Why Strong Fingers Matter

Let me count the ways…

Wall Street, Frankenjura, Germany. (Credit: Claudia Zeigler / The Young Savages)
Wall Street, Frankenjura, Germany.
(Credit: Claudia Zeigler / The Young Savages)

1. Stronger fingers can grip smaller holds. Duh! Seriously, though, all the climbing in the world won’t do much to improve your ability to grip small edges and pockets. Improvement at gripping smaller and smaller holds–essential for climbing harder—depends on building a higher level of absolute (limit) grip strength. Fingerboard training (with the right training protocol) is unquestionably the best method of training maximum grip strength.

2. Stronger fingers can endure longer when climbing on submaximal holds. Explaining why requires a bit of exercise physiology, so bear with me for a moment. When your fingers are gripping at just 20% of maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) blood flow through your forearm flexor muscles begins to slow….and at a contractile force of about 50% of MVC the blood flow is occluded completely. When blood flow is reduced or stopped completely, power output declines precipitously after about 10 seconds and, depending on the difficulty of the sustained grip (% MVC), failure will follow in a matter of seconds to, at best, a minute or two if the finger flexors are contracting at a force far less than 50% MVC.

Anyway, lack of blood flow and oxygen supply is the crux of the matter, since oxygen is required for CP resynthesis (muscle cell energy source) and blood flow is needed to remove metabolic byproducts of anaerobic lactic energy production (more on this a future article on Power/Strength Endurance training). Thus, when resistance climbing through a long-sequence of relatively difficult, yet submaximal holds, the greater the perfusion (delivery of blood to the capillary bed) the longer you will endure. Given the above understanding of blood flow occlusion as a function of percentage of maximum voluntary contraction (MVC), it’s now easy to understand that in gaining a higher level of maximum grip strength (a greater MVC) you will be able to support your body weight (or whatever part your feet aren’t supporting) with a smaller percentage of MVC. This is a powerful concept and a critical guiding principle for effective training!

Making strong fingers...with the Zlagboard Training System and integrated smartphone Training App.
Making strong fingers…with the Zlagboard Training System and integrated smartphone Training App.

Summarizing: Increasing the MVC of the finger flexor muscles enables contraction at a lower percentage of maximum  (compared with the weaker fingers of the “old you”) when climbing on similar submaximal terrain, thus allowing for increased blood flow (and use of the aerobic energy system) and improved endurance.

3. Stronger fingers can rest and recover on smaller holds. I’m sure you’ve seen videos of rock stars, such as Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra, pausing in the middle of some long, steep, and ridiculously hard climb to shake out and somehow rest on a small “finger bucket” that would in no way be a rest hold for the mass of climbers. Yet somehow these guys can stop and catch their breath and recover enough power reserve to push on and finish the climb. What is their secret to resting on holds so small they’d pump out an average climber? Strong fingers, of course!

As explained in #2, blood flow is the key to resynthesizing ATP-CP (essential for brief, high power movements) and removing fatiguing metabolic byproducts of the anaerobic lactic energy system (the predominant energy system when climbing hard, sustained sequences lasting between 12 seconds to a minute or two). For a rest hold to be good enough to hang onto for a significant rest (30 to 60 seconds or more), you must be able to grip the hold using less than 50% of your MVC—only this way will there be any rejuvenating blood flow. Therefore, a climber with “average” grip strength may require a 4-inch (10cm) deep hold to recover (the smallest size hold he can grip for an extended time at <50%MVC) whereas the 5.15 climber can likely shake out on a one-inch-deep hold (25mm) thanks to their incredible grip strength that allows them to grip this small hold with less than 50% of MVC.

4. Stronger fingers have more stamina. Occasionally you hear a mind-boggling media report of some pro climber onsighting or redpointing multiple 5.14 routes in a day and then doing it again the next day…and the next! How is that even possible?

Alex Megos crushing Vymple (14b), New River Gorge, WV. (Credit: Eric Hörst)
Alex Megos crushing Vymple (14b), New River Gorge, WV. (Credit: Hörst photo)

Let me tell you a story about a climber named Alex who does this with regularity. I’ve climbed with Alex a few times in recent years, and last year I was with him at the New River Gorge when, in the matter of a few hours, he warmed up on a couple 5.13+ routes and then proceeded to do a first ascent of a 5.14b and a second-go second ascent of another 5.14b. Sounds like a fatiguing day of climbing, right? Not for Alex. In fact, he climbed other routes at the 5.14 grade both the day before and the day after!

How is this possible? Before I embellish further on the importance of getting stronger, I must point out that Alex possesses world-class technique and a very strong mind. That said, the master key is that Alex is really strong! We have yet to see what Alex’s true climbing limit is (but it will be fun to watch in the coming years), but I can tell you that climbing 5.13+/5.14- routes are nowhere near his limit. So for Alex to climb at this level on successive days is similar to 5.12b climber doing 5.11 routes on successive days or a 5.14a climber sending multiple 5.12+/5.13- routes. Easy peasy!

The bottom line: By increasing your limit strength and advancing your high-end climbing ability, the submaximal level at which you can climb with relative ease and aplomb—and in high volume—is elevated. Therefore, by making a long-term training commitment to getting stronger (and improving your mental and technical game) you may someday find your current maximum climbing level to be “moderate” and achievable in volume.

Can’t wait for that day? Get started training with Zlagboard Pro!

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