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How to control workout intensity in climbing

In the previous article we have reviewed the Performance factors in sport climbing. This article explains why it is important to assign and control workload intensity and how you can do that to maximize the effect of your hangboard training.

What are workload intensity and volume?

The direction and magnitude of training depend on the combination of workload intensity and volume. Volume is the total amount of physical work done and intensity is the physical work performed per unit time. Volume indicators in sports are the effort’s duration and number of repetitions of an exercise. Intensity indicators are velocity (e.g. how fast you move) and resistance (e.g. the weight you lift). A maximal workload would be, for example, the longest possible effort at a given intensity, or climbing as many routes or boulders as possible during a training session. During a maximal effort, the higher the intensity the shorter the duration of an exercise and vice versa. Different combinations of these two parameters induce different physiological responses and training effects.

Max workload - intensity duration relationship in climbing

Fig. 1 Example of the intensity-duration relationship during maximal workload (black curve). Effort’s duration increases disproportionately with decrease in intensity.

Workload volume and intensity in climbing

Volume can easily be prescribed in climbing. Climbing volume indicators are: the duration of the ascent, the route length and the number of hand moves. Intensity should be assigned in relative values, for example, in percentage maximal force (% Fm). This way, at a given % Fm, climbers of different ability levels will train in a similar regime. Controlling intensity of muscle contraction allows you to be in the right training zone that depending on the % Fm will maximally improve either your finger strength or muscle endurance. Relative intensity determines the number and type of muscle fibers activated, the type of energy supply (aerobic or anaerobic) and the training direction (the ability that will be trained).

Climbing intensity

Fig 2. Intensity determines muscle fiber type activation and energy supply (photo by Ruslan Vakrilov)

Muscle fibers are generally divided into two types: slow (type I) and fast (type II). Type I muscle fibers’ contraction speed is slow but they can maintain muscular activity for a prolonged period. This is because they produce the needed energy efficiently using the aerobic metabolic pathways. Type II muscle fibers are better suited to produce energy anaerobically. They get tired quickly but contract faster and can achieve more power than type I. There are two fast muscle fiber subtypes: IIa (fast resistant) and IIx (fast fatigable). IIx fibers produce energy anaerobically and IIa both anaerobically and aerobically. At low intensity only slow fibers act. As the intensity increases, more fibers are involved in an additive manner (first type I, then IIa and finally IIx). The intensity should reach high values in order to activate IIx fibers, which also causes a more anaerobic energy supply. You can see the effects of different training protocols (methods) in the table below.

Intensity control during climbing is not possible

The above mentioned explains why it is so important to assign intensity of muscle contraction according to the ability we need to develop. Electromyographic data has shown that in climbers there is a prevalence of fast resistant rather than fast fatigable muscle fibers. The strenuous character of climbing however causes adaptations that improve the functions of both IIa and IIx fibers. To climb hard, we need high levels of strength and muscle endurance. Training only type I and IIa fibers will increase muscle endurance, but may lead to insufficient strength that will make you tired more quickly at cruxes because you will climb at higher %Fm. You may also not be able to generate high enough force to make the moves at the crux even without being tired. Training only IIx muscle fibers will help you deal with cruxes and you will exert less at easier sections (e.g. 70% instead of 80% Fm) but will not increase significantly your endurance and you may often not be able to send at your limit. These different types of training should be distributed according to the climbing level, discipline, and individual characteristics (see Performance factors in sport climbing).

Most of the training should be undertaken at medium and high intensity to gain improvements in both IIa and IIx muscle fibers. How to maintain training within the chosen intensity zone? To do so, we need to measure the forces applied on the holds. However, this will not help during climbing even if the holds at the gym are equipped with force sensors. For example, if you apply the same force on two holds of different size, your forearm muscles will exert more (will act at higher % Fm) on the smaller than on the bigger hold. It is the same when you hang on a small and then on a big rung. The load will be the same in both situations (your weight) but the efforts will differ.

Although climbing is the most effective form of training, it is not enough. Not only fatigue but coordination difficulties are limiting as well. That is why often during climbing you cannot get the needed training workload. To achieve the necessary workload, exercises that reflect the specifics of climbing but are technically simpler should be used. Such exercises can be performed on a hangboard.

How to control intensity while hangboarding

In addition to the benefit of a higher workload, the hangboard allows us to assign intensity to the finger flexor muscle contraction. This is most commonly done hanging by one or two arms and: a) changing the rung’s depth or b) adding weights. Option “a” will not lead to a high % Fm if you are an advanced or elite climber and you will not be able to develop strength or train efficiently your fast muscle fibers and anaerobic capacity. Option “b” is the better choice. To use it, first you need to measure your maximal force on the chosen grip and train using a method that will help you develop the ability you want (see the table below of prescribed intensity and volume values).

MethodTraining effect


(% Fm)










Increases the maximal strength, the ability of the nervous system to activate more muscle fibers, and the size of the contractile elements of the muscle cell.







HypertrophyInduces muscle growth. Improves strength-endurance and anaerobic capacity.6051033


High intensity endurance

Improves high intensity endurance and oxygen extraction without depleting glycogen stores.






Medium intensity endurance

Maximizes oxygen use and improves endurance.







Low intensity endurance

Stimulates oxygen use and accelerates recovery.





Fig. 3 Climbro hangboard one-arm training methods.

If your body mass is 65 kg and you are able to hang with both hands maximally 2-3 seconds from a rung with 55 kg additional weight, this means your maximal force is 120 kg. If you want to train at 90 % Fm, you need to hang with 43 kg additional weight. To do so, you must have many different weights and make calculations. Obviously, this way of assigning intensity is not convenient. Moreover, hanging from small edges to avoid too many additional weights may be risky as this often makes you crimp, which easily leads to pulley injuries.
There are few options to measure your maximal force in order to train hands separately: a) find out the rung from which you can hang by one hand no more than 2-3 seconds, b) hang from a rung by one hand and add weights until you are no longer able to hang more than 2-3 seconds (for strong climbers whose Fm exceeds their body weight), or c) use a pulley and find out the counterweight which will let you hang 2-3 seconds (for climbers whose Fm is below their body weight).

Training on hangboard

Fig. 4 Controlling muscle contraction intensity during one-arm training on Climbro Smart Hangboard

One-arm training can be very effective, but using pulleys, added or assistance weights, and calculating percentages of Fm is difficult to organize. Climbro Smart Hangboard clears all these hurdles and helps climbers train effectively (see Fig 4). The hangboard is equipped with force sensors and a mobile application providing real-time feedback on the force applied. You can check the “How it works” page to find out how Climbro can help you improve your climbing performance.

Just hanging is not enough! It is very important to assign intensity to muscle action. Intensity determines the physiological responses and training effect. Specific intensities should be assigned according to the ability you want to develop. Climbro Smart Hangboard can help you train effectively showing you the correct force target zone and guiding you while exercising.


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