How to Attain (and Maintain) a Climber's Grip Strength From Home
This might also make you the best jar opener in the kitchen
Welcome to The Workout From Home Diaries. Throughout our national self-isolation period, we’ll be sharing single-exercise deep dives, offbeat belly-busters and general get-off-the-couch inspiration that doesn’t require a visit to your (now-shuttered) local gym.
In early February, a friend of mine texted me a picture of his hand from an airport out West. His fingers were flexed outright, held tight against each other, and just to the left of his thumb was a muscle the size of an oblong golf ball. It looked simply tacked onto his hand, like an afterthought scoop of ice cream. I looked down at my own hand and flexed it similarly. There was definitely something there, just nowhere near as big. My friend seemed intrigued, if a little grossed out, by how big his muscle had gotten. He’d just spent a week climbing Red Rock Canyon in southern Nevada.
The pandemic has been an unseen boon for certain sporting communities, and it’s caused unrelenting bad fortune for others. Roadside endurance activities like running, biking and even roller skating have enjoyed a renaissance, while activities that rely on public or private facilities, like golf, skiing and tennis, have been put on an indefinite hold. Of all sports, though, rock climbing has been particularly hamstrung.
The sport has always existed on two fronts: at local gyms, and at crags set deep in hallowed environs like The Shawangunks, or Joshua Tree, or Red River Gorge. It’s unclear when either will be able to operate normally again. Climbing gyms, even more so than gym gyms, have little shot of being deemed essential anytime soon. It could be months before they reopen. Outdoor climbing, meanwhile, is a murkier issue. Many state and National Parks have been closed for almost two months, but even as they look to reopen and ease restrictions — California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, released guidelines for permissible recreational activities last week — the climbing experience will have to be different.
For one, social distancing. Always. But it’s already proved difficult for the climbing community. In late March, visitors poured into Moab, Utah, Bishop, California, and Leavenworth, Washington, and onlookers couldn’t believe how many cars were clustered in the parking lots. Climbers are passionate, peckish travelers, but any quick return to those ways could further spread the virus and put pressure on rural communities where the average age is high and the number of ventilators available is low. To make sure they stay out of the hospital, too, climbers would need to exercise extreme caution on difficult pitches.
Which is to say, my friend’s thumb biceps — more formally known as a skeletal intrinsic hand muscle — will be thoroughly unweworked over the next couple months, and it might even be sidelined for the rest of the year. That’s bad news for a climber. The sport relies on the consistency of actual climbing; it’s not enough to creatively patch together some WFH workouts for however long the quarantine may last (a regimen that this column typically celebrates). That’s a surefire way to lose all-important “grip strength,” a catch-all term for strength employed by the fingers and muscles found in the forearms. On the wall, climbers know how to work those tiny muscles in concert with the large-pull muscles in the shoulders and back. That’s how progress is made and problems (literally) are solved.
Without access to any walls, there are some exercises, processes and products climbers can turn to keep their fingers in climbing shape. Non-climbers, too, should take heed. Functional fitness often focuses on large, compound muscle groups, but the amount of power you can (or can’t) generate from your fingers and forearms is relevant to afflictions like arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or tendinitis. Grip strength will help you around town or the house, in transporting grocery bags or de-weeding the backyard, and it will also have a direct positive effect on your efforts at the gym — a tighter dumbbell grip leads to better form, which leads to heavier weights and more reps.
Oh, and you might find yourself the go-to guy for opening jars in the kitchen. It’s the little things.
As legend has it, after Alex Honnold free solo’d El Cap, he went back to his van and banged out a few sets of pull-ups on a hang board. It’s an essential at-home climbing apparatus, and it’s devilishly simple. Climbers like to drill it into the wall above a doorframe or landing of a stairwell, or affix it to a pull-up bar. It’s a wooden block with various grooves carved out, which climbers can use to build finger flexor muscle fibers, by either pulling or hanging. Experienced climbers, like Olympian Kyra Condie, are strong enough to perform one-armed pull-ups, or literally simulate the rhythm of climbing — they’ll grab a hold with one hand while reaching to “the sky” with another, then grab with the other, and so on. The idea would be 10 moves at a time, performed every few minutes, for up to 45 minutes.
Obviously, that’s a tall order for casual climbers, or laymen/women looking to up their grip strength; in that case, simply practice density hangs or recruitment pulls, as outlined by Dr. Tyler Nelson, a Salt Lake City-based sports scientist, who wrote a popular article on finger training. Recruitment pulls involve finding an edge size that you can tug on for five seconds at a time. Your feet don’t have to leave the ground. The idea is to pull with maximum effort for the last three seconds, and engage the muscle fibers. For density hangs, meanwhile, you want to find two holds and hang by your fingers to muscular failure. A sweet spot is 20 to 40 seconds. If that’s too easy, start hanging from a smaller edge size.
For bringing a hang board home, you have a few options. REI stocks them, from Metolius. Tension Climbing is a favorite in the climbing community for a range of products, and they make a standard hang board, along with a portable model with ropes that can hang from a tree, or even be wound around a foot to create resistance.
The hang board is no joke. Some climbing coaches won’t let go trainees on them until they’ve completed years of work. I tried doing pull-ups on one at a gym a few months ago and managed about a third of my usual count before it felt like my fingers were going to fall off. Hanging from the edges is super tough, too. If you’re not at that level yet, or separately, are unwilling to fork over the funds, consider keeping it to a pull-up bar for now. A trusty, traditional dead hang will help you build your confidence and grip strength while decompressing out the spine, stretching out the shoulders, and building strength in the upper back, all areas used far more in climbing than hunching around a computer. The goal is to hang for three to five minutes a day, and one-minute at a time. When I tested out the process in March, I managed 51 seconds.
At “the Gym”
Whatever that may mean to you at the moment, and whatever equipment that may or may not include (for me, it’s a garage with some early ’90s dumbbells and a TRX), there are ways to activate and strengthen your grip. One great exercise, which encourages a connection with muscles also used in climbing, is the bottoms-up kettlebell press. You’re basically holding a kettlebell upside down, your arm locked at a 90-degree angle, and pressing it straight up. It will wobble the whole goddamn time. (Especially when the move’s performed with your non-dominant hand.) But all that wobbling will train your hand to grip the handle tighter, and encourage stability throughout the movement.
Other favorites? Try plate pinches, where you hold weights between your thumb and fingers for 30 seconds at a time, over three sets. You can also loop a resistance band around the outside of your hands and push out and hold, for 10 reps, or walk a sizable distance clutching two extra-heavy (relative to you) dumbbells or kettlebells. That’s perfect training for the grocery bags. If you’re down to get DIY, attach a weight via a string to a PVC pipe, and with your arms outstretched straight in front of you, slowly roll the weight all the way up, before rolling it back down. Not to mention — you can always bring the gym to work. Take breaks from tapping away at emails to squeeze a stress ball or a Captain of Crush Gripper, which can handle force of up to 365LB.
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