By Mike Kimmel: Mike works as the Department Head for English Language at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, a public high school that works exclusively with competitive skiers and snowboarders (ranging from Alpine skiing, freeride, all forms of snowboarding competition, and nordic). He is also a climbing coach and primary routesetter for the Vail Athletic Club, and a guide for Adventure Travel Guides. He’s worked as a setter and coach for 10+ years, and has sent many young climbers to USA Nationals, and a few kids to Continental Championships.
One of the most satisfying aspects of rock climbing is feeling a measurable change in strength and ability. While climbing grades may be subjective and open to argument, climbing is unique in that we have a relatively clearly defined number scale that allows climbers to measure their physical progress.
Each season, I have a few areas in mind that I plan on visiting. Each trip has two main climbing goals: 1) onsight as many routes as possible and 2) redpoint 1-2 routes that are hard for me within the span of the trip.
In order to reach these goals each season, I train year-round, both outside and in the gym. I’ve worked as a climbing coach and routesetter for the past decade, and have read and researched an immense amount of literature about rock climbing training and physiology. In addition, I work with physical therapists and orthopedists in order to create a sustainable training plan for both myself and the kids that I coach – because the most common way to watch people decline and get frustrated with climbing is to get injured!
First and foremost, I would suggest to anyone interested in climbing training to read the book 9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes by Dave McLeod, who is an elite climber who is also very well-educated in exercise physiology. In this book, Dave discusses the most common areas for focus in climbing training, and creates a great “big picture” of the most important aspects of climbing performance. One of those aspects is finger strength, and it was with the goal of increasing grip strength that I installed the Trango Rock Prodigy board at our gym.
But McLeod does not go too far into details and methods for specific training methods, so in terms of specific usage and application, it’s hard to beat Mark Anderson’s training site and companion training book, The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. Anderson goes into great detail about the specifics of optimal finger workouts, how to apply the strength gains, and how to properly gauge yourself to be able to use the board to create maximal gains while minimizing the chances of injury. I would strongly suggest reading up on the subject before embarking on a period of handboard workouts.
Finger strength becomes increasingly important as climbers progress into higher grades, and increasing maximal finger strength in turn creates a higher level of endurance. Without going into full-on muscle physiology, the condensed logic is that
- A hangboard is the best way to isolate the finger muscles, which means that as a climber, you know you are working on gaining the right type of strength.
- Repeated intervals of hanging and rest simulates the movements of climbing, where you need strength to hold on to various grip positions for 5-15 seconds at a time. The type of grip and length will vary based on climbing area and style.
Please be aware this is an incredibly broad explanation of finger strength training, and that to really best use the Rock Prodigy board, the companion book is very helpful (notice a trend? Learn about your training methods before trying them!)
So how does the Rock Prodigy board hold up? Compared to other handboards I’ve used, the install was fairly easy, and the division of the board into two separate components allowed me to set the board in a position that I felt would work well for both adults and the kids that I coach.
The design of the grip positions on the board are also rather ergonomic – the main edges change depth as you move across the board, ergonomically fitting the different length of fingers and allowing the climber to change the difficulty of the hangs. The pockets are one of my favorite features of this board; there are individual grooves for fingers that really allow for even weight displacement as you pull up. The tiny edge and side pinches are good, difficult grips for those who feel they can hang on forever – the hard pinches on the side will prove you wrong! All in all, there are so many different combinations of grip positions that you can tire yourself out in endless ways playing with the Rock Prodigy board.
Of course, the most important aspect of a hangboard is – will it help your climbing? I added 1-2 weekly sessions of hangboarding into my training schedule, which usually includes three climbing sessions per week, along with two sessions of antagonist training and two sessions of running. I used a modified version of Anderson’s training plan, specifically focusing on intervals of hanging on the grips that I felt needed the most work. It does take a good amount of time and a few sessions to find the right weight ratio to complete a good workout, and the patience to get it right.
Instruction Video via Trango:
After two months, the strength gains between the handboard and a consistent training method have been paying off: the snow has been melted away from most of the local areas I climb, and I surprised myself by making quick links and high points on projects, as well as pulling on holds I wasn’t expecting to be able to utilize. I do believe the Rock Prodigy board does make a difference in building climbing strength – just train correctly, carefully, and build up slowly! I would also suggest investing in the associated pulley system and Rock Prodigy Training Manual for the best effect.