Campus Training Part 1: History, Theory & Campus Board Construction

This is Part 1 of a 3 part mini-series on Campus Training.  Check back for the rest of the story in the near future.

Gullich going big on the original Campus Board. Note how low his left hand is!

The legend of the original Campus Board is well-known and often re-told, not unlike the Epic tales of the ancient Greeks.  The incomparable Wolfgang Gullich installed the first board at a Nurnberg gym known as “The Campus Centre” to help elevate his finger strength to levels that could only be described as “futuristic”.  The board consists of a ladder of finger edges, and the training method is to move dynamically between these edges with feet dangling.

The concept behind the Campus Board is to apply methods of “Plyometric Training” in a manner that is specific to rock climbers.  Plyometrics have been around for a while, originally developed by Soviet Track & Field coaches in the 1960s to help train explosive power in their athletes.  Early plyometrics involved activities like jumping off a high surface, landing on a lower surface and immediately springing back up to the original height.  Theoretically the landing causes an involuntary eccentric contraction in the leg muscles which must be immediately converted to a concentric contraction in a very short period of time.  This type of training is still widely regarded as the best method for improving explosive power.  Gullich’s visionary adaptation of these concepts proved to be the key to his ground-breaking ascent of Action Directe in 1991, amazingly still one of the hardest routes in the world.

Gullich mono-campusing on his opus, “Action Directe”

Considering that (simplistically speaking) Power equals Force divided by Time, there are two key reasons Plyometric Training is effective at developing explosive power.  While it helps increase muscle fiber recruitment (key to maximizing the force element of the equation), there are many ways to increase recruitment some of which are likely more effective.  What sets plyometrics apart is the dynamic aspect of the training, which helps train muscle fibers to contract more quickly, allowing us to generate high levels of force in short order.  The obvious application to climbers is to use plyometrics to improve “contact strength” (if you’re unclear on the definition, read this), the key to performing difficult dynamic climbing moves (and often the key to success on hard routes or boulder problems). 

As with classic Plyometric training, the act of latching a difficult dynamic move entails a short period of eccentric contraction in the forearm muscles followed by an immediate concentric contraction to achieve the desired isometric grip position.

In addition to the pure strength benefits of Campus Training, this method is very helpful for improving the inter-muscular coordination required for good “accuracy” in dynamic movements.  The more you practice dynoing or campusing, the better your brain gets at aiming for holds. In a few sessions I can pretty quickly get to a point where I’m basically deadpointing every campus move, which makes the moves much easier. This accuracy translates directly to the rock, although on rock, every move is different, so your accuracy on an onsight will likely never be perfect, but it should improve over time.  The more you practice dynamic movements, the better your body & mind get at remembering those types of movements, meaning you should find yourself better able to “dial” dynamic moves on your projects over time.

Consistent Campus Training will greatly improve your muscular coordination, key for moves requiring tremendous accuracy like this dyno to a mono pocket

Finally, its well known that some climbers just don’t do well on dynamic moves.  This could be due to a general lack of aggression or a strong desire to remain “in control” on the rock.  Campusing can work wonders with these issues.  By encouraging aggressive and committing movement in a low-risk environment, climbers can overcome years of overly static movement after only a handful of short campus sessions.

With all the many great things Campusing has to offer, its worth noting the downsides.  First, there is no doubt that campusing is much harder on the joints than other methods of recruitment training such as hangboarding.  Campusing is by its very nature somewhat wild and out of control.  With a hangboard you can dial-down the intensity at will, and let go the moment things get uncomfortable.  Often in campusing (or dynoing in general) the only sign of injury comes after its too late.  For that reason, its critical to minimize the amount of time dedicated to the Campus Board, and ensure that you are 100% injury free before beginning any campus activities.  Elbows are particularly at risk, but shoulders and fingers need to be healthy as well.

Hopefully your board looks something like this, or perhaps even better. From left to right the board has “Large”, “Small” and “Medium” rungs.

Now that you’re all psyched to get campusing, you just need get yourself a Campus Board.  Ideally you have a local gym with an acceptable board.  The board needs to be in good shape, with a large quantity of smooth “rungs” of uniform size and shape, spaced at short intervals (around 3-4″).  Many boards have way too few rungs.  The result is climbers quickly progress to whatever is near their limit, then its pretty much impossible to improve any further because the next increment of progression is too great.  The legendary Ben Moon has popularized the spacing of his board (22cm intervals), which is famous for the “1-5-9″ ladder.  This spacing is way too big!  Someone like me can do 1-4-7 on Moon spacing, but I would have no prayer of doing 1-5-9.  So I would be forced to do something that is too easy to be at my limit.  Some day I may be able to do 1-5-9, but I won’t get there by repeatedly doing 1-4-7.

Another common problem is boards that mix different sizes and shapes of rungs on the same ladder.  This causes the same problem as a board with too few rungs.  The board should be ~15 degrees overhanging, and free-hanging to allow your feet and legs to swing around without dabbing on nearby walls.  If you don’t have access to a good campus board and you want to build your own, I highly recommend wooden Campus Rungs like these.  For some great tips on building your board, check out this guide.  You don’t necessarily need all three sizes of rungs–at this point I have no use for the Large rungs and only use the Medium rungs for warming up.  Finally, the rungs need to be numbered so that you can record and track your training.

Look for much more on how to get the most out of the Campus Board in the next few weeks….

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13 thoughts on “Campus Training Part 1: History, Theory & Campus Board Construction

  1. Mark,

    Setting up a campus board in limited space on a 24″ wide board. I was considering placing small rungs on one side and medium on the other, so they would have to be staggered by a few inches and overlap in the middle. With medium and small rungs I’m guessing the different sizes won’t interfere with each other? I am considering a spacing between a 4″ and 6″ for both types of rungs. Would the smaller spacing be better for fine tuning workouts? Thanks for any thoughts that can improve my setup.

    Jesse

  2. Jesse,

    That’s a tough one. I think I understand what you mean about overlapping & staggering rungs, and frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it. I think it will cause problems when you’re trying to do difficult moves. Although not ideal, I think you would be better off mixing the rungs on the same ladder. To do this, think about what you plan to use each set of rungs for, and see if you can figure out a good place to replace a small rung with a medium.

    For example, on my Small ladder (Spaced at 4″ OC), some rungs never get used: 2,3,4,5, and some rarely get used: 6, 9, 10, 15. I only use my medium ladder to warmup, wich involves a 1-3-5-7-9 (6″ spacing OC) ladder almost always. So if I wanted to lay my medium rungs over my small rungs, I might remove rungs 3, 6, and 9, and replace them with medium rungs, then simply adjust my Medium rung warmup to 3-6-9 (which is the equivalent of 1-3-5 on 6″ spacing) and do it twice. If you do this, be prepared to swap out rungs as you improve.

    Another option you might consider is to simply cut your Medium rungs in half, so your small ladder would be 16″ wide and your Medium ladder would be 8″. Not great for hard campusing, but if you only use it to warmup, I think it would be serviceable.

    Good luck and let us know how it goes!

    Mark

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  4. You suggest a larger number of rungs with smaller than standard spacing, stating that getting to the next level (using 1-5-9 as an example) isn’t possible without graduating to smaller increments first.
    However, wouldn’t it make more sense to progress past the inability to reach the next rung by campusing 1-5-7 by campusing with a few pounds of weight?
    For instance, two pounds of ankle weights increasing gradually until the resulting recruited muscle fiber increases enough to reach the next rung un-weighted.
    It seems that this would be a more effective means of recruitment than adding tiny increments between the standard rungs…
    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

    • Carlos,

      Adding weight is one way to progress on the campus board. I’ve never done that myself, but I know of people who have done so. A common complaint is that adding weight increases the injury risk dramatically. Campusing is already really hard on the elbows, and it seems like adding weight makes the problem much worse. That said, you could probably get away with adding small amounts of weight (less than 10 lb.) for a workout or two if you take it easy. See what happens and let us know how it goes.

      • Absolutely… I have a set of adjustable-weight ankle weights that i use for hypertrophy training. I’ll see if incorporating them with incremental increases works well and update in a month or so.

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  7. It looks like in the picture you have your small rungs oriented with the in-cut side up. What is your reasoning for this? It’s not clear what angle your board is at, but I would have assumed that you used the flat side of the rungs exclusively at this point. I’m rebuilding my board to be slightly steeper (12* to 16* off vertical) and wasn’t sure if flipping the rungs to the in-cut side up would be beneficial or not.

    Thanks for the great blog. It’s always nice to see a new post – keeps me motivated to train when I can’t get out climbing!

    • Hi Ben,

      That’s a good question with a bad answer. The reason is that when I built the board (almost five years ago now) I thought I needed the incut edge up. I’ve never bothered to change it. My campusing has come a long way since then, so its probably long past time to flip them around.

      As for your second point, I have a long post prepared discussing campus board angle that I will post next week. Its an important factor that is often overlooked.
      Mark

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