It’s fair to say that unless you’re born with a brain like Alex Honnold’s, there’s something inherently scary about rock-climbing – that’s why every cheesy office has a picture of someone free-climbing a big wall with a motivational quote under it, usually about the power of self-motivation or being your best self. Although I could never do what Honnold does (God love him, there is something seriously strange about how his mind works) personally I don’t find being high off the ground particularly scary. What gives me the cold sweats is not falling a long way, but jamming a couple of fingers in a pocket, shuffling my feet and then falling, without being able to get my fingers out, leaving my fingers in the pocket as I fall [shudder].
Not all kinds of rock will have pockets, for example granite has very few, but if you climb on a wide variety of rock and especially if you climb indoors, you definitely will run into them. This is why I want to be able to do what German Bouldering Champion Jan Hojer does in this video where he is able to do a flag hanging from just a pinkie on each hand. Hojer also puts us all to shame by telling us he only trains for 14 hours a week, but putting that aside, how can we, as normal mortals, train on pockets without running the risk of hurting ourselves?
If you really want to get into the weeds, there’s a great article by the Climbing Doctor about how to avoid injuries. What he says makes them so difficult, and so prone to causing injuries, is that as you are pulling down hard with some of your fingers you are also keeping others relaxed, which is difficult because all your fingers are controlled by just two tendons in your forearm. The main takeaway from the article is that you should “protect yourself from injury by utilizing proper finger/hand posture” and “avoid oppositely flexing/extending your proximal phalanges”. To put it a way you or I might understand, extend your fingers out beside the pocket, keeping everything in as straight a line as possible, rather than bending the free fingers at the knuckle, underneath the hold. Think of the Devil-horn hand sign from a million metal videos. This finger position may not be quite as strong but significantly reduces the risk of injury as all the tendons are working in the same way.
Some people argue there’s no point training pockets as you’re just using the strength and technique you can build up from using other holds. I disagree, in my experience pockets are as important a hold and hand position as any other, whether it be sloper, crimp or anything else. They are something you will often come across when you climb so it seems important to incorporate them as part of your training. However, the high levels of strain we put through just a couple of fingers means we should treat them with respect and make sure we use proper technique and avoid injury where possible.