Help me leather up the fingers.
October 27, 2011 10:31 AM   Subscribe

I've been rock climbing for about a year, so I feel this should be obvious by now...but it's not: How do I build calluses/decrease skin sensitivity on the segments of my fingers other than the tips?

After all this time (going to a climbing gym usually about twice a week and doing cross-training exercise like yoga on other days), I hoped that my endurance would develop. It hasn't: I usually max out at about an hour bouldering, maybe two if I'm toproping with a partner. Part of it is that my tendons/forearms get stiff & weak after a few routes (which I at least know how to deal with), but the other part of it is that the skin on my finger pads (particularly on the joint nearest my knuckles--the proximal phalanges, I guess) gets rubbed raw and it becomes too painful to grip onto the holds.

I have a Gripmaster for building finger strength with callus-builder caps, which is fine for the tips of my fingers, but is there anything good for toughening up the rest of my fingers?
posted by psoas to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Mostly just climb more.

Are you working at maximum output for this whole hour that you're climbing twice a week? You shouldn't be. Think of your climbing effort like a sort of bell curve where you climb a bunch of easy stuff, ramping up to hard stuff and finally deplete what you have left doing more easy climbs (personally I like laps on juggy overhangs).

What sort of grades are you generally peaking at? Climbing for what seems like two hours a week isn't really going to do much for you in terms of developing climbing specific muscles/endurance.

How are you chalking? Does the gym use a lot of brand new holds that are still super rough?
posted by teishu at 10:38 AM on October 27, 2011

Also vary what style of routes you're doing. Slopers, crimps, jugs, whatever-- they all require different technique and will rough up different parts of your hand. You might find you can still do some crimpy things even after the face of your hand is sensitive to the touch-- or maybe you can still handle some slopers because the weight is distributed over more of your hand's surface.

Of course, once you do form callouses near the joints in your fingers, you will rip them off periodically. Yay, flappers. (only thing for that is to tape it when they happen and then try not to cry to hard in the shower that night, far as I can tell).
posted by nat at 10:43 AM on October 27, 2011

Response by poster: I am doing the bell curve, pretty much. I top out at a 5.10 or V3 (both of which are pretty much high-exertion for me), whereas I usually start/end the session with 5.7/8 and V0.

I chalk a lot (I sweat easily and I tend to need to reapply a ton) and it might be part of the problem that I keep going from hanging on for dear life on a route with old, slick holds and then switching over to routes with new holds that feel like sandpaper. Will try mixing up the routes more, I guess.
posted by psoas at 10:56 AM on October 27, 2011

Dig ditches.

I also know several people who tape the crap out of their hands when doing crack climbing... Might that help with the symptom, if not the underlying issue you want to change? I believe there are also a variety of 3/4 length gloves that could help, though other people complain that they take away from your grip and can slip.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:11 AM on October 27, 2011

Is it possible that you have a tendency to overgrip? I ask because you describe your forearms pumping out after just a few routes, and after a year of climbing, this shouldn't still be happening all the time. Try doing a climbing/bouldering session where you spend the whole time focusing on figuring out what the *minimum* grip is that you need to get through a route/problem. Do the reverse of your usual routine to check this out - start with easy routes and work up to harder ones. Relax, relax, relax your hands and arms, exaggerate the use of your legs/core to move your body where you want it to go, and see if you feel a difference in your forearms.

Overgripping is an easy habit to fall into, especially when you're getting into the awesome excitement of cranking through harder and harder boulder routes, but it's also an easy habit to get out of once you start paying attention to it.

Hope that helps!
posted by Hellgirl at 11:19 AM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wish I knew what to tell you, I have the same problem. There are days where my arms aren't sore, but I can't keep climbing because the skin on my hands is so tender that it hurts to put any pressure on it. I've been climbing for 2.5 years, twice a week 2-4 hours a session.

The only thing I do is I start by bouldering (which hurts my hands more), and then when I am 80% done because of tender skin, I switch to top roping because that is much much gentler on my hands. And of course, try problems with different types of holds - switch between overhanging juggy routes and crimpy balancey problems on flat walls in one climbing session, so you wear out different parts of your skin, instead of only sticking to one type of hold and making one part of your hand unbearably tender and sore.

One of my friends also keeps telling me to practice holding on and gripping as lightly as I can, just enough to hold on and not fall off. Try this on easier problems that you know you can climb, so you don't have to overgrip for fear of falling. This was his advice for me to not wear out my forearms, but it could be useful for your skin too, perhaps.
posted by at 11:19 AM on October 27, 2011

You might also examine your climbing style and attempt to climb more 'quietly'. This is typical advice for footwork; watch the foot and place it precicely once rather than tapping and twisting around. The same applies to your hands. Quietly grab the hold, weight that hand, and don't move it around until you quietly release the hold. Climbing at your limit will involve some dynamic movements, but always try to minimize that and climb smooth. If, say, you're moving laterally, let your wrist move while your hand stays steady relative to the hold.
posted by huckit at 12:23 PM on October 27, 2011

I'll second what huckit suggest: work on your technique. "Cleaner," more efficient climbing style will destroy your skin less because you're not constantly adjusting your hand on the holds and swinging your weight around (which causes your hands to slide around on the holds).

I'll also add: work on developing core strength (but not just your abs!). Strong core leads to better body control, which leads to less swinging your weight around (leading to hands sliding around on holds).

Plus, 5.10 and V3 in the gym probably means lots and lots of jugs, which means more of your hand is in contact with the hold (hence more abrasion). All of these are probably contributing to your skin pain.

My goal for my own climbing is maximum precision with minimum excess movement. I want to use only the precise movements that will allow me to execute the sequence and no more. I don't want to have to adjust my hand on a hold if I can avoid it. I don't want to have to adjust my foot on a hold if I don't have to. I usually fall short of this ideal, but it helps me climb more efficiently and harder.

There's also this: antihydral cream. Use it carefully if you choose to do so because it can dry your skin and lead to cracking, but many of the top boulderers in the world use it. Some users discuss its application here and here.
posted by that's candlepin at 12:38 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I think the gripping advice is spot on...I probably do hold on too tight, partly since my shoes sometimes slip off the toeholds (I know, bad sign) and partly 'cause I just get tense as a matter of course. Thanks everyone!
posted by psoas at 2:03 PM on October 27, 2011

My partner and I have been doing a drill where we have to touch our hand lightly over a hold for a count of three before we can actually grab onto it. It really forces you to get your feet solid and balanced, instead of making the big reachy moves. I've been doing it to get a little better at using and trusting my feet (a real weak point for me), but it sounds like it might really help you with your overgripping tendencies.

By the way, I've started doing pull-ups on a taped bar at my gym after climbing, and it's built up really annoying calluses in exactly the place you're talking about! I was just picking at one today and getting annoyed. And it's not like doing more pull-ups is going to hurt your climbing any.

Don't tape your hands for the gym or people will snicker at you.
posted by adiabat at 3:04 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Weightlifting has created calluses on the palms of my hands as well as the fingers. I find that really useful for climbing, and I've never had to stop because of my hands getting sore.

(My forearms get pumped first, but as others said above, working on not over-gripping helps a bit. I like an exercise where you climb flat walls with good footholds and only allow yourself to use one finger of each hand for balance - no gripping at all! It really trains you in how to use your legs and balance to climb instead of hauling yourself up. You can start with less restriction if one finger is too hard - one hand only. Or two fingers on each hand, etc.)
posted by lollusc at 4:50 PM on October 27, 2011

Something to add to candlepin's advice:

I have some suggestions that might help you with your endurance and focus as well. Loads of people in the other thread suggested Yoga and their advice about strengthening your muscles' antagonists and synergists was excellent. Yoga can also help you out with your focus and control, and also your endurance.

The breathing exercises and mindfulness that you are developing during your practice of Yoga can also be applied to help make you a better climber, especially if your eventual goal is to head out into the fresh air of the back country for some good times.

You mentioned that you are experiencing muscle tension that stops you cold after a few runs and also that you run a little on the tense side to start with. Give this a try: The moment you have calculated how you will be moving to the next hold, just like when you change positions in Yoga, take a moment to consciously relax. Take a deep breath. Exhale big. Inhale big, and then go. Repeat this for every handhold and every step.

By being conscious of your breath and trying to stay relaxed and focused as you climb, you will be upping the available oxygen to your muscles and regulating your cortisol levels, which will increase your endurance tenfold. You will also find that by taking more time to make your moves, the more you will be confident and feel more safe and therefore more relaxed (and possibly sweating less because you're not hanging on to the mountain for dear life).

You can incorporate mindfulness of your breath not only while you climb, but also at the gym during your workouts to give both your cardiovascular and muscle systems the extra bit of power your body needs to push it as far as it sounds like you're wanting to.

The other great thing about breathing exercises is that you can do them anytime, anywhere. I use them at night to relax before sleep, but also in the morning to get stoked for the day.

Have a look at diaphragmatic breathing for more info. This book I just skimmed over to see if it applied, and it looks like sound advice.

Happy Trails.
posted by empatterson at 7:20 PM on October 27, 2011

Definitely climb more, climb longer, and climb outside as much as possible. Your endurance is not going to change much at one hour twice a week (Is there anything in life where a practice schedule like that will yield improvement?). If you want get more proficient than you are now, up your regimen to two hours a day, three days a week. This will both force your hands to develop more calluses and help you out with technique, because both quality and quantity of workout matter in building body awareness.

I don't doubt that you've heard this from a million different people, but the best workout for climbing is climbing: cross-training is good, but it generally isn't as efficient at improving your climbing abilities as being on the rock, unless you've identified a specific shortcoming in your strength. One of several exceptions to this is cardio: running, biking, soccer, or whatever for 45 to 60 minutes per day on days you don't climb will yield a huge improvement in how productive your gym workouts are.

Climbing is an awesome sport, especially if you get into longer and more technical outdoor stuff. Stick with it!
posted by cirgue at 8:18 PM on October 27, 2011

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