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.
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).
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 certain level, other factors such as endurance, technique, and mental skills play a more important role. 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).
Fig 4. Power slap test
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.
Fig 5. Correlations between redpoint performance and some of the performance factors (Michailov, Mladenov, Schoeffl)
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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