Training Plan: Improve Your Lock-Off Strength at Home

Top climbing coach Dave Wahl's 90 day training program will turn you into a lock-off monster during the quarantine.
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During these challenging times when it’s difficult, if not impossible to get out climbing, we all fear losing gains we made during the winter. Some loss of power or power-endurance is bound to happen, but strength is a little slower to leave. Strength is also the building block of a climber’s foundational physical attribute. Strength is about force production, and force production transfers over to power or power-endurance. This 90 day home program is based on building strength using tools you can easily employ at home—then, once we get back to normalcy, you can focus on developing more power or power-endurance back on the walls.

The Importance of Lock-Off Strength

Why improve lock-off strength? The ability to hold a lock-off allows for a slower pull toward and grasp of your target grip. Pulling more slowly has a few advantages: It lets you grab the hold with accuracy, it cultivates body awareness (instead of unweighting the feet, which frequently happens during 100-percent efforts), and it lets you mitigate shoulder, elbow, and finger injury through proper posture with controlled movements.

Training Notes

There are some basic technical rules we should strive for when pulling horizontally or vertically from a locked-off position.

  1. Posture-wise, you should maintain a flat or neutral back. I think all of us believe we have good posture, but it might help to record video of yourself to determine if your locked-off shoulder stays low, away from the ear, or creeps up. Elevated shoulders make it difficult to recruit the lats (a major pulling-assistant muscle).
  2. As you pull, squeeze your shoulder blades together and don’t reach with your chin. Reaching with your chin compresses the discs in your cervical spine. Compressing discs is a normal part of many movement patterns, but repeated compression at the same location leads to injury.
  3. Last body-mechanic rule: Do your best not to chickenwing your elbows—i.e., rotate them away from your body. Instead, attempt to pull your elbows near your ribs. Performance-wise, a chicken-winged position is the wrong vector of force application to the climbing hold (unless it’s a jug, in which case it is not a performance-limiting move). The correct vector of force applied to the climbing hold is perpendicular to the angle of the hold. That means, if the climbing hold is a crimp angled 90 degrees, the correct elbow position is almost touching the climbing wall surface below the hold. Health-wise, a chicken-winged position can lead to finger-pulley, wrist, elbow, and shoulder pain because the vector force is in an awkward plane with regard to the musculotendon unit.

During these 90 days, start with the initial test to get an idea of where your strengths and challenges lie. Achieving 80% in one of the categories is a good place to start. For example, if you scored 12 pull-ups, but all of your other tests lay in Phase 1—then Phase 1 would be your starting phase. At the end of six consistent training weeks, test yourself again to check on your improvement. Lock-off training is notorious for producing elbow pain, and no two individuals respond to training the same way. Given that, if, after several weeks the program feels too easy, increase the number of sets by 10%. However, if your elbows are starting to feel a twinge of pain, take a week off, try to increase your aerobic exercise and stretch/massage your forearms before easing (think 50% volume) back into training. Remember, it’s impossible to get stronger if you’re injured.

Tools You'll Need

For horizontal pulls:

Four-Legged Kitchen Table

If your kitchen table is supported in the center of the table, it isn’t appropriate for these exercises. A four-legged table should be stable enough to handle shifts in center-of-mass.

Or

TRX or Ring/Handle Suspension System

Suspension systems offer many benefits: handle rotation, the ability to adjust height for vertical or horizontal use.

For vertical pulls:

Pull-up Bar

Whether you have a stand alone bar or a bar that fits into your doorway.

Or

Tree Branch or Rafter

These can be an alternative to a pull-up bar. Obviously, the tree branch should be stable and as horizontal as possible. From the tree branch or rafter, you can also hang training blocks (like Tension Blocks or Metolius Wood Rock Rings) or rings.

Optional equipment:

Static Line

A suspended static line is cheap and easy to use (for helping take off weight during pull-ups and hangs).

Pulley System

Pulleys are becoming more popular as they offer progressive, measurable overload of the specific exercise as opposed to an elastic rubber band or static line (for helping take off weight during pull-ups and hangs).

Pick Your Phase

Let’s start with a test to see which phase you’ll start with:

Day 1

  1. Warm up: 10-15 minutes of full body motion patterns, i.e., bodyweight lunges, easy pulling and pressing, and range of motion of the fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders and hips are a good way to think about warming up.
  2. Perform pull-ups to failure on a pull-up bar. Record your repetitions.
  3. After another 3 to 5 minutes, grab the pull-up bar with both hands, pull up, and lock off at the top. Record your time to failure—when your chin drops below your hands.

Day 2

We can do this test the nest day, as the first day of testing isn’t enough volume to have mitigating effects.

  1. For the more advanced climber, pull up with both hands to lock off on a bar, jugs on a fingerboard, or jugs on your blocks. Then release one hand attempting to hang from one hand for 3 to 6 seconds. You need to be able to hold your head above your locked off hand. If you’re close but not successful, then take 10 to 20 percent of your bodyweight off by using a pulley system; if you can’t hang for 3 to 6 seconds this way, then stop this test. If you’ve successfully hung for 3 to 6 seconds with your body weight, add 10 to 20 percent of your body weight and hang for 3 to 6 seconds. Continue to add weight to your test until you can’t hang for the minimum time. Record the weight as a percentage of your body weight. For example, adding or subtracting 15lbs for a 150lb climber is 10%. If I’ve added 10% to my test, then my score would be 110%, or if I’ve subtracted 10% weight, then my score would be 90%.]

Based on your results with these tests, use the chart below to select the phase you’ll start with. Remember, during these 90 days, start with the initial test to get an idea of where your strengths and challenges lie. Achieving 80% in one of the categories is a good goal to start with. 80% success means you’re able to achieve 80% or more of the criteria for that category. For example, if you scored 12 pull-ups, but all of your other tests lay in Phase 1—then Phase 1 would be your starting phase. At the end of six consistent training weeks, test yourself again to check your improvement. If you’re finishing all sets and reps with ease, consider adding more.

Testing

Phase 1Phase 2Phase 3Phase 4

Pull-ups (reps to failure)

0-2

3-9

10-17

18

Two-arm lock-off (hang for time to failure)

0-5 seconds

5-35 seconds

36-60 seconds

61+ seconds

One-arm lock-off (3–6 seconds)

n/a

n/a

Between -20 to +10 of body weight for 5 seconds

Body weight and above for 5 seconds

Length of Phases

This depends on many factors; age, how many years you’ve been climbing or training for climbing, current health status, or how you respond to consecutive days etc...but, let’s start with twp general plans:

  • A) 2 weeks on, 1 week off
  • B) 3 weeks on, 1 week off

Continue this pattern until the six week mark, then re-test.

Lock-Off Strength Training: Phase 1

Vertical PullSets x Reps

A) Monday/Friday

Eccentric (lowering/negative) pull-ups, or...

3 x 3

B) Monday/Friday

Pull-ups

3 x 3

Wednesday

Pull-ups

1 x failure

Wednesday

3 angle (top, 90, 120) lock-offs, to failure

3 x 3

Horizontal Pull

A) Monday/Friday

Feet supported on ground, knees bent, or...

3 x 3

B) Monday/Friday

Feet supported on ground, knees straight, or...

3 x 3

C) Monday/Friday

Feet elevated supported on opposing chair/box

3 x 3

Lock-Off Strength Training: Phase 2

Vertical PullSets x Reps

Monday/Friday

Archer pull-ups

3 x 2 per side

Wednesday

Frenchies

3 x failure

Wednesday

Pull-ups to your chest

3 x failure

Horizontal Pull

A) Monday/Friday

Feet supported on ground, knees straight archer pulls, or...

3 x 6 per side

B) Monday/Friday

Feet elevated supported on opposing chair/box archer pulls

3 x 6 per side

Lock-Off Strength Training: Phase 3

Vertical PullSets x Reps

Monday/Friday

Archer pull-ups

3 x 2 per side

Monday/Friday

One-arm  weighted or subtracted weight pull-ups

3 x 2 per side

Monday/Friday

One-arm lockoff at three angles

3 x 3 per side

Monday/Friday

Banded or weighted pull-ups

3 x 3-5

Wednesday

Pull-ups to your chest

3 x failure

Wednesday

Frenchies

3 x failure

Horizontal Pull

A) Monday/Friday

Feet supported on ground, knees straight archer pulls, or...

3 x 6

B) Monday/Friday

Feet elevated supported on opposing chair/box archer pulls

3 x 6

Lock-Off Strength Training: Phase 4

Horizontal PullSets x Reps

Monday/Friday

Archer pull-ups or muscle-ups

5 x 2 (per side for archers)

Monday/Friday

1-arm pull-ups at body weight or weighted

3 x 2 per side

Monday/Friday

Banded or weighted pull-ups

3 x 3-5

Monday/Friday

1 arm Lock-Off at 3 angles (Top, 90, 120)

3 x 3

Wednesday

Pull-ups to your chest

3 x failure

Wednesday

Frenchies

3 x failure

Horizontal Pull

A) Monday/Friday

Feet supported on ground, knees straight archer pulls holding the eROM, or...

3x6

B) Monday/Friday

Feet elevated supported on opposing chair/box archer pulls holding the eROM

3x6

Exercise Guide

If standard pullups are too hard, jump into the top position and lower yourself slowly.

If standard pullups are too hard, jump into the top position and lower yourself slowly.

The eccentric pull-up is a variation on the normal pull-up. Start by standing on an elevated surface (box, chair, etc.), then jump above the bar and lower as slowly as possible.

If eccentric pull-ups are too easy, then move to normal pull-ups. To complement normal pull-ups, complete lock-offs at 90- and 120-degrees . Each lock-off is performed three times to failure.

Horizontal pulls with bent legs, straight legs, and elevated legs. The variations become more difficult from left to right.

Horizontal pulls with bent legs, straight legs, and elevated legs. The variations become more difficult from left to right.

After vertical pulling, move your efforts to the horizontal pulls. Horizontal pulls are obviously a different plane of motion. These are relevant to climbing because as one hand reaches higher and your center of mass ascends, the lower hand moves into a horizontal-pull position. These pulls can be done with Olympic rings, a TRX (or any suspension brand), or even a four-legged kitchen table. A word of caution: Make sure your table is stable and secure before trying these exercises

Horizontal pull variations, increasing in difficulty from left to right.

Horizontal pull variations, increasing in difficulty from left to right.

We can add intensity to the horizontal pull by: extending the legs straight, elevating the extended legs, modifying an archer pull by extending one hand to a supporting table leg, lowering that extended hand toward the bottom of the table leg, and performing a horizontal pull with one hand (or eccentrically lowering with one hand).

In Phase 2, the intensity and volume increase. Remember, the goal is to improve force production, so having a progressive increase in difficulty is important.

Archer pull-ups add difficulty beyond standard pull-ups.

Archer pull-ups add difficulty beyond standard pull-ups.

Archer pull-ups are a good way to add force to your lock-off strength. Start with a wide grip and pull to one side, lower back to center, and repeat on the other side.

Frenchie pull-ups require you to lock off at the top, 90 degrees (pictured), and 120 degrees.

Frenchie pull-ups require you to lock off at the top, 90 degrees (pictured), and 120 degrees.

The Frenchie is a pull-up exercise designed to spend time under tension (TUT) at specific angles: top, 90, and 120 degrees. A word of caution: Lock-offs at the top of your pull can result in elbow pain in some people.

One frenchie is:

  1. Pull up, lock off at the top for 5 seconds, lower to bottom
  2. Pull up to top, lower to 90 degrees, hold 5 seconds, lower to bottom
  3. Pull up to top, lower to 120 degrees, hold 5 seconds, lower to bottom
  4. 2 pull-ups to finish
Pull-ups to your chest move through a greater range of motion and require more power.

Pull-ups to your chest move through a greater range of motion and require more power.

Pull-ups to your chest teach you to pull through a greater range of motion than you have done in the past, and require a greater display of power. In this author’s opinion, all pull-ups should finish at the chest. Reaching with the chin is not orthopedically healthy for the neck.

OneArm

Perform a one-arm pull-up (pronated) with added weight or subtract weight via a pulley, band, or static line.

An increase in intensity would include a body-weight one-arm lock-off at the top, 90, and 120 degrees, plus banded (anchored to the floor) or weighted resistance at your harness (harness should sit on your tailbone, not the lower back)

eROM (end range of motion): Harder climbs require strength closer to the end ranges of motion, this is where a modification of the archer pull-up would happen. Using some creativity, you could, for example, have a towel, rubberband or static line attached on the opposite end of your pulling apparatus and hold the towel/static line, rubberband with an outstretched arm to attempt to pull with as much force as you can. The goal is to build strength in the end range of motion. This can be made as difficult as you wish. Always remember safety, if it feels like it’s discomforting in a joint (wrist, elbow, shoulder) as opposed to a muscle, then the exercise is not appropriate—or not appropriate for you.

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