Grip strength is very helpful for rock climbing, as you are generally holding your entire body weight on the wall with just your fingers and toes. If you are new to climbing and have never really thought about your grip strength before, you’ve likely experienced shaky fingers, the inability to make a strong fist, and ‘pumped’ forearms that feel hard to the touch after a climbing session. Fortunately, there are a few ways to help reduce these effects.
There are several different exercises that you can do to increase your grip strength, including simply climbing more, using crush gripper tools, doing finger extensions, barbell finger curls, or pinch and hold exercises, hangboarding or doing dead hangs from a bar, and forearm exercises.
It’s important to realize that your grip strength involves the muscles and tendons all the way from your fingertips to your elbows, so training the entire forearm and hand area will be the most effective way to attain noticeable grip strength improvement. Additionally, it’s critical to train the ‘antagonist’ muscles as well (basically the ones that do the opposite of the movement that you are trying to train) in order to avoid imbalances.
Let’s look at each of these techniques for building grip strength in more detail.
When you are first getting into climbing, the best way to build up your grip strength and climbing stamina is to simply climb regularly. There’s no need to go crazy with training devices, as you risk injuring yourself by trying to build your grip strength too quickly. It’s easiest to build your grip strength through climbing in a climbing gym, where you can climb far more routes/problems in a couple of hours than you will be able to do outside, and gyms are convenient to access – they’re often open from early in the morning until late at night.
However, at a certain point, you might find that you’ve hit a grip strength plateau and aren’t getting any stronger from regular climbing. At that point, you will likely want to try other strengthening techniques, such as…
Crush Gripper Tools
A crush gripper tool is basically a device that you hold in your hand and then attempt to smash it as you close your hand in a fist. These are sometimes stiff rubber rings that resemble donuts, or they can look like two handles connected by a spring. Some crush gripper tools even have adjustable resistance, which is great for training progression.
Start by selecting a resistance that you can fully close or crush, and do sets of 5 or 10 reps on each hand, alternating hands. When you can do 5 sets of 10 reps on each hand, increase the resistance or buy the next more difficult gripper.
Finger extensions are an example of training ‘antagonist’ muscle groups – they work the back of your hand and forearm. While this might seem counterintuitive to increasing your grip strength, your brain can actually prevent your fingers from exerting their full crush force if the opposite muscles are significantly weaker. So, training both your make-a-fist muscles as well as your finger-extension muscles is crucial, and it can help prevent pain in your forearms and elbows as well.
You can either purchase a dedicated finger extension band or simply use a thick rubber band. Place all of your fingers including your thumb inside the band and then attempt to splay your fingers wide, pulling your thumb down towards your wrist rather than out to the side. Again, progressive strengthening is key, so you can purchase a set of bands with different resistance levels or add more rubber bands for more of a challenge.
Barbell Finger Curls
Barbell finger curls will work both your finger tendons and your forearms. With your palms facing out from your body, grab a barbell with both hands and stand with your arms straight down. Let the bar roll down your palms until only your fingers are holding it, then curl it back up and squeeze your palms around it. Add weight as necessary as your strength develops.
Pinch and Hold
To do a pinch and hold exercise, grab a weight plate or a dedicated pinch block between your thumb and fingers with your arm down at your side. Hold the weight for 8-10 seconds, alternating hands. You can also perform this exercise with a heavy book or anything that is hefty and a couple of inches thick.
Forearm exercises like wrist curls and reverse wrist curls can help build your wrist tendons and forearm muscles to help delay the onset of the dreaded pump when you are climbing. To do a wrist curl, lay your forearm flat on a weight bench with your palm facing up and your hand extended over the end of the bench. Grip a dumbbell in your hand, and then simply move your wrist from full extension (hanging towards the floor) to full flexion (pulling up towards your bicep).
For a reverse wrist extension, just flip your forearm over so your palm faces the ground, and then repeat the same range of motion.
Hangboards have several different types of grips of varying difficulty, and the premise is simple: just grab the board with your fingertips and let your body hang. However, most of the grips on a typical hangboard are devilishly difficult, so don’t jump into hangboarding on your first day of climbing. Build up your grip strength with other methods first, and then work your way up on the hangboard, starting with the easiest grips and doing short hang sets. The last thing you want to do is injure your finger tendons, because that will require plenty of rest to recover.
If you don’t have access to a hangboard and/or you aren’t quite ready for that level of sufferfest yet, you can start out with dead hangs from a bar. Most gyms have a pull-up bar that you can use for dead hangs, or you can hop on the monkey bars at your local park to get your dead hangs in. Start with reps of 10 seconds of hanging and 5 seconds of rest, and work up to longer hangs as you get stronger.
Do grip strengtheners work for climbing?
Grip strengtheners can certainly help you improve your grip strength for climbing, but it shouldn’t be the only training that you do, as you can develop imbalances. Be sure to train all the muscle and tendon groups from your fingertips to your elbow to effectively strengthen your grip.
What is the fastest way to increase grip strength?
When you are first getting into climbing, climbing itself is the quickest way to get stronger. However, once your grip strength has plateaued from climbing alone, you can introduce other training methods like those listed above.