The Essentials of Increasing Your Pinch Strength
“Sticking with what’s comfortable isn’t a slow steady way to improve. It’s a slippery slope that starts off too shallow to notice, but steepens alarmingly down the line.”
– Dave MacLeod
You know the boulders at your climbing gym that you actively avoid? I do. I am consciously aware that if a route looks especially pinch-intensive, I am turned off. I would rather climb something else. In 2020, I decided to finally address this gap in skill.
One could try to avoid certain types of holds for the entirety of their climbing career, but that seems almost as difficult as attacking the weakness itself.
If improving your pinching abilities is on the to-do list, here is a guide to help you do that.
Who should be doing this?
Similar to hangboarding, everyone has an opinion on who and when you can start training pinches. Personally, I was about five years into my climbing career before even thinking about needing to train this grip specifically.
“If we’re going to set a basic rule that applies to most people, for the first year, they should just climb a few days a week… Then in year two, they can start to ease into training.” – Eric Horst, world class climbing coach
I acknowledge that as I write this, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and most of us do not have access to climbing walls in which we can practice pinching. Therefore, the general advice changes a bit in this scenario.
In a recent workshop I took from Natasha Barnes, she advised that her position is that if you have been climbing 2-3 times per week, hangboarding is a perfectly safe activity if you load and dose the activity correctly. She did not mention pinch training specifically; however, I am assuming that the same logic applies.
Whether or not you engage in pinch training based on your time as a climber is completely up to you. However, if you have climbing 2-3 times per week for 6-12 months and your perform the protocols and rest properly, this is likely a safe and productive activity for you. As always, I advise you to use the information available and decide for yourself.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the details of pinch training.
What is a pinch?
This may seem obvious, but the pinch position has quite a bit more variety than one might consider. To you, a climber, pinching is the big blobby hold in the gym that you keep slipping off of. However, from a scientific perspective there are many classifications of the pinch movement. These range from what it looks like when you turn your car key, to your hand position when holding a chopstick.
I will spare you the details. The biggest take away here is that the climbing researchers classify and discuss pinches using these four variables.
- Depth of the hold: number of pads
- Orientation: vertical, diagonal, etc.
- Shape/positivity: shallow, rounded, sloping, incut
- Width/span: distance from thumb to other fingers
source: Eva Lopez Training Pinch Strength for Climbing
With the wide variability of this position in mind, let’s discuss its ergonomics.
Overuse and sub-optimal form while training your pinch strength can lead to injury.
One injury in particular related to the pinch position as discussed by Eva Lopez, is De Quervain’s tenosynovitis. This type of injury is generally related to overuse; in particular, uncomfortable wrist positions like the one seen below.
Obvously, there are times in our climbing where we will be in these tweaky wrist positions. However we should avoid training in these positions since we can achieve gains in our pinch strength without excessively engaging in these sub-optimal postures.
“By observing a correct position we can avoid injuries like De Quervain syndrome, caused by overuse of thumb muscles under excessive ulnar flexion, exactly the posture that we get when we grab a high, front-facing pinch.” – Dr. Eva Lopez
So what is a good pinch position?
An optimal position for grabbing a pinch is to do so with your wrist flat. There should be a generally straight line from your elbow to your fingers like we see below. If you’re a total hard ass, then you can train pinches in a front lever position like Kris Hampton. This leads to optimized ergonomics and minimization of injury risk. However I understand the most of us cannot do that.
Here is what optimal wrist position looks like when using a pinch block, which is what most of us mortals will need to use.
So how can I improve my pinch strength?
Now that we have a grasp on what pinch strength is, let’s get into how we can train it and improve it.
Pinch Strength Improvement by Climbing
Though it may sound too simple, a good way to attack this weakness is to program it into your climbing sessions. It might be a good time to pick a specific pinch project on your gym’s Moondboard, Tension Board, or create one on a spray wall.
Additionally, you could make it a goal that every time you boulder, you put in at least five quality attempts on difficult pinch problems. By consciously setting these measurable goals, you will stop actively avoiding the weakness.
However, if you have been training for a long time, your fingers are prepared, and you want an even more focused approach, then there are some supplemental training protocols that may benefit you more directly.
Pinches on a Hangboard
While some hangboard models do have pinches on them, it takes significant strength of the supporting musculoskeletal system to train on a hangboard without excessive wrist flexion (remember, we want our wrist flat while we train pinches, not flexed back).
If you are strong enough to train them with your hangboard, more power to you. However, if you are not, there are certainly other training solutions.
My personal favorite way to train pinch strength is using pinch blocks. These are blocks of wood or plastic from which you can hang a load to increase your pinch strength. As with hangboard protocols, there are many ways in which to utilize this implements.
Pinch Training: Max Hangs
When I first started training with a pinch block, I extrapolated Eva Lopez’s max hang protocol to pinch training.
In each pinch training sessions, I did 3-6 hangs at 80% of my max weight. Max weight being the total weight I could pinch for 12-13s. I rested for 3-5 minutes in between sets.
This gave me pretty good results and I felt noticeable improvement in my pinch strength doing this about once per week. Here’s a comparison of the same moonboard problem taken four weeks apart. I had done seven sessions of the max hang protocol described above between when these videos were taken.
Please note that the pinch training was done in conjunction with working on this boulder and other helpful training activities. I cannot say that training pinch max hangs directly resulted in improved climbing, but I would not be surprised if it contributed at least partially.
Pinch Training: Repeaters
Another protocol you can do is the Repeater Protocol described by Eric Horst.
For this protocol, you do seven seconds on in each hand, alternating until you have done six hangs on each side. This is one round. Rest for 3-5 minutes and repeat. Eric recommends keeping it to 2-3 rounds. As a reference, I was using 18lbs when I did the max hang protocol. For repeaters, I am using 10-12lbs. Here’s an example video of what this looks like.
Which protocol should I choose?
Extrapolating from general hangboard advice that you want to maximize neurological gains before attempting hypertrophy, it might be best to start with the max hang protocol as I did (if that sounded like gibberish, more on this here). However, depending on your situation, you may not have enough weights on hand to do this. Additionally, Eric recommends his repeater protocol to pinch neophytes, so I think whichever you choose, it is certainly better than none at all.
Either protocol will help your pinch strength if you put in the work.
Pick a protocol and stick to it for at least eight to ten sessions. After these sessions, re-test your max hang to see if you have improved. If you stop seeing gains after a while, consider switching up the protocol.
Wide or Narrow?
As discussed above, pinches come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. If you had a project that you knew had certain pinch sizes, perhaps it would be advantageous to train those specifically.
For simplicity, I have only been training the wide pinch. Eric mentions in his discussion with Geek Climber that a wide pinch will also benefit your narrow pinch strength, so it seems like a wide pinch kills two birds with one stone. Since my pinch strength is so bad, I think anything is better than nothing. I am keeping it simple and sticking with training the wide pinch only. Perhaps down the road, I will change it up. For now, one size is enough for me.
Have questions? Want to learn more about pinch strength? You can read the resources below. As always, I encourage you to leave a comment if you have any questions!
If you’d like to gain some insight into your strengths and weaknesses as a climber, check out my climbing theme song quiz! While it’s definitely a good time, it shines a light onto the aspects of your training and climbing that might be holding you back and keeping you in a plateau. And once you get your result, I’ll also send you some tips and tricks to help your training and climbing more effective and efficient!
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