The use of isometrics in climbing training is growing. While they’ve been common practice in finger strength training for a long time (think hangboarding), the use of max isometrics in a variety of strength training modalities is becoming more diverse and widespread. While they might seem like they are only useful for sports scientists, training with max isometrics has very real-world applications we can all utilize.

To highlight this point, here’s an article by youth coach, founder of the Boise Climbing Team, and friend of TrainingBeta, Brannon Frank. Brannon is a passionate climber and coach with an extensive athletic background outside of climbing, so it’s no surprise that he’s bringing a forward-thinking approach to training his competitive youth athletes. What follows is his in-depth discussion of exactly how he uses max isometrics in his coaching of his youth team, how they save him time while making him a more effective coach, and how youth coaches and those of us who train ourselves can easily and affordably use these concepts in our own training.

Before we jump in, this is a fairly scientific and in-depth article geared primarily towards coaches in the team setting. While it’s not a quick or easy read, anyone interested in the topic will certainly find valuable information that can be used to enhance their climbing training.

~ Matt Pincus

Max Isometrics: Testing, Training, Teaching, and Performance Preparation for Youth Climbers

By Brannon Frank

Isometrics… one of the latest training buzzwords, and for good reason. Isometrics are not just a tool for elite athletes: They are a tool that all coaches, especially youth coaches, should consider utilizing to improve their programs.

As a youth climbing coach for the Boise Climbing Team, isometrics have helped me up my coaching game in four distinct areas:

  • Testing
  • Training
  • Teaching
  • Performance Preparation

Nothing will ever replace deliberate and focused, on-the-wall climbing practice. First and foremost, youth athletes need to develop the skills, techniques, tactics, and mentality it takes to be a great climber. However, in the words of Wolfgang Gullich, “There’s no such thing as too much power!” Isometrics are an efficient tool for youth coaches to use for increased strength and power in their athletes. With isometrics, coaches and athletes can test and track athletes’ strength gains (or lack thereof), train max strength, teach athletes proper form, teach athletes maximal effort, and help prime athletes for max effort in performance settings.

Defining Isometrics

Isometric training refers to holding a contraction at a specific joint angle with no joint movement (ex: holding a two-arm lock off). The opposite of an isometric contraction is an isotonic contraction, in which the working joint(s) moves (ex: pull-ups).

Max isometric training refers to performing an isometric contraction at max intensity (training in the creatine-phosphagen energy system). Generally, the way this is accomplished is by pulling, pushing or squeezing against an immovable load – a resistance above the athlete’s max capacity – for a duration of 5-10 seconds.  

Examples of isometric exercises the Boise Climbing Team uses are discussed later in the article. For a more thorough description of isometrics and the science behind them, see these two TrainingBeta Articles by Dr. Tyler Nelson of Camp 4 Human Performance:

For now, we’ll focus on the practical applications of max isometrics training for youth coaches.

Testing with Isometrics

Testing youth athletes is the most valuable way the Boise Climbing Team has started to use max isometrics. The value is twofold:

First, it helps us as coaches identify individual athletes’ strengths and weaknesses. Through testing, coaches can further understand an athlete’s physical capabilities and then target those needing attention through training. Understanding an athlete’s physical capabilities also sheds light on their technical, tactical, and mental game as well. If an athlete can crimp, squeeze, and pull like Alex Megos but performs much lower when climbing, this strongly suggests that their technical, tactical, and mental games need focus. This information helps coaches make informed decisions about what to train and how to train for each athlete to reach their goals.

Additionally, testing provides a way to track progress or regression in strength over time. It keeps everyone accountable. As coaches, it gives us feedback on our programs. Are our athletes getting stronger? Are our athletes getting better at climbing? If athletes are getting stronger but not better at climbing then we need to sharpen our teaching of skills, techniques, tactics, and mentality. If our athletes are improving in skill but not much in strength, then perhaps we should focus more on strength training.

Dylan vs. John

Here is an example of how max isometrics can help guide your decisions as a coach. During Bouldering 2018, two athletes, John (16 years old) and Dylan (17 years old) had ambitious goals.

NOTE: Names have been changed for the sake of privacy, but the following data (age, performance levels, and max pulls) is real data gathered from our Bouldering 2018 evaluations. 

Both Dylan and John had climbed V8 outdoors. Dylan, being more of a sport climber, had climbed 5.13a outdoors. During max strength assessments (using isometrics), John was easily the strongest athlete on the team. As an example, his two arm max isometric pulling strength on a 20mm edge was 169% of his body weight. Dylan’s max isometric pulling strength on the same edge was 137% of his body weight. It was abundantly clear that John was not lacking in finger/ pulling strength for his performance level. Because of this, spending lots of time strength training would have been a misguided, poor use of time. Instead, we focused heavily on skill development (technique and tactics) for John. It was not new information to John or his coaches that he needed to focus on technique. However, the test results gave everyone clarity and fueled John with motivation to really focus on his climbing skills after seeing his physical capabilities.

finger training programs

 

Essentially, we told John that he was physically strong enough to climb grades harder and that he could do so if he focused on his climbing technique, tactics, and experience on rock. His eyes lit up! This is motivating to hear for a young climber. For John, all practice time was spent on technique drills, mental tactics, and climbing. Since then, without any prescribed strength training from his coaches, John has sent V9 outdoors.

Dylan, on the other hand, had solid technique and performance tactics. When comparing Dylan’s max isometric half crimp (137%) on a 20mm edge to his max isometric bar pull (149%), it seemed clear that the main area needing focus was his max pulling strength in the large pulling muscles (see chart below). The reason we could identify this is that we would expect to see much more force produced when this athlete grips a bar vs. a 20mm edge. Because of the low difference, Dylan and the coaching staff decided that a 6-week block of max bar pulls, with max campusing, should be part of his training. There will be more details on this discussed in the training section of the article.

 

Max isometric pulls being performed on a fingerboard and a bar by the Boise Climbing Team.

 

Max Isometric Half Crimps were performed on the Tension Flash Board 20mm edge with two hands at a 90-degree bend in the elbow. It might be of interest to some readers that there is a height difference between these two athletes. John is 5’ 8” and Dylan is 6’ 2”.

This example clearly shows how testing can help clarify for coaches and athletes what each athlete needs most for increased climbing performance. When bouldering, both of these athletes performed equally. Without testing, it would have been easy to lump them into the same training group, deciding that they both could benefit from more strength and power. Because both athletes were relatively new to climbing (John and Dylan had been seriously climbing with the team for one year and two years respectively), it would have been just as easy to determine that both of these athletes needed more technique and performance tactics to improve. Both of these things would have been helpful, but the best coaching approach is determining what will get the highest increase in performance for each athlete. John and Dylan needed two entirely different focuses for increased performance. This would have been harder to conclude and convince the athlete to follow without testing.

Using a Dynamometer to Test Readiness for Training

Testing can also help coaches track athletes’ energy levels and readiness for training and practice. Over the years, we’ve used a few different tools to help gauge this. In the past, we’ve solely relied on the athlete to inform us when they are tired and possibly over-trained. At the beginning of practice, coaches would ask, “How do you feel on a scale of 1-10?”. The short of the story is, this proved to be very unreliable. Now we use dynamometer testing, in conjunction with talking to our athletes, to help us determine an athlete’s readiness.  

Dynamometer testing.

At the beginning of the season, we record each athlete’s max dynamometer numbers during evaluation. Nearly every practice afterward, each athlete does a max squeeze with one hand after a good warmup. Every time we test, we alternate the hand and continue to record their numbers throughout the season. On the first practice of the week, we test the left hand (Day 1), and, on the second practice of the week, we test the right hand (Day 2).

Below are two tables showing four athletes’ numbers over the course of a season. The first table shows a colored spectrum with the lowest numbers for each hand in red and the highest in green. This is a great visual to see where athletes were most fatigued during the season. The second chart shows all dynamometer squeezes below 90% of each athlete’s evaluation max.

Moving from left to right, one practice we tested the left hand and then the next we would test the right hand.

The above charts present data from four Boise Climbing Team athletes during Bouldering Season 2018.

Because evaluations are at the beginning of the season, athletes are usually well rested, so numbers are typically true to max. If an athlete squeezes lower than 90% of their max in subsequent weeks and/or is trending downward, lowering the volume and/or intensity of their practice or training would be wise, especially if they continue to squeeze below this threshold.  

As an example, if we had planned 45 minutes of limit bouldering and a 20-minute max pull workout for Athlete C on week 6, it would be wise to decrease the volume and/or intensity on the day this athlete squeezed 65 lbs.

Talking with the athlete and understanding why they might be fatigued is an important next step in helping the coach and athlete decide exactly how to alter the plan. Let’s say the athlete hasn’t slept well all week because they have been stressed about school. On top of this, they still feel tired from their last climbing session. Starting that athlete out with some technique drills well below their flash level and then having them do 30 minutes of self-care followed by visualization practice would be a possible alteration. If the athlete is mentally eager, the plan could just be slightly altered by decreasing the limit bouldering volume to 30 minutes with no max pull workout. Knowing your athletes is important when making these calls, but having the hard data as a starting point is invaluable.

Overall, a dynamometer is most useful in preventing an athlete from spiraling into over-training and systematic fatigue. It is important to understand that tracking dynamometer numbers is an attempt to assess an athlete’s central nervous system readiness and not so much to detect localized fatigue in the forearm. 

NOTE: There are other ways a coach can peer into an athlete’s central nervous system fatigue level. One great way is through Heart Rate Variability, but unfortunately, HRV testing is more expensive and time-consuming. The benefit of the dynamometer is that it is quick and efficient in a team setting. If an athlete is locally fatigued in the forearms, you might be seeing this (not CNS fatigue) in their low numbers. Again, this is where knowing your athletes and thinking about past sessions can help you make educated and informed decisions.

As coaches, we want to get an understanding of how athletes are recovering between sessions. This differs from athlete to athlete and at different parts of the season. Many things can affect this: stress, sleep quality, and nutrition to name a few. Regular testing helps coaches and athletes make the most out of their time. Training max strength or high volume power endurance when an athlete is fatigued is unhelpful. That athlete will not realize physical adaptation and training hard will just deepen their fatigue state. If that athlete is only moderately fatigued, they can still gain skills if practiced at a low enough intensity. Especially for very motivated athletes, it is hard for them to objectively determine their physical readiness for hard training or climbing. Catching it with numbers simplifies things and makes it obvious to both the athlete and coach. Simply put, it removes the guesswork.

route climbing training program

 

Dynamometer tracking also helps coaches and athletes when preparing for a big performance day such as USA Climbing championship competitions. These numbers can help a coach prioritize rest vs. training as the competition gets closer to the big day. This is a very quick and efficient way to gauge an athlete’s readiness. In less than 30 seconds a coach can get a max effort dynamometer number, compare it to the athlete’s max, compare it to their recent numbers, and know more about that athlete’s readiness than if they were to have a 5-minute conversation about how the athlete feels.

Training with Max Isometrics

Training youth athletes via max isometrics is beneficial for three primary reasons:  

1. It can be more efficient. For most muscle groups and exercises, it is easier and safer to get youth athletes training at max intensity with max isometrics. Without isometrics, training at max intensity would involve heavy loading with weights (i.e. heavy weighted pull-ups). Using max isometrics removes the need for changing over weights between athletes in the team setting. This is a huge time saver.

2. Max isometrics are less stressful on the joints than max intensity isotonic exercise and, therefore, can help athletes avoid tweaks and injuries. This is a helpful benefit for youth athletes as we can train our athletes at high intensity with a decreased risk of injury.

3. An athlete can easily train maximally at all joint angles. Most athletes’ force production decreases as the joint angle decreases. Here is an example: When performing a max pull-down, a slightly bent elbow (above 120 degrees) usually generates the most force. A half-bent elbow (90-degree bend) generates a little less, and a fully bent elbow (below 45 degrees) even less. If athletes just did pull-up training, some joint angles would be taxed more than others. With max isometric training, athletes can maximally train all three angles.

To put these benefits in perspective, let’s revisit our example above with athletes John and Dylan. It was mentioned that we focused exclusively on technique and tactics with John. Dylan, on the other hand, trained max pulling strength with a 6-week block of max isometric bar pulls and max campusing.

NOTE: Dylan started with 6 sets of max bar pulls and progressed to 10 sets throughout the 6-week block. He was performing 2-4 sets at a 120-degree elbow bend, 2-4 sets at 90 degrees, and 1-2 sets at 45 degrees. Each set was maximal effort pulling for 7 seconds with a 3-minute rest between sets. After every 2 sets, Dylan would perform a max campus slap on the largest campus rung by slapping (not latching) as high as possible and as quickly as possible with each hand for 2-3 repetitions. 

We decided to focus on max pulling strength in the large pulling muscles because of the small difference between Dylan’s max isometric pull on a 20mm edge vs. a bar (see chart below).  We also determined that some general forearm strengthening exercises with blood flow restriction training would be helpful because of his dynamometer max during evaluations. Dylan’s dynamometer max averaged between the two hands was 79% of BW. We determined that some general forearm strengthening (stabilizer muscles for the finger flexors) would help his finger strength.

Below are Dylan’s strength gains between Bouldering 2018 evaluations and Sport and Speed 2019 evaluations. He saw a strength increase of 14% (28 lbs) in his max isometric half crimp pulling strength on a 20mm edge and 35% (61 lbs) in his max isometric pulling strength on a bar. Since Bouldering 2018 evaluations, Dylan has also sent V9 outdoors and sent a bouldery testpiece at the City of Rocks, The Heretic (5.13a/b).

 

For Dylan, the traditional training option to increase max pulling strength would have been heavy weighted pull-ups. Heavy loading can be more stressful on the athlete’s joints, and it is also more complicated for the coach and the athlete to manage. Instead, Dylan and four other BCT athletes in his training group completed a two-handed max isometric bar pull-down. The setup was easy and did not involve heavy weights or heavy loading. If we went with the traditional option of heavy weighted pull-ups, each athlete in the training group would have required a different weight for max intensity training. Training multiple athletes at max intensity without isometrics would be complicated and slow due to the need to change the weights for each individual athlete. With one isometric station setup, all athletes can pull at max intensity without loading weights or changing anything.

Teaching with Isometrics


Max isometrics are also a tool that youth coaches can use to teach proper form and muscle engagement for traditional strength training exercises. Using isometrics allows coaches to easily correct poor form and then slowly increase force production while the athlete engages the correct muscles. Using a two-handed max pull-down as an example, a youth coach can help the athlete learn how to engage their lats, relax their shoulders, and maintain a proud chest. The athlete can learn this starting with slight tension (~30% of max) and proceed to a max effort (100%) when ready.

As a teaching tool, max isometrics also assist youth coaches in developing an athlete’s ability to give maximal effort. It is often I see athletes who regularly fall on a rock climb without giving 100% effort. In my experience, athletes who fail on the wall giving about 75% effort often perceive that they have given 100%. Using max isometrics, a coach can help teach a youth athlete how to engage their “try hard muscle.” For some youth, the competitiveness of doing this around their peers automatically motivates them to try hard. For others, beating their own numbers is all the motivation they need. I’ve seen youth athletes jump 50 or more pounds within 2-3 attempts at a max isometric exercise, simply because they learned to try a little harder. For those who struggle with trying as hard as they can on the wall, experiencing the feeling of trying hard via max isometrics can help them better understand how to give maximal effort while climbing.

Performance Preparation

Max isometrics are also useful in preparing a youth athlete to perform optimally. This is especially true during championship competitions during bouldering season where athletes have to be ready to pull as hard as they can on their first boulder problem. Max isometrics help prime the nervous system for maximal effort and can also help increase power output. See Dr. Tyler Nelson’s TrainingBeta article on Post-Activation Potentiation for a more detailed discussion of this topic. To help prep an athlete for optimal performance, we typically use max isometric pulldowns and/or max isometric deadlifts.  

During championship competitions for bouldering season, part of our athletes’ warm-up is walking around to different grips and trying to rip them off the wall. They do this about 5 times each hand on an edge (in a half crimp grip) and 5 times each hand on a pinch. I encourage my athletes to pick grips that they have never seen before so that they familiarize themselves with a greater variety of climbing holds. Maybe they will get lucky and find the sweet spot of a hold they see on one of their boulder problems!

Max Isometrics for Performance Preparation

When outdoor bouldering, we also use max isometrics for our warm-up. When project bouldering this can be very useful if there are no great warm-ups around a project climb, or if a climber is trying to save skin. To warm up, we do 3 sets of isometric pulls. The first set is around 30-45% of max, just to get the fingers warm and the blood moving. The second set is around 75% of max and the third set is 100% of max (the only set that is a true max isometric exercise). Each set is around 6 repetitions, holding each for 5-10 seconds with as much rest as needed. Climbers should expect to rest more (3 minutes or more) on set 3 because it is at max intensity.

Warming up with isometrics for Surgery (V7), Swan Falls, Idaho

Examples of Isometric Exercises

Now that the benefits and uses of max isometrics have been described, here are some of the isometric exercises the Boise Climbing Team uses for testing, training, teaching, and performance preparation for our athletes:

Max Isometric Pull Downs: This refers to pulling as hard as possible against immovable resistance at a specific joint angle. There are many variations to this exercise (listed below). If focusing on max strength in the pulling muscles, using a “jug” or bar is best so that the pulling muscles are maximally taxed.

90-degree, Max Iso Pull Down

It’s also possible to train max pulling strength with a climbing specific grip. This will focus more on the strength of the fingers and less on the max-strength of the pulling muscles.

 Half crimp, 90-degree, Max Iso Pull Down

Varying between two arms and one arm is possible:

Left to Right: 120-degree, one-arm max pull-down; 120-degree, one-arm, half crimp max pull-down

To reduce strain on the shoulders, use horizontal max pulls:

Horizontal half-crimp max pulls (Tension Flash Board)

Lastly, these exercises can and should be performed at multiple joint angles. Athletes will generate different amounts of force depending on the joint angle. Targeting a specific joint angle is a great way to maximally tax each angle.

From left to right: Joint angle above 120-degrees (Beast Fingers Grippul); Joint angle around 90-degrees (Beast Fingers Grippul); Joint angle around 45-degrees (Beast Fingers Grippul)

Max Isometric Deadlifts: Using a platform with an anchor attached, clip a bar to the platform using a chain. Stand on the platform and pull maximally with good deadlift form. Just like the Max Pull Downs (above), this exercise can be performed at different joint angles.

Max Isometric Deadlifts (Mid-Thigh)

Max Dynamometer Squeezes: Using a digital dynamometer that holds peak force produced, have an athlete squeeze maximally for 5-8 seconds. This exercise is not typically used for training and is not a great metric for rock climbing performance. As mentioned above, it is a great tool to help coaches track general forearm strength and assess central nervous system fatigue throughout the season.

Max Dynamometer Squeezes

How to Test

There are lots of different setups and ways a coach can make this work for their practice facility. Be creative! To test, you’ll need an organized testing protocol and a few tools. The first tool is a scale that can save and display peak force produced. The Boise Climbing Team uses an industrial crane scale by Klau. We also use a Tension Flash Board for our max isometric finger pulls or a Beastfingers Grippul if we are testing one hand at a time. Lastly, we use a digital dynamometer.

Industrial crane scale made by Klau

A high quality warm-up, logical testing order, adequate rest, and the overall testing flow are important. These can have significant impacts on results. Maintaining consistency in these will also help make results more accurate. Below is an example outline of the BCT’s max isometric testing practice:

The Boise Climbing Team starts with 5 minutes of light traversing on good holds and then a joint warm-up. Afterward, we complete a set of warm-up bouldering ladders starting at 4 grades below flash level. During these ladders, athletes climb one boulder at each grade until they reach their flash level. Lastly, prepping athletes to try hard is the goal and perhaps the most important. For 10 minutes, athletes project max effort moves above their flash level. Athletes should get adequate rest throughout, making sure to avoid a forearm pump.

With good organization and flow, we can test 12 athletes in a full practice (2.5 hours) in the following areas:

  • Dynamometer
  • Deadlift
  • Grip/Finger Strength
  • Pull Strength
  • Pulling Power

We do this testing at the beginning of every season (2x’s per year) for our advanced athletes. All the athletes we test via max isometrics are at least 13 years old. We don’t do max isometric testing on athletes in our entry-level programs. When testing, we have found that 6-8 athletes in each testing group is optimal for efficiency, flow, and rest time. We run all the athletes through a “station” (ex: dynamometer station) until that station is complete before moving on. In determining an athlete’s maximums, we usually take the max-value of two attempts. The more attempts, the surer a coach can be that the number is a true “max,” as long as the athlete gets adequate rest. However, I’ve found that the athlete’s first or second attempt is usually the athlete’s highest number for that session, especially if they are familiar with maximal effort.

Testing Order

The testing order of exercises can have significant impacts on results. The flow of athletes moving through the testing stations is one priority. Another priority is making sure the order helps produce accurate “max” results. For example, max deadlift engages all of the big muscle groups and, because of this, helps increase neural drive and the psych to try hard. Using this at the start of the testing day can create a great atmosphere and increased psych. We test deadlift at mid-thigh, which is the angle that athletes will get the most recruitment.  

Max Deadlift Testing (Mid-Thigh)

Next, we test finger strength and pinch strength via max pulls on the Tension Flash Board and the Tension pinch block. This test is next because for us it is the highest priority in terms of analyzing climbing specific strength. Our standard test for finger strength is a half crimp grip and both the finger test and pinch test are done with a 90-degree bend in the elbow.   

Max Horizontal Half Crimp (90 degrees)

 

Max Vertical Half Crimp (90-degree)

The last two tests of the session are max isometric bar pull-downs to test pulling strength, and max campus to test pulling power. For max isometric bar pull-downs, our standard test is at 90 degrees using a bar. This helps us compare athletes’ bar pulldowns to their half crimp pulldowns to determine what area to target in training. For the max campus test, we use the biggest, most comfortable campus rung and slap as high as possible without latching. If an athlete starts on rung #1 and slaps to rung #5 with her right hand, that athlete gets a 5 for their right-hand slap. We also delineate quarter and half rungs so an athlete could get a 5.25 or 5.5 as a result. Following max isometric tests with power tests in the same muscle group can help provide an increase in an athlete’s power output due to the concept of PAP. This is why we follow max pulls with max campus.

Max Pull Down Test (90-degree)

Testing Protocol

For all max isometric testing, athletes should pull, squeeze, or push for at least 5 seconds and no more than 10 seconds. This is where good coaching and testing is important. All athletes are different. Some will generate max force within 1-2 seconds of their attempt and others could take a full 5 seconds or more as they ramp up to max force production. I find it beneficial to instruct the athlete to first create tension at about 30% for their given exercise. This is helpful because you can ensure that they are using proper form and if not, instruct them otherwise. Once they’ve created tension with good form for a second or two, give them the green light. It’s also helpful to count down so that they know to keep trying hard. If an athlete’s numbers are still rising on the scale, encourage them to keep going.

Lastly, verbal encouragement makes a huge difference in an athlete’s results. It’s important to consistently have the group verbally encourage the working athlete. Trying at max effort is just as mentally engaging as it is physical. Give athletes all the support possible so the results are true to that athlete’s max.

Conclusion

Max isometrics are a great tool that youth coaches can use when testing, training, teaching, and preparing youth for optimal performance. Isometrics are certainly not a replacement for isotonic movements and should be used strategically. Isotonic movements provide things that isometrics do not, such as the learning of movement patterns. Furthermore, strength training for climbing (whether via isometrics or isotonic exercise) should never be more important than teaching youth how to rock climb. However, max isometric training provides a great tool for coaches to:

  • Determine athletes’ strengths and weaknesses
  • Assess and track physical progress in athletes
  • More efficiently train youth maximally, at all joint angles
  • Teach youth good form and proper muscle engagement
  • Teach youth how to engage their “try hard muscle”
  • Prepare youth for optimal performance on the wall or rock

For all of these reasons, max isometrics have helped improve Boise Climbing Team programs. It allows us to better understand our athletes’ physical capabilities and keeps our training programs accountable. If our athletes are not gaining in strength and power, we will see it as they continue to retest. If our athletes are improving in strength and power, but not performance, we know that technique and mentality are the areas in which to focus.  

Isometrics have also helped us train efficiently at max intensity with results. Below is a chart comparing nine athletes’ evaluation numbers between Bouldering 2018 and Sport and Speed 2019 across three metrics. These nine are all of the BCT athletes who were with us for both seasons and completed both evaluations. Out of these nine, there were six athletes who saw an increase in max dynamometer squeezes. Remember, however, that this is a poor metric when determining climbing strength. All nine athletes, however, improved in their max pulling strength which was the primary training focus for most of them during the Bouldering 2018 season. Seven out of the nine athletes improved in their 20 mm max isometric finger pulling strength.

Overall, in a 3 month period, we’ve seen big results in our athletes’ pulling strength and finger pulling strength. This is great! It shows that our athletes are getting stronger and that we are doing something right. However, our job is certainly not complete. Strength gains can be made quickly. Translating these strength gains to increased climbing performance can take longer. Rock climbing is much more complex than pulling down with max effort on a comfy edge. Although stronger, athletes still need to learn how to apply their new strength and leverage their new abilities with a strong mental game and good technique and tactics.

Quantifying an increase in our athletes’ climbing performance is slightly more challenging than quantifying their strength increases. The first reason for this is that grades are subjective. Some of our athletes only climb in the gym, while others climb outside where routes tend to be more complex and grades a little more challenging. Grades also fluctuate in the gym and are hard to compare between different wall terrain (ex: V6 on slab compared to V6 in a roof). The second reason is that we have not had enough time to see these strength increases play out over the course of two full competition seasons (Sport Regionals 2019 is in May). Furthermore, a few of the athletes above are not interested in competition climbing at all. Nevertheless, my observation is that all of the above athletes have increased in their climbing performance for the following reasons:

  1. All of these athletes climb their baseline V-grade more consistently on all wall angles.
  2. All of them have gotten much better at climbing on overhanging terrain.
  3. At least four of them have increased their max bouldering grade by one V-point.
  4. As mentioned earlier, John and Dylan have both sent a couple outdoor V9’s since the start of Bouldering 2018, one of them being a local benchmark for the grade that some have considered V10. Dylan, the athlete that did the max pulldowns, has sent a test-piece sport route called The Heretic (5.13a/b) at the City of Rocks.

Even though the metrics listed above are certainly subjective, we can be confident that we are succeeding at part of the coaching game. Our athletes are getting stronger. Using isometrics has helped us accomplish this through training. Isometrics have also helped us determine and quantify these strength gains in our athletes through testing. We will continue to use isometrics to help the Boise Climbing Team improve in an efficient and effective manner through all of the ways mentioned in the article: testing, training, teaching, and performance preparation.  For these reasons, isometrics should be a tool all youth coaches use to help improve their programs.

About the Author

Brannon is the founder, owner, and director of the Boise Climbing Team. Brannon has an extensive background in athletics: He wrestled for fourteen years in Oklahoma and was a three-time State runner-up in high school. He coached youth wrestling while in college and found climbing in 2011. He began coaching 4 youth climbers in 2013 and since then has built the team into its current form (the Boise Climbing Team started in Dec. 2016). Since then, Brannon has coached hundreds of youth climbing athletes. Brannon also works for Asana Climbing Gym as the Head Route Setting Manager. When not coaching or setting, Brannon is trying to climb hard boulders and sport-routes. Currently, he’s climbed V10 and 5.13b.

https://www.boiseclimbingteam.com/coach-brannon

 

Photos: All photos courtesy of Brannon Frank and the Boise Climbing Team

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