Sport climbing has reached an advanced stage of development and has been included in the Olympic Games. Due to the advanced stage of development, new climbing records will be set less frequently and climbing performance gains will become smaller and smaller (Fig 1). In addition, millions of recreational climbers enjoy sending at their limit and aim to improve their grades. All this places higher demands upon sport climbers’ preparation and surely requires science-based training.
The purpose of performance evaluation and monitoring
What determines the usefulness of exercise tests?
Climbing specific strength and endurance tests
You can use the reference values in the tables below to compare your finger and bent-arm hang test scores with the results of other climbers.
Finger hang (men and women)
Fig 3. Reference values for evaluating climbers’ finger hang scores – men and women.
Bent-arm hang (men)
Fig 4. Reference values for evaluating climbers’ bent-arm hang scores – men.
Bent-arm hang (women)
Fig 5. Reference values for evaluating climbers’ bent-arm hang scores – women.
The climbing specific dynamometric tests require force-measuring devices (Fig 6) that are more expensive than fingerboards. The big advantage is that these tests allow comprehensive evaluation of climbers’ physical condition. The most useful force-measuring devices provide real time feedback on the applied force and allow assigning test parameters (i.e. muscle contraction intensity, work and rest intervals etc.). Test parameters can be set in a way that will place each tested climber in a desired working regime that will activate similar energy delivery pathways. This allows different abilities to be assessed separately. Work capacity depends on physiological functions and energy delivery pathways (with or without using oxygen). Dynamometric tests can be designed in a way to assess not only the levels of strength or endurance but also muscle aerobic or anaerobic capacity. Using tests that allow both functional diagnostics and assessment of physical qualities are much more helpful for optimizing training. They let us know exactly what type of training to focus on to improve our performance significantly. This is not possible if we analyze our hanging test scores and climbing performance only. For example, a climber that copes well with long routes may think that his aerobic endurance is very good. However, without performing dynamometric strength and endurance tests, one can’t say that for sure as he could manage to climb on long routes because of compensating with much higher strength and anaerobic endurance levels.
A methodology for comprehensive climbing performance evaluation
How to design strength and endurance tests to get comprehensive feedback about the physical condition? We have presented our approach in this paragraph. We have taken into account the scientific evidence on climbing physiology and performance to develop and validate a combination of dynamometric tests that evaluate key climbing abilities and are part of a new methodology for functional diagnostics on a local muscle level. This is done by measuring physiological parameters such as muscle oxygenation as well as calculating the relative energy system contribution during the performance of the tests.
The testing methodology comprises four tests: a maximal finger strength test, continuous and intermittent finger endurance tests and test for assessing the rate of force development (RFD). These tests should be performed when fully recovered from training or other type of fatigue and after a good warm-up. In all tests, one should attempt to reach one’s maximum as when making a serious attempt to send a project on the rocks or when participating in a climbing competition. Otherwise, the results might be unrealistically lower and useless for performance diagnostics and training optimization.
All tests are performed while standing facing a climbing force measuring device on which a 23 mm rounded edge is mounted. One hand at a time should be used to apply force on the hold. The hold should be loaded by flexing the knees which lowers the body. At the same time, the fingers should act to resist body weight. The arm should be slightly bent and the shoulder engaged to avoid injuries. In other words, this technique is a one-arm finger hang with the feet on the ground (Fig 7).
Fig 7. One-arm hang technique used to apply force on a climbing specific force measuring device.
Maximal strength test
Continuous endurance test
This test evaluates anaerobic capacity of the forearm muscles. The test is undertaken by loading the 23 mm hold continuously applying 60% of the maximal force. The target force should be maintained for as long as possible. The test ends automatically when the force drops more than 5%. An intensity of 60% of maximal force is activating significantly the forearm muscles. Such an intensive muscle contraction makes the muscles stiff and they compress the blood vessels, which restricts oxygen delivery. All this makes the effort predominantly anaerobic (Fig 8). The anaerobic energy is delivered by two systems: glycolytic and alactic. The anaerobic glycolytic system delivers energy without oxygen using carbohydrates, which leads to lactic acid accumulation. The anaerobic alactic system delivers energy without oxygen using fuel from high-energy phosphate molecules, which does not lead to lactic acid accumulation. For the forearm muscles, the continuous test anaerobic energy was slightly more glycolytic than alactic. The continuous test performance indicators are the time spent in the target zone, force-time integral (force multiplied by time) and force-time integral relative to body mass. Each indicator carries different information. The force-time integral is a good indicator of anaerobic endurance (both glycolytic and alactic). The time in the target zone depends more on the anaerobic glycolytic capacity. The force-time integral relative to body mass correlates significantly with climbing performance.
Fig 8. Relative energy system contribution during the continuous and intermittent muscle endurance tests. This figure is based on a study that collected metabolic data during the performance of the tests.
Intermittent endurance test
This test evaluates aerobic capacity of the forearm muscles. During this test, 8 s work phases at an intensity of 60% of the maximal force are alternated by 2 s rests for as long as possible. This work and rest ratio is chosen because observations of lead climbing competitions proved its specificity. During the 2 s rests, the climber should shake the tested hand down near the body quickly. It has been shown that intermittent testing with shaking rather than without shaking better reflects aerobic capacity. The 2 s rests induce reperfusion and enhanced muscle re-oxygenation in climbers with better forearm aerobic capacity, which leads to a much longer effort compared to the continuous test. That is why this test is predominantly aerobic (Fig 8). The intermittent test performance indicators are the number of repetitions, the time spent in the target zone, force-time integral and force-time integral relative to body mass (Fig 9). The number of repetitions and the time in the target zone are pure measures of aerobic capacity. The force-time integral depends on the aerobic capacity and to a small extent to the anaerobic capacity. The force-time integral related to body mass strongly correlates with climbing performance.
Fig 9. Results of an intermittent test. Up: evaluation scores (climbing grades). Down: quantitative test scores (time in target zone, average force and muscle performance expressed as a force-time integral value).
This test evaluates the ability of the finger flexor muscles to generate high force in a limited time frame. This ability is required for example during the take-off when making a dyno and during grabbing the next hold (especially when it is a small one). During the RFD test climbers should pull the 23 mm hold as fast and as hard as possible while abruptly bending their knees. Similarly, as in the maximal strength test, climbers who can hang on one arm from the 23 mm hold with feet off the ground should hold a weight with the other hand that is not performing the test. The fingers should be placed on the hold and no pressure should be applied until the effort is initiated (which should be done after the start signal). The indicators provided by the RFD test are: RFD at 200 ms; time to reach 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% body weight; and time to reach 50% and 100% of the maximal force for each hand (Fig 10).
Fig 10. Results of an RFD test. Up: evaluation scores (climbing grades). Down: quantitative test scores (RFD at 200 ms; time to reach 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% body mass; peak force; peak force expressed as % Fmax; time to reach 50% and 100% peak force).
Analysis of test results
After completing the tests, we will have several quantitative values that characterize our athlete profile. They can be used to monitor the progress of each ability. However, the quantitative test scores do not allow for comparison between the levels of the different abilities assessed through the tests. This is because the strength and endurance measurement units are different and interpretation of how good or bad the results are is not possible without referring to the scores of other climbers. Therefore, the raw scores should be converted to qualitative evaluation scores (e.g. poor, fair, good, very good and excellent). The evaluation scores of the current methodology are based on the relationships between the test scores and lead climbing and bouldering performance. In particular, we convert the raw test scores to French grades. This way we enable anonymous comparison of one’s own scores with the results of hundreds of climbers at different ability levels. On the one hand, the grades allow for identification of strengths and weaknesses (Fig 11). On the other hand, the grades show how difficult a route you could possibly climb with your current strength and endurance levels. If you climb more than predicted, you probably compensate with a better technique, mental skills or other abilities. If you climb less than predicted, you probably have not pushed yourself to fully realize your physical potential on a route or you are less technically and mentally experienced than the average climber at your climbing ability level.
Fig 11. Evaluation scores. These scores enable: 1) comparison of one’s own results with those of other climbers, 2) estimation of strengths and weaknesses), and 3) progress monitoring.
Fig 12. Peter Ivanov from the Bulgarian Climbing Team is а two-time European youth bouldering champion and winner of the European bouldering youth cup. For years, the coaches of the Bulgarian and Czech climbing teams have optimized their training plans using the present testing methodology. (photo by Vassil Kirov)
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