What is Power? How Do We Apply Strength in Climbing?
Every 2 weeks here at Lattice, the coaches get together and take it in turns to lead a discussion on a topic of their choice. We use these sessions to further educate ourselves and share ideas on the wide range of topics that play into climbing and training for climbing. Here we are looking to share some of the main takeaways so that you can apply them to your own climbing and training!
This week Coach Jen talked about training power. Power is an integral part of being able to apply your strength in a climbing specific setting. As a competition climber, Jen is well aware of the need to apply force in a powerful manner.
What is power?
The definition of power (in a sport scenario) is the rate of work done i.e. the speed at which energy is transferred. This can be visualised as the ability to overcome resistance (for example our bodyweight) in the shortest period of time, or the ability to produce a given velocity at an increasingly heavier resistance. This means that there are two main ways that you might calculate power.
Power = Work (J) / Time (s)
Power = Force (N) x Velocity (m/s)
In practical terms, it is how fast one is able to apply their strength. Strength will always play an important role in our power development. As we can see above, our power will always be an expression of our strength. Thus power will be limited by strength. So if your 1 rep max pull up is bodyweight you will not be able to perform a campus move.
The force-velocity curve
Given the expression for power, we can see that force and velocity have an inverse relationship. This means that the higher the force you aim to produce the lower the velocity. Conversely, if your aim is to produce a force as fast as possible, the force will need to be lower.
If we were to test your 1 repetition maximum in any movement, the speed of the contraction would be very slow. Think gradually eeking out those final inches to get your chin over the bar during a pull up. You can see this in weightlifting competitions where people are trying to lift the heaviest weights. The movement must be done very slowly to recruit as many motor units as possible.
What implications does the force-velocity curve have on training power?
When we look to train a given attribute, we need to ensure that attribute is emphasised in our training such that it is a limiting factor in the exercise. This is what forces our bodies to adapt. From the graph above, we can see that heavy exercises that must be completed slowly will not target our power. Instead, we need to reduce the load so that we can move quickly, putting the emphasis on speed. As always, there is a spectrum of intensities at which we can train power. If we go by the force-velocity curve, power training should sit around 30% 1RM (maximum velocity) to 60% 1RM (strength-speed). This is interesting to think about in a bodyweight dependent sport. Here, depending on our strength, bodyweight may not be the most effective load to train power at.
In climbing we often want to develop upper body power. A common example of training exercises are weighted pull ups for strength development and assisted power pull ups for power development.
For example, if a 60 kg climber completes a 1 RM pull up at a total load of 90 kg, they may look to complete assisted power pull ups at 36 kg (24 kg assistance) to target speed and at 54 kg (6 kg assistance) for target speed-strength.
How do we increase our power?
“There’s no such thing as too much power!”Wolfgang Gullich
In order to increase your power, you want to shift the whole force-velocity curve to the right. We do this by training each element of the curve. In order to develop your power it is important to work on your maximal strength and your speed. However, how much emphasis you put on each element will depend on your strengths and weaknesses. This will most likely reflect what you have trained more and what attribute you use a lot in your climbing. Are you a static strong climber or a powerful flicky climber? Of course it will also reflect your natural tendencies when it comes to genetics.
For example, an untrained climber may have a low strength level. As such they may be able to move a high percentage of their maximum in a very short amount of time. This climber would benefit from focusing on their strength. Conversely, a well trained climber that has been training with heavy loads, and has developed their maximum strength. They will likely benefit from spending more time working on speed in order to develop their power.
Generally speaking, athletes with a younger training age tend to benefit across the whole curve by training strength compared to more than well-trained athletes. Although this may not always be the case which is why it is important to test and monitor progress.
Below are force-velocity curves for two different athlete profiles. One is a relatively stronger athlete, and the other is a relatively powerful athlete. The asymmetry of the curves displays the imbalance between the development of strength and speed.
Training the “force” part of the equation
Training maximum strength brings about a series of adaptations that allow you to increase the total force you can exert. This in turn allows you to increase your power. You will increase the amount of force you can move quickly as your overall strength improves. Some of the adaptations that occur when we train strength are;
- Hypertrophy – muscle fibres increase in size
- Increased contractile protein in myofibrils
- Hyperplasia – increase in number of muscle fibres
- Changes in fibre type – begin to transfer from Type I to Type II or Type II X
- Structure of connective tissues – tendons and ligaments
- Increase in anaerobic metabolic enzymes
- Play a role in quicker initial increase in strength
- Increase in rate coding – firing frequency of motor neurons to muscle fibres increase motor unit recruitment and therefore force
- Reduction in activity of golgi tendon organ – lower inhibition of the muscle
- Reduction in co-activation of muscle – less antagonistic activity
To get the most out of our strength training, stick to a given protocol for over 6 weeks. This is the length of time required to see optimum adaptations. However, it is important to emphasise that within any given exercise the load should be gradually increased. This provides the progressive stimulus to our muscles.
Training The “velocity” part of the equation
Training velocity brings about a series of adaptations that allow you to increase the speed at which you can apply a given force. Some of the adaptations that occur when we train velocity are;
- Increase in firing frequency and coordination of motor unit activation gives a faster contraction but less force
- Selective activation of fast twitch motor units
- Increase in myokinase and creatine phosphokinase to be able to better breakdown phosphocreatine (our rapid supply of ATP in the muscle)
Why is training power useful for climbers?
Bouldering, competition climbing and speed climbing are the disciplines that require the most power. Competitions are becoming more dynamic and powerful with each passing event. Due to it’s short and intense nature bouldering also has a high power requirement. Speed climbing is all about moving as fast as possible, so the power element is obvious in that discipline. However, there are also other scenarios in which you might need power. In sport climbing, being able to move more powerfully may be beneficial in terms of efficiency. It may mean a given sequence will take less time. If you have a foot slip, being more powerful may allow you to activate your muscles quickly, keeping you on the wall.
Rate of Force Development (RFD) is a metric used to determine what force can be developed in a short amount of time. e.g how much force can you produce in 200 milliseconds. Using out digital rund we have collected data on RFD of the finger flexors. This can be thought of as contact strength. Our data shows that RFD has a good correlation with climbing performance for boulderers. However the correlation between RFD and route climbing performance is less strong. This seems quite intuitive as we don’t tend to have to contract on holds as quickly when sport climbing.
This is where it is useful for you to think about what the power requirements are for your preferred climbing discipline or goal. Some of the common areas to train power for in climbing are;
- Upper body for pulling or pushing power. Remember, if completing maximum distance e.g. on a campus board, the lower arm will need to transition into a powerful push movements using the triceps.
- Finger flexors for contact strength
- Lower body for jumping or triple extension (extending at both the knee and hip hinge)
How should you periodise training power and strength?
Periodisation is the act of organising your training into a pattern with the aim of developing all the relevant attributes needed for a given performance outcome. Depending on your discipline you will want to periodise your strength and power training slightly differently. The amount of emphasis and time spent on each area may also differ. A useful exercise may be to think about your training priorities in reverse. Work back from your end goal to the current point in time.
Above we have the general path that you should take from the start to the end of your training cycle. This gives the attribute you may focus on as you progress through your training. Note the word “focus” is used, this may not always mean you drop everything else and train this attribute solely. If there is a high technical element to the use of your power in climbing, we would always recommend “keeping in touch” with this throughout. This could mean you either choose to complete a low volume of power or specific training throughout the entire training period. Or completing shorter cycles moving between the different elements given above. Depending on your timeframe and training history you may choose to start at “max strength” rather than strength training.
In this portion of training you will work on hypertrophy. This will help to increase the force you can exert and provide the foundation for increasing your maximum strength further down the line. For this phase you could look to work in a 6-10 repetition range, ensuring that the intensity is such that the reps feel just about achievable. During this time it is a good idea to maintain your power in a technical setting. For example hard bouldering or board climbing. When looking to maintain or develop power in a climbing scenario ensure you engage with the intention for the session and keep it in clear focus. Seek out problems that force you to move powerfully, and don’t spend the whole session trying to find static beta.
Max strength training:
In this stage you will look to reduce the number of repetitions and increase the intensity. Keeping the repetitions to 5 or less (commonly 3) will shift the focus to max strength. For your climbing this will mean focusing on harder boulders with less moves. Good rest between attempts are important so that you don’t experience that “power-out”. The skill element shouldn’t be neglected in this stage. It is important to match the style of movements to the power you are looking to build. e.g. long moves straight up vs. wide moves.
Strength-speed/ Speed-strength / Power training:
Which area you decide to focus on here will depend on what you are trying to achieve and will be dictated by your specific goal and discipline. For example, a speed climber will want to be closer to the speed end of the spectrum, whereas a boulderer will likely want to be closer to the strength side. Being clear on your goal will help you choose the appropriate place on the force-velocity curve. Although it is a good idea to not neglect either completely for either discipline.
Here it is interesting to think about power for sport climbing. Here the ability to move faster is beneficial from an efficiency perspective but the intensity of the individual moves may be relatively low compared to bouldering. Though this is somewhat dependent on the style as there are bouldery sport routes out there! As such, completing power training at a lower intensity to allow focus on speed may be more specific. Alternatively, sport climbers may focus on power in the forearm for improved contact strength, rather than upper body power development for really long moves.
Exercises in this period could come in a variety of forms. Examples include Campusing, power pull ups, campusing on boulders etc. Where bodyweight campusing would fall on the force velocity curve will depend on your strength levels and your bodyweight. It’s important to note that intent is very important in these sessions. For example you can campus on boulders in a very step by step way. This would not actually look very fast and would have more emphasis on strength. Or you can focus on carrying the momentum through each move and not pausing at all between moves. This would look fast and have more emphasis on speed. The skill element should become a priority at this point.
This stage is quite self explanatory. If you are a speed climber you will want to complete speed climbs with 100% effort. A boulderer will want to focus on maximal efforts on limit boulders. If you are a sport climber you would focus on a mixture of bouldering and power endurance, ensuring that speed of movement was the focus. Here you will want to assess both your movement style and the style of climbing on the route – however, it is interesting to look at Adam Ondra and his speed of movement when sport climbing.
It is important to allow high quality sessions either through tapering the volume of other training or through scheduling your week.
An Example: Sport climber vs Speed Climber
Training should be specific to the desired outcome and also to the needs of the athlete. Below there are two examples of directions that training could go in for two different athletes aiming to achieve different things. One is a sport climber and the other is a speed climber. Remember, there are always numerous ways to get to a given destination in climbing, but these examples will give an idea of the thought process.
For the above progressions you may want to spend longer or shorter times on certain areas depending on the force velocity curve of the climber. For example if the athlete was a speedy climber with low strength levels then a higher emphasis should be placed on developing a strength base.
For the above progressions you may want to spend longer or shorter times on certain areas depending on the force velocity curve of the climber and also on the style of route that the athlete might be aiming for . For example if the route was short and bouldery the strength and power levels required for that route are going to be much higher. If the route is much longer then in terms of power it may be more specific to do assisted power pulls with higher reps (trying to maintain a certain level of power for more repetitions that could transfer to moving with speed for a longer duration).
Measuring and tracking
In climbing we are primarily concerned with power of the upper body, namely the pulling muscles and the finger flexors. Though lower body power is also very relevant, especially for generating power for jumping and triple extension. Testing can be a useful process when it comes to informing training and monitoring progress. However, testing and monitoring power is often harder than a simple 2 RM pull up or 7 second max hang test.
Testing the power of the fingers is quite a difficult thing to do. However, with modern technology we can now test the force-velocity profile of the finger flexors using devices like our Digital Rung or other force plate based devices. Unfortunately, if you do not have access to these then it may be hard to accurately measure and monitor your power. Especially as a high level of sensitivity and accuracy over a short period of time is required.
The testing using these devices is simple. After a thorough warm up you produce force as fast and as hard as you can on the edge (with integrated force plate). The device records how much force is produced over time and plots it onto a chart for you. Here at Lattice we look at how much force is produced in 200 ms and relate that to bodyweight and to your maximum strength. This gives us an idea of a climber’s finger power or rate of force development (RFD).
You can use an accelerometer to measure the speed at which you complete a pull up. This can be done at a range of percentages of 2 RM to get an idea of your force-velocity profile. There are apps, such as Accelerometer, which could be useful. However, there are some tests that don’t require any special equipment that can also offer useful insight.
The ‘slap test’
The ‘slap test’ is quite an effective way to track vertical pulling power. This is simply performing the largest campus move possible and slapping as high as possible. Over time you can track how high you reach in this test. It is important to remember that you will want to complete this test with the same setup to ensure consistency over time. Depending on the wall/campus set up you could use some chalk to mark the high point, rungs (if they are close enough together) or filming yourself.
Another method of tracking your upper body power could be simply to film yourself performing 1 rep of a pull up. You can do a low row if you are wanting to measure horizontal pulling power. Do this at various intensities to gauge the speed at which you are able to perform the contraction. Using slo-mo recording you will be able to measure how long each full contraction takes. The usefulness of this method will depend on the units of time that are measured on your phone!
Benchmark Power Climb
On a board or wall that doesn’t get reset you can set a basic power based boulder problem. You then check in with it at set intervals during your training. For testing purposes it helps to make the boulder basic. It is worth making the hand holds relatively unchallenging if what you want to monitor is upper body pulling power.
Lower body power
As mentioned above, developing your lower body can also be important depending on your discipline and goals. For jumping, there are some affordable apps available, such as My Jump 2, which can measure your power and create a force velocity profile.
Other considerations when training power
There are some considerations when it comes to power training:
Sports with a high amount of stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) movements (for example changes of direction movements) have a higher incidence of tendon injuries. Therefore it is worth being aware of this when it comes to power training to ensure that you are adequately prepared for the demands of your climbing. One of the possible reasons for this higher injury incidence could be due to the compliance of the tendinous tissue. This can considerably influence the force-length and force-velocity potential of the corresponding muscle, as well as provide elastic strain energy in a spring-like manner.
One of the physical adaptations to power training is a stiffening of the connective tissue during loading. This allows for more efficient transfer of force from the muscle to the skeleton. Although this is beneficial, stiffer tendons are less pliable and could be more prone to injury in certain scenarios. Hence it is not recommended to train power while connective tissue suffering with a connective tissue injury. When training power it is even more important to keep a close eye on overall load to ensure that the connective tissues are well recovered. In climbing generally we don’t make full use of the stretch shortening cycle due to its nature. However modern competition climbing makes more use of this by incorporating multi-part dynos, or plyometric jumping between volumes.
As is often the case in climbing, there isn’t a lot of research to backup certain approaches and protocols. As such, there is no “right” answer and it is likely that more than one approach can yield good results when it comes to power development. Being curious and monitoring the response to any training intervention is key to understanding what works for you.
As mentioned previously training should be tailored and periodised according to the climber and their specific needs. This includes thinking about their profile and discipline. It’s important to remember that these aren’t set in stone and that a real life training plan may look different depending on the requirements of the goal and the athlete.
Read more of our Lattice Training Insights on the Lattice Training Blog