The strength of your fingers is genetically determined. However, targeted finger training is crucial for effective and sustainable performance in climbing. I’m sure many climbers know that hand and finger strain can quickly develop as a result of climbing or bouldering.
For this article, I spoke with Prof. Volker Schöffl, a very experienced climber, doctor for the German national sport climbing team and Head of Sports Orthopaedics, Sports Traumatology, Sports Medicine and Surgery of the Upper Extremities at Bamberg Hospital. We discussed the best training to prevent hand and finger strain and injury, as well as the growing interest in climbing medicine. Last year, I was introduced to him as the “primus inter pares” for the treatment of climbing injuries. He was also named to the Focus list of Germany’s best doctors in 2020. So get out your highlighters and pay attention!
Our hand and finger joints are made up of a total of 27 small bones. Many of the tendons and muscles that allow us to move our hand and fingers begin in the elbow and forearm. They then fan out more and more. Fine mobility also comes from the ingenious design of the ligaments and tendons. For example, the annular ligaments and cruciate ligaments ensure that our finger tendons are fixed in such a way that our fingers can bend and do not rub against each other while we move them.
Strength training for fingers and hands
Climbing requires a lot of finger and hand strength, even for well-trained people who have a lot of experience and use their bodies to the full. It is therefore very important to be aware of these body parts, to keep them in shape and to train them in a targeted manner in order to prevent possible strain.
Exercises for the finger and wrist joints should always be individually adapted. Your physique, whether your joints are wide or fragile and your fitness level should all be taken into account when choosing exercises. It is always important to use the whole body when climbing or bouldering so that the hands and fingers are exposed to less stress in order to avoid discomfort.
“People with thin fingers are more susceptible to injury. The extensibility of the joints increases the risk of injury. Isolated finger training, irrespective of finger strength, makes it much easier to cope with the stresses of climbing. Good finger training enables me to do a lot of things in a more controlled way.“
You can strengthen your finger joints by exercising with soft balls, tennis balls, therapy bands, finger stretchers or finger strengtheners. Theraband also makes special “hand exercisers” that are quite good. Of course, if you have sufficient previous experience and have warmed up your muscles, a fingerboard or hang board can be used. You can also treat your fingers to some finger gymnastics after the stresses and strains of climbing or bouldering. Medium-sized wooden balls that you pass through your fingers, for example, are ideal for this..
Disadvantages of taping fingers
Tape is increasingly being used to protect the fingers. But this is not a great idea. Taping finger joints is not a good idea if you have no injuries.
“In two studies, general prophylactic taping has been shown to lead to more injuries. Taping after an injury is of course not a problem. However, for prevention of injuries, my advice is to focus on climbing with more than just the fingers. Finger strength is genetic. People who have a lot of finger strength may have an advantage at the beginning, but this often leads to climbing movements that are not shared over the whole body. This then quickly leads to overuse of the fingers.“
Fingers and hands can quickly become overworked. People who started climbing or bouldering recently, 1 to 2 years ago, tend to draw too much strength from their fingers and hands instead of using their whole body effectively. Continuous pain after sport indicates acute overload.
“Acute overload can last for one to two weeks. In most cases, it is easy to treat. Taking a break from sports and finger gymnastics can quickly ease the strain. If there is no improvement after two weeks, you should seek further medical clarification. After 6-8 weeks, you should consider it a chronic complaint.”
In climbing, one of the most common types of injury is injuries to the finger joints. Injuries to the hands are more often due to excessive strain than to falls. Bone oedema can also form in the hand as a result of constant strain.
There are many different types of finger injuries. Ligaments and tendons can be torn or the capsule-ligament system can be severely damaged by adverse stress. The most common types of damage are injuries to the annular ligaments. A difficult stretch of the finger can cause the annular ligaments to tear, either partially or completely. This is often accompanied by an audible “snap” and then by increasing pain.
Climbing training after an injury
“Most injuries are treated in a conservative way. Surgery on the hand always has long-term consequences. After surgery, the injured hand should be gradually retrained. For foot injuries, it takes at least one year. With hand and finger injuries, adaptation is somewhat quicker. However, it can take three to six months to reach full strength for more severe injuries.“
Our finger and wrist joints appear to be very susceptible to overuse and injury. But they also perform some adaptive processes that we may not even be aware of. In climbers, for example, we see that finger joints become thicker and our collateral ligaments increase in strength, protecting us from injury.
“In climbing medicine we tend to see a lot more adaptations than normal orthopaedics. There are usually many ways to continue climbing before suggesting someone stop the sport.“
Good treatment options
Thickened finger joints, for example, are not always a problem. Adjustments to the hands can also be tolerated. If you have persistent complaints or have been climbing for many years, you should consult a person who knows a lot about climbing injuries. Volker Schöffl is reassuring that there is now help available in almost every area.
“Of course, treatment of hand and finger injuries is somewhat different from classical orthopaedics. If you have persistent complaints after accidents or overuse, you should see someone in your region who specialises in this area. You can often find appropriate contacts from climbing gyms. I believe that there is someone everywhere who can help. There are also trauma surgeons and sports doctors who have no connection with climbing but are extremely knowledgeable. Last year I had two Chilean hand surgeons here who wanted to learn about climbing medicine. They knew about all the publications and were extremely interested..”
In some cases, knowledge from climbing medicine has already been integrated into classical orthopaedics and trauma surgery. However, this is by no means always the case. For anyone interested, Volker and Isabelle Schöffl, Christoph Lutter and Thomas Hochholzer published the book “Climbing Medicine: A Practical Guide” in summer 2020.
In the end, it is up to us as climbers to determine our own finger strength. Regular training and good body awareness help to maintain strength.