How to get stronger but stay safe.
If you’ve been bouldering for a while and have built a solid foundation of strength, hitting the campus board is your obvious next step to crank up your power. Developed in the early 1990s by the legendary German climber Wolfgang Güllich, campus boards are now staples at many climbing gyms. Simple in concept but highly effective in use, campus boards let you ratchet up your training intensity in uniform and measurable increments.
Campusing has clear benefits for improved contact strength (the ability to latch a hold at speed) and explosive arm power, yet this method of training has clear risks: incorrect practices can lead to serious injury, and your technique and core strength can suffer. If you don’t overdo it and stick carefully to protocol, a campus board is a potent weapon, alongside bouldering and hangboarding, to the strength training armory.
In order to minimize susceptibility to injury and increase the productivity of your training, employ the following:
• Feet on. Don’t campus foot-off unless you’ve been bouldering and hangboarding for at least two years and can boulder approximately V6/7. Bouldering and hangboarding are otherwise more effective training methods.
• Be age-appropriate. Juniors (under 17 years of age) should not do foot-off campusing. Foot-on training is fine with supervision.
• Always campus before bouldering or doing other forms of strenuous climbing, and only when fresh, recovered and motivated.
• Warm up thoroughly with pulse raisers, mobility exercises, progression of easy boulder problems or foot-on campus ladders.
• Less is more. Emphasize quality, rest between sets (2.5 minutes minimum), and stop before you feel burned out.
• Use strict form. Don’t thrash or flick with your body, and stop training as soon as your form declines.
• Never full-crimp. Don’t hyper-extend your fingers at the first joint, your thumb locked over the nail of the index finger. Go carefully with the open-hang/drag grip.
• Don’t add weight unless you have at least two years of campusing experience and can climb approximately V10+.
• Keep the volume down. First-time campus boarders should go once a week, then build up to twice a week. No need for elites to campus more than three times per week.
• Cycle it. Rather than campus year round, campus in phases of three to six weeks.
The utility grip for campusing is the “chisel” or “campus half-crimp” (figure A), where the index finger holds straight, the middle and ring fingers bend at 90 degrees, and the little finger is straight or very slightly bent. This is a variant on the regular half-crimp (figure B), where the index finger bends at 90 degrees. Both grips are considered safe and effective for campusing, although most climbers find it harder to use a regular half-crimp. Some would argue that it’s better to try to use the regular half-crimp—because it’s harder and trains the index finger, a good strategy if your index is weak. However, if you wish to work your arms more, use whichever grip you find easiest. Another workable grip is the open-hand, aka drag grip (figure C), in which you hook your first finger joint over the rung and straighten the fingers. This grip develops strength for pockets or climbing openhanded on edges, but go carefully, as the injury risk may be slightly higher than with the half-crimp or chisel. If you haven’t trained your open grip extensively on a fingerboard, certainly don’t do it for the first time on a campus board. When structuring your training, a good ratio is to do two or three sets of half-crimp to one set of open-hanging, unless you have a major weakness in hanging or are training for a project or crag that features pockets.
NUMBER OF SETS
The number of sets you perform in a session will depend on how many exercises you do and whether you plan to do other forms of strength training in the same session. It’s impossible to generalize, although a standard session might involve three or four sets of three or four exercises.
The most common climbingspecific campus exercise is to climb the board, footless, without matching on the rungs. Hold the bottom rung with both hands, then pull up fast and slap up with one hand to catch a high rung. Pull through on this, and catch a higher rung with the lower arm. Match on this to finish or go to the top if you are advanced. Rest, then repeat, leading with the other arm. For strength training, increase the rung spacings or use smaller rungs.
A worthwhile variation on laddering is to cross over to an adjacent ladder track, and then pull through to match a high rung on that track.
Hold the bottom rung with both hands, then pull up and, with one hand, touch or hold a high rung. Drop back down to catch yourself on the rung you started on, and repeat the process, leading with alternate hands each time. Continue until you fail to touch the high rung. For development of power, try spending the minimum possible amount of time on the bottom rung.
Hold the bottom rung with both hands, pull up and, with one hand, catch the next rung up. Then bump again to the next rung, and so on until you fail to catch a rung. Rest and repeat, leading with the other arm.
5) Jump and catch
As the name suggests! Either with two arms or one if you’re a hero, using a half-crimp or chisel grip.
This is a bit of a fun “party trick” exercise, less relevant to climbing than the others, yet it can be worthwhile if you struggle with power or dynamic moves. Hold the bottom rung with both hands, then pull up and dyno simultaneously with both hands to catch a high rung. Let go with both hands and drop back down, to catch yourself on the rung you started on. Repeat the process to failure. The measures of your improvements are your ability to do longer moves, use smaller rungs, and/or perform sets faster.
7) Alternating doubles (switchovers)
A crazy variation on standard doubles, which tests coordination to the limit. Only for elite boulderers, operating in the V10+ range. Start with both hands on rung two or three, then simultaneously snatch up to a higher rung with one arm while snatching to a lower rung with the other arm. Repeat to failure.
Campus boards can be great for endurance training. Stronger climbers can go footless and train top-end strength endurance (aka: short resistance or anaerobic power), whereas climbers at a more intermediate level upward can train with feet on, and work both strength endurance and long endurance. For strength endurance you need to be capable of performing between approximately 12 and 40 repetitions, whereas for long resistance it will be between 50 and 120 reps.
The training variables will be rung size and spacing and whether or not you go footless. The advantages of using a campus board for endurance is that the training is formulaic and easy to measure, and you can switch your brain off and go for the burn. The down side is that you won’t be training footwork and technique, and the movements are repetitive, so never do the training for long stints (stick with four to five weeks max). The main exercise is basic laddering, but you can spice things up with variations such as up and downs, where you go up one rung, return to the start ,and then go up one rung higher each time until you top out.
Neil Gresham, an all-arounder, has coached climbing for over 20 years.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 246 (November 2017).