Over the past 20 years, the number of climbing facilities in the United Kingdom alone has increased sixfold (6). Despite increased popularity, both climbing training and recovery between climbing bouts are not well understood because research in this area is sparse. Recovery in climbing is important because climbing often activates small musculature of the hand and forearm such as the brachioradialis and flexor digitorum, thereby causing pain of the forearm when climbing to volitional failure (8,9). However, little is known regarding the best modality for recovery from climbing because only 3 studies have investigated the effects of recovery upon climbing (4,8,15).
Of the 3 aforementioned studies, only 1 (8) has investigated a variety of recovery modalities on subsequent climbing performance. Investigators evaluated the effects of cold water immersion, electromyostimulation, passive recovery (quiet sitting), or active recovery (leg cycling) between climbing bouts and found that both active cycling recovery and cold water immersion maintained climbing performance. The reason for the maintenance of climbing performance after active recovery involving leg cycling is not entirely clear, but it may be related to accelerated blood lactate removal (15). Cold water immersion has been shown to improve writing performance in individuals who often experience writer's cramps (11). So, although the mechanisms are not completely understood, it appears that cold water immersion provides an analgesic effect on the forearm and lowers hand temperature, causing localized vasoconstriction and lowering muscle temperature, and thereby providing relief from the acute inflammation that stems from the muscle damage caused by climbing to failure (8).
Although cold water immersion was efficacious in the Heyman study (8), it is not always practical or feasible to perform cold water immersion between competitive bouts. Applying ice bags to the entire arm and shoulder may offer a viable alternative, but this has not been investigated. Therefore, the aim of this study was to determine if applying ice bags during recovery between sets of closed-handed and open-handed weight-assisted pull-ups (to provide a metric that simulates climbing performance) would maintain performance in recreationally-trained rock climbers. We hypothesized that applying ice bags to the arms and shoulders during recovery from weight-assisted pull-ups to failure would maintain pull-up performance using both closed-handed and open-handed grips.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
The study comprised a familiarization trial and 4 counterbalanced closed- and open-handed weight-assisted pull-up performance trials using recreational rock climbers. A custom-made training device, specific to rock climbing was created. This device allowed the open-handed grip to be used during weight-assisted pull-ups so that the user could exercise at a percentage of the user's body weight. Responses to repeated open-handed weight-assisted pull-ups are unknown and compared with repeated closed-handed weight-assisted pull-ups. Pull-up performance, HR, RPE, perceived recovery, S-RPE, and comfort ratings were recorded.
The study procedure was approved by the University's Institutional Review Board, and informed consents were completed by all participants. Nine healthy male volunteers between 19 and 28 years of age were recruited from an indoor rock climbing facility. The participants were recreational climbers and had completed a questionnaire that reported they had completed a standard bouldering problem between V1 and V7 (based on the V scale; ranges from 0 to 16) in the past 12 months and had been climbing indoors or outdoors an average of once per week for at least 6 months (7). The participants were free of any known cardiovascular, metabolic, or pulmonary diseases, and written informed consent was obtained before testing. The participants were asked to maintain their normal dietary habits and avoid any form of upper-body exercise throughout the study.
On the first visit to the laboratory, body weight, height, and body fat percentage were assessed after completing consent forms and medical history. Height and weight were assessed on a scale and stadiometer (Detecto, Webb City, MO, USA), whereas body fat percentage was estimated from the sum of 3 skinfolds (chest, abdomen, and thigh) (12). Next, hand strength was assessed using a hand-grip dynamometer (Country Technology, Gays Mills, WI, USA). Both hands were tested and recorded and the dominant hand noted. The participant was sitting down, upright in an arm chair for support, while the elbow joint was flexed at a 90° angle. The dynamometer was placed with the dial face perpendicular to the table, with the face of the dynamometer displayed toward the participant. The participant's thumb was always placed on the fixed portion of the dynamometer frame, and the dynamometer was flipped depending on which hand was being evaluated. The participant grasped the movable arm of the dynamometer with the 4 fingertips, while the thumb braced against the immovable part of the dynamometer. This was done to mimic the pinch grip. To assess strength, the hand-grip dynamometer was squeezed maximally 3 times by the participant for 1 second per repetition, the highest number was recorded. Each maximal squeeze was separated by 15 seconds. Chalk was available to reduce slipping (1,6).
After grip strength was assessed, the participants performed 2 sets of 10 repetitions of both open-handed and closed-handed grip pull-ups assisted by 50% body weight (Paramount Fitness Corp., Los Angeles, CA, USA) to become familiar with the protocol to be performed during subsequent experimental trials.
At least 72 hours after the familiarization session, each participant performed 1 of 4 experimental trials consisting of either closed-handed or open-handed weight-assisted pull-ups to failure using 1 of the experimental recovery modalities between sets. The 4 testing sessions were counterbalanced. The participants performed a warm-up set of 10 repetitions with 70% body weight supported, followed by 3 sets of pull-ups with 50% body weight supported using either the closed-handed or open-handed grips at a cadence of 20 pull-ups per minute until volitional failure. Cadence was kept using a metronome. To use the open-handed grip during the pull-up, a custom-built device was used to attach climbing holds (Nicros, Inc., St. Paul, MN, USA) to a weight-assisted chin-up machine (Paramount Fitness Corp., Los Angeles, CA, USA). Attaching the custom-made device to the machine permitted weight-assisted pull-ups to be performed using an open-handed grip. All the pull-ups were performed with the hands at a fixed width of 70 cm. Nineteen minutes of recovery separated each set to allow acute recovery (8).
Two types of recovery were used. During passive recovery, the participant remained seated with the upper limbs along the sides of the body (8). During ice bag treatment, the participant had ice bags attached to the anterior and posterior forearms, biceps, triceps, and deltoids. Ice bag treatment was terminated at 17 minutes. For the remaining 2 minutes, the participants were seated and underwent a short passive recovery allowing them to prepare for the next set (time to dry off and apply chalk if desired).
After each set, the participants were asked to provide ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) (2). Heart rate (HR; Polar USA, Ann Arbor, MI, USA) was recorded before and immediately after each set (14). Perceived recovery using a visual analog scale (Perceived Recovery Scale [PRS]) (3,10) was recorded before each trial began. Approximately 20 minutes after each training session, participants provided session-RPE (S-RPE) using the OMNI scale (14). This provided a difficulty rating for the entire training workout (5,10). Additionally, the participants used a 100-mm hedonic scale to rate their comfort using the custom-made hand-grip pull-up device.
All the participants completed each set to failure using either the closed-handed (pronated) grip or the open-handed grip. The amount of weight-assisted by the machine was rounded to the nearest 1.1 kg. Each set began at full elbow extension with the participant supporting the percentage of body weight assigned. The set was terminated if the participant failed to complete the entire range of motion or could not keep cadence for 2 consecutive pull-ups. There was no time limit.
The Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA) was used to analyze the data. Repeated measures one-way analyses of variance (ANOVAs) were used to determine group mean differences between trials for RPE, PRS, S-RPE, HR, total number of closed-handed, and open-handed pull-ups using the 2 recovery modalities and overall comfort based on a 100-mm scale. Post hoc comparison using a Bonferroni-adjusted alpha level was used to perform individual comparisons following a significant omnibus ANOVA. Intraclass Rs for test retest of the open-handed (R = 0.99) weight-assisted pull-ups were calculated. All data are reported as mean ± SD. An alpha level of 0.05 was used for all statistical tests.
Intraclass Rs for test retest of the open-handed (R = 0.99) weight-assisted pull-ups evidenced reliable values. Pinch-grip hand strength was not different pretrial vs. posttrial for either condition for any trial (p > 0.05). Table 1 gives the descriptive characteristics of the rock climbers. No differences were found between trials for pinch-grip hand strength pre and post each trial. Also no differences were found for HR, RPE, PRS, S-RPE, or ratings of comfort among trials. The participants performed fewer open-handed pull-ups overall (19 ± 5) compared to closed-handed pull-ups overall (34 ± 14; p = 0.003). Figure 1 shows no differences between recovery modalities of closed-handed weight-assisted pull-ups, whereas Figure 2 illustrates how ice bag recovery maintained subsequent open-handed pull-up performance for sets 2 (mean = 22 ± 5) and 3 (mean = 22 ± 5) compared with the third set using passive recovery only (mean = 17 ± 6) (p = 0.004, p = 0.003, respectively) (Figure 2). The number of repetitions for set 1 of open-handed pull-ups was equal between treatments (passive, 21 ± 5; ice bag, 21 ± 6; p > 0.05).
The purpose of this study was to determine if ice bag recovery maintained subsequent open-handed and closed-handed weight-assisted pull-up performance compared to passive recovery. The hypothesis is partially supported in that ice bag recovery maintained open-handed weight-assisted pull-up performance compared with passive recovery. However closed-handed pull-up performance was not affected by ice bag recovery.
We speculate that ice bag recovery treatment was effective for open-handed but not for closed-handed performance because of the musculature that was cooled between the pull-ups sets. Ricci et al. (13) investigated which muscles were activated during a closed-handed pull-up using electromyography and found that the large musculature of the shoulder and back (infraspinatus, teres major, upper pectorialis major, biceps brachii, and latissimus dorsi) became activated throughout the full range of motion. Furthermore, Koukoubis et al. (9) investigated the electromyography of a climber performing pull-ups on a fingerboard using only one grip. The authors did not mention which grip was used; however, the participants performed the pull-ups using the fingertips of both hands. It could be logically concluded that this was an open-handed grip. Koukoubis et al. (9) concluded that the main muscles activated during the pull-up were the brachioradialis and the flexor digitorum superficialis. In this study, ice bags were placed distal to the shoulder; therefore, the upper pectorialis and the latissimus dorsi, the main muscles involved in a closed-handed pull-up, were not cooled between sets, and therefore, the ice bags failed to maintain closed-handed performance.
Heyman et al. (8) evaluated 4 types of recovery methods on climbing until volitional exhaustion. The 4 types of recovery were passive recovery, lower-body cycling, electromyostimulation of the forearm, and cold water immersion of the entire arm. Twenty minutes of recovery separated the 2 climbing ascents. Results of this study were consistent with the cold water immersion results of Heyman et al. (8).
Because cold water immersion may not be feasible in an outdoor climbing setting, it was important to determine whether a practical alternative cold therapy could be used to maintain climbing performance. The present findings support the recommendation to consider using ice bags for recovery between bouts of rock climbing that involve a predominantly open-handed grip to maintain performance.
During bouldering competitions, rock climbers have approximately 8 hours to complete a number of routes, called “problems,” and record scores. Usually, only 10 problems are scored, so the more difficult the problem, the more points the climber will receive. There is a strategy to winning a bouldering competition, and the use of ice bags between ascents could keep the climber recovered enough to maintain climbing performance for climbs that predominantly involve an open-handed grip. Although cold water immersion and leg cycling have also been effective in maintaining climbing performance (8), these methods are not as practical as ice bags during an outdoor competition.
Additionally, depending on the training cycle in a periodized routine, climbing coaches may want to administer ice bags to athletes in between sets during a training session to allow more work to be done within a given time frame. This might allow the climbers to perform more repetitions than they normally would be able to, which should increase the training stimulus. Further research is warranted to determine if application of ice bags to the back muscles during recovery would facilitate maintenance of closed-handed pull-up performance.
The authors thank Drs. Ann Godfrey and John Clark for their time and assistance throughout this study. Our gratitude is also extended to Charlie Katica, Shawn Gendle, Stephen Buckner, Tyler Boswell, and Nathan Fedor for their help with data collection and also to the participants of the study. The authors have no conflicts of interest related to the present study. No funding was received for this study. Additionally, the equipment used for this study does not signify endorsement by the authors or the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
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