You are not your max hang

Nefarious, V1, Squamish

Intuition is an essential tool for the climbing athlete.

As climbing gets more popular, training and coaching inevitably follows that growth. The pressure to organize and record and meticulously obsess over every trackable detail gains momentum each day. But you are not these numbers; and if you let them, they’ll start making your decisions for you.

These analyses are popular because we desperately want to offload the cognitive strain of deciding what to do, where we’re at. We want easy answers to questions like, “am I recovered today?” or “what project should I dig into this season?” or “why can X person climb harder than me?” – variations of the eternal question asked by climbers everywhere: “am I strong enough to climb X grade?”

It’s just not that simple.

Some climbers that I assess are surprised that my assessment doesn’t include any immediate physical tests. No peak force measurement. No max hang. I just ask for recent numbers like that if available.

Why? Because I think that compared to the rest of the assessment – here comes the heresy – those numbers just aren’t very important. I could just as easily ask an athlete two questions: 1) How long have you performed training designed to increase your finger strength? i.e. what’s your finger training age? And 2) Briefly describe your history of finger training and finger injuries. I cover these in my initial consults anyway, and learn far more from that discussion than I would from a max hang number.

It’s not all numbers

Now that I have hundreds of data points from assessees I can make a few observations. For beginner and intermediate climbers, while finger strength and upper body strength are obviously correlated with climbing performance, I believe they’re not as meaningful as popularly held. Access and time for climbing and willingness to sacrifice other things for climbing (psych level) are by far stronger correlations. Other major factors are ability to try hard through uncertainty, ability to think outside the box, a lack of obvious injuries, and level of introspection. Good luck measuring these things with a Tindeq.

With advanced climbers, finger strength and upper body strength become increasingly meaningful. Those climbers have already run up against some of those other progress chokepoints and found a path through. But even with the highest performing athletes I’ve worked with, there are low hanging fruit in the non-physical realms. (The lower tiers of the performance pyramid.) Doggedly testing and analyzing finger strength doesn’t necessarily mean that a climber isn’t working on those other things too, and I wouldn’t assume that to be the case. However, any climber focused on progression should be vigilant to make sure that it isn’t the case.

Chasing numbers may be harmful

A secondary concern, and something I think about increasingly as I work with more climbers, is that these purely physical tests can actually do psychological harm to athletes. Examples are numerous if you spend time on instagram or the climbharder subreddit. Climbers trust these tests to give them reliable feedback about where they’re at in their climbing career. So the conclusions reached by tests, even if couched in careful language, can have a profound impact on climbers’ identities. Most climbers identify very strongly with their pursuit of climbing. Conclusive assertions from an authority figure about your core identity can be emotionally stressful, and can further pigeonhole athletes into thinking narrowly about their physical performance.

It can take a long time to dig out of this hole; not only have I had to do it myself, but I coach several athletes in “finger number recovery”.

Uncontrolled variables

Finger strength analysis is still nascent. There’s a lot we don’t know about morphology and genetics and their impact on climbing performance. Pulley attachment points, tendon thickness, distance from end of tendon to the end of the digit, skin porousness, and propensity for sweating are just a few factors that play into how hard we can pull on holds that are rarely accounted for in athlete testing. We should be careful about how much we assume based on force tests without having other context to inform those numbers.

And that’s assuming the tests are even consistent themselves. Max hang? With what shoulder and elbow position? How strict is your finger form for half crimp? Do we even have the same definition of half crimp? At least strain gauges are more reliable than a max hang test. But what was the relative humidity when you tested, compared to your peer group? Were you performing the test with someone else near your level? What kind of music was playing in the test environment? How many years had that Beastmaker been accumulating oil and chalk buildup before you used it to test?

Real-world example: I have unusually hard and dry skin. This means that in fairly humid climates, I don’t need to use much skin product for recovery, and my skin adapts to climbing on rock within a few days. (Don’t get jealous; in drier climates, I split early, deeply, and frequently.) On Northwest granite, compared to someone with an advantage in raw tested finger strength, I might still be able to “pull” harder on the holds due to passive tension and friction from the rock on my skin. If I let my relative finger strength to my peers determine whether I’m willing to try a given project, I’d miss out on a lot of climbing. No test that I know of can accommodate this sort of minutia.

Disclosure and the comparison trap

I’ve been tested by Lattice and Tyler Nelson and used training programs from both. I have immense respect for both, especially for Tyler’s dedication to providing scientific information to the climbing community – essentially for free. I’ve been to his strength clinics and I’m a huge believer in his work to bring sensible and standardized strength analysis to climbing. I own a Tindeq and test both myself and my athletes on it often.

I have at times despaired at my relative-to-peer-group low finger strength numbers. After testing with Lattice and getting preposterous results, I became determined to “catch up.” My numbers did increase with years of focusing on them, and my performance went up too. Eventually I stopped worrying about it. I even had a year where I did no dedicated finger strength training at all – just hangboarding to warm up, and climbing hard outside and on my board. I still gained over 4% finger force output that year. Most importantly, I clearly felt an uptick in my satisfaction with my climbing when I stopped comparing my numbers to anything except my own old numbers.

I’m not going to stop testing my fingers or checking the weather report any time soon. But I’m becoming increasingly hesitant to recommend formal tests to climbers unless signs indicate that some physical facet is a meaningful blocker for them. And as I grow as a climber, I’m increasingly combining my sense of “how it feels” with hard facts from NOAA. There are many examples – I’m harping on fingers and weather because they’re two places where I see people consistently hamstring themselves.

Opportunity cost

The numbers should support the climbing, not dictate it. As soon as you let your pitch count, your finger force test, or your humidity sensor start making decisions for you, you’ve glossed over an opportunity to prime your intuition.

Chess is a great analog here. For a given board setup, there are a staggering number of sequences of subsequent moves. Great chess players don’t run through every possible move, analyzing the tree of moves branching off from that one, and so forth. They develop an intuition about what moves work when, by making decisions and receiving feedback.

Yes, that means that sometimes chess players make bad calls and lose games. But those losses can’t be avoided by trying to recursively control each and every move – and doing so would fly right by the chance to trust your gut, make a move, and see what happens.

For serious players, this intuition “pump priming” is coupled with intense and diligent analysis of different positions. It would be foolish not to learn from the deep existing knowledge of the game. But that analysis is a secondary strategy for improvement.

The obvious counterpoint here is that there is a time when the numbers paint an important picture. Obviously some percentage chance of rain is too high. Obviously a precipitous drop in your finger test results can indicate overtraining. etc. I’m not saying to ignore those signs, I’m saying to treat the grey area as a learning opportunity.

The big picture

Climbing performance is a long game. Trusting yourself is essential to maximizing your potential, because no matter how advanced our analysis gets, the numbers will never tell the whole story.

When you’re on a run of good form, follow that and see what you can do with it. In these times, it might be best to just sideline your training completely. Your deadlift numbers will not tank if you spend a week or two focusing on your projects because you sense that you’re peaking when you didn’t expect to. Even if they did go down a bit – are you a climber, or a deadlifter?

When you feel good – even if the weather report is only okay – it’s worth finding out what the project feels like. Other days, the weather report will be incredible and you’ll still climb like a proverbial poop emoji. But you’ll never prime your intuition about it if you don’t go find out.

Sometimes, even though your last few sessions were short and easy, you’re going to feel haggard. Other times, even though you’re 3rd day on, low on skin, and under immense pressure, you’ll pull it out of the bag. Whether or not to go for that 3rd (or 4th!) redpoint try of the day should be an intuitive decision, not a rule.

This relates to single moves, too. Often the breakthrough on a move comes not when we focus more intensely on some particular body part, but instead when we’re at our most distracted – or our most aggressive. The mind-body connection is two-way, and sometimes we have to let the body run the show.

When recovering from an injury, you can use tools like ACWR and “anchoring” to get a rough idea of your output levels. But these are no substitute for developing an intuition of what the injury can tolerate. And as you get older and accumulate more tweaks and twinges, that intuition is invaluable.

Many of the hangups here stem from anxiety. We’re anxious creatures. And while it’s hard, it’s fundamental that we learn to trust ourselves. This is what the process of growing as a climber is all about. Making judgment calls. Trying things. Failing, sometimes painfully. But getting back up, and trusting ourselves again anyway.

So, go ahead –

Buy a Tindeq.

Write down every problem you do in the gym.

Count your reps and sets and steps and breaths.

Get assessed.

But remember that these things should inform the process – not become it.

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