Ecological Dynamics and Capacity Training in Climbing

This post is about the Ecological Dynamics (ED) approach to capacity training. If you’re not familiar with ED, you can read my previous post: Ecological Dynamics and the Constraints Lead Approach to Skill Acquisition in Climbing

principles of strength and injury

One of the principles of strength and conditioning training is “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands” - when you impose demands on your body - say, by pulling really hard with your fingers - it will adapt to that specific stimulus - your fingers become stronger. If you want it to continue getting stronger, you need to overload the stimulus - by pulling with increasing intensity, volume or density over time.
Hence, hangboarding!
But, hangboarding is a controversial topic within climbing training due to its risks of injury.
On the one hand, it seems like hangboarding should be really safe. When you pull up into your hang, you can load your fingers gradually. You can dial in the edge size, weight, reps and duration to consistently hit a specific intensity. You can quickly put your feet back on the ground to remove the load. Hangboarding should be really safe, especially when compared to bouldering, where the load and the positions are a lot more unpredictable.
However, many climbers hurt themselves hangboarding. This happens so frequently that hangboarding has a reputation for being risky and injury-prone, and there are debates about whether it’s appropriate for beginners and even intermediate climbers to hangboard.
I ended up thinking about this as I was listening to the Perception and Action Podcast Episode 424 - Action Capacity vs Skill. At 46 minutes in, Rob talks about the study Reinold 2018. Experienced baseball pitchers trained to increase their pitch velocity by throwing balls of increasing weight. At the end of the 6 week intervention, pitchers increased their pitch velocity. However, 4 of the 19 athletes in the study suffered injury. Two during training, and two during the following season.
The researchers collected movement data and found that the experimental group increased their external shoulder rotation by 4 degrees. This is why the ball velocity increased: the pitchers were able to apply force to the ball for a longer duration of time. This same adaptation likely placed additional stress on fragile tissues in the throwing arm, and led to the high injury rate.
I think this is what happens when climbers hangboard. It’s not hard to imagine that when we hangboard on the same edge, using the same grip position and increasing weight, some undesirable adaptations may happen. Perhaps your DIP will hyper-extend a little more, or a pulley will stretch in order to put the finger into a more mechanically advantageous position. This allows us to hang with more weight, so we increase the intensity. We continue placing more stress on the same tissues, until we get a repetitive stress injury or something gives out.
I think one way to look at this is to say that climbers are just being impatient, and are overloading the tissue too quickly. But how does one tell the difference? A weight that was difficult for you a few weeks ago is now feeling easier. Are your fingers stronger, or is something about to fail? Should you increase intensity, or back off?

strength revisited

So how do we navigate the balance between overloading the tissue sufficiently to stimulate adaptation, but not so much that it leads to injury? Given how much trouble I’ve had with finger injury in my own training, I felt like I needed to re-examine my ideas about this aspect of my training.
Like many climbers, I based my finger training off of strength training. Many strength athletes bench, squat and deadlift for 3 sets of 5 reps, getting close to failure, three days a week (and in many cases, the volume and intensity is much higher than that) and yet many lifters can increase weight linearly for years without injury.
Ecological Dynamics suggests that the various redundancy and variability in movement is an important injury prevention mechanism. Lifters perform compound body movements that target major muscle groups. I think this gives the body a lot more opportunity for redundancy and variation, shifting the force to different tissues, which probably allows the body to handle a lot more training load. When doing a maximal isometric hang, we are targeting smaller and more delicate tissue, and restricting our fingers to an extremely narrow set of positions and movement solutions, therefore increasing the risk of injury. In my mind, we are a lot closer to the baseball pitcher than the power lifter in this regard.

capacity training from an ecological perspective

I am a climber, not a grip-strength athlete. I only care about finger strength if it translates to climbing performance - a highly variable and skill-based activity. This transfer is hotly debated within the climbing community, as athletes who invest heavily in training and put up impressive strength stats don’t always translate that into success on the rock. At the same time, many elite climbers have good but not exceptional hangboard ability.
In climbing it’s rare that you need to hang your body weight perpendicular to a flat, horizontal edge. Instead, you have to muster whatever force you can from holds of various sizes, shapes, textures and orientations. Every move demands a different subset of fingers, grip position, wrist and body position, and direction of pull.
One recent experience I had with this was tweaking a finger when I grabbed a diagonally-oriented pinch. The hold created a twisting force through my ring finger. This is something that I haven’t trained at all in any of my finger strength work (and is actually really challenging to train using a hangboard or a tension block), and so it was no surprise that my hand wasn’t really prepared for handling this stress. Thankfully the injury wasn’t that bad and I was able to return to climbing a few days later.
In this moment, I felt betrayed by my finger training. Years of hangboarding and I was completely unprepared for a fairly common occurrence - pulling on a hold with some shear force. This was also a huge “aha” moment for me. My finger strength training should focus on creating resilient and versatile fingers, not just maximizing performance in one narrow dimension.

variability in finger strength training positions success

When I started my training log back in August of 2022, I wrote
Open-hand is my preferred grip position, and I know for sure that my crimping strength is lagging.
In my assessment, I hung 155(body weight) + 87lb using my preferred open-handed grip on a 18mm edge (2 hands). I also tested my half-crimp hang around the same time and found that I could only hang about 155 + 35lb.
In October of 2022, 11 weeks into my training program with Lattice, I was really excited about Pilo (V5) and a few other projects on the Tension Board. I wrote,
Despite being graded V5, it feels pretty much impossible to me.
I remember barely being able to hold the start holds and lift myself off the ground. Generating dynamically off of those holds seemed next-level.
A few weeks later, at the end of 2023, I injured my fingers and decided to take a break from training, opting instead to spend the first half of 2023 rehabbing my finger, neck and back issues. I tried a bunch of different interventions for my fingers during this time, and generally avoided the Tension Board.
In June of 2023, while still experimenting with various exercises and rehab to feel more confident climbing on crimps, I started training a half-crimp position on the tension block. I used a 10mm edge because it forced me to pull through the tips of my fingers - the 20mm edge was deep enough that I could use the bone of my index finger DIP joint. On my first day in mid-June I barely managed a set of 5 on each hand at 55lb. I fairly quickly progressed to 65lb in early July, and then 70lb a couple of weeks later. In August I was pulling 75, and 80lb by mid-September. The best I pulled was 85lb.
My protocol was to start at 45lb for my warmup sets and work up in increments of 10lb, and then 5lb, doing sets of 5 until I hit my max for the day. I would do this twice per week, as part of my warmup before climbing.
In October 2023 I went back to the tension board, and flashed Pilo. In the following few weeks I sent every other V5 Tension Board problem in my “projects” folder (And I’m Dyin’, That’s Chill, Mega Man, Captain Progression, Whoo, and Hueco Tanks Hardman - a V4 that previously felt really tough to me). Punch Pinch - the V6 project that took me a couple of months a year prior - was a breeze to repeat. I started working V7s, and quickly sent a bunch of them within about a session each (Hints of Tannin, Arkaines Valor, Foxey Lady, Half Minute). Goo Lagoon (V7) gave me the most trouble, requiring 3 or 4 sessions.
Since I was injured and basically did not climb on crimps or the Tension Board prior to starting my half-crimp training, I think it’s likely that it was just the half-crimp block training that made the difference for me.
I decided on this training before knowing about the ecological take on capacity training, but was able to see it in a new light recently. My capacity to pull through my fingertips in a half-crimp position was really low. By constraining myself to use a small edge, I forced my hand to use a new movement solution. I was able to get some beginner gains, increasing my capacity rapidly over the course of only a few months. Once I had the capacity to pull in this position, I quickly translated it onto the wall, since I was now able to pull on smaller, more aggressive crimps.
In contrast, I previously spent a lot of time hangboarding with added weight in my preferred grip on a 20mm edge. I was able to get small strength increases with this method, but it didn’t have a lot of effect on my climbing ability. I think this is because I was already really strong and well-adapted to this particular pulling position.

bossclimbs video

I recently saw this bossclimbs video, and I thought it was another example of how introducing variability into capacity training can lead to improvement. I think the ecological perspective is a useful framing for the success that Boss saw with this approach to training.
In his video, Boss frequently places novel constraints on his training:
  • the fingers cannot open up during the pull
  • the index finger DIP must stay extended and not chisel
  • training the pinkie finger in isolation
  • training his wrist flexor and extensors
These constraints force Boss to explore different ways of gripping, and he frequently has to lower the intensity of the exercise in order to allow his hands to adapt to the novel constraint.
Rather than narrowly pursuing the 1h 20mm hang, Boss is exposing his hand to a variety of constraints, which ultimately leads to a much more productive and sustainable training program. And as a consequence, he also sees improvement on the basic 20mm grip as well.

future explorations in capacity training for finger strength

After seeing so much success with the 10mm block pulls, in January 2024 I ended up re-committing myself to exploring the more aggressive crimp position. I ended up dropping the weight again, to about 60lb, and being more strict about the form - extending my wrist so that I could pull with a much more aggressive closed crimp position. I was able to progress that for a couple of months until I got up to about 80lb again. Unfortunately, I fell into the linear progression trap and got some sort of repetitive stress tweak in my left wrist. Something about repeatedly using the extended wrist position ended up aggravating it over the course of the 2-3 months that I was doing it. This was back in March, and as I write this in May, it’s finally feeling close to fully recovered.
In the previously-mentioned podcast episode, Rob lays out several principles about how to approach capacity training from an ecological perspective. I am experimenting with a new approach to my finger training that is based around these principles, which you can see me doing in the video below.
In essence, I am walking around the gym and finding holds of various shapes and sizes that seem like they will be challenging to hold. I then try to put as much force as possible into the hold, and experiment with feet and body positions until the intensity feels close to my max. I then repeat this for a few reps until I am close to failure, and take a really long rest.
The principles behind this approach, as laid out in Rob’s podcast, are as follows:

Capacity training should be combined with skill practice that teaches athletes to notice and use opportunities afforded by their new capacity.

I think this is less relevant in climbing, where the movement is the skill. I think here Rob is mostly thinking about team and combat sports that involve a lot more decision making and anticipation. In my experience, increasing my capacity to crimp ended up translating immediately into performance on the tension board.
I do think this applies a lot more for competition climbers, though. For example, what’s the point of developing a ton of endurance and power-endurance if you don’t also develop your ability to be patient on the wall, and to attempt multiple approaches to various sections of the wall (like when lead climbing)?

Capacity training should be guided by principles of force and speed generation, rather than an ideal technique. AKA “conditions not positions”.

Again, I think this is mainly oriented at other sports where people have strong opinions about the “ideal technique”, like the perfect stroke in swimming or golf. Rob is warning people to not be overly attached to these ideas, but instead allow athletes to self-organize and find the movement solution that works for them.
I try to be strategic about choosing holds and positions that force me to use novel and uncomfortable grip positions. In this way, my grip and body position is adhering to the constrains presented by the hold, which I think is the spirit of this principle.
At the same time, I find that a lot of the holds at my gym actually feel quite similar to each other. They are of decent size (few edges smaller than 20mm), flat, and mostly wide-enough to put 4 fingers on. I feel really excited to find the odd vertically-oriented pinch, a tiny crimp, or a sloper that’s at an awkward angle.
This has made me reflect again on how valuable outdoor climbing is to getting better. You get exposed to a much wider variety of holds and grip positions, so it’s no wonder that your fingers develop to be a lot more versatile and consequently probably a lot stronger.
So I find that adding additional “artificial” constraints, like dropping a finger or holding a less-good part of the sloper have been useful in adding extra challenge and variability.

Capacity training should use variability, overload and perturbations to stimulate and challenge stability.

Rather than exclusively loading the holds in a static, maximal way, I am also experimenting with landing on the hold, generating off of the hold, or cutting feet and taking a swing on the hold. I think all of these challenges to stability will stimulate adaptations that will be extremely useful for actual climbing.

Capacity training should focus on developing adaptability, self-organization and functional variability, not progressive linear increases.

The variability in hold types, positions, and grips is a pretty obvious advantage of this kind of training. I hope that this will prevent the overuse issues I’ve previously encountered, and will stimulate my fingers to be more robust and versatile.

Capacity can be developed within the context of skill practice by using appropriate constraints.

This approach is very close to limit bouldering. However, rather than trying to find the easiest way to do the move, I am also constantly adjusting the exercise to keep the intensity maximal. I’m also repeating the move several times with maximum effort until failure. The goal here is to provide a high-intensity stimulus to the fingers, not learn the particular move. I think by approaching the activity from this particular perspective it becomes a really potent capacity training practice.


I’ve been experimenting with this method for a few weeks, and so far I’ve come up against fairly expected challenges:
First, dialing in the intensity is definitely a lot trickier than with hangboarding. This is especially true for more awkward holds, where small adjustments to the position can make a big difference in intensity. However, as I get more practice with it, I am finding that I am getting better and better at hitting the right intensity, so that I fail within 1-6 reps. Add on top of that the various destabilizing options - landing on the hold, generating off the hold, taking a swing on the hold, and I’m feeling pretty confident that the intensity of the workout is sufficiently high.
Second, it’s definitely difficult to measure how challenging the workout is. Because of this, I end up having some doubts about overload. Those who find it motivating to see measurable progress will probably struggle with this.
I do return to the same holds and positions for a few sessions in a row, so I can see session-to-session progress. And I’m planning on using a few particular moves periodically to benchmark myself - in this having access to a spray wall or a systems board is really useful. I’ve been trying to avoid the siren song of focusing on a narrow set of moves because I worry that that way lies repetitive stress injury.
Another thing that’s been on my mind is research into minimum effective dose training (for example, see this video). Such research suggests that “just a few heavy sets per power lift per week, somewhere in the 1-5 rep range” was sufficient for highly trained lifters to see meaningful strength increases. Some of these experienced lifters were working up to 1 maximal repetition, once per week and still saw improvements in their deadlift. Like all research, this has some caveats - small sample sizes, peaking and novelty effects, and questions of transfer. (For example, lifters tend to do more volume on the bench press. Would the volume need to be higher for fingers? It would be really cool to see minimum-viable-dose research on climbers.) However, the research is informative in setting a potential bottom line - getting meaningfully stronger may not require nearly as much training load as I previously thought. This makes me more confident that even if I don’t hit the intensity perfectly every time, I am probably still close enough to get stronger.


Overall I am seeing session-to-session improvement on various moves. For example, I started barely being able to do one move I took from Marksmasher, in the video above, and I’ve since progressed to being able to do it 6 times in a row. So I have some evidence that I’m getting stronger.
After these sessions, my fingers feel really different than when I hangboard. They get sore in a “all over” kind of way, which is quite different from what they felt like after hangboarding or doing block pulls. This suggests to me that I’m developing in new directions. Overall they feel healthier, but it’s probably too early to tell.
Finally, I find that this type of training is just way more fun than hangboarding. It feels like a mix of micro-bouldering, and playing HORSE against yourself. I need to come up with a catchy name for it and maybe it will become a new sport.
Thanks for reading! I’ll keep experimenting and report back on my progress in the months to come. You can consider subscribing via rss or email (in the bar above) if you want to hear more.