Beastmaking – A fingers-first approach to becoming a better climber – Review

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Beastmaking - A fingers-first approach to becoming a better climber - Review

It's time to review another book from Vertebrate Publishing - "Beastmaking" by Ned Feehally. For me, this was one of the most anticipated climbing releases in recent years! The author is a remarkably talented boulderer. Among his many notable ascents, we can find, for example, The Big Island 8C in Font, a flash ascent of Trust Issues 8B+ in Rocklands, and multiple challenging highballs [1]. Ned is also the co-founder and designer of Beastmaker 1000 and Beastmaker 2000, which became what I believe to be the most successful hangboards in history and the most popular ones currently. Who wouldn't want to be able to comfortably hang on to the heinous slopers of the BM2K? In private, Ned's also the husband of Shauna Coxley, the UK's most accomplished competitive climber, who wrote the foreword [2].

The book starts with a brief introduction, where Ned clearly explains that his aim was not to go deep into scientific details of training but rather to present a synthesis of his 20+ years of climbing experience.

It feels like we're at the stage where the science that's getting done is simply backing up what we have been crowdsourcing in the climbing scene for the past 40 years!

Video 1: Ned Feehally on The Big Island 8C [1].

According to Ned, there's no "one-size-fits-all" approach to climbing training - everybody is different and needs to find their unique way of training. The book is divided into chapters, which I will briefly discuss one by one. Every chapter has a summary with essential facts, making the book's layout very clear and handy.

You are your own experiment.

Chapter 1: Training: The basics

They say that the best training for climbing is climbing, but is that truly the case? In the first chapter, Ned explains why additional training is worthwhile. The important thing is that you need to train for definite goals specific to what you want to achieve.

Ned briefly goes over the basic training concepts, including overload, progression, repetition, recovery, specificity, and reversibility. He also lists the main physical factors critical for climbing; finger strength, footwork, flexibility, mobility, core strength, pulling strength, and pushing strength. Another interesting part of the chapter is genetics - how much they determine our climbing ability and potential for climbing hard.

The bottom line is that the best way to improve climbing ability is to climb a lot and supplement this with very focused training to speed up the improvement process while hopefully also reducing the likelihood of getting injured. The chapter also contains a bit on climbing history, which I particularly enjoyed, and it ends with a handy glossary of climbing terms.

Chapter 2: Training structure

Chapter 2 focuses on ways to organize your training. Train finger strength all year round - all other elements can come and go. Be flexible - it's ok to have an off session - you'll probably do better next time. In addition, you can learn about tapering, a more advanced training concept that maybe not everyone is familiar with.

A separate section is devoted to the upper body, hand, and finger anatomy. Ned properly explains the primary muscles involved in climbing, paying particular attention to the hand anatomy, which is understandable.

Ned Feehally ON JACK’S BROKEN HEART, MAGIC WOOD, SWITZERLAND

Figure 1: Ned Feehally on Jack’s Broken Heart, Magic Wood, Switzerland, fot. Shauna Coxsey, book/source: “Beastmaking”.

Chapter 3: Finger strength

What is finger strength, where does it come from, and what are the advantages of having strong fingers? Is it critical to be able to climb hard? What is the impact of finger morphology on performance and climbing style? In this chapter, you'll find answers to all these questions.

Chapter 4: Active vs. passive finger strength

This chapter discusses the difference between active and passive gripping styles. Which one is better? Which one should you use and when? Why is it good to work on your active grip positions, and how to best go about it?

Tactics Part 1

The importance of warmup and rest. How to choose your climbing shoes and climbing venue depending on weather conditions? How do temperature and humidity impact climbing performance, and what are knee pads suitable for?

Chapter 5: Introduction to finger-boarding

Are fingerboards effective at increasing finger strength? Are they safe? When is the right time to start fingerboarding? What variables can you change, and how to adjust training difficulty? Is it better to reduce hold size, add weight or hang one-armed? The chapter also discusses how you can increase the exercise difficulty by reducing the number of fingers involved and using bluetooth force meters, such as the Tindeq Progressor [3].

A large section of the chapter is devoted to the importance of tracking your fingerboard training progress. Ned stresses that improvement is not linear and that you might have great climbing days and days when you feel like you suck. And yet, giving up is the last thing that you should do! Instead, keep your eyes on the bigger picture - all this hard training will surely pay off in the long run.

Ned meticulously addresses minute details that might impact your hangboarding performance and derail your motivation. For example, it's not uncommon to perform worse on the hangboard when your fingers get sweaty during the summer. So when evaluating your strength training progress compared with the cooler winter months, this is one of the factors which you should consider. As for myself, I train in a garage, mainly on wooden edges. I tend to perform worse at subzero temperatures because the holds become slippery as glass. The difference can be a good few kilograms on an MVC-7 test hang.

Ned Feehally using the Tindeq Progressor

Figure 2: The author using the Tindeq Progressor for measuring his two-finger strength, book/source: “Beastmaking”.

Chapter 6: Fingers: Grip types & form

In Chapter 6, various grip types are examined and discussed in-depth. All finger positions are illustrated with respective high-quality photos, so you can't go wrong. I've found quite interesting the distinction Ned makes between passive grip types (three-finger drag, four-finger open hand) and active grip types (half-crimp, crimp, and full-crimp). Ned emphasizes that good finger form is essential when hangboarding and that you should not shy away from crimp training.

The importance of finger morphology is explained - that's one of the reasons why some people prefer open-hand positions while others crimp all the time. Figuring out what your weak areas are and addressing them can help you significantly improve finger strength and reduce injury risk.

Chapter 7: Fingerboard exercises

Ah, finally, the part we've all been waiting for! What are the most effective fingerboard routines guaranteed to skyrocket your strength and endurance? Unfortunately, you're bound for a disappointment if you've been itching to learn the specific differences between MaxHangs, Eric Horst's "7-53", IntHangs, and Endurance Repeaters.

Ned essentially describes two fingerboard protocols, namely Repeaters and MaxHangs. As far as Repeaters are concerned, he explains that you may change the hang/rest ratio, the edge size, the number of sets, and potentially add weight. As for MaxHangs, he divides these into:

  • Short Max Hangs (5 - 12 seconds), which trigger neural adaptations
  • Long Max Hangs (20 seconds), which help increase muscle size
  • Tendon Hangs (30 - 45 seconds), which help improve tendon health

The Tendon Hangs are an exercise that might already be familiar to you as Tyler Nelson's Density Hangs. Here, a tiny mistake on Ned's side requires rectification. Although Tendon Hangs help improve tendon health, they do not increase tendon stiffness and contact strength. Instead, it's the other way around - long-duration hangs reduce tendon stiffness through the tendon sliding mechanism. That results in a muscle-tendon system that's maybe a little less stiff but more robust and less susceptible to injury. However, your performance on dynamic moves between small holds is unlikely to improve. If you want to learn more about Tendon Hangs, you're welcome to read one of my earlier articles [4].

In the remaining sections, Ned also clearly explains when training one-armed is helpful and why sometimes it's not such a great idea. He also briefly touches on finger training by lifting weights instead of hanging your body weight off a fingerboard.

To sum up, Ned did a splendid job explaining the basics of fingerboard training. Of course, hangboarding is an incredibly vast topic. If you wanted to explore it fully, it would be necessary to dedicate a long chapter to every hangboard protocol out there. If I could add anything, it would be helpful to briefly discuss selecting the proper loads for fingerboard training and how that affects the training adaptations. Still, there exist other resources providing this kind of detailed information.

Tactics Part 2

In this brief book section, Ned writes about chalk and skin. How to apply chalk? What chalk to choose? How to take care of skin splits, what superglue is good for, and why you shouldn't leave your house without hand warmers on a cold day?

Chapter 8: Should I train full crimped?

Here, we delve deeper into the arcana of finger positioning as Ned explains why full-crimp training is relatively safe and, first and foremost, necessary. The important thing is to go slow and build your full-crimp finger strength gradually and systematically. Believe it or not, some experienced climbers do well using only the open-hand positions but can't generate high forces with the full-crimp grip. If you're one of those people, you'll find the included 3-stage step-by-step program invaluable at getting you on par with one of the strongest but trickiest finger positions.

Chapter 9: Pinching

In this chapter, we will learn whether and when it's practical to invest our time in pinch training. Ned talks about which methods work best for pinch training - is it better to use pinch blocks or a system board? Pinching is particularly common in indoor climbing, but there are crags where having a steel vice of a hand is essential - think tufas and granite. It can also help you improve your crimp strength because the finger arrangement is quite similar, although the thumb positioning is different.

Chapter 10: Board training

This brings us to another key topic discussed in the book: system board training. Ned starts by briefly recapping the history of system boards and outlines how to use them to their full potential. First, why would you even use a system board instead of a regular climbing wall? Next, what does it take to build your system board, and how board design influences your training? For example, should you use resin or wooden holds? Are incut or sloping footholds better? What board angle to use? You will find the answers to these questions in the first sections of the chapter.

Further on, Ned explains how to design your system board training problems and how to structure your sessions. Keep it simple, target your weaknesses, and don't let your ego get in the way! These are just a few of the many invaluable training tips Ned offers! One exciting suggestion is to use ankle weights instead of a vest or a belt - this approach, among other benefits, helps you improve your technique as the punishment for cutting your feet can be severe! Ned talks a bit more about this topic in the Nuggetclimbing podcast [5].

Training on a board isn't about getting to the top of the hardest problems all the time.

The chapter on system board training is one of my favorite parts of the book. The amount of helpful information and details is enormous - suffice it to say the chapter is 20 pages long, which is twice the average length of the other chapters. It's clear that Ned has a thing for system board training, and that should be an obvious hint to us that system boards are an essential tool for building both finger strength and technical skills.

Shauna Coxsey training hard on a system board

Figure 3: Shauna Coxsey training hard on a system board, book/source: “Beastmaking”.

Chapter 11: Endurance training

Another chapter to which climbing aficionados are sure to be looking forward. First, Ned briefly describes what the three endurance systems are and which fuel sources are utilized by the human body for different types of climbing activities. He's not going into any details but provides enough information for the reader to understand the basics.

Next, it's explained that endurance training should be sport-specific. So, for example, although boulderers also need occasional endurance training, which helps them on longer boulders and helps with recovery between attempts, their training regimen will differ from that of a route climber. Essentially, Ned makes a distinction between what he calls:

  • long endurance training: high volume, low intensity (30 - 40%)
  • short endurance training - low volume, high intensity (70 - 80%)

You can do both long and short endurance training on a climbing wall (boring) or a fingerboard (more boring). That goes particularly for long endurance training, which requires 15 - 20 minutes of climbing on easy terrain or doing long bouts of Endurance Repeaters [6]. Short endurance training is more enjoyable, and 4x4s are a classic exercise to improve your anaerobic capacity while keeping it all fun [7]. Finally, Ned gives tips on making the most out of your endurance training sessions and reaching a peak performance phase precisely at the right time - think just before your trip or comp.

Chapter 12: Footless training

I was initially surprised that footless training deserved a separate chapter, but what it really means is campusing on climbing holds instead of rungs when you think about it, and campusing is definitely a topic worth touching on. The initial section compares the pros of footless training on climbing holds vs. the cons of campus training on rungs. Although I found some of the arguments against campus training a bit dubious, I think that dynamic footless movement between holds has its merits. Ned writes how to choose a section of the wall that's proper for footless climbing and how to build your footless training board. Finally, example exercises are suggested, such as speed campusing and double dynos.

Footless training is an excellent way to improve your upper body strength and power. Just be careful - it's a very intense method, and you need a solid strength base for it in the first place - otherwise, you might end up injured. So make sure not to overdo it, take care to get enough recovery, and you're sure to enhance your fitness significantly.

Tactics Part 3

The third and final section on tactics is all about taking care of your skin. Essentially, you can read about reducing sweating and using different skin dryers. Apparently, it seems that we've been using alcohol the wrong way most of our lives! The final bit is about fine hand-beauty implements like sandpaper, razors, and knives, guaranteed to keep your skin smooth as a baby's bottom!

Chapter 13: Arm exercises

A short little chapter on training the large pull muscles of the upper body. Although Ned views having strong arms as helpful, he does not see being able to crank out multiple reps of one-arm pull-ups as an essential ability for sending hard grades. He recommends training arms in and on and off fashion, which is enough to make steady progress throughout the year without running an unnecessary risk of an injury. In the chapter, you will find examples of typical arm exercises, such as "on the minutes", max pull-ups, pyramids, and the like.

Chapter 14: Core

In this chapter, Ned explains what core strength is, where it comes from and what it's useful for. Then, he gives examples of exercises guaranteed to improve your body tension and help prevent your feet from cutting loose on steep terrain.

Chapter 15: Flexibility & mobility

Do climbers need flexibility and mobility? Isn't it enough to be able to crank out some one-arm pull-ups on a 10 mm edge? While it certainly helps to be strong, there are also good reasons why strength needs to be accompanied by mobility, flexibility, and stability - all of which you will learn by reading this chapter in Ned's book.

Chapter 16: Hand & upper body maintenance

The fingers, elbows, shoulders, and backs take a hell of a beating throughout our climbing careers. Therefore it's crucial to know how to keep them strong and healthy. If you don't, sooner or later, it'll backfire, and your progress will halt - take my word for it. Thankfully, Ned has you covered - at least with a few basic drills to help you avoid injury and make the most out of your climbing.

Chapter 17: Quick sessions

If you're tired of endlessly browsing the internet for information on various hangboard training protocols, this chapter is what you need. It gives very concise yet detailed and precise descriptions of the most essential and effective hangboard protocols for building strength and endurance. Moreover, you'll learn how to integrate these drills into your training program to ensure that you progress safely and effectively.

Chapter 18: Pro tips

Ned left the best for last - chapter 18 is without any doubt one of the highlights of the book. Want to know how many one-arm pull-ups Alex Puccio can do? What is Adam Ondra's favorite finger strength exercise? What is the most common training mistake climbers make, according to Jerry Moffat and Alex Megos? Alex Honnold's advice for climbers who want to improve? If you're interested in first-hand climbing advice from the world's crème de la crème, then you will love this section.

Review summary

Beastmaking is an excellent climbing training manual. Ned concisely touches on all physical conditioning aspects for climbers without getting bogged in unnecessary details. The book is everything a climber needs to start designing training programs and making the most of their climbing. From finger strength and endurance training through injury prevention to skin conditioning and tactics, Ned accurately lays out the generally accepted state-of-the-art climbing training knowledge.

You might be disappointed if you're a die-hard climbing training expert or researcher looking for in-depth analyses of particular climbing training protocols and detailed descriptions of the various adaptations they produce. You would be at a loss looking for comparisons between Hörst's "7-53", Eva López MaxHangs, or Steve Bechtel's Ladders. In Ned's book, a Max Hang is a Max Hang, and it last roughly between 10 - 20 seconds. There is also no mention of Critical Force in the context of endurance training [8][9]. Ned recommends doing Endurance Repeaters at anywhere between 30 - 40% of the maximum hang load.

But is that necessarily bad? Is that an oversimplification? No. After all, the information provided in the book is all that was needed for Ned to send 8C and for his wife Shauna to become the UK's most accomplished competitive climber. So, for example, doing Endurance Repeaters a few kg above or below your CF will likely produce comparable results. The worst that could happen is that you'll shift the adaptations more toward the anaerobic or aerobic energy system. But you'll be perfectly fine as long as you deliver various training stimuli and continue adapting to increased loads and training volumes.

However, climbing science is not only catching up with what climbers have known for decades, but it's rapidly overtaking common training knowledge. Innovative tools, such as the Tindeq Progressor, Exsurgo gStrength, Moxy Monitor, Vitruve, or the Climbro Smart Hangboard, emerge on the market, rendering accurate maximum force, RFD, power output, and forearm blood oxygenation measurements possible [3][10][11][12][13]. Unique training methods such as Blood Flow Restriction are being applied to climbing training, and new ways of optimizing finger recruitment are being explored [14]. In the coming years, a new generation of extremely strong and super-conditioned young climbers armed with the latest scientific discoveries will emerge, pushing the envelope even further - it will undoubtedly be exciting to behold!

References

  1. Ned Feehally The Big Island 8C, vimeo.com, 02 Dec. 2015. (link)
  2. redbull.com, Shauna Coxsey (link)
  3. tindeq.com, Tindeq Progressor (link)
  4. J. Banaszczyk, StrengthClimbing – Dr. Tyler Nelson’s Density Hangs Finger Training For Rock Climbing, Feb. 28, 2022. (link)
  5. thenuggetclimbing.com – EP 113: Ned Feehally — Beastmaking, Long-Term Finger Training, and Climbing With Ankle Weights, Apr. 04, 2022. (link)
  6. J. Banaszczyk, StrengthClimbing – Endurance Repeaters – Forearm Aerobic Endurance Hangboard Routine, May 2, 2019.(link)
  7. S. Bechtel, climbstrong.com – 4x4s and Other Variants for Training (link)
  8. J. Banaszczyk, StrengthClimbing – Climbing Critical Force Calculator, May 06, 2019. (link)
  9. Giles, D., Chidley, J.B., Taylor, N., Torr, O., Hadley, J., Randall, T., Fryer, S., 2019. The Determination of Finger-Flexor Critical Force in Rock Climbers. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 1–8. (link)
  10. exsurgo.tech, gStrength (link)
  11. moxymonitor.com, Moxy Muscle Oxygen Monitor (link)
  12. vitruve.fit, Vitruve Velocity Based Training Device (link)
  13. climbro.com, Climbro Smart Hangboard (link)
  14. thenuggetclimbing.com – EP 79: Tyler Nelson Nelson — A Deep Dive Into Blood Flow Restriction (BFR), Finger Training, and Doughnut Eating , Jul. 26, 2021. (link)
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