CLIMBING FOR FITNESS
‘A man’s reach should never exceed his grasp’
The famous rock climber Alain Robert, the ‘French Spiderman,’ who has free climbed (without ropes or any form of aid) some of the world’s tallest buildings, and extremely difficult rock climbs, is 66% disabled due to vertigo, as well as other things. However, he climbs 4 to 5 grades harder than me (at least). Conclusion: I need to train harder. Alain kind of takes away all the excuses for not pushing your limits doesn’t he?
Anyway, back to English poets. Perhaps Browning was talking about climbing when he coined that above phrase. One thing’s for certain I was certainly grasping for holds whilst bouldering down in Bristol at The Climbing Academy. This unroped form of climbing consists of participants trying to climb a set of artificial rock holds which are colour coded to indicate how difficult that particular ‘boulder problem’ would be to ascend. So both beginner and expert can spot the types of problems they can workout on. Consequently, as your fitness progresses you can attempt more physically demanding problems. This is a classic example of progressive overload, one of the fundamental principles of any training programme. Further, bouldering develops: balance, motor control, strength, power, strength-endurance, flexibility, determination and courage. Yes. You read right-you may have to ‘man up - or woman up’ to attempt some problems; because the crash-mats that are constantly underneath you won’t always stop you from hurting yourself. Such is the delicious paradox of trying to ‘nail that sucker’ but avoiding falling off, winding yourself, and looking somewhat sheepish!
However, with all forms of specialist training there can be downsides-not many as far as I’m concerned because I’m an addict-which are caused by muscular imbalances. Climbing, in particular strenuous bouldering, causes the internal rotators of the shoulder joint to tighten; which gives a round shouldered appearance: this can result in painful shoulder injuries. So it’s essential you counter this imbalance by working the external rotators. Try lying face down on a narrow bench (narrower than your torso) with your arms by your side and bent 90° at the elbows Your palms face each other with the lower part of the arms (forearms) perpendicular to the floor, the upper arms parallel with your torso, with a weight you can handle for 10-15 repetitions in each hand. Keeping the elbows tucked in rotate the forearms outwards so the palms now face the floor. Ease the shoulder blades down the back to give shoulder stability and hold this position for 1-2 seconds; then slowly lower back to the starting position. Repeat for 2-3 sets with 3 mins rest between sets: concentrate on quality of movement, not speed. For other exercises that work external rotators read: The Men’s Health Big Book of Exercises – Adam Campbell.
The flexor muscle of the forearms also can become excessively tight causing maladaptation and imbalance which can predispose the climber to osteoarthritis in the finger joints. So working the forearm extensors can help prevent this. To do this imagine you’ve just painted your nails and you’re now, after you’ve straightened your arms out in front of you, looking at the back of your hand as you admire your handiwork! Think Eddie Izzard! Now spread the fingers and try to ease your fingernails to the back of your forearms. You won’t get very far but the intense muscular contraction you’re feeling is your forearm extensors working big time! The action of the extensors cause the forearm flexors to release slightly so you’re also developing a stretch ‘release’ in those flexors. That’s how the body works folks: cool isn’t it? Hold for 20-30 secs and repeat 3 times. For more information on stretching and imbalances read: The Anatomy of Stretching-Brad Walker and Posture Makes Perfect – Dr Vic Barker.
So is bouldering just for climbers? No not necessarily, gymnasts and martial artists and even circus performers can benefit from this type of training, because of the carry over training effect to those activities. Further, for all round fitness 2-3 sessions a week combined with cardiovascular work and Yoga is ideal. Make sure you warm up gradually though by mobilising and stretching (dynamic is best–pre climb: static post-climb) and start off with easier boulder problems with large holds until you’re ready to grip your fingers around smaller holds, typical of more strenuous problems. Some days you could concentrate on endurance by working out on an extended boulder circuit where the moves require a level of strength and skill below what you could ‘crank out’ on a short power problem. However, your forearms should be screaming at the end of each circuit due to the build up of lactic. I usually take 5-10 mins rest between those circuits. Alternate days could be used to develop strength and power by tackling smaller strenuous problems close to, or at, your limit. Neil Gresham, one of the UK’s top climbing coaches, recommends a 1 min rest for every hold used on such problems. Always build into this type of training gradually and have an easy week every 4th week so the muscles-and forearm tendons- have time to recover and grow stronger.
Additionally, select a bouldering/climbing venue where the post-event cakes and lattes are awesome, as you’d have earned a treat (Picnic Café at Reading Wall-my favourite). As when you eventually safely accomplish 2-3 hours of intense bouldering (with breaks between problems) this will boost your metabolic rate and you’ll still be burning–up calories up to 48 hrs post-climb. Read Schuler and Cosgrove’s The new Rules of Lifting to find out why. Finally, look forward to becoming a lean ‘ripped’ climbing machine. Now go and grab some holds and enjoy!