What have I been up to today?  Skip to the end to read my opinions about this research within the context of strength training for climbing overall.

Today, I worked on re-writing a short summary of one of the most important research contributions to date on the impact of strength training to climbing performance.  The summary I had originally written wasn’t particularly good.  I didn’t have access to the article so what I wrote reflected my own confusion over the training protocols.  Thankfully, a beta angel eventually sent me a copy of the research so I could peruse it.  However, it also represented a learning situation for me.

Espen Hermans, the Norwegian researcher who worked on the study, had e-mailed me months ago to help me but unfortunately I hadn’t returned his e-mail.  I may have had over a dozen projects and a full-time job at the time, but I pushed back replying because I had struggled to understand.  I normally respond quickly to researchers and climbers who contact me, but I failed on this one.  Rather than ignore the fact that I was dense and slow, I’ve decided to constructively chastise myself by doing a short write-up and showcasing my mistakes, along with the research, to the world. The older pre-change summary is transcribed below:

Does Strength Training Affect Climbing Performance Hermans et al
From Hermans et al. (2016) – High Resistance-Few Repetitions (HR-FR), Low Resistance-High Repetitions (LR-HR) and Control (Con)

The effects of high resistance-few repetitions and low resistance-high repetitions resistance training on climbing performance

Author: E. Hermans, V. Andersen, AH Saeterbakken | Year: 2016
Summary/Results:  Researchers tested the impact of two experimental protocols: a high-resistance, low-repetition protocol vs. a low-resistance, high-repetition protocol in low- and intermediate-grade climbers over the course of ten weeks.  The study also included a group that climbed/trained as “usual”, and all groups had their training controlled for intensity.  While both experimental protocols showed improvement in climbing performance in spite of a 50% reduction in climbing, the improvement was not statistically significant.  Beta-Angel note: We’re particularly interested in how this related to the control (“usual” climbing) group.  However, we don’t have access.  Note, the same author who completed “Effect of maximal- and local muscular endurance strength training on climbing performance and climbing-specific strength in recreational climbers: a randomized controlled trial” was also responsible for this study.  More information on the protocols and results would be helpful.  Please contact us.
Reference: Eur J Sport Sci. 2017 May;17(4):378-385.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27863457

And here is the new summary:

Summary/Results:  Researchers tested the impact of two protocols: a high-resistance, low-repetition protocol vs. a low-resistance, high-repetition protocol in low- and intermediate-grade climbers over the course of ten weeks.  The exercises included pull-down, bench press, rowing, shoulder press, biceps curl, forearm press and forearm curl.  The study also included a group that climbed/trained as “usual”, and all groups had their training controlled for intensity.  Tests for performance as a result of the intervention included: climbing performance on a route, time of a 90° bent-arm hang, time of a 25 mm deadhang, and a 12 repetition pull down on a machine. While both protocols suggested improvement in climbing performance in spite of a 50% reduction in climbing, the improvement was not statistically significant.  It may be more accurate to say that they “maintained” climbing performance in spite of a drop in climbing volume.  Interestingly, improvement was significant for the deadhang tests across both experimental groups (however, this effect was mitigated by a post-test analysis that controls for statistical errors). Beta-Angel note: UPDATE!  Received the paper!  Psyched!  Note, this is the same author as that of “Effect of maximal- and local muscular endurance strength training on climbing performance and climbing-specific strength in recreational climbers: a randomized controlled trial” which was presented at the IRCRA conference in 2016. 

More importantly, however, is that this write-up was sent to Espen and he thought I captured the right aspects of his work.  If he had hated it, thought I missed something; preferred I emphasize something else, he then could have e-mailed me and said: “Taylor, you’re being dense.”  Then it’s my job to get that information to the practitioners: athletes, coaches, climbers who want to strength train, Fjord horses.  My audience all.

Deadhang affected by strength training Hermans et al
From Hermans et al. (2016) – High Resistance-Few Repetitions (HR-FR), Low Resistance-High Repetitions (LR-HR) and Control (Con)

Now, please don’t go run and take this blog post to your nearest Coach and say: “Look, Taylor showed me research that proves strength training doesn’t improve climbing performance!”  That is NOT what this particular study was designed to prove.  The most interesting aspect of this research was how climbing performance was able to be maintained IN SPITE OF a drop in climbing volume in both protocol groups.

Science is and always must be iterative.  The author of the above study recognized a number of issues with their own work, including a smaller than desired sample size, low climbing volume among the experimental and control groups, and an inability to prove their hypothesis that their particular strength and/or endurance training protocols definitely improve climbing performance.  We must all be reflective on our time and work so that science builds.

And in spite of the author’s constructive criticisms of their own work, this research is really fascinating!  It is much more nuanced than my simple summary can do justice.  The interesting insights came in numerous places: it used a route with progressive changes in difficulty to assess climbing performance over the period of the study, but didn’t stop there, preferring a suite of measures to test aspects directly related to climbing performance.  The actual analysis is top notch, and they ran post-analysis checks to protect against certain statistical errors.  And most importantly, it’s a new protocol which can be used again and improved.  The authors suggest that future changes could:

  • “Emphasize the importance of having similar climbing training volume between the training groups;”
  • “Include participants with a better climbing performance level,” and;
  • “Examine training interventions with greater transferability and specificity than the current study by focus[ing] on local forearm fatigue training.”

Indeed, a community of climbers I am involved in saw the summary and made some constructive comments.  Former Bouldering national champion, Sports Medicine Expert, and champion of strength training, Dr. Natasha Barnes, suggested that it could be interesting to do the same protocol with free weights as opposed to machine-based exercises to see how the results change.

As a side note, many of the same authors worked on an even more recent study related to the impact of dynamic and isometric core training on climbing performance.  See this link: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0203766

Enjoy your week!  Next week, I’m off to Japan to learn from, with, and alongside some of the best coaches in the world.

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