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Monday, May 01, 2006

Complex Training for Elite-Level Strength and Power

Complex training is a cutting edge training method used by elite athletes in many other sports, including most power-oriented Olympic events. Applied to climbing, the complex training protocol described below is one of the most advanced strength-training concepts available. Since introducing Complex Training to climbers in 2002 (in my book Training for Climbing), I have heard back from hundreds of climbers from around the world who have leveraged this technique to increase their grip strength and upper-body power. You can too, as long as you are a relatively advanced climber (solid at 5.11 or V6) with no recent history of finger, elbow, or shoulder injuries.

Complex training involves a coupling of a high-resistence, slow-speed exercise with a power-oriented, high-speed exercise. Research has shown that performing these two very different exercises back-to-back--and in the order of strength first, power second--produces gains in strength and power beyond that achieved by performing either exercise alone. While no studies exist with climbers, there is compelling research in the use of complex training to increase vertical jump that shows phenomenal gains in absolute ability (Adam et al. 1992). In this study, 6 weeks of strength training produce a 3.3 cm increase in the vertical jump in one test group, compared to a 3.8 cm increase after 6 weeks of plyometric jump (power) training in a second test group. However, a third group that performed complex training (coupled strength and plyometric training) for 6 weeks experienced an incredible 10.7 cm increase in jumping ability!

To understand why a coupling of these two exercises produces such a synergistic gain in strength and power, you must examine the unique ways in which the neuromuscular system is stressed. This two-step process begins with high-load strength training that excites the muscles usde to near maximum motor-unit recruitment. The second step takes the already excited muscles and challenges them to function at higher speed. In this way, complex training stimulates the muscle fibers in conjunction with the nervous system in such a way that slow-twitch fibers are taught to behave like fast-twitch fibers (Chu 1996). Consequently, complex training could be viewed as the "magic bullet" exercise for the average climber born with an average percentage of fast-twitch fibers (i.e. approximately 50%).

Photos: Hypergravity training (above) and Campus Training (below), an ideal Complext Training couplet.

Incorporating complex training into your program can be done several different ways--remember, the key is a back-to-back coupling of a maximum strength exercise and power exercise. To get started, you might climb a very fingery near-maximal boulder problem and then immediately do a 6- to 8-move one-arm traverse that requires dynamically jumping the hand in use from one hold to the next (then traverse back the opposite direction using just the other hand). Taking things up a notch, you would add a 10-pound weight belt around your waist to send a hard boulder problem, and then immediately "ladder" hand-over-hand up a campus board. Pushing things further, you could alternate doing a set of "heavy" hypergravity isolation training (HIT, with 20 or 30 pounds around the waist), and then immediately do a set of "double dynos" on the campus board. This later strategy of combining HIT and the quasi-plyometric Campus Training should be a staple technique of elite climbers, and it may represent the single best training protocol for pursuing absolute genetic potential for finger strength and upper-body power. Begin by doing just three coupled sets, and over the course of a few months increase to a maximum of six to eight coupled sets.

Obviously, complex training is an advanced technique that produces both high passive and active stresses--it should only be utilized by well-conditioned climbers with no recent history of injury. Furthermore, its use should be limited to once every four days, and it should be cycled "on" and "off" about every two weeks. Finally, complete recovery from a complex workout could take as long as 3 to 5 days. Any other strenuous training or climbing during the supercompensation period would slow recovery and may limit the benefits of complex training.

Complex Training Protocal
Pick one Max Strength exercise and one Power exercise, and perform them back-to-back with no rest. After this couplet, rest for five minutes before performing another set of Complex Training.

Maximum Strength Exercise
  • Maximal fingery boulder problem
  • Heavy finger rolls
    (finger curls with 150+ lbs)
  • Hypergravity training
    (weight pull-ups or weighted bouldering)
  • HIT Strip Training
    (with 10 to 40 pounds added around waist)

    Power Exercises
  • One-arm dynamic traversing
  • Campus Board "laddering"
  • Campusing up a 45-degree wall
    (i.e. arm-over-arm, no-feet bouldering)
  • Campus Training "double dynos"