Crusty Corner: 11 Artisanal Training Tools

Get swole on the cheap in the age of COVID-19.
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Crusty Corner is a column written by Climbing editor Matt Samet, a climber of 30+ years. When he's not at the gym or the rocks trying to stave off the inevitable performance decline of middle age, you can find him in his basement playing Xbox.

When I first moved to my current home of Boulder, Colorado, in 1991, there was only a single rock gym in town: the bouldering/traversing walls shoehorned into the back of the gymnastics practice space at CATS, the Colorado Athletic Training School. Alternately, you could traverse and do vertical crimp problems on the flagstone-and-cement walls of the engineering center on the University of Colorado campus, or down in a swampy, mossy hole called the Pit on the west side of the Mackey Auditorium. Training options were limited, and if you had a bad day out climbing or got skunked by the weather, but still had some gas left in the tank, it was either CATS or the CU campus or, well, not much else to try to maintain fitness.

True, back then we had hangboards, but I lived in a dormitory and couldn’t put one up. We also had grip rings, those dog-toy squeezy doughnuts that Chouinard Equipment used to sell. I more than once came home from a day out climbing and sat down to my studies with the grip ring in hand, switching off between arms as I tried to get a deep pump, having not achieved said result at the rocks. Whether my exertions paid off or not, I can’t recall, though I was certainly no worse for them. When that spring, 1992, rolled around, I added in 10 million pushups and sit-ups a day plus thrice-weekly trips to the weight room. I was 19, had no girlfriend, and had way too much testosterone and time on my hands—the explosive energy of youth needed release before it devoured me from the inside out.

By then, the first iteration of the Boulder Rock Club had opened, but I was too broke to afford a membership. Plus the gym was, like, 22 feet tall and its igloo bouldering cave and honeycomb lead wall often caused head-injury collisions between climbers. And CATS was too chaotic, with the young gymnasts lining up to run and vault perilously close to the climbing wall, music blaring, kids shrieking, and so on. We had some local bouldering—Flagstaff Mountain, the Ghetto up in the Flatirons—I could flog myself on, but it wasn’t easy to access from the middle of campus, far from my car in an outer parking garage.

In recent years, of course, gyms have opened all over the country including in Boulder, and there is always a convenient, solid plan B for getting a full session in. Bouted on your prospective project? Finish at the gym! Stuck belaying your selfish partner for two hours in the cold, and ended up too wooden-muscled to continue climbing? Warm back up and do some 4x4s at the gym! Rained out at the cliff after two pitches? Make it a gym day!

However, sadly, we have reverted back to the dark ages of the pre-gym era thanks to the coronavirus, and climbers everywhere have been scrambling to find ways to keep fit. In the early days of the quarantine when the gyms shut down, there was a mad rush to buy hangboards. Then everyone started building home walls, those freestanding, backyard 8 x 12 lean-tos you can’t escape on social media. (“Hey, guys, help me set some V3s on my new wall…” go the crowdsourced queries. Um, how about you figure that shit out yourself, lazy-ass!) Gyms in some states have begun to reopen, but it’s not like the good, old freewheeling days: Reservations, mask wearing, and social distancing/reduced capacity limits are mandatory, meaning you can’t easily pop in on your way back from the crag to finish out the pump.

Drat! It’s like we’re back in 1991 again!

Which is why I’d like to propose the following DIY tools for staying fit in the age of COVID-19. Hangboarding gets boring quickly, home walls aren’t cheap, and the gyms aren’t going to be the same until we have a vaccine. That said, by embracing the current hipster ethos of artisanal, hand-built, small-batch wares, we can still stay fit easily and with very little cash outlay.

Ye Olde Hanging Boarde

Pick through your neighbors’ garbage bins on trash day or head to the local dump. What you’re looking for is any length of 2 x 4 you can appropriate as a hangboard. Bonus points if it’s already riddled with janky nails and scabby screws—no need to buy mounting hardware! Hang that sucker over your doorframe by pounding it directly into the drywall—who needs a stud finder? See how many pull-ups you can do before the board tears out of the wall and hits you in the head. Hope you got a tetanus shot recently! Repeat until you’re “5.14 fit,” dead, or out of doorframes.

Ye Olde Rotating Climbing Wall

Rotating climbing walls are a great way to build endurance, but they’re expensive. However, you can get that same enduro burn with a hillside, an old tractor tire, a handful of holds, and a training partner. Mount your holds to the outside of the tire, stand just below it at the top of the hill, then have your partner push the tire over the lip. Your job now is to climb like you’ve never climbed before—or be flattened. (Note, the steeper the hill, the faster you’ll need to climb.)

Ye Olde Mooning Boarde

There is no better training tool than the MoonBoard, with its tens of thousands of problems that light up on the wall in synch with an app. Yet the MoonBoard is a top-tier, pricey item and a big commitment to install in a home gym. However, you can build a DIY “MoonBoard” on the cheap. Simply take your existing home wall, drill out some light holes below the grips, and then install those Christmas-tree lights that flicker on and off randomly. Quick, hop on and send your problem before the lights flicker off again—the clock is ticking!

Ye Olde Grip Trainer

Stick one hand inside your other hand and squeeze it. Use other body parts as desired.

Ye Olde Auto-belay

If you’re lucky enough to have a tall climbing structure, say in your backyard or bolted to the side of your house, but are hard up for a belay slave, you’ll need to build yourself an auto-belay. Head on down to the junkyard and get a bunch of old seatbelts out of wrecked cars. Tie them together in one long string, and then anchor that atop your wall through a single seatbelt retractor. Tie a knot in the bottom end, clip in, and climb! You’re probably good for at least a route or two before your auto-belay falls apart and drops you 25 feet on your ass.

Ye Olde Campusing Boarde

Take an extension ladder and lean it against your roof. Use the underside of the ladder to campus. Hope it doesn’t fall and then land on you—ladders aren’t really designed for this.

Ye Olde Pinching Blocks

Find a rock; now pinch it. To train a wider grip, find a wider rock. To increase the difficulty, find a heavier rock. For the most part, rocks are free. If you can’t find any free rocks nearby, head into your local country-club neighborhood and steal them out of rich people’s front yards.

Ye Olde Hypergravity Training

While some climbers wear weight vests or clip weights to their harness to add resistance during hangboarding or pull-ups, weight vests and weights are mostly sold out on Amazon. Luckily, you already have a cheap weight source right in your kitchen: the faucet. Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, so if you drink a gallon of water before training, you'll have 8-extra pounds built in for all of your exercises. Bonus core workouts: 1) Tense your abdomen so you don’t erupt like a firehose during strenuous exercise, or 2) try projectile vomiting all that water back up. Either way, it’s full core activation. Just be sure to get enough sodium to prevent lethal hyponatremia.

Ye Old Can O’ Beans

Find a can of Goya black beans in your pantry and lay it down on a smooth surface. Roll your forearm back and forth over the can. Boom! You’ve got a forearm massager. If you don’t have Goya black beans, put on your mask and head to your local grocery store during early-morning senior shopping hour. Pry the beans from that 85-year-old pensioner’s hands and take it home. Only Goya black beans will do.

Ye Old Bully on the Block

Head to the corner store where the local high-school dropout hangs. Make a witty joke about his mom being a “ratchet ho” or his dad being a “cuck.” Receive punches around sore areas of the body (you’ll need to present sore body parts to your bully/human massager to make sure this happens)—it’s better than any massage gun. If you’re working on training aerobic fitness/resistance, crack your insult then take off running.

Ye Olde Starvation

As the coronavirus crisis goes on forever and the world economy collapses, you’ll soon be able to get down to “fighting weight” through simple starvation: Grocery stores shuttered, fields lying unattended in rot, and no food available means nothing to eat! And with packs of armed bandits roving the streets, and crazed cannibals and COVID zombies beating your doors down to steal your freeze-dried survival wares, you’ll be in such a state of constant hypervigilant panic that you’ll shed those pounds effortlessly.

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