All other things being equal, stronger fingers equals better climbing.
It’s no surprise, then, that hangboard training is the exercise of choice for serious boulderers and sport climbers.
Research studies have documented what thousands of recreational and pro climbers have discovered at home—hangboard training works! Three brief training sessions per week, for four weeks, will yield a noticeable increase in finger strength, especially in those new to hangboard training.
For climbers with a long history of training, however, the gains in finger strength come more slowly. This is where selecting the right hangboard protocol (to target your weakness), dialing in your nutrition (to accelerate recovery and optimize body weight), getting adequate rest, and strengthening tendons become very critical factors. With appropriately nuanced training and attention to the smallest details, you can continue to make small gains in finger strength and endurance for many seasons to come!
Toward this end, I’ve detailed below five proven hangboard training protocols for increasing your maximum grip strength and strength-endurance. I also recommend you explore these articles on performance nutrition for stronger/healthier tendons and optimizing your bodyweight (and strength-to-weight ratio) for peak performance. — Eric Hörst
Just as an Olympic sprinter or jumper must develop stronger legs to sprint or jump higher, a serious climber needs to increase finger flexor strength as part of a comprehensive approach to season-over-season improvement. The critical metric for sprinters, jumpers, and climbers is strength-to-weight ratio! Here are three proven protocols for developing more strength in your finger flexors muscles!
Based on research by Eva Lopez-Rivera, this protocol is what I recommend as an entry-level hangboard program (not to be confused with a "beginner’s” program—true beginners shouldn't hangboard train). A few multi-week cycles will bring noticeable gains in finger strength for intermediate climbers, as well as serve as preparation for delving into weighted fingerboard hangs (detailed below).
Initially, you’ll need to do some experimental hangs on different-size edges and pockets to identify what features you can hang on for about 15 seconds before grip failure. Actual training hangs should terminate a few seconds before failure, so I recommend making each hang exactly 12 seconds in length. By design, this training protocol will produce little or no muscle pump as it primarily targets the anaerobic alactic energy system. As you gain strength, keep your hangboard training progressive by using smaller holds or fewer fingers. Really strong climbers may be able to hang on holds as small as 8mm or even 6mm. Though painful, these tiny-edge hangs may increase “pulp”—the fleshy tip of your fingers that, like sticky rubber shoe soles, deforms over small rock holds to provide grip!
As you gain strength from doing the minimum-edge protocol explained above, you’ll eventually come to the point of needing to train on some really small holds that hurt and, perhaps, tempt “dry-firing” (explosively slipping off the finger hold) or injury. It’s at this time (if not sooner) that you should switch to one of the two maximum-weight protocols detailed here.
The beauty of “max hang” protocols is that you increase intensity by adding weight rather than using smaller holds—this makes for less skin pain and little risk of dry-firing. The ideal size edge for weighted hangs is around three-quarters the length of your first finger pad (index finger). If you’re new to weighted hangs I recommend using a hold between 20mm and 23mm. In the future, you may find that training on a 14mm edge with less weight added is the way to go. Experiment!
While some folks employ a weight belt or vest to add resistance, I recommend investing in a few free weight plates and a loading pin that you can hang from the belay loop of your harness. This makes it super easy to unclip the weights and de-load between hangs. Buy a loading pine here and cheap free weight plates on Craigslist.
Really strong climbers may need to add up to 100 pounds—beyond this point, I recommend transitioning to mostly one-arm hangboard training (an elite strategy) which I’ll detail in a separate article.
This is an advanced maximum-weight protocol that I created to train maximum strength and foster more aerobic power (by stressing the muscles to increase the rate of CP resynthesis during the 53-second rest between maximal hangs). It’s also a very time efficient protocol for elite climbers doing multiple sets. This is my favorite finger-strength protocol!
Strength-endurance is the capacity to maintain a high level of force production throughout repeated efforts lasting up to about one minute in duration. This is the stuff of gripping up long, hard boulder problems and route crux sequences.
Excelling in these strenuous situations demands high neural drive and alactic power, but also a significant anaerobic reserve (anaerobic lactic system). Furthermore, brief “micro rests” between grips and the longer breaks between boulders (and during on-route rests) allow the aerobic energy system to come significantly into play to drive recovery of ATP/CP and efflux of lactate and H+ ions between efforts. Since Repeaters closely mimic these climbing situations—and stress all three bioenergetics systems—it’s the go-to exercise for developing strength-endurance in the finger flexor muscles.
An important bit of training nuance before we get to the two most popular repeater-training protocols. The intensity and volume of your repeater training will determine the degree to which the protocol targets the anaerobic and aerobic systems. For example, people who mainly boulder can more greatly target the anaerobic systems by doing five sets of repeaters at high intensity (smaller holds and/or more resistance), but longer rests between sets (~5 minutes). Conversely, a route climber wanting to equally train the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems should do ten to twenty sets of Repeaters on less-difficult holds (or with less than bodyweight via a counterweight system) and with only one minute of rest between sets.
The two following protocols are designed according to the latter concept of training all three energy systems nearly equally.
This is the go-to Repeater training protocol for top route-climbers around the world! You’ll want to use a timing App to be precise with the 7/3 hang-rest intervals. Keep it crisp—no cheating and no chalking up between hangs. (No, you can’t chalk up in 3 seconds—this is only enough time for a quick shake. If you have sweaty hands that require chalk between hangs, then use the 10/5 protocol below.)
If you’ve got sweaty hands that require frequent chalking, then this is the Repeater protocol for you! It will provide virtually the same training stimulus (i.e. time under tension is 40 seconds per set rather than 42 seconds) and benefits as the 7/3 protocol described above. However, the 5-second rest between hangs is just enough for a quick dip of chalk!
What’s better, a hangboard made of wood or molded plastic?
If you tend to have sweaty fingers, then the texture modeled into a plastic board may be a plus. However, extensive training with added weight tends to be more comfortable on a wooden hangboard. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal preference. Some climbers purchase a few different hangboards in order to vary grip types and texture as needed from session to session.
What is the proper arm, shoulder, and torso positioning for safe and effective hangboarding?
No matter the fingerboard protocol you choose, it’s essential to train with good technique! Maintain muscular tension throughout your shoulders and upper torso by engaging your scapular stabilizers and rotator cuff—think "shoulders down, chest out". Never hangboard train with relaxed/passive shoulders and a hollowed chest! Lift your knees only slightly to develop necessary core stiffness, and never train with the full-crimp grip (i.e. “closed crimp” with thumb lock). Also important: engage in twice-weekly training of the scapular stabilizers and rotator cuff muscles—consult Training For Climbing for comprehensive instruction on antagonist, stabilizer, and forearm flexor muscle training....and a whole lot more!
How can I best nourish my tendons and muscles to gain strength, accelerate recovery, and reduce injury risk?
Research has shown distinct nutritional protocols to support tendon health, connective tissue recovery, and strength/power gains! Consuming vitamin C-enriched hydrolyzed collagen before targeted training is the lynchpin of the protocol shown to double collagen synthesis after exercise. This is revolutionary information for a hard-training climber wanting to develop stronger, more injury-resistant tendons and ligaments/pulleys! Furthermore, post-workout consumption of Leucine-rich protein has been shown to amplify mTOR signaling and muscle protein synthesis. Whey protein isolate is the best protein supplement for climbers, given its ultra-clean, low-calorie, and high-leucine characteristics. Vegan athletes can best support tendon and muscles recovery with Powerplex plant-based protein.
What’s an appropriate warm-up for a hangboard workout?
A progressive warm-up is essential to prepare the finger flexor muscles, scapular stabilizers and, most importantly, the flexor tendons and ligament pulleys (commonly injured). Ideally, begin with a brief full-body activity to elevate heart rate (Burpee, jumping jacks, jogging, or similar) followed by a few sets of easy upper-body warm-up exercises (a few pull-ups on jug holds, a few push-ups and/or dips, and gentle rotator cuff warm-ups). Conclude your warm-up with some mild finger flexor/extensor stretching and massage of the forearms and fingers.
How often can I hangboard train?
In depends on many things…including your climbing experience, loading (and injury) history, frequency of climbing, rest and nutrition habits, and even age and genetics. A few rough rules of thumb: 1. If you’re new to hangboard training, then two moderate sessions per week is plenty, in addition to a day or two of actual climbing. 2. Advanced (and healthy) climbers may do up to five sessions per week, but with only two of these sessions being maximum-weight workouts. 3. When “performance climbing” (outdoors or competition) use the hangboard only as a warm-up tool! 4. Reduce volume and frequency of hangboarding (and climbing) at the first sign of finger pain—this pain is evidence of an adverse perturbation in collagen homeostasis. 5. Cease hangboard train in the wake of an acute injury. (If you suspect a pulley tear, consult a doctor—immediate use of a “ring splint” has been shown to accelerate recovery.) Very submaximal hangs may help support injury rehab, but do this only once you’re beyond the acute injury stage. 6. When in doubt, err on the side of doing less, not more—too much hangboard training will eventually lead to overtraining and injury.
Copyright © 2020 Eric J. Hörst | All Rights Reserved.