A training video recently made waves on YouTube. In it, Swedish boulderer and video producer Emil Abrahamsson presents a plan that has brought him massive gains in finger strength in just four weeks. The trick is that his approach is neither time-consuming nor particularly strenuous, but he can train especially frequently. Has Abrahamsson discovered the holy grail of climbing training? Or is there something else behind it all?
The 8B boulderer next door
If you occasionally spend your time watching climbing videos on YouTube, chances are you’ve stumbled across Emil Abrahamsson. The likeable Swede first gained notoriety as a crew member of Eric Karlsson Bouldering before he started producing his own videos. In the early days, he mainly documented his ascents on the rock, which range up to difficulty 8B. In the meantime, some more unconventional content has also been published. Just recently, he uploaded a video of his attempt to jump single-arm the 45-degree sloper of the Beastmaker 2000s and get stuck. Where most fail at just holding on, he shimmied back and forth between the 45s of two boards a few times after his successful attempt. This should be proof enough even for skeptics: Someone here isn’t just serious behind the camera.
It’s no surprise that it causes a stir when such a fit athlete achieves an unbelievable leap in performance within four weeks without training in the classical sense. Especially since Abrahamsson has not necessarily aroused suspicion in the past of doctoring his performances for clicks and quick fame. Fittingly, the title of the video, which has now been clicked on more than a hundred thousand times, is sober: “Hangboard Training 2 Times Per Day For 30 Days”. At the beginning, Emil even takes the time to remind viewers that the video is not documenting a scientific study, but an experiment that he and his brother Felix conducted. What follows, however, should quickly make almost all viewers forget this warning.
Training plan based on current research
Abrahamsson explains that he has gained his finger strength in recent years primarily through training on the campus board. Therefore, he says, wide pulls on good holds are no problem for him. Small ledges, on the other hand, would present him with a challenge because his fingers are not up to the strain. His brother, who himself repeatedly struggles with finger problems, was recommended a study by a physiotherapist that dealt with injury prevention and rehabilitation of tendons and ligaments. Based on this paper, the two developed their program.
The paper mentioned is called “Minimizing Injury and Maximizing Return to Play: Lessons from Engineered Ligaments.” It describes the response of lab-grown cruciate ligaments to various loading protocols. The research focused on the workings of fibroblasts, a type of cell responsible for building and healing tendons and ligaments by producing collagen. Understanding these better, the researchers believe, can help build stronger connective tissue and return to sport more quickly when injuries occur. The team’s key findings concern the ideal length of exercise time, the length of breaks in between, and the intensity needed to activate fibroblasts.
Findings and recommendations of the researchers
The ligaments from the petri dish were trained by repeated stretching, as also occurs during movements. This showed that the collagen-forming cells do not respond in principle to every stress stimulus to which they are exposed. Instead, time plays a central role here: Their activation peaked already about ten minutes after the start of the training, without being increased by further stimuli. Afterwards, it took a relatively long time until they were again receptive to stimulation. Only after three hours did a renewed response become apparent, and the fibroblasts were fully stimulable six hours after the end of the previous exercise.
The team was also interested in what effects varying degrees of stress had on fibroblast activity. To answer that, the cruciate ligaments were stretched between 2.5 and ten percent. Interestingly, the researchers did not find any significant differences in the response. The conclusion: the load intensity does not play a decisive role in tendon training, unlike in muscle training. The same applies to the frequency of the load. Whether the cruciate ligaments were stretched quickly or slowly made no difference to the collagen-forming cells.
Short, frequent, low-threshold
An ideal workout, in the researchers’ view, therefore targets the right timing. To stimulate collagen synthesis, they suggest combining an exercise period of no more than ten minutes with a six-hour break before the next session. In addition, because higher load intensity does not enhance the response, they advocate a low load. This prevents the high training frequency from becoming a problem for regeneration.
Emil and Felix took these recommendations as a starting point for their experiment. Their basic idea is to hang from the Beastmaker twice a day for ten minutes in various grip positions. Their program includes the open and half-open grip on ledges and on finger holes, with only two fingers per hand being loaded in the case of the latter. Training is done in a 10/50 interval, alternating ten seconds of hanging with 50 seconds of rest at a time. To avoid overload symptoms and because, according to the study, a low load is sufficient, Abrahamsson relieved himself with his feet in each position. According to his own estimates, he exerted about 50 percent of the force that would have been needed to lift off the ground.
Impressive performance improvement after 30 days
To determine the effectiveness of his protocol, Emil tested himself at the beginning and end of the 30 days. The differences were impressive: While he was initially able to hang two-handed from the 14-millimeter bar with 40 kilograms of additional weight for five seconds, he increased his maximum weight to 67 kilograms. He increased his one-armed hang time on a 20-millimeter bar from about half a second to 13 seconds on the right and just over seven seconds on the left. The results were similarly dramatic for the two-handed hang on a 6-millimeter bar. While he did not get off the ground at the beginning of the training period, he was able to hold for eight seconds after the 30 days.
|5 seconds hanging on 14mm | max. additional weight||40kg||67kg|
|Single arm hanging on 20mm | max. time||0.5s 0.5s||7s 13s|
|Hanging at 10mm | max. time||23s||Not tested|
|Hanging on 8mm | max. time||11s||27s|
|Hanging on 6mm | max. time||0s||~8s|
At the latest after the presentation of these results, the ambition of every spectator to get on the board himself will have arisen. At the same time, those with some basic knowledge of training theory will have asked themselves: How is this even possible? Emil is a high-performance climber with several years of training experience, for whom such short-term and drastic increases in performance are no longer to be expected. It is well known that progress becomes slower and slower with increasing training experience. It becomes even more astonishing when one considers the low-threshold nature of the protocol, which is unlikely to elicit a muscular response in Emil that would explain the strength gains. Or as Doctor of Physical Therapy Jason Hooper of Hooper’s Beta YouTube channel sums it up, “No one would ever expect to miraculously be able to lift a 60-pound weight after 30 days of bicep curls with a 2-pound dumbbell.”
Two possible explanations
Hooper addresses the strengths and weaknesses of the study and the program in a reaction video. And he offers a possible explanation for Emil’s results. In his opinion, Abrahamsson did not experience a breakthrough, but was better able to realize existing potential thanks to the training. He sees two possible mechanisms at work for this:
Hooper thinks it’s possible that, on the one hand, the training had a healing effect on Emil’s tendons and ligaments. For example, he may have felt more secure when hanging and, accordingly, pulled on more powerfully. Since ring ligaments are very similar to the cruciate ligament used in the study, it stands to reason that they benefited in particular. In the semi-open grip used by Emil in the strength test, these are subjected to high loads, so healthier ring ligaments may be an advantage here.
Second, Hooper believes that a change in the nature of the flexor tendons of the fingers is likely. To understand this mechanism, you need to know that tendons have variable flexibility along their length. While the end fused to the bone is relatively stiff, the tendon tissue at the junction with the muscle is easier to stretch. On the one hand, this allows the tendon to transmit applied force directly to the bone. On the other hand, its flexible end can absorb force peaks that occur during movements and thus serve as a shock absorber for the muscle connected to it. This protects the muscle from injury. For example, when landing on the ground after a jump, the Achilles tendon absorbs part of the impact energy and prevents overloading of the calf muscles.
How tendons respond to training
How flexible the tendon is at the junction with the muscle is not a fixed parameter, however, but is subject to stress-related changes. Certain types of loading can make the tendon stiffer or more flexible. This has a direct impact on force transmission. While a stiff tendon transfers the kinetic energy generated by the muscle more directly to the bone, thus enabling faster, more powerful movements, the force transfer is more sluggish with a more flexible tendon. This can be compared to trying to move a heavy stone. If you tie a rubber band to the stone and pull, the band must first be tightened before the stone starts to move. A steel cable, on the other hand, transmits the applied force without any noticeable loss.
That’s exactly what happened here, according to Hooper. Training has activated collagen synthesis and contributed to the formation of cross-linking of collagen fibers, making the tendon stiffer. According to Hooper, studies have shown that such changes are possible within four weeks. What he rules out at the same time is that Emil’s tendons have thickened as a result of the training. The 30 days wouldn’t have been enough for that.
Is that good or bad?
Abrahamsson has managed to massively optimize his performance with little effort. That’s a great thing, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Because while his tendons are capable of transmitting power more directly as a result of the training, this change also brings disadvantages. After all, they are no longer as capable of performing their protective function. This results in a significantly increased risk of injury. It is well known that athletes in fast-paced sports – sprinters, for example – are more likely to injure themselves after achieving personal bests a short time earlier. They also benefit greatly from stiffer tendons. However, if they give less than the muscle, the latter becomes the weak link in the muscle-tendon-bone chain. If the tendon no longer buffers sufficiently, the muscle has to stretch under strain, which ultimately leads to a tear.
Without question, there is also an increased risk of injury with the Abrahamsson method. Because the fingers feel more solid and it is easier to apply a lot of force to the grips, people will tackle more demanding moves. In the process, the tissue is exposed to higher loads without actually being able to cope with them better.
How to use the method
So is the risk of the workout too high to actually use it? This question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. It must be clear that long-term use favors injuries. However, if you are specifically preparing for a competition or a project, this or a similar method can help you to be in top shape at the targeted time. At the same time, you can use another form of tendon training to regenerate your tendons and ligaments beforehand, reducing the risk of injury during high-performance periods.
Hooper suggests training with longer hang times to do this. Instead of holding a position for only ten seconds, make it 30 seconds during this recovery phase. The light sustained load activates the collagen-forming cells as well, but maintains flexibility at the muscle-tendon junction because the cross-linking of collagen in this area is broken up. This contributes to the health of the tendon. Then, if a performance phase is coming up, you can focus on explosive and short, maximal strength exercises instead. These don’t break up the cross-links and allow new ones to form, making the tendon stiffer. Hard bouldering, campus boarding and max slopes are possible choices here.
The results from Emil’s experiment suggest that this effect can be further enhanced by his protocol. This is because unlike hard training, which requires correspondingly long breaks from training, unloaded slope boarding can be done frequently without having negative effects on recovery. However, it is important to keep in mind that Emil’s experiences cannot necessarily be transferred to every other climber. This would require a larger-scale study with several participants and a control group.