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Performance factors in sport climbing

The knowledge of the key performance limiting factors in climbing determines the content of climbers’ training. A large number of scientific studies revealed the structure of climbing performance and confirmed that physical, technical, and mental factors determine climbing ability in a similar way (Fig 1). This means that climbers need to develop all their abilities in a harmonious way. The physical characteristics, which largely determine climbing performance, are trainable factors such as finger/arm strength and endurance, whereas the contribution of anthropometric characteristics (e.g. height, body fat, arm length, etc.) and flexibility is relatively small.

Performance factors in lead climbing

Fig 1. Structure of lead climbing performance (Magiera et al.)

Although climbers should possess a sufficient general work capacity, resistance to peripheral (muscle) rather than central fatigue is more important in climbing. The muscles that are most activated during climbing are the finger flexor muscles. Other important muscle groups, such as elbow flexors and abdominal muscles, get less tired.

Finger strength and endurance

Maximal finger strength related to body mass and finger endurance most strongly determine climbing performance. Strength and anaerobic muscle endurance (the ability to sustain high-intensity efforts when energy is produced without oxygen) are more important than aerobic muscle endurance (the ability to perform longer when energy is delivered using oxygen). The importance of these abilities is not the same for climbers of different levels or for lead climbers and boulderers (Fig 2 and 3).

Forarm abilities in lead climbing

Fig 2. Dependence of lead climbing performance on forearm capabilities (Michailov and Baláš)

Fig 3. Dependence of bouldering performance on forearm capabilities (Michailov and Baláš)

Maximal strength is more important for boulderers than for lead climbers. On the other hand, aerobic endurance is more important for lead climbers than for boulderers. Elite climbers have significantly higher maximal strength related to body mass than lower grade climbers. However, when maximal strength reaches a very high level, the role of other factors such as endurance, technique, and mental skills increases. If an elite climber is slightly stronger than another elite climber, the first one does not necessarily climb harder than the second.

Shoulder girdle strength

Finger strength and endurance are key performance limiting factors, but there are other important capabilities such as shoulder girdle strength and endurance. The researchers’ findings show that the climbers who climb harder can produce greater force related to body mass with their elbow flexor muscles. Besides, climbers have greater elbow flexor muscle endurance than other athletes. Still, excessive development of shoulder girdle endurance and the capability to do an enormous number of pull-ups are not needed. The higher climbing grades also demand explosive strength of the upper limbs. Better climbers achieve greater power output and reach higher when performing the so called power slap test (explosive pull-up from hanging on big holds and slapping as high as possible the board above, see Fig 4).

Power slap test

Fig 4. Power slap test

Core strength

Core maximal strength and the range of motion in the hip joints are other physical capabilities considered important. The experience of elite climbers and coaches has shown that core strength is needed to maintain difficult overhanging body positions. Scientific evidence confirms that climbing demands greater core strength. A study showed that patients who used therapeutic climbing significantly increased the strength of their spine stabilizing muscles (thoracic/lumbar flexors and extensors). Another study found that climbers have greater core strength than trained non-climbing athletes, but this did not apply to core strength endurance.

Hip mobility

Flexibility does not influence climbing performance as strongly as finger or arm strength (Fig 5) but better hip mobility enriches the repertoire of technical skills. It increases the capability to step on remote footholds and take energy saving positions. Climbing specific flexibility test scores (e.g. raising a foot as high as possible starting from a climbing position on a wall) correlate more strongly with performance compared to results from traditionally used flexibility tests (e.g. hip flexion and abduction or sit and reach test).
Red point performance factors

Fig 5. Correlations between redpoint performance and some of the performance factors (Michailov, Mladenov, Schoeffl)

General fitness

All facts suggest that training should be focused on the development of climbing specific physical capabilities. That is why climbers often neglect general physical fitness. General work capacity and cardiorespiratory endurance should be at a satisfactory level. This allows for faster recovery and is a necessary base for the body’s safe and efficient adaptation to specific and intensive training. This is evident from the fact that the aerobic capacity (i.e. maximal oxygen consumption) of trained climbers assessed through treadmill or cycle ergometer tests is similar to that of elite wrestlers and team sport athletes. Moreover, a study showed that climbing performance depends on cardiorespiratory endurance evaluated using a specialized upper body test.

Anthropometric factors

It is interesting how untrainable characteristics, such as body mass, height, body fat, and arm span, influence climbing performance. It is logical that high body mass is a disadvantage. Analyses of climbers’ anthropometric data confirm this (Fig 5). Unfortunately, body mass reduction is normally limited to getting rid of the excess body fat. On the one hand, the low percentage of body fat is a prerequisite for coping well on a route and distinguishing feature of elite climbers. On the other hand, the small variations in body fat percentage between trained climbers (all of which are typically lean) are of very little importance. This means that the extremely low levels of body fat will not help. The height and arm span also appear not to be limiting factors. Of course, it is good to be able to reach distant holds. Most elite climbers have a larger arm span to height ratio (ape index > 1), but there is no conclusive evidence that having a high ape index means to be talented. Taller climbers may have an advantage when the distances between the handholds are big, but may also have a disadvantage if the handholds and footholds are situated too close.

Climbers need to concentrate on the development of upper body strength and especially maximal finger strength and endurance. The proportion between finger strength and endurance training depends on climbers’ ability level and discipline. Anthropometric characteristics and flexibility have less impact on climbing performance. Still, the increased range of motion in the hip joints can save energy during an ascent. General fitness should not be underestimated.


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