The Way of the Iron Fist

posted by dpm on 12/02/2011

Why there isn’t a rice bucket (or two or three) in every climbing gym in the world is something I don’t understand. This simple hand and forearm strengthening device has been used by martial artists longer than we’ve been recording history and, if used properly, could cut down on most injuries climbers incur, while making them stronger as well. 

Last issue, in the article “The One Workout Every Climber Should Do,” we discussed the importance that strong shoulders have in stabilizing all movements in the upper body, including the lower arm. Today we tackle the next link in that chain, your forearms and hands.  Obviously hand strength is important for climbers. Unfortunately, both the act of climbing and most of the exercises that climbers do to strengthen their attachment to the rock, work almost exclusively on what are called the flexor muscles of the hands and forearm. This creates a massive imbalance between flexor and extensor strength that leads to an assortment of ailments including elbow and bicep tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and various injuries to the hand tendons and tendon pulleys. 

If climbers spent more time creating a balanced musculature, injury rates would plummet. An interesting fact was illustrated by a test done in the late 90’s that showed climbers’ hand strength to be barely above average, which is very surprising for a group that lives by their fingertips. The reason probably stems from lack of balance. As I stated in last issue’s article, muscular balance not only helps fix biomechanical misalignments but also frees up muscles to work as designed and, thus, your muscles become more efficient. Climbers with muscular balance in their hands and forearms not only get injured less; they’re more efficient (meaning stronger) too. 

The rice bucket workout doesn’t simply focus on the extensor muscles. Because these muscles are small it’s important to focus on the relationship between all of the muscles as well as their movement patterns. This workout progresses through various positions in a symbiotic action that helps weak muscles catch up with stronger ones, creating a harmonious platform for movement.

The Workout
Your muscles will respond quickly to this workout but allow the volume to build slowly.  Most elite climbers I’ve shown this to become pumped early while attempting only 30 seconds per movement (which is pretty pathetic given how well they climb). Two sessions per week is all you should start with until you can do 45 seconds per exercise. Once you’re at this level you can finish off each climbing day with a rice bucket session. Completing the workout using one-minute intervals is a good benchmark but there’s no reason to stop trying to improve. When this workout feels like a massage instead of exercise you’re probably to the point where you don’t have to worry too much about overuse injuries in your hands and/or forearms.  Start with a bucket filled with rice or sand.
Sand tends to compact over time, making rice the preferred choice. About 20 pounds will suffice but more is better. Showing proper respect for your rice bucket is not required but, like climbing, how much risk one wants to take is a personal choice.

Iron Fist - Stab your fingers deep into the rice and then make a fist. Retract. Repeat. This is my hand. I want it strong.

Screaming Talon – Stab your fingers deep into the rice and then open your hand wide. Retract, palms away from you. Repeat. Your hand is afraid of the rice. The rice should be afraid of your hand.

Fists of Fury – Embed fists deep in rice. Rotate one direction. Don’t worry that you can’t see. Fear is the only darkness. Breathe.

Fists of Fury, Part II – Embed fist deep in rice. Rotate other direction. Seek not to know the answers, but to understand the questions.

Wax on, Wax off – Embed fists deep in rice. Move fists side to side. Don’t think. Feel. Focus on the art of climbing without climbing.

Paint the Fence – Embed fists deep in rice.  Move fists up and down. Patience, Grasshopper.

Snatch the Pebble – On the surface, snatch rice quickly with your fingers over and over.  Keep your form. The rice has only images and illusions behind which it hides its true motives.  Destroy the image and you will break the rice.  Do not spill rice on floor.

Magic Palm – On surface push rice away with fingers. Stay under control while you reflect on life failures. Spill rice on floor at your own peril.

Gouge the Eye – Dig you thumbs deep into the rice repeatedly. Remember that you learn most about life from your greatest enemies.

Eagle Claw – Stab rice with fingers together and claw at it. Don’t be tender. An eagle can break a wolf’s back with one strike.

Crush the Pebble – Grab handfuls of rice and attempt to make gruel out of it, quickly and repeatedly. Only the undisciplined spill rice on the floor. Control the rice. It is your destiny.

Essence Absorbing Stance – Lightly caress handfuls of rice, move into your most powerful stance, then squeeze. In time you will learn to absorb the essence of the rice. It is only then that you will be truly powerful.

For video demonstrating the movements click the image.  

By: Steve Edwards