The general recommendation is that you shouldn’t start training your fingers for rock climbing until you have climbed for at least two years and have climbed at least 6b+.
But what if you want to start anyway? What if you can’t visit the climbing gym more than 1-2x a week? And you’re motivated and want to invest time into getting better, stronger, and most of all, not getting injured?
Then you need a finger training protocol that is specifically designed for your situation. Even when you have climbed before but have taken a break of more than 2 years – you can apply the same principles.
In this article, you’ll discover how to train your fingers right at the start so that they are prepared for smaller holds as your climbing skill improves.
Let’s dive right in!
1. When Should You Start Training Your Fingers?
The best moment to start training your fingers is when they have adapted to the specific load rock climbing places on the muscles and tendons of the forearm, the connective tissue, and the ligaments in the fingers. This process takes between 2-3 years depending on your age, fitness, and health. Also, if you haven’t climbed frequently for at least a year, and you haven’t climbed a couple of routes of 6b+ or above it’s better to invest your time in rock climbing.
Yet, at the same time, I believe that if you either:
- Don’t have time to climb 2-3x/week or,
- Can climb 2-3x/week and want to do something more for the development of your fingers,
It’s a great idea to use the first years of climbing to develop super robust fingers. To do this, you must start super light and easy to generate the minimal overload necessary for adaptations without risking injuries.
Before you read on though, you should know something about the beginner finger training protocols online.
2. A Note on Finger Training Protocols for Beginners Online
The finger protocols that you find online for beginners are not to be confused with finger training protocols for actual beginner rock climbers (<2-3 years of climbing experience). These training programs online are for people who are beginners in finger training, not necessarily beginners in rock climbing.
So, the protocol you’ll find later in this article is perfect if you have less than 2 years of climbing experience.
If you have more than 2 years of experience and you have been training for climbing regularly for at least a year, I recommend you start with a density hangs protocol developed by Tyler Nelson. Do 2 sets of 2x20s hangs with a 10s break between repetitions. Rest 3 minutes between sets and only hang with an open grip and a half crimp on comfortable holds. After 4 weeks increase the number of sets and or the repetition time.
Now, let’s return to the issue at hand. How should you train your fingers if you have never trained them?
By starting small.
3. Finger Training Essentials: Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the name of the game when it comes to training. You want to do more than you’re used to so that your body adapts to this higher level. This is called super-compensation.
The emphasis in progressive overload is on progressive, not on overload. It makes no sense to train like a pro when you’ve barely touched any climbing holds. You can make do with way less training to progress.
The key, therefore, is to work with the minimal overload necessary to make progress. You want to show your body that it’s important to grab small edges and hang onto your arms. The overload you’re generating with the exercises below is going to force your connective tissue to adapt. The tendons, ligaments, capsule, tendon sheaths, muscle bundles, and everything in and around.
4. The Best Way to Train Your Fingers for Rock Climbing as a Beginner
The best way to train your fingers for rock climbing is not just by focusing on strengthening your fingers but also by:
- Developing an efficient grabbing technique
- Becoming comfortable with different holds and grip types
- Focusing on activating the right muscles in your back, shoulder girdle, upper- and lower arm
These 3 things should be part of your awareness when you engage in the exercises I will describe now.
3.1. Sub-Maximal Hangs with Your Feet on the Floor
There are 4 ways to use your fingers while climbing and these are also the positions you train them in. These are the:
- Drag or open grip which puts a lot of stress on the capsules of the finger joints due to the high amount of pulling force.
- Half crimp which puts a lot of stress on the flexor tendons due to the high amount of tension in the finger flexors that’s necessary to maintain this position.
- Full crimp which puts a lot of stress on the pully ligaments due to the bend in the proximal interphalangeal joint (PIP).
- Pinch requires a lot of strength in the thumb and lumbrical muscles besides the finger flexors. This grip is the one you also use in everyday life to grab and lift things and will thus require less specific training.
The first 3 grip types you’re going to train as part of this training plan because they are new to your body.
There are 3 ways you can do this:
- Climbing (on a variety of routes that force you to use different grip types)
- On a hang board
- On edges in your environment; the table edge, the top of the door, or a standing post. As long as there’s an edge that doesn’t move – you’re good.
When it comes to injury risk the full crimp position is considered the riskiest. That’s why should use the open grip as much as possible while climbing. When that’s not possible, use the half crimp, and only when that doesn’t work consider full crimping. Whatever the injury risk though, once you start climbing on smaller edges you will use the full crimp. And that’s why we’ll include it in the training now as well.
As we’re starting light you will use an edge of your preference to practice the grip types while keeping your feet on the floor. And instead of hanging onto the edge, you will pull. This way you can never load your finger more than it can handle because your strength will be autoregulated by your nervous system when you get near your limit.
3.2. Dead Hangs on a Bar
Dead Hangs are a great way to train your shoulder girdle and your grip without overloading your fingers. You can do them on any bar as long as your feet don’t touch the floor. Bend your knees if necessary.
The correct way to do a dead hang is as follows:
- Grab the bar at shoulder width or a bit wider.
- If you can, keep your feet on the floor and let your body sink all the way (your shoulder girdle will elevate, your upper arms will be close to your ears, and your elbows will be extended).
- Now activate your shoulder girdle by pulling it back and down so that there’s tension.
- Bend your elbows slightly.
- Lift your feet off the floor.
- Look straight ahead and breathe calmly through the nose.
- Hang the time indicated in your plan or stop the repetition when you can’t hold the proper tension anymore.
3. Dumbbell Wrist Exercises
Wrist-strengthening exercises are a great way to train the muscles of the wrist. With the added benefit that most of the finger muscles also pass by the wrist. So, you’re strengthening finger muscles without using your fingers. This isn’t as efficient as training the fingers themselves, but you don’t risk injuring your fingers this way. A strong wrist is also very useful when you hang onto holds. You want the entire kinetic chain, from shoulder girdle to fingertips to be strong.
Here’s an overview of the exercises you can do safely to train your wrist.
3.1. Dumbbell Wrist Flexion
The dumbbell wrist flexion trains your wrist (and finger flexors actually). When seated, place your elbows and lower arms with your hand palms up on your legs. Take a dumbbell in each hand and let it roll out until you’re only holding it at your fingertips. Then roll it back all the way up and flexor your wrist after.
3.2. Dumbbell Wrist Extension
The dumbbell wrist extension starts in the same position as the wrist flexion only this time you place your lower arms with the hand palms facing down on your legs. Let the dumbbells hang all the way down. This is your starting position. Now extend your wrist until you can’t go any further. Then move down again.
3.3. Dumbbell Pronation/Supination
The dumbbell pronation/supination is again in the same position as the previous 2 exercises. Only this time you hold the dumbbell at the thick part and hold it horizontally to start. Now turn it all the way left and right.
3.4. Finger Extension in Elastic Band
This is a finger exercise but it’s easy to make it light by either taking a light elastic band or by holding it looser. Keep your wrist in a neutral position and extend your elbow. Bend and extend your fingers into the elastic band.
4. Bonus Exercise: The Deadlift
The Deadlift is a fantastic exercise for rock climbers and trains the back, glutes, hamstrings, shoulder girdle, and grip! As you use your entire body to lift the weight of the floor you can usually add weight quickly. This then, is challenging for your fingers and hands but should never go at the cost of your deadlift technique. I have discussed the exact technique of the deadlift in my blog about why climbers should deadlift.
Now the big question is of course, how can you incorporate all these exercises into a smart training plan?
That’s what you’ll read in the final part of this article.
5. The Ultimate Beginner Climber Finger Strength Protocol
Here’s how to start training your forearm and finger muscles smartly as a beginner rock climber.
Do this training 2x/Week for at least a year with the progression as indicated. Train each progression in 4-week blocks. You can take a week off every 5th week and then continue in the next 4-week block.
|Exercise||Sets x Reps x Hold in Seconds (if relevant) x Weight or Intensity: Rest Between Sets in Seconds||Progression|
|Fingers (all 4 grip types)||Each grip type: 3x1x10sx30%:60s||Add 2 seconds for each repetition every 4 weeks|
|Dead Hang||3x1x20s:90s||Add 5 seconds for each repetition every 4 weeks.|
|Wrist Exercises/Finger Extension||1x20xweight with which you can do all repetitions:1:60s||After 4 weeks do 2×20. 4 Weeks later do 3×20. 4 weeks later do 3×15 adding weight accordingly. 8 weeks later do 3×12. 12 weeks later do 3×10.|
Start training your fingers now and they will adapt faster to the loads they have to handle later on in your climbing career. So that when you grab your first tiny crimp it will actually not be the first time for your fingers.
This will reduce the chance of injuries when you transition to harder climbing and help you progress smoothly up through the grades.
However, a focus on your finger health early on in your climbing career should never undermine the time you invest in training 2 of the most important aspects of rock climbing:
- Technique and,
- Fear of falling