we come closest to saying that a lock-off is a mechanical necessity. So if you want to do lock-off training the following elements are important.

1- Realize that lock-off training is not just about the arm, the positions we think of as lock-offs involve the legs, the torso, the shoulders and the arm. Lock-offs are really about maintaining tension through the entire body for the purpose of keeping the COG as stable as possible, and that is what the training should simulate.

2- Lock-off training needs to be done at an intensity that is relevant to your current performance level. For example you can do it a grade or two below your current max bouldering level; thus if you are a V9 boulderer, you want to find moves of off-set balance on problems in the V7 – V8 range that you can train on.

3- Ideally you would be able to find moves near the ground that you can get into quickly and then hold the position for a count of about 6 seconds, take a brief rest (10 – 30 seconds depending on the difficulty of the position you are using) and then get back into the position. You can do this for 6 – 10 reps.

What not to do:
The problem with doing supplemental training is that if the structure isn’t right there is a high probability that the workout will leave you tired, and that it will feel like you got a good workout but in fact the training will have no effect on your actual climbing. This is really the problem with the lock-off training in the McColl video. Without working at a meaningful intensity level, in positions of off-set balance, with specific work and rest periods, we can be confident that the exercise is structurally incapable of preparing us for actual climbing situations.

Also, since we have established that lock-offs are useful in specific situations its not going to be helpful to do lock-off training without the feet on holds so locking-off on a finger board or a bar does not simulate what we do when we climb.

Is lock-off training necessary?
As with any form of supplemental training that is said to have a direct impact on climbing performance its best to be skeptical. The short answer is that it’s not necessary. Even with the guidelines outlined above it’s very difficult to observe a link between supplemental training and climbing performance. For climbers who are able to climb several days a week and have well structured climbing time, its unlikely that supplemental training of this sort can provide an observable benefit. Now, for people who can’t climb several days a week its possible that lock-off training on a system wall or woodie might make an observable difference but like with any form of training you want to do the work to document your workouts and find ways to measure your progress. It’s probably a good idea to do a video analysis of yourself climbing to see what role lock-offs actually play in your climbing. Do you do them as a matter of style or only you can’t find anything else to do? If you have the choice between a dyno or a lock-off which is your go-to move?

Finally, for those climbers who rely heavily on lock-offs they would probably benefit from movement practice that involves the various forms of momentum so they can find more efficient ways of getting through the moves where they are doing unnecessary lock-offs.

4 Responses to “Second Post Inspired by the McColl Training Video”

  1. DouglasNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the link I meant to include them in my post but forgot to. I like the comparison between these posts because It shows how the kinesiological and the physiological approach To the issue look at different factors but come to similar conclusion.

  2. ChristianNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Douglas,

    thanks a lot for this post (and the one before). If there is one thing missing in SSC from my point of view then it is a structured analysis of supplemental strength and power exercises (and maybe periodisation), so I really appreciate your in depth posts on some of them now.

    Are you aware of any studies comparing the efectiveness of bouldering vs. supplemental training?


  3. DouglasNo Gravatar says:

    Christian, thanks for the comment. I think I will be doing more analysis of supplemental activities and describing the methods used in analysis as I am becomming aware that its something the climbing community does not know that much about. As for studies making the comparison you mention, that is one of my big frustrations with the research community that works on climbing, they seem far more interested in abstract questions than in doing pragmatic comparisions that would help a great deal with program design and set the course for climbing training in the near future. If anyone else knows of such studies feel free to post links or suggest references. Believe it or not my daughter is trying to do a project comparing bouldering with supplemental strength training but she is just starting the experiment design process so we will see where that leads. But I think she wants to compare something like finger board training with CIR and VIR bouldering.

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