Monday, September 17, 2012

Lock-off training in Sport Climbing (III) Do you really lock-off?

We completed the literature revision in previous posts, and now it's time to apply this knowledge, as I had set out to do.
Watching videos, and with the help of kinovea, an open source tool, I have analyzed the gesture that is the subject of this entry through the following subset of real climbing:
- lead style
- high level climbers
- different angles of climbing
- difficulty 8b+ to 9a
- rock and competition
- both onsight and redpoint
From these I have inferred some trends that can be of interest, although I need to make clear that this is a piece of field work and not a proper scientific study. So, the conclusions here exposed are more of a personal take on the matter.

Analysis of the pulling/lock-off gesture in Climbing
If we study in slow motion our pulling movements (specifically, our upper body; added sentence on 09/10/2012; thank you,  Douglas Hunter) when we are not matching, resting, clipping, in compression moves (added sentence on 08/10/2012; thank you, Gianluca), or using tiny intermediate holds, we can divide the holds into three categories; H (the one we will Hold from), R (the one we are going to Release) and T (our Target hold). Then we can distinguish several phases.
We are going to look at each of those phases to collect some data.


Phase 1: Initial. Pulling and building Momentum with both arms
This is when we are pulling with both hands from H (the one we'll keep holding) and, R (the one we are going to release); usually more force is applied on H, especially towards the end, when we are about to release R and go for T; the legs, and really the rest of the body help to impulse in a coordinated way
Duration: most of the time, 0,30 to 0,50 seconds.

Phase 2: Pulling/locking with one arm while releasing the other
In this phase we have already released R, for the time needed to get to T. For a brief amount of time we are applying our force with one arm, the H one
Duration: most of the times, 0,4 to 0,5 seconds, but it can be as low as 0,2 seconds in certain movements, more often with very explosive climbers, or as high as nearly 1 second on very long reaches in not very steep routes, especially with more static climbers.
Shauna Coxsey - Bouldering World Cup,  2012. Photo Heiko Wilhem. Source
Chris Sharma. Demencia Senil, 9a+. Margalef (Tarragona). Photo: Pete O'Donovan
Luis Alfonso Félix. Eros Tensa el Arco, 8b+ .Cuenca. Photo: José Yáñez.

Now, if we look more closely to this phase, we will realize that the static part of it, during which we are locking-off, is most often practically imperceptible. That's why in my previous post I thought it very interesting to reconsider the whole concept of locking-off.
The best climbers devote very little to no time (0,15-0,30 seconds) to maintain the desired angle and actually lock-off. What they do is to take advantage of the previous impulse so that they can keep on flexing or extending their H arm before reaching the angle needed to grab the Target, in a way that leaves little to no room for an isometric phase. This is even more true when the holds are smaller and/or the route steeper.
    Helena Alemán. Spanish Climbing Championship (Gijón 2012).
    Photo: Darío Rodríguez. Source: top30 facebook
        Shauna Coxsey

      Phase 3: Stabilization and getting ready for the next move
      Our hands are already on the H and T holds, and we are locking-off to a certain extent (although most certainly with different angle and lower intensity) with our H arm, while we steady ourselves, do the required footwork, and adjust our fingers to the T hold so it can eventually transition into our new H hold. Next we will 'undo' the lock with our former H -and soon-to-be R- hold, and move our feet in preparation for the following move.
      Duration: most often 2 to 3 seconds, going up to 5 seconds or more in the most complicated movements. This phase comes out as the longest one.
      Giannis Agathokleous
      At this point it's important noting that if we reach a hold by dynoing, it will be fundamental to quickly and coordinately pull with both arms and the whole body (with emphasis in the lower back, waist and legs) to steady ourselves.
      Sean MacColl - Bouldering World Cup - Vail, USA 2012. Photo: Heiko Wilhelm

      I have recorded 2-5 second locks when:
      • trying to onsight a route, while figuring out how to grip a hold.
      • in some sections that demand precision and body tension, like aiming for a pocket or climbing on roofs...
      • when clipping the rope, more often in competition where clipping points are used to increase the route's difficulty.
      Nevertheless, these figures are a function of level. The more experienced climbers will try to clip more efficiently, keeping their arm straight and taking less rope. They will also need less time to sort out a section or a grip position while onsighting.
      Mina Markovic. Lead Climbing World Cup, Kranj 2011. Photo: Luka Fonda
      It varies with the steepness of the route and across different moves. The most used one, though, and the most specific is the 90º one. In second place come those close to 45º, typical of slight overhangs, transitions from roof to vertical and gastons.

      Javipec at Bayuela
      This said, all these numbers vary with several factors:
      - The more overhanging and/or tinier the holds both hand and foot ones, the shorter the locking time for a given hold separation.
      - Personal style: hesitant and static; onsight (in contrast with worked), routes (compared with boulders) will yield the longest locking-off times for the same difficulty.

      - Girls in general show longer times in all phases due to our lower maximum and explosive strength. If we add that training frequently ignores gender particularities, and the tendency to choose routes that keep us from challenging our weaknesses instead of working on them, there is a tendency to develop a more static style. The outcome is an increased fatigue for a given route (due to a longer time grabbing each hold), lack of ability to solve certain moves like dynos or very steep overhangs, and a general slow down of progression. Even overuse injuries in the elbows.

      If we measure the intensity by the percentage of body weight that the arm has to bear, and look at the 2 phases where lock-off takes place, we observe the following:
      - Hand releasing phase: the intensity can be high or medium depending on the type of move and overhang angle, but as far a I have been able to observe, rarely does the H arm bear a high percentage of the body weight, and, as stated above, this isometric phase tends to be lower than half a second long.

      Jorg Verhoeven - Lead  Climbing World Cup - Denver, 2011
      - Stabilization: Here body mass is already supported by both arms, so that intensity is even lower than in the previous phase.
      Nacho Sánchez. Tolmojón, 8B+ (Tamajón, Guadalajara).
      Photo: Raúl Santano. Source: flickr

      It is around 10-15 seconds in average. Less frequently, it lasts 5-8 seconds, or more than 20, but it is conditioned by the holds distribution, the need to clip and, as ever, the climbers' style. We need to be aware that we need to clip approximately every 2 movements in competition, or every 4 to 6 in rock climbing.

      ¿Are any of these figures of relevance to medium and lower level climbers?
      The numbers above are applicable to climbers with a high technical and physical level, but can vary wildly among medium and low level climbers. In fact, they do.
      From my observations, the less experienced climbers display longer locking-off times, possibly due to:
      limited perceptive and motor repertory that leads to indecision when it comes to sorting out a sequence,
      reduced balance and poor management of the center of mass, that makes them try to put their body 'closer' to the holds, flexing their arms too often and locking-off constantly,
      insecurity due to their lack of experience or their undeveloped control of fear,
      insufficient memorization to climb fluidly through the key sections.
      ¿Does this mean that in these levels, or with these weaknesses, we need to work our lock-off more, or that it is better just to improve our physical, technical and tactical aspects?
      My answer is clear. It would be sensible to focus on the latter strategy during the initial and intermediate stages (2-4 years), and then to progressively include specific physical contents (like lock-offs, finger maximum strength, etc) once we are in the right path of technical-tactical improvement.

      And now that we know a bit more about how long a lock-off usually lasts, in high level climbers, we can ask ourselves the question:

      All right, then... ¿is it useful to train 'long' lock-offs to improve an action that normally lasts less than half a second?

      My answer is Not. And, to elaborate on it, in the next entry I will talk about the importance of training for each of the phases using exercises whit specific duration, speed and intensityI can tell you in advance that we'll learn about some explosive isometric methods and exercises, that will try to develop our ability for reaching very quickly our force peak, within those tenths of a second when we 'stop' pulling and 'lock' to make contact with our Target hold. We will also take a look at other exercises with a duration and style oriented to the previous phase, when we are pulling from the holds, something that is tightly associated with the locking-off gesture.

      In conclusion:
      Locking-off, at least in modern routes and competitions, and for climbers with a high technical-tactical level, is ideally a very brief action, and of medium an low intensity in general. In a way, it probably wouldn't deserve to be called lock-off...
      In addition, the the time that passes between the harder pulls and lock-offs should be enough to recover from them in most occasions.

      However, it is the intensity factor along with the duration, especially during phase 2, what will determine if in some instance -for a particular route or style that we are training for- this locking-off ability could become the limiting factor to send a route. This leads, you saw it coming, to another question

      What kind of movements or routes can benefit from training our locking ability? 

      By closely looking at these pictures or thinking a bit by yourself, you may find the answer:
      Mina Markovic. Lead World Cup (Kranj 2011). Photo: Luka Fonda 
      Dani Andrada. Ali-Hulk, 9a+ (Rodellar, Huesca). Photo: Pete O'Donovan
      Edu Marín. "Ciudad de Dios", 9a (Santa Linya, Lleida). Photo: Pete O'Donovan 

      Nacho Sánchez. Insomnio, 8C (Crevillente, Alicante). Photo: Rebeca Morillo
      You got it...
      For some moves in roofs, or going from a roof to vertical, crossing hands when traversing an overhang, holding a barn door, a key clipping...
      For these, or other cases that you consider this ability is important for... what would be the best method to train it?

      Perhaps with the information that we have to this point you can answer this question by yourself, but, if it's not the case, the next entry will be devoted to reflecting about it. We will discuss the usefulness of methods like functional isometrics, Cometti's static-dynamic pull-ups and other, less known, ones...

      NEXT ENTRY: Locking-off training methodology

      Lock-off strength training (I)
      Lock-off strength training (II)

      Friday, September 7, 2012

      Published Research Article, and a Summary of the Guidelines on finger strength Methodology described in this Blog

      Versión en español

      A while ago I informed you that my first study had been submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal for review and publication. Those who follow me in facebook already know it, but to those who don't, I'm glad to announce that it was finally accepted and is published online under this title:

      View abstract on Taylor & Francis Online
      As many of you know, that research was the first I conducted on the topic of finger strength, and consisted of comparing the effects and order of two dead-hang training methods to answer the question
      ¿Is it more effective for high level climbers to train first on the smallest possible edge without added weight and then on a medium-sized edge with added weight, or the other way around?
      I was lucky enough to present this research at the International Rock Climbing Research Congress that took place at Canterbury University (New Zealand), November, 2011
      From this study's results, and from two other that will also be in the thesis I'm currently writing, and from the years I've been able to devote to training for climbing, stem the methods and ideas for finger strength that you are already familiar with through this blog, and that are incorporated into the Progression and Transgression boards.
      The main characteristic of these boards is that they have edges of different depths to allow for progression. Nevertheless, this methodology can also be used with other hangboards if they have edges with the adequate size, or you can even build yourselves a device that I have been using for years. Instructions can be found in this entry.

      The "Regletómetro", an "open source training tool" 
      Now, I'd like to take this opportunity to review some guidelines that have been published along several entries in this same blog. Making them clear could save us injuries and stalled performance, and even allow for a proper, long-term finger strength development. I thought it would be useful to assemble them into one entry, so here they are:

      In general, ¿When is it advisable to start training Dead-Hangs?
      As it has already been stated, it would be better to start without added weight, and also to fulfill the following requisites:
      • Having more than 2 years of systematic (3-4 days/week) climbing and training experience. The reason for this is that, even though muscles only take weeks or months to adapt themselves to training, other structures like tendons, capsules ligaments and cartilages take years to reach the structural adaptations (thickness, tensile strength, etc.) needed to withstand the loads of this exercise, and that means years of progressive and deliberate practice. Also, a beginner should focus on technical-tactical aspects, and on developing a general muscle base, rather than using such specific methods.
      • Being able to hang for  more than 15 seconds off a 24mm edge.
      • Being older than 16.
      • Being free of injuries or conditions that make inadvisable this exercise, or being fully recovered if there has been a recent injury. In some cases it will mean about 2 months of rest, in others it can take 6 months or even years.
      ¿When can someone start training Dead-Hangs with Added Weight?
      • After having completed one or more cycles of non-weighed dead hangs without pain or other problems that make this method inadvisable.
      • If you have been training and climbing systematically for 4 years (at least 4 days/week).
      • If you are 18+.
      • If you can hang  more than 40 seconds off a 20mm edge and more than 15 seconds from a 10mm one.

      General precautions regarding the finger strength Methodology described in this blog
      1- The study that I refer to at the beginning of this entry and that was the base for all further research and training, was conducted on a sample of climbers with an average climbing level of 8a+/b (from 8a to 8c+) and a high level of finger strength. The combination of 4 weeks training with added weight and then training on the smallest possible edge was the most effective for this population, but keep in mind that such planning, and using added weight in general, is better suited for climbers of such level.
      2- As I observed in another study that I will try to get published in the future, climbers with a low or medium level of finger strength, and/or those who haven't previously undergone intensive finger training, get significant results performing only the small edge method without the need of using added weight, because their body weight is enough to provide the load needed to induce positive adaptation.
      3- It is desirable to use the easiest intensity, volume, pause and method that still provoke improvement. It is more effective, when starting some training, to slowly progress in method, intensity, etc. than increasing sharply the difficulty, because the long-term performance will be higher and there will be less risk of injury.
      4- Maximum finger strength, even though it's the nº 1 physical factor in climbing, is not the only one that determines performance. There are also the technical-tactical and psychological aspects, as well as physical ones like endurance, strength-endurance, boulder, etc. Do not forget working them in all your training sessions and climbing in rock as much as possible if you want to improve as a climber.
      5- The best training plan is an individualized one. So my approach is to explain here the effects that the methods and planning styles that I know have over people of different level, objectives, age, etc.; but a) all the possible methods are not listed here, and b) it would be ideal if you, after reading all the information, including other sources (blogs, books, articles), would decide for yourselves what method and planning is best for you. So I recommend you study all the available information and choose the approach that better suits your objectives, needs and qualities. 
      6- It is not recommended for younger people, with less than 18-20 years of age, to train campus board or weighed dead-hangs (Morrison and Schöffl, 2007). The reason is that while growth is still going on, the epiphyseal plates (the place were bone growth takes place) are not closed, and the use of high loads, that in an adult can injure ligaments, capsules or tendons, in a teenager can lead to stress fractures, a far more severe condition. And this is because the plate tissue is 2-5 times weaker than the rest. More information here.

      So, going back to the opening of this blog post, i hope that the mentioned article will be interesting and useful to you, because this is really the ultimate reason for publishing. Thank you for all your support.