Finger strength training is a foundational factor that sets the difference between novice and expert level climbers. And while climbing does have a mental part involved, strength training for climbing is equally, if not more important. Training your finger and grip strength for climbing not only helps with making technical climbs more approachable, but also helps minimize injury. In fact, you will notice after some finger training that the smallest holds on your project that felt unhangable become more manageable.
In this article we are going to talk about some the best ways to build climbing strength and how to train grip strength inside and outside of your local climbing gym. You will learn how to prevent injury and enhance climbing performance by utilizing simple training routines that can eventually help you send that project you’ve been working on.
What is Finger Strength and Why Does it Matter?
If you want to take your climbing to the next level, progressing toward smaller crimps is an inevitability that is only reached by building stronger fingers. Here are the five main reasons why stronger fingers make for better climbing performance
- Gripping smaller holds – The average human just simply can’t support their entire body weight using a couple fingers. But training your fingers and grip strength can make even the smallest holds feel comfortable and secure.
- Prevent finger injury- Stronger fingers mean more resilient fingers!
- Easier to rest and recover on smaller holds- As you gain finger and grip strength, the holds that used to feel small will eventually feel more manageable. This translates to more comfort on your way up the face and the holds that used to feel small become comfortable enough to even rest and recover.
- More Stamina- In the same way that all your other body parts become tired, so do your fingers. With stronger fingers and grip, you can last longer and complete longer and harder climbs more easily.
- More Fun- Imagine having your body trained to where even the smallest pebble could feel secure and stable, flying up your project effortlessly, maybe even sending your highest grade ever. How fun would that be!
How to Get Stronger Fingers
Did you know that your fingers don’t have muscles? They are actually made up completely of tendons, connective tissues, and pulley-like structures. We must instead train our hands, palms, and forearms to strengthen these body parts, as well as finger exercises to work on the finger joints specifically. This makes training finger strength in your fingers completely different than other parts of your body.
Finger strength training consists of a lot of glides, movement based exercises, and functional training like climbing and hangboarding. Let’s dive in to some specific training to get those fingers ready for small edges and tiny crimps!
It sounds rather obvious, but climbing is one of the best ways to increase your finger strength gains. The key here is to not climb the same grade you always do: instead, try bouldering at your limit. The controlled environment means you are typically safer compared to outdoor bouldering, so you can push yourself more than you would otherwise. Latching onto smaller or slopey holds that you aren’t used to will be tough at first, but with persistence you will definitely see your finger strength increase.
Use Spring Loaded Grippers and a Resistance Band
Grippers and resistance bands are used in conjunction together to exercise both your flexor and extensor muscles respectively. Most climbers focus just on the flexor muscles, but this leaves the extensor muscles largely untrained – you can read more into this below in The Way of the Iron Fist.
Barbell Finger Curls
Barbell finger curls are a great way to work yourself up to hangboarding and dead hangs. Finger curls are very similar to wrist curls but include a full extension of your fingers and then curling the weight back up. This exercise trains finger strength and grip strength too! Check out this Youtube video below for more explanation on finger curls.
A dead hang is about as simple as it sounds. Grab a bar and try to hang as long as you can. Start with an overhand grip, your arms straight, and about shoulder width apart. Dead hanging is a great way to increase forearm endurance, grip strength, and finger strength.
Hangboarding is the most popular way to train finger strength and forearm muscles. However, hangboarding isn’t a great option for new climbers or those recovering from injuries. Always use proper technique and pay attention to your body to avoid injury.
Finger Tip Push Ups
Finger-tip push ups are a great full body work out for climbers. Just as the name would suggest, it is a push up but only your fingers remain on the floor while you flex your fingers to keep your palms elevated.
The Way of the Iron Fist
If your local climbing gym doesn’t have a rice bucket, they should get one stat, or you should consider getting one for your home. It’s a cheap, simple, and super effective method for hand and forearm strengthening – it’s been used by martial artists for a long time. It’s one of the easiest ways to cut back on injuries while getting stronger, especially when used properly and consistently.
When it comes to forearms and hands, they provide some of the most important facets of strength for climbers. However, climbing and most climbing training exercises for these body parts focus almost exclusively on the flexor muscles.
If we spent more time focusing on creating balanced strength between the flexor and extensor muscle, injury rates would dramatically fall. Focusing on balancing those muscles can help fix biomechanical misalignments and make your muscles more efficient.
This rice bucket training method is an effective way to train both extensor and flexor muscles. It’s a comprehensive training plan aimed at the relationship between all the muscles and their movement patterns, which creates a symbiotic action that helps weaker muscles catch up to the stronger ones, giving you a better balance with a simple and cheap workout.
Rice is preferred over sand since sand tends to compact over time. About 20 pounds of rice is the minimal requirement, but even more is preferred (such as 30 lbs.). You’ll also need a 5 gallon bucket, which is cheap and readily available at your local hardware store.
Keep in mind that your muscles will respond quickly but will take time to build up strength, so start out easy even if you’re an experienced climber. Even if you think you can go for longer, start out with 30 seconds for each exercise with two sessions per week. Once you can get up to 45 seconds per exercise, you can finish each climbing session with a rice bucket session. Once you reach the ability to do 1 minute per exercise, you’re most likely to the point where you don’t have to worry as much about imbalance muscle groups in your hands and forearms, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no reason to continue improving.
Here’s a brief description of each of the movements – for a visual you can click on the YouTube below.
Iron Fist – Stick your hand into the sand while holding a flat and open palm then make a fist once you’re completely submerged in the rice. As you pull your hands from the rice, release your fist so you start with an open palm then repeat.
Screaming Talon – put all your fingers together into a point, then stab into the rice and open your hand wide or extend outward. Retract your hand while you’re opening it and repeat. This focuses on your extensor muscles so make sure you’re widening your open hand as much as possible.
Fists of Fury – make a fist, then stab into the rice so your hand is submerged. Rotate your wrists in one direction.
Fists of Fury, Part II – same as Part I, but rotate your wrists in the other direction.
Wax On, Wax Off – keeping your hands inside the rice, move your fists side to side.
Paint the Fence – with hands still in the rice, move your fists up and down like you’re painting a fence.
Snatch The Pebble – Holding your hands directly above the rice, quickly snatch the rice with your fingers. Keep your wrists stable.
Magic Palm – this exercise is the opposite of snatch the pebble, so you are going to put your fingers together into a point and into the surface of the rice – push the rice away while spreading your fingers out.
Gouge the Eye – put your fingertips into the surface of the rice, then only move your thumbs like you’re trying to gouge someone’s eye out.
Eagle Claw – use your whole hand to grab at the upper few inches of the sand like a crab claw.
Crush the Pebble – grab a handful of rice into your fist and squeeze it as tightly as possible. Release and repeat.
Essence Absorbing Stance – grab a handful of rice, and hold it statically as long as you can.
A special thanks to Steve Edwards for this training information and YouTube video – may you rest in peace.
Is Grip Strength the Same as Finger Strength?
A common misconception is that grip strength and finger strength are the same thing, and even though they are related they are actually not the same thing at all.
Grip strength is the collective strength of your entire hand, think about it in terms of shaking someone’s hand or a full-crimp. While finger strength is how strong each individual finger is in terms of holding your fingers in a fixed position during a half-crimp or open-hand hold.