Gettin' all Science-y: Edition 1

…So you don’t have to.

The scientific method is arguably the most important process in terms of furthering our knowledge that’s been developed in human history. Objective glimpses into conditions to reinforce or refute an idea we may have are critical to discover the way things are, or the best way to do a certain thing. In modern times, the results of these glimpses (experiments and studies) are published in a variety of journals. It’s important to be up to date with the current research to make sure training programs and metrics are on target to ensure better performance. There is one problem, though.

They’re a pain in the ass to read.

And it’s necessary! The scientific process requires thorough (often tedious) recording of pretty much everything involved in the research process. This allows the next group of researchers to replicate the study, if need be, or continue to progress the line of thinking that spurred the original study.

This series is going to be my attempt to read certain studies that apply to outdoor sports, or just ones regarding effective strength training that I find interesting. After I read them, I’ll try and deconstruct them and write a recap in layperson’s terms, summarizing the experimental design and actionable information that stems from the study. (This is for selfish purposes, too. By breaking these down, I’ll be able to retain and apply the concepts as well. Getting better every day, right?)

Let’s dig in!

The Study

Hemodynamic and Cardiorespiratory Predictors of Sport Rock Climbing Performance

Fryer et al. 2017

The Background

Dr. Simon Fryer and others recently published this article examining aerobic system factors, blood flow factors, and how well these factors relate to sport climbing performance.

In the past, early climbing energy system research was performed with treadmills. Obviously, there’s not a lot in terms of specificity, so while early research provided good signposts to continue research, definite answers didn’t really exist. Treadwalls were then utilized, but oftentimes the research methods didn’t map out well to the energy system demands of sport climbing.

treadwall Kore
A standard treadwall

In addition, as modern sport climbing has progressed, routes have gotten steeper and more demanding in terms of finger strength. Due to the smaller (relatively) size of the forearm muscles, some current thinking has been pointing to idea that the aerobic and blood flow characteristics of the forearms are one of the focal points of climbing performance.

Flexor Digitorum-The muscle the researchers monitored for the study

This study took climbers from three different ability levels and tested four factors: forearm recovery capacity, peak VO2 on a treadwall, maximal forearm deoxygenation, and a VO2 max on a traditional treadmill.

The hypothesis was that the forearm recovery capacity, treadwall peak VO2, and maximal forearm deoxygenation would be the best predictors of climbing performance. Since treadmill VO2 max wasn’t listed in the hypothesis, it is implied that treadmill VO2 max isn’t a huge predictor of climbing performance.

How they did it

Four physiological responses were measured to perform this study. Two of the factors (maximal forearm deoxygenation, and peak VO2) utilized a treadwall, while one factor (VO2 max) was measured on a treadmill. The final factor, forearm recovery capacity was measured using a dynamometer handgrip procedure that fatigued the muscle and measured time of recovery.

One thing I thought was interesting was the accepted way for a climber to report their ability level. The method backed by the research is referred to as the 3:3:3 method, which is basically 3 redpoints on 3 separate routes of the same grade, all within the past 3 months. The researchers used a variation of this method: 3 redpoints of 3 separate routes of the same grade, within the past 6 months. Because the study was conducted in Spain, and since the weather to climb in Spain is pretty much perfect, a larger window of time was used for reporting ability level.

The researchers separated the study into two days. The first day, the climbers came in to perform the treadwall test. This test involved climbing a particular route on the treadwall. The route climbed was selected based on the climber’s reported ability level, with goal of all climbers reaching failure within 6-12 minutes. While the climbing occurred, a breathing mask of sorts was utilized to obtain a VO2 peak measure. During this session, an infrared device measured the maximal decrease in the oxygen content of the blood in the forearm muscles.

While this is on the wrong muscle, this is a good example of the setup used to monitor the forearm muscle

After 3-7 days rest, the climbers came back in and performed a treadmill VO2 max test, using a breathing mask device to collect the necessary data. After that, the subjects performed the handgrip test to measure forearm recovery capacity.

What they found

After collecting and performing statistical analysis of the data, they found that the data taken on the treadwall plus the forearm recovery capacity test were significant predictors of climbing ability. They did not find any significant relation between the VO2 max obtained via the treadmill.

The Takeaway

While it’s not surprising that the more climbing specific measures were more predictive of climbing performance, some could be surprised that non specific aerobic fitness isn’t a predictor of sport climbing ability.

Digging deeper into the climbing specific side of things, it was discussed that the total body aerobic fitness measured via VO2 peak and the forearm aerobic capacity measured in both the treadwall and handgrip tests separately come into play in sport climbing performance. It was mentioned that perhaps total body aerobic fitness is key up until a point, and then the limiting factor becomes forearm aerobic fitness, which makes sense as walls get steeper and holds get worse.

How Can I Use This?

This study shines some light on how we can structure our “cardio” to be as effective as possible for climbing performance. While running and cycling are fantastic for cardiorespiratory fitness, it might be more beneficial to perform more specific conditioning protocols such as ARC-ing or other similar climbing drills.

In terms of strength training, energy system work that stresses the back (in the good way), shoulders, and grip are likely the way to go to supplement climbing specific work.

One way to go about it?

Snatch Volume Work.

Set a timer for 12-15 minutes and do sets of 15 snatches on each arm. Set the bell down in between sets and rest as long as you need. As always, good form is paramount, so make sure the appropriate sized bell is used. As you progress this protocol, you could do so by either working for a longer period of time, or try and get more sets of 15 done in the same time.


Learn More

Here’s the citation and link to the abstract if you want to read the full study.


Fryer et al. Hemodynamic and Cardiorespiratory Predictors of Sport Rock Climbing Performance, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research

doi 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001860