Rock climbers get better at climbing by practicing and spending significant time climbing. Having said that, to progress faster, you will most likely need or want to strengthen your fingers and grip strength. By using a hangboard, you can increase your finger strength – but this could distract you from what you are trying to achieve – being a better climber.
More than its appearance of a simple wood board, the hangboard is a key piece of training equipment for anyone in need of added Climbing training to progress more quickly.
By using a hangboard, you can Train multiple muscle groups needed to progress as a climber, but the main focus to the hangboard is to train finger strength in a way that imitates climbing. Making use of a hangboard lets you do this in an isolated and consistent manner and allows you to measure your progress. It removes all the additional technical components that you encounter while climbing and helps you to focus solely on increasing your finger strength. Increasing your finger strength on a hangboard will do very little for your climbing if you do not combine it with intentional climbing practice.
It is also a way to maintain your training routine during times when you cannot make it to a climbing gym.
For any rock climber, just one hangboard session can show your current finger and crimp strength.
What is hangboarding?
Hangboarding, also sometimes referred to as fingerboard training or training board, builds strength in your fingers, upper body, and core. It is a supplemental exercise that imitates climbing holds. A rock climbing hangboard has different hold sizes and types so that you can customize your workout according to your needs.
With stronger fingers, you increase your grip strength, and your forearms take longer before going into endurance mode, which could benefit your climbing ability.
There are a variety of hangboards out there, all with different features – some can even train pinch grips and other grip positions. Take a look at this review of Trango’s Rock Prodigy Training Centre[JP1]. A wooden hangboard is good for an indoor area where you are building your own training space. Metolius also has rock rings that consist of two independent units, making it easy to take your hangboard training anywhere.
Are you ready to do hangboard workouts?
Starting hangboard workouts too soon could cause injury to your tendons – especially in your fingers. Hangboarding is not always an exercise for beginner climbers. You need to gradually strengthen your fingers through other exercises and lots of rock climbing before moving on to hangboard workouts.
A general suggestion for starting hangboard workouts is around the two-year point (or later) of rock climbing 2 to 4 times a week and once you are an intermediate or advanced climber. It takes longer to strengthen tendons and ligaments than it does to strengthen muscles. As you get stronger, you can go beyond your tendons’ capacity, which could lead to injury.
So, while you will quickly build strength and want to progress further, it will take time for your tendons (and especially your finger tendons) to catch up. The best way to increase your finger strength while minimizing the chance of injury is to climb as much as you can in your first few years.
Generally speaking, you should not need to incorporate hangboard workouts until you are at least a 5.11 or 5.12 outdoor climber – and even then, you might not even need it.
If you are a beginner climber or just unable to hang comfortably from a 20mm edge, you might need to strengthen your fingers some more through regular rock climbing before starting hangboard workouts.
Some climbers think that if they have been stuck at a grade, they have hit a plateau and need to incorporate additional training into their workout plan. If this is the case, you need to consider whether you need additional training, or whether you could benefit more by staying on your current grade while getting stronger and better at climbing.
You will get the best benefits out of finger strength training once you have built enough strength and rock climbing skills needed for grades that you are currently working on but fail to complete due to not enough strength in your fingers to pull through moves or recover enough during your climb.
The decision of whether or not you need to do hangboard training largely depends on where you will be rock climbing. Some crags have large holds or jugs and do not require extremely strong fingers. Others have smaller holds, and you could benefit from finger training.
How to mount a hangboard
Mount your hangboard at a height where your feet can touch the ground when you lower them. You want to aim at having a gradual release instead of dropping to the floor – which could strain and damage your finger tendons. You also want to make sure that your hangboard cannot move in any direction – or worse, come loose while you are using it.
Metolius’ website [JP2] has a lot of information on hangboard training – including how to mount your hangboard.
How hangboard training affects your body
Hangboard training affects your muscles, the energy it produces, and how it uses that energy. You can use different loading methodologies to train and increase your finger strength.
Connective tissue can benefit from both high intensity and high volume workouts.
Structural adaptations grow the muscle cross-sectional area (perpendicular to the fibers) and change the connective tissue to give you more force production and transfer. These changes happen slowly but last longer than neuromuscular adaptations. This can be promoted by using lower loads for more extended periods and/or doing repetitions to failure or near failure.
Neuromuscular adaptations change the interaction between the muscle fibers and your nervous system. This enables your muscles to use a higher percentage of the strength potential that you already have. You can get this by using more weight and full effort.
Metabolic adaptations alter how your muscles produce, store, and use energy. This naturally happens throughout your training in two ways. Doing short stints of high-intensity loading with near full recovery in between increases the potential power output of your muscles, but you can get tired quicker and need more time to recover fully. Longer times at lower intensity loads with more repetitions and less rest means you will get tired slower and recover faster, but it also means you will have less potential for high power output for short periods.
Warm-up and warm down.
A proper warm-up is essential for any workout routine, and that includes hangboarding. Start with dynamic stretching and jumping rope, doing jumping jacks, or going for a short run. Then move to shoulder and finger stretching by doing some pull-ups (with a pull-up bar, on jugs or the largest holds on a hangboard) or doing some bouldering for about 15 minutes. You can also do grip-strengthening exercises like using a stress ball or putty.
Start with doing longer hangs on your hangboard, before moving on to a few 10-15- second hangs on larger holds. You can also combine this with a few pull-ups. Do this for about 10 to 15 minutes before you start your workout session.
Do static stretching after your hangboard workout to keep your muscles loose.
While some people believe that you should use an open-handed grip and avoid crimping when training with a hangboard, others add half-crimp and full-crimp positions to their training. This makes sense, considering that climbers often use full-crimp positions on real rock. You could choose to train all three crimp types. When you do full crimps, be aware not to put too much strain on your fingers and take it easy.
Open-hand crimps place less strain on your finger tendons while strengthening your fingers for half- and full-crimp positions. Start with open-hand crimps and gradually move towards half- and full-crimps.
Open crimp – the first finger PIP joint is straight, and your second knuckle is below your first. Your index and pinky fingers are extended while your middle- and ring fingers rest comfortably. This might look different from person to person due to differences in finger length. This is one of the most common holds and good to train as it helps with injury prevention.
Half crimp – the first-, middle- and ring finger PIP joints are at a 90º angle, with your second knuckle even with your first. The thumb rests between 2 and 5 centimeters beneath your index fingers, and one to three centimeters to the side. This hold transfers the most to regular climbing. If you cannot hold the 90º hold, you might need a larger edge or longer rest periods between repetitions and sets.
Full crimp – the first finger PIP joint is < 90º, and your second knuckle is above the first. Here your fingers (index to pinky) rest on the hold at about 90º with your thumb sitting against or on top of your index finger. This closes your palm and shifts your center of gravity beneath the hold. This hold is the strongest hand position, but it also puts a lot of pressure on each of your fingers. Many coaches and climbers advise against training this position as it is the most injury-prone position. If you will be using it while climbing, it could be beneficial to train it on a hangboard but be extremely careful and conservative, both with intensity and volume. Stop immediately if there is pain or discomfort.
Full crimp with thumb – a more specific thumb wrap. It can overstress the first finger DIP but also reduces the load on the first finger.
When you do dead-hangs in full-crimp, half-crimp, and open-hand positions, you will increase strength in about 20 degrees of joint flexion in either direction from the grip you choose.
Dead-hangs is when you are hanging off certain holds without pulling up or down – essentially, it is a dead-hang from small holds. When you hang on tiny holds, you place a lot of pressure on your muscles, tendons, and ligaments. When you add pull-up to this, you could injure yourself. Instead, you want to do isometric training that builds strength by holding static positions, without moving your joints.
You can practice dead-hanging and increasing your forearm strength on a pull-up bar or jugs where you have good grip before moving onto the smaller holds on your hangboard.
Keep your head in a neutral position looking straight ahead. Bend your elbows slightly and engage your shoulder blades by squeezing them towards each other, pulling them down and back. It might be easier just hanging by your skeleton, but it places strain on your bones that they aren’t meant to tolerate.
Keep your body tension high by engaging your core and keeping your legs and lower body from swinging. You want to focus on putting consistent pressure on your shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers.
The right weight.
If you are comfortable with your first hang and move towards near failure at the end of each set, you are using the right size and weight combination. If it is too easy, you can use a smaller hold or add more weight with a weight-vest or by wearing your training harness and clipping gear onto it.
If it is too difficult, you can use a larger hold or rest your feet on a stool. Remember to keep your core engaged if you do this.
Failure does not mean that you reach the point where you cannot maintain your grip on the board at all. Rather, it is the point where you are no longer able to maintain the proper grip position that you are working on. Remember that the goal is to work and train your muscles and tendons – not to overstress or injure them.
As you progress in your hangboard training, you will become stronger and need to add more weight. On average, you will need to add around 5% of weight a month.
The edge should be usable and as comfortable as possible – about the size of your fingertip or smaller.
Some people believe that training on slightly larger edges of around 15 to 20 mm and adding or subtracting weight is more effective than training on smaller edges (<15mm). Others are of the opinion that it is better to move to smaller edges than to add large amounts of weight.
Smaller edges place more tax on the skin, but building thicker skin makes your tips less sensitive and gives you a thicker base to hang from.
You can use your hangboard to build power by doing pull-ups. Once you have built tendon strength, you can incorporate pull-ups into your hangboard routine. Start with two holds. They can be different types of holds and on different levels. These offset pull-ups imitate your movement when climbing real rock.
Once you have selected your holds, to three pull-ups. Rest for 15 seconds and repeat 3 pull-ups. Do three or four sets on the same holds.
There should be no pain in your elbows while you are doing pull-ups on a hang board. If you feel any pain or discomfort in your elbows, revert back to dead-hangs.
Unilateral vs. bilateral hangs.
If you need to add close to your body weight to benefit from bilateral hangs, you could consider unilateral hangs with less weight. Unilateral hangs place a lot more stress on your shoulder. If your shoulders are not strong enough to handle unilateral hangs, first focus on building strength through other training methods while continuing bilateral hangs.
Resting between sets.
Resting between sets can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. The aim is to feel completely rested before starting each new set. The point here is to build strength, not endurance. You want to do each hang with focus and attention instead of pushing through to get it done.
Give your body adequate time to rest in between workouts – between 48 and 72 hours should do. Start with two workouts a week and progress to no more than three workouts a week if it feels right. Rest periods does not mean that you do nothing. You can still climb and do some high-intensity workouts. The resting period is intended to give your body time to recover and repair from your previous training phase. If you did a high-intensity training phase, 5 days a week, follow that with a more relaxed schedule of climbing 2 to 3 days a week. You could also consider taking a few complete rest phases a year.
During your rest and recovery time, you want to focus on hydrating, eating, and sleeping.
Avoid injury – listen to your body. The aim here is to strengthen your fingers, but if you push too hard, you could get injured and need to stop climbing for a while. Don’t push to finish a set – if you are struggling, end the workout. Take a week or so off of hangboard training if your fingers and elbows become sore. Re-look at your dead-hang and slowly get back into your training program once you have healed.
Pay attention to your body. While hangboard workouts can help you build strength, too much too soon could cause injury.
There is no ‘optimum’ hangboard workout that applies to everyone. Different people will start with varying degrees of strength, and some might progress faster than others. Therefore, it is essential to figure out what works best for you, which workout will give you the best results while not overexerting or causing injury.
You do not have to stick to a rigid idea or number of intervals, repetitions, or even edge sizes. Your hangboard training session should focus on what you want to get out, and you can adapt it so that it works best for you. Keep track of how the different components of your training compound and interact. Start with a rough training plan for a single training phase and record what you did after each session and how you feel. This way, you will quickly work out what training you need to do more of and where you need to back off. Review your plan after every phase and make adjustments as needed.
Here are some suggested workouts to help you get started.
- Hang for 6 seconds, rest for 10 seconds. Benefits most adaptations but mostly good for structural adaptations.
- Do 5 repetitions to complete a set.
- Rest for 2 to 3 minutes between sets.
- Do between 4 and 6 sets.
- Each set focuses on a specific grip type, but different grips can be used for different sets.
- Hang for 6 seconds, rest for 6 seconds. This is good for structural and metabolic workouts.
- 6 or more repetition (to failure) makes one set.
- Rest for 2 minutes between sets.
- Do between 4 and 6 sets.
- Use one grip type per set – you can alternate your grip types used for each set.
- You want to get to the eventual point of failure due to cumulative fatigue, so keep your resting time between repetitions equal or lower than your hang time.
- Single hangs – 6-second hang with 2 to 4 minutes off. This is a neuromuscular workout while strengthening your connective tissue.
- Do between 4 and 8 hangs.
- You can vary your crimps with each hand.
- The hang time can range between 4 and 10 seconds but stick to a set amount of hang time for all your sets.
You can also choose a few different types of holds, to begin with. Include slopers, pinches, jugs, pockets, and small crimping edges. Start on the smaller hold for up to 3 sets with longer rests in between (around 2 minutes). After 3 sets, move on to the next hold.
You can use your hangboard to strengthen your core by doing L-hangs, leg lifts, and front-levers. A stronger core means you can take some weight off your arms and fingers. Leg lifts are the easiest when you are just starting with hangboard training.
As you progress, you could combine dead-hangs with pull-ups and core training. But only when you are ready and while paying close attention to your body, and especially your fingers and elbows to avoid injury.
For advanced training, you can experiment with hanging off fewer fingers, using smaller holds, or doing more sets. The aim stays the same – to reach near-failure at the last repetition.
How often should you do hangboard training?
Start with hangboard training twice a week with rest periods in between.
It is recommended that you work structural adaptation phases into your training schedule throughout the year and use neuromuscular and/or metabolic adaptation phases to prepare for specific goals, climbs, or trips.
You can work on multiple adaptations at a time but might see less progress than if you were to focus on one at a time.
How long should you focus on one phase?
The time you spend focusing on a specific phase depends on the phase and your experience. An experienced climber could benefit from focusing on improving one phase at a time.
Structural adaptations could take as long as 10 to 20 workouts to develop, while improvements in neuromuscular adaptations could be seen in 66 to 10 workouts.
How to stay committed to your hangboard training.
Have a goal. Be very clear on why you are doing hangboard training. Make the crag that you are training for the wallpaper of your phone’s home screen, write it on your mirror, do what you need to do to keep yourself motivated to get onto the board.
Aim to do the full workout session. Don’t stop three-quarters of the way through a session, thinking that you have done enough. You will get the best results if you push through. But do stop if you feel discomfort or pain.
Get yourself amped. Build it into your workout and put some music on to get yourself in the zone.
Hangboard training is supplemental training. While strength training could be beneficial to your climbing, it will be less so if you do not know, and learn how to use it.
Hangboard training is an excellent way to stick to a training session when you cannot make it to a training center. While it could benefit rock climbers with higher skill levels, injury due to its use could also set you back in your rock climbing training. You can build your strength through other training methods, including lots of climbing, whether outside or on indoor walls.
Hangboard training should not be taken on lightly. While it can benefit your climbing, it could also cause injury if done too soon. Work at your own pace and pay close attention to your body. Find out what works best for you, for your body and your progress. Remember why you are doing this and that not all of us were meant to be the next Alex Hannold.