Athlete testing for rock climbing is still a brand new, evolving concept. I’ve spent the last few months testing myself and my 1-on-1 clients and putting together data sets. This is a short list of key points to consider when embarking on a testing regimen.
What is testing good for?
Testing is good for some things:
- Identifies the right training interventions and loads
- Confirms whether those interventions are moving the athlete closer to their needs
- Feels cool ?
These are some takeaways from testing myself, and my athletes, over the last few months.
1. Testing isn’t a perfect correlation to climbing performance
There are some metrics which will correlate strongly to performance, but it would be a stretch to say those metrics are predictive. Inside an edge case population, like the Beastfingers competition last year, the numbers become more useful and predictive – because all the test subjects are already known to be technically elite. The same would be true in an amateur population: you could expect the highest test numbers to perform the best, if everyone’s technique was equally poor.
In the middle ground, a scatter plot of results vs performance would be a lot more chaotic, and my small but growing data set confirms this. But first, define “performance.” If you mean the number of climbs sent outside, then the number of days outside is going to be way more predictive than finger strength.
2. Strength is not always strength
Good test numbers might indicate strength relative to grade level, like pulling hard on a small edge. But unusually high results may also indicate a need to work on climbing tactics/technique. In these cases I would be happy to see a climber’s numbers go down, as long as their performance goes up. It would be an indicator that they’re spending their time wisely, instead of trying to get more blood from a stone.
3. Numbers dropping isn’t necessarily bad
For example, a climber honing their technique is likely to see a drop in raw pulling power, because they aren’t “accidentally” training pulling power all the time. I see this happen with clients where we’re focusing on technique – they stop overpowering climbs, and their pulling power drops a bit. But their performance improves on the wall. This is fine as long as we then focus some time on pulling power again when their technique is caught up.
The same seems to also be true seasonally of outdoor climbers. Over the last few months I’ve transitioned from climbing a lot on my wall and relatively “easy” sport climbing outside to mostly just bouldering outside. My raw pulling has dropped as I’ve moved away from the woody, but my peak force on a small edge is at an all-time high.
4. Testing is a guardrail.
The numbers are going to change over time. Some will go up, some will go down. If the numbers are going where you expect them to based on your training/climbing, great. If not, adjust your training.
One certainty is that if all the numbers are consistently going down, something is wrong. This should be a consistent drop across multiple test dates before it’s conclusive.
5. Testing can be psychologically stressful for the athlete
Because of some of these other tenets, I find that some athletes can find testing difficult. They get anxiety about seeing the numbers go down. One approach is education and to just know that your force output is going to change over time. Another feasible approach is to just test less often. Because I have a load cell, I do most of my recruitment pulls on the cell. I rarely give it 100% effort in training, but I always have a rough idea of what my RPE8-9 numbers are.
An athlete who might get anxiety from seeing these numbers would probably want to stay away from testing this often. This can be seen as similar to folks whose weight fluctuation would alarm them if they weighed themselves every day. If there is no underlying health concern, the best solution might be to not weigh themselves at all.
Review of test results after 4 months training & climbing
Here are my test numbers for the first third of 2022. Original tests were done on 12/31/22. The new numbers are from either 4/30/22 or 4/22/22. (I had the opportunity to test on a 15mm edge on 4/30, so the 20mm numbers are from 4/22.)
Bodyweight: 142 -> 150
I have been deliberately working to gain weight over the winter and it worked! I’m pretty excited about this as a “hard gainer,” and it made me even more interested to see what happened with my test numbers.
(This is mostly a finger-strength oriented post, but I also want to note that I ended 2021 with a strained gastrocnemius. This was from repeated falls with less lower body strength than I had pre-pandemic, which was one of the reasons I wanted to try to gain a little more weight and strength in my lower body. I set a goal to pistol squat with my mid-size kettlebell on each side and achieved that goal during this phase.)
20mm left: 128.5 -> 142 (+5.43% of bodyweight)
20mm right: 128.4 -> 144 (+6.83% of bodyweight)
Putting 5% on my 20mm pull, relative to bodyweight, was my finger strength goal for the year. I’m pretty sure this is partly a result of my weight going up and my bar pull absolute numbers improving. I’m curious to see if this trend continues now that I’m at a weight I’m happy with and won’t be doing more hypertrophic training. I think most of my gains for the rest of the year will be aimed at improving my rate of force development (RFD) for fall, but there may be some absolute gains as well since one can’t train RFD continuously.
Bar pull left: 160 -> 166 (-0.44%)
Bar pull right: 167 -> 175 (+0.83%)
Bar pull absolute numbers increased, probably from new muscle – but relative to bodyweight, pretty stagnant. Most of my new weight is probably in my lower body so that’s not terribly surprising. I’m excited to work on this number during summer. Since this was a mostly hypertrophic gain, I should be able to eke a bit more force out of the muscles with some recruitment/coordination training.
10mm left: 95.4 -> 95 (-2.92% bodyweight)
10mm right: 90.6 -> 107 (+8.42% bodyweight)
A fantastic 10mm pull on my right side was the highlight of my round of testing. My left side is weaker because I am struggling with a tendon injury on my left hand from a fall I took in April. It affects the pinch and full crimp grips, but didn’t appear to mess with my open hand strength.
RFD on 20mm, force at 250ms:
Unsurprisingly the number on my left hand was quite poor, given my current hand injury. The right hand number is not great either. I just haven’t done a lot of high velocity climbing in the last few months. Most of my bouldering still hasn’t been terribly steep, and much of my board climbing is low & slow. So this is definitely an area I need to focus on if I am going to perform well on boulders in fall.
I had the chance to test with a G-strength (provides RFD results as a graph with a time cutoff) last weekend. My Tindeq load cell at home provides RFD in N/s, which is harder to convert into a usable number as related to peak force. However, working on a testing framework for this is my next focus area for testing.
Conclusion from results
One of the biggest takeaways from this round of training is that finger strength training does NOT need to be complicated. My finger training for the last 4 months consisted of slow climbing on my 40 degree spray wall on bad holds, recruitment pulls, and density hangs. (And, of course, climbing on bad holds outside.) None of these activities involved any added weight or deliberate load change. Everything was entirely autoregulated.
I’ve actually been doing these forms of finger training for more than a year now, but I only recently started testing with a load cell. These are similar – or better – gains to those I’ve seen from using complicated programs adding percentages of max hang load. Granted, I was testing those gains using max hangs, so the comparison is not apples to apples.
I would also say 85-90% of my finger stimulus is coming from rock climbing, as it should be. The 10mm number’s increase can probably be attributed to spending a ton of time at Smith Rock on crimpy routes over the winter, straight into crimping hard on boulders outside.
- Testing doesn’t always correlate to performance
- Numbers will go up or down based on stimulus – this is not always bad
- Numbers going down consistently might be bad
- Test just often enough to keep training on track
- Don’t make the athlete (or yourself) crazy with tests
- Finger training doesn’t need to be complicated
- Most of finger stimulus can/should come from climbing
- How do I better integrate the Tindeq’s RFD result into training testing? Especially the ability to integrate it with peak force numbers – a spreadsheet formula seems inevitable…
- I’m moving to central Washington. What effect will moving from mostly climbing on crimpy, less overhanging boulders to mostly climbing on steep, powerful, compressiony boulders have on my overall test results?
- Should I plan on changing my finger training based on the above? (Hint: yes)
- Should I drop a bunch of dough on a G-strength?