In my review of climbing research, I came across a study by Vigouroux who did some interesting research on the difference in wrist and finger strength between climbers and non-climbers.
As you might expect, they found that climbers have greater finger flexor capacity than non-climbers. But they also found greater imbalances between the finger and wrist flexors and extensors in climbers than in non-climbers. This might be unsurprising considering the nature of the sport but it is a cause for concern from an injury perspective.
In the wrist and the fingers it’s normal that the flexors show greater force than the extensors when tested. A difference in strength exists between both groups but the gap in strength should not widen to such an extent that it leads injury.
Why is this important?
- Joint movement requires co-activation of antagonist muscles to
- Control and stabilise the joint to protect against excessive shear and torqueing forces at the joints
- to place the joint in the optimum position for the task required
- to maximise the strength at a joint
For example, when gripping, our strongest grip position is when our wrists are extended 35 degrees. We naturally bring our wrists in to this degree of extension when gripping, e.g. a hold when climbing.
Try for yourself to form a tight fist with the wrist flexed, in neutral and with the wrist extended and notice the difference in the how it feels and the strength of the fist you can make. It may feel more natural and stronger to do with your wrists in extension.
The wrist extensors function to stabilise the wrist in the extended position to allow greater strength in our fingers to grip a hold.
Often tendon injuries can occur when the muscle is not strong enough to withstand the load applied to it. The load can transmit to the tendon leading to pain. In climbers this can be experienced as pain at the outside of the elbow.
The dominance of our finger flexors over the extensors can sometimes be observed in climbers who are unable to straighten their fingers. (Other causes of an inability to straighten the finger can be a flexion contracture e.g. Dupuytren’s contracture or due to poor healing after an injury) As a group, climbers can be blasé about their fingers, but imagine if you could not straighten your knees or elbow, you’d take it seriously. The finger extensors are important in the full crimp position where the last finger joint (DIP) is extended to allow greater surface of the finger pad with the hold.
To quote from Vigouroux “
“Moreover, the role of antagonist muscles is particularly important for the hand and finger musculoskeletal system where the co-contraction is necessary to the equilibrium of the entire chain of segments from the forearm to the tip of fingers. Given that climbers present a stronger imbalance, it is probable that they have more difficulties in controlling and protecting their joints and are, therefore, more exposed to joint instability, joint surface over-use and/or ligament tears”
Strengthening Finger & Wrist Extension
Because finger and wrists are used continuously in climbing the focus will be on developing endurance in the finger extensors. To build endurance we will use 3-4 sets of approx. 20 repetitions on 3 non-consecutive days a week. Perform each movement slowly, slowly moving against resistance, holding statically against resistance, and the returning slowly back to the start. There’s a reason for this method:
- Pulling against resistance helps to strengthen muscle in what’s known as a concentric action.
- When we climb we tend to hold the fingers in a position without moving the fingers for a few seconds between moves, or longer if taking rests. This is called an isometric contraction. To replicate this, after extending the fingers or wrist against resistance, hold them statically against the resistance for a count of 3-5 seconds.
- Then slowly release the resistance by allow the fingers/wrist to flex. Slowly releasing the fingers or wrists rather than allowing them to ping back is called an eccentric contraction and is one of the protocols used to target tendons.
Various tools can be used, some can be easily accessed such as at work, home or at the climbing wall which means you are more likely to do the exercise. Once you have a strengthening routine established it might be worth purchasing a dedicated strengthening tools.
Build up the strength your finger and wrist extensors slowly. You may not be able to do the outlined number of sets initially. This is to be expected. Avoid pain, and if an exercise causes pain, cease the exercise.
Finger Extension – Elastic Band
Cheap and easily obtainable. Good for your desk or to have in your pocket. If you use a tool to strengthen finger flexion, wrap an elastic band around it so you can strengthen your finger extensors afterwards.
Can be useful for warming up your finger extensors prior to climbing or training. The drawback to an elastic band is that as your finger extensors strengthen up you may find it no longer offers enough resistance to develop strength.
To use: stabilise your wrist with the other hand or place it resting on the table with the wrist at the of the table. Interlink the elastic band around all the fingers. Extend the fingers slowly against the resistance of the band, hold for a count of 3-5 seconds, return SLOWLY to the start position
Finger Extension – Theraband
You may already have one of these for shoulder exercises or warming up. It provides more resistance than an elastic band therefore it can take longer to build up the sets and repetitions. You can also increase the resistance by using stronger bands. The downside to therabands is that there is a risk of tearing the theraband with your nail.
Short sections of theraband can be used. Therabands come in different resistances. Start off with a light resistance and as strength in your finger extensors improves, move to a stronger resistance.
Stabilise your wrist by resting it on the edge of a table, your knee or an armchair (not shown in the picture below). Place the theraband over your closed fist like a hood and secure it with your other hand. Try to open your fingers against the resistance of the band. Extend the fingers slowly against the resistance of the band, hold for a count of 3-5 seconds, return SLOWLY to the start position.
Specific Finger Extension Tools
You can purchase specific finger extension tools from the web. Not all are aimed at climbers but if you are looking for a climbing branded one, Metolius make one.
When strengthening wrist extension, we need to bear in mind the position the hand is in while climbing. In climbing. our grip position can varied from a closed grip on an ice axe ice to fully open grip on a sloper and anywhere in between. If using a standard dumbbell to strengthen the wrist extensors we just focus on one tight grip. If we use grips of varying size, then we can strengthen the wrist extensors in positions which resemble the varying grips in climbing.
As with the fingers, follow this protocol: Extend the wrist slowly against the resistance of the weight, hold for a count of 3-5 seconds, return SLOWLY to the start position. Stabilise the wrist over the edge of a table, armchair or your knee. Vary the grip used between sets or alternate days
- Pinch Grip
- Open-handed grip
- Narrow / dumbell Grip
- Adding resistance with a theraband