Training: How to Improve Hand Jam Strength For Roof Cracks

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The author climbing his garage crack machine, which inspired him to train his hand jam strength.

The author climbing his garage crack machine, which inspired him to train his hand jam strength.

I didn't have a great reason for building a crack machine. I don't climb a lot of cracks. Really, I wanted something to mount hangboards on, and I realized that if I built a crack machine, I could put a lot of hangboards on the side of it, and I'd have a crack machine. That sounded fun. The result is a 10-foot long, 2-inch horizontal crack hanging from the joists in my garage. What I did not expect, is that the smooth pine roof crack is really hard. Upon completing the crack machine, I could not hang from the jams—not even close. I wasn't strong enough. Now, knowing that I can't climb the crack has made me want to climb the crack. It's motivating to have a hard project 30 feet from your bed.

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Climbers often suggest that crack climbing isn't about strength; it's all in the technique. In searching for suggestions on how to improve my jam strength, I found a few forum posts saying as much and little else. I decided to reach out to Pete Whittaker, accomplished crack climber and author of the new book Crack Climbing: The Definitive Guide, to get his take. I asked Whittaker if crack strength was even a thing.

"Yes, it is definitely a thing," he said. "If I haven't jammed for a while (especially hand and thin hand), if I go back to it, I get the thumb pump burn way quicker than if I've been training it. I also know it's definitely a thing, as we've had 9a and 9b [5.14d and 5.15b] climbers down in Tom [Randall]'s cellar and they struggle to create the same jamming force to make the jam stick as myself and Tom. It's a mixture of strength and technique just like any other climbing."

Whittaker recommended that I be specific with my training. I should do the type of jam I wanted to improve, just like how I should climb crimps if I want to improve my crimp strength. He assured me that if I trained with specificity, the gains would come. But, my problem was that I couldn't hang from the jams in the first place. I had access to an under-vertical hand crack at my local gym and the impossible wood roof crack in my garage, but nothing in between.

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"Do some deadhang training in the roof crack, exactly like you would when finger boarding, but with jams," Whittaker said. "Build a bit of strength. Then when you can hold the positions easily start thinking about making some moves."

Because I'd built my crack machine, in part, for hangboards, I'd installed eyebolts for pulleys. I used the setup to remove weight for hand jam deadhangs. At first, while jamming the crack with bare skin, I had to remove 53 pounds to hang. With time, I grew stronger. I've since reached the point where I can get my hands and feet into the crack and make a couple of moves. The process has moved smoothly because I've broken it down into incremental steps. Here's what I did. (Note: Requires roof crack.)

1. Deadhangs With Weight Removed

Without weight plates, the author constructed a makeshift system to offset his weight by clove hitching slings or cord around dumbbells and then clipping them onto the other side of a cord that ran through his pulley system.

Without weight plates, the author constructed a makeshift system to offset his weight by clove hitching slings or cord around dumbbells and then clipping them onto the other side of a cord that ran through his pulley system.

You can't do anything if you can't hang from the jams in the first place. It's good to start with a base of strength building. I found that the best way to achieve this was by using a pulley system to remove weight, similar to how I would hangboard from edges too small for me to hang at bodyweight. With pure strength training, short (~5 second) hangs at your limit are best. For jamming, add a couples seconds of buffer time—it doesn't feel good when you fail and slide out of the crack. I performed 5 second hangs at a weight I could hold for 7-8 seconds. Do one rep per set, aim for five sets total, and rest until you feel fully recovered between sets. Don't rush the rest. I waited for several minutes between sets.

You don't need to work up to hanging body weight before moving onto the next steps. When you're climbing a roof crack, your feet will be taking some of your weight. Just work up to the point where it's hard, but not impossible, to do the exercise in step two.

2. Work Your Feet Up

In the beginning of this phase, you may need to keep your feet low so that they take more weight off your jams.

In the beginning of this phase, you may need to keep your feet low so that they take more weight off your jams.

Deadhangs are great for strength, but they don't mimic the position you'll be in when climbing a roof crack. You can train with more specificity by jamming your hands and then working your feet up. Start with low feet (see above photo), following the same protocol as for deadhangs, and rotating your hand placements for each rep. When you can complete all of your sets, move your hands further from the wall and your feet higher to increase the difficulty (see below photo). Aim to keep your arms straight and your shoulders below hands, with shoulder blades engaged. Your goal is to work up to the point where your feet are level with your shoulders.

[Note: I put up a sheet of plywood with climbing holds just for this purpose, but you can substitute a chair, ladder, or anything you can get your feet up on. Avoid anything your feet could get caught in, in case your hands slip out unexpectedly. If there's nothing you can use, you'll have to spend more time in the deadhang phase and skip steps two and three.]

As you improve, move your hands further from the wall and bring your feet higher.

As you improve, move your hands further from the wall and bring your feet higher.

3. Make Hand Movements 

Once you feel solid hanging from jams with your feet on holds that are level with your hips, you can start doing drills. When climbing, you'll need to be able to unweight one jam while holding yourself with the other to make moves. To begin training this, get into the feet up position with both hands jammed in the crack. Remove the lower hand fully from the crack and then replace it above the other hand and lock the jam. Hang here for a couple of seconds then remove the same hand and place it back in the starting position. Do a few reps, then switch hands and repeat. Aim to increase the number of reps in future sessions. You may have to place your feet on lower holds in order to remove one hand from the crack. That's OK. Work your feet higher as you improve.

4. Hang With Hands and Feet in the Crack

If you want to climb a roof crack, eventually you need to start trying the roof crack. The first step is getting used to the position, with both hands and feet in the crack. Grab what you can to swing your feet up and lock them in place, then move your hands into the jams one at a time. I grab one hand onto a campus jug on the outside of the crack, and reach up through the crack to grab the top of the wood with the other. Once my feet are in, I jam the hand from the campus jug first, then drop the other hand a few inches into the jam. Practice holding this position, again similar to the deadhang protocol and rotating your hand and foot positions with each rep.

5. Start Making Moves

Once you can confidently get in the crack and hold the position, it's time to start climbing the crack. Start by getting into the crack and then sliding your upper hand in the direction you'll move, then slide your trailing hand to follow it, moving your feet along as you go. As with all these drills, rotate your starting hand positions with each attempt. Eventually, try to remove your trailing hand and then place it above the other hand. (It's more efficient to shuffle hands, but routes may require you to remove a hand so it's good to practice it. My crack has regularly spaced bolts through the middle of it to prevent flex in the wood, so I don't have a choice when moving around them. These are the crux moves.) As you get confident with the movements, you'll be well on your way to being a solid and strong hand-size roof crack climber.

Bare Hands vs. Tape Gloves vs. Crack Gloves

When I first started training on the crack machine, I used bare hands. Since hearing from Whittaker, I've changed my tactic. "I use a mixture of everything, but mostly tape and crack gloves," he said. "For me, the training is all about getting the mileage in. You want your body to give out before your skin gives out, so protect yourself and don't just rip massive flaps within five minutes of training on bare skin, because that ain't training at all. That's just hurting yourself."

I've now switched to crack gloves, with the goal of being able to climb the crack with tape gloves. I've also found that the various options offer incremental steps in my progression. Here's my plan (from easiest to hardest):

Thick Crack Gloves

Thick crack gloves—gloves with a large solid rubber patch on the back, like wearing a climbing shoe on your hand—make the jams easier. It was similar to removing ~30 pounds with my pulley. The thick rubber helps with friction and makes hands thicker so the jams require less effort.* I was first able to get my hands and feet in the crack while wearing Green Gear's Hand Jammies. When I originally started trying the crack machine the Hand Jammies would bunch up during my jams, getting in the way. Now that I've improved my jam strength and technique, they provide a benefit.

*This is hand and crack size dependent. The gloves could make a thinner crack more difficult, as they would make my hands more difficult to fit in the crack. Likewise, climbers with naturally large hands may not benefit from that extra thickness in a 2-inch "perfect hands" crack.

Thin Crack Gloves

Once I can climb the crack machine with my thick crack gloves, I'll switch to a pair of thinner Outdoor Research Splitter Gloves. Currently, I can hang from body weight while wearing them, but it's difficult. The Splitter Gloves do provide friction and protect my skin just the same, but they are much thinner than the Hand Jammies. They allow me to jam in a position that is more similar to an ungloved jam, but it takes more strength than with a thicker glove.

Tape Gloves

Tape gloves offer the least friction and the least thickness of the three glove options. When I can climb the crack in thin crack gloves, I'll start trying it with tape gloves to again increase the difficulty and improve my ability.

Bare Hands

Before hearing from Whittaker, I did my training with bare hands. It often left the backs of my hands feeling bruised. It's also more difficult than any of the above options because your skin provides the least friction against the wood. It's not recommended for regular training for the reasons Whittaker listed above.

Misc.

  • Use crashpads. You will fall out of the crack while you're learning and improving
  • In an interview on the Training Beta podcast, Whittaker recommends training on a crack machine only two or three days a week. Crack training is hard on your skin and hard on your hands in general, so it's easy to overdo it. Be conservative
  • When building my crack machine, I saw many people recommend adding texture with specific paints or a mixture of paint and sand. I decided not to do this. Texture would make the crack easier. Since I built it for training, I figured the harder the better. Whittaker agreed: "Don't cover your crack machine in grip paint. Either use Wideboyz Soft Grip* or wood. You don't ruin your skin as quickly, it's a lot more comfortable, and you can train for longer without having to stop because of pressure or flesh wounds." 
  • Crack training hurts. Don't continue to push yourself if it feels like too much, but expect some pain. As you get stronger, it will hurt less
  • If building your own crack machine, be sure to sand down any edges or abrasive surfaces inside the wood. It's not necessary to smooth over the wood's natural grain, but anything beyond that will damage your skin. I've had to cut training sessions short due to small grooves I had overlooked. You'll also want to prevent splinters.

*Wide Boyz Soft Grip is a thin grippy padding used on the inside of the Wide Boyz Crack Volumes. It's not available as a standalone product.

I haven't completed my crack machine project yet, but I've seen progress. As with redpointing, or any climbing goal, the key is to break it down into small, achievable steps. One day I'll make the first ascent in my garage, climbing from one side of the crack machine to the other, and then I'll move right onto climbing laps. After that, who knows? I might have to make a trip to try Red Rock's Desert Gold (5.13a) or Yosemite's Separate Reality (5.12a). At the least, I should start climbing more cracks.

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