ALEX HONNOLD'S life is in his hands—those freakishly large palms and sausagelike digits, with fingerprints eroded away from years of wear.
The 29-year-old Californian is best known for his fearless ascents of the world's biggest cliffs—the Nose of El Capitan, which he speed-climbed in record time in 2012 with Hans Florine; and free-solo (i.e,. without a rope) climbs of the granite crest of Yosemite's Half Dome (2008) and the limestone face of Mexico's El Sendero Luminoso (2014). He has traversed them all with his bare hands, fingertips jammed into crevices and clinging to half-inch shelves of protruding rock to hold his chiseled 5'11", 160-pound frame.
"My friends like to remind me that I have relatively weak fingers," says Honnold. "Finger strength has always been my biggest weakness."
In a sport with no established training methodology—it's dictated by goals and the time of year, says Honnold—ordinary gym routines like squats and biceps curls won't cut it. Instead, Honnold uses a hangboard workout modeled from an Olympic lifting program to strengthen his extremities.
"A hangboard is a little piece of wood with edges, holes and slopes," he says. "There's different strategies for different things—hanging, varying grips, adding weight. If I do a hard finger workout, I'm definitely sore."
Right now Honnold has no significant climbs planned, so he's focusing on building his fitness base through mountain running. "I'm learning how to do the aerobic training but still maintain strength for rock climbing," he says.
Like climbing, the long-distance conditioning gives Honnold a moment to prepare his mind. "I spend all of the time thinking and visualizing and fantasizing about my objective," he says. "It's a long, slow process, but eventually something that's a crazy fantasy goes to being inevitable."
Honnold's audacious approach to preparing for the heart-stopping, unroped climbs comes easy—it's something he can do without lifting a finger.
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Tips from Honnold for climbing and exercises that can be incorporated into any workout.
For more athlete training profiles and tips, go to SI.com/trainingwith
JIMMY CHIN (HONNOLD)
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JASON LEE