Finger Strength Matters
You could argue that finger strength determines your climbing level more than anything else. And training on a hangboard is the most productive, effective and efficient way I have found to get stronger fingers.
As a sport climber whose natural strength trends more toward endurance than power, I’ve always enjoyed huge gains when I have invested time into a hangboard. After a stint of dedicated hangboarding, my fingers feel like vice grips and my projects begin to feel like warm-ups.
Hangboarding directly improves strength, but it also indirectly improves power and even endurance, too. I always feel more powerful because holds feel bigger than they actually are, and my endurance goes up because I don’t have to try as hard to hang on. This combination allows me to relax, move fluidly and climb confidently.
There’s no question that every climber looking to improve his or her grade would benefit from hangboarding. The problem is, hangboarding is boring at best, injurious at worst. Mostly, climbers let their hangboards sit untouched and unused, like pieces of abstract art hanging above the doorways of their homes.
To address the boredom aspect—well, let’s put it this way: How much do you want to improve your climbing? If you can muster the motivation to be bored for 30 productive minutes a week on your hangboard, you will improve. So be bored! It’s only 30 minutes, crank up the gangsta rap and get after it.
All of the hangboard training I do is based on a workout I learned years ago called Repeaters, which basically consists of sets of timed hangs. The only thing you are challenging is your ability to hang from your fingers on a particular grip. There are no moving parts. What is great about this workout is the high degree of specificity targeting gains in finger strength.
What You Need:
Hangboard (obvi): There are a bunch of different types of hangboards on the market. All have pluses and minuses. Focus on the Utility of the board not how pretty the color is. The ergonomics of the board is the most important thing. Test out the grips. If you don’t feel comfortable on the grips you won’t use the board. I like a board that has varying sizes of the same grip position so that I can progressively make my workouts more challenging.
Interval timer (but a regular old clock will do): If you’re working out alone, it’ll help to have a clock positioned in front of your face, so you can easily see it when you’re hanging.
Partner: I like to do this work-out with a partner, preferably one who counts out the time for me and keeps me on track while I’m mid-set. And vice-versa: when it’s my turn to rest, I count out the time for my partner. Plus, it’s much less boring!
Always Warm Up
Always warm up before training on the board. You can accomplish this by climbing/bouldering on an indoor wall, if you’re at your local gym or if you have a woody in your garage. If you don’t have access to a climbing wall, you can warm-up on the hangboard itself. Do some hangs from the jugs. Then do a few sets of pull ups on different holds. Essentially do whatever it takes to get yourself feeling ready to train.
A Repeaters workout involves doing between 5 and 10 sets of timed hangs on a corresponding number of holds. Five sets takes 15 minutes exactly and is the minimum number of sets to do to complete a Repeaters workout.
I wouldn’t recommend any more than 10 sets, though.
Let’s start with the minimum: 5 sets. Before you begin your work out, choose five different grip/hand positions you want to train. Examples would be:
Medium four-finger edge.
Small four-finger edge.
You want to have a game-plan going into the workout so you know in advance which holds and hand positions you’ll be using. In general, choose an order that starts with easier/larger holds and gets smaller/harder. If you are doing a larger number of sets think about starting easier working toward harder and then working back to easier as you get more tired.
Also, you can always do the same hold/hand position twice (two sets). This is useful to know if you end up doing more than five sets.
Each set takes exactly 3 minutes. Here’s how you do it:
How to do a single set:
A single set involves 5 reps on the same hold.
One rep is hanging from your chosen hold for 8 seconds, followed up by a period of rest for 5 seconds.
Hang, rest. Hang, rest. Hang, rest. Hang, rest. Hang, rest. That equals one minute.
Now rest for two minutes exactly. That’s one set.
Yes, that’s it. It’s simple, specific and easy to perform the same every time.
Hang the grip with engaged fingers (bent at the first knuckle) and slightly bent arms (keep elbows and shoulders engaged).
I find that the half-crimp grip position is a more challenging position to maintain than both the open-handed and full-crimp positions. For that reason, I think it is a more beneficial training position because you have to constantly work to maintain that engaged angle.
In general, I try not to hang from my skeleton—the opposite of what you should do in real-life climbing situations. But this is training, not climbing! I focus on keeping my elbows and shoulders engaged and avoid using my skeletal structure to support myself.
Once you have a basic grasp for the workout you’re ready to get bored, I mean strong. However the more you tailor your workout to target your weaknesses or to train for a specific climbing objective, the more productive your board work will be. Tailoring the work out comes from determining an appropriate number of sets, deciding which grips to use, systematically adding weight and making a training schedule.
Power vs. Power-endurance
If your goal is power-endurance, you’ll be better off doing more sets (up to 10), and keeping each of those sets easier (larger holds; no added weight, etc.).
Conversely if your goal is power, I would recommend fewer sets with higher intensity (added weight).
Both power and power endurance are worth training. I try and evaluate which one I feel is currently lacking in my climbing and/or which one would better help me send my current climbing projects.
A Word on Grip Positions
When I first started doing this workout I would use a different grip position for each set. I would aim for 10 sets on 10 different grips and I would try everything from 1- or 2-finger pockets to full-palm slopers.
Recently I have begun to believe that variation in the grip isn’t as important. Now I stick to mostly 4-finger edges and I vary the size. So now when I do 10 sets, I will often do two sets on 3-5 different 4-finger edges, varying from small to large.
If you have a specific grip position you suck at make sure to add that in. If you’re training for an area with lots of pockets, you’ll want add more sets of pockets to your workout. However, be careful. It’s important to balance it all out, and work on your weaknesses as often (if not more) than your strengths.
When I’m climbing frequently, I won’t hangboard more than once per week. But in the off season, when I’m not climbing as frequently, two times per week is a good goal. I don’t hangboard more than three times per week— I feel I’d be better off with one or two hangboard workouts, and then a campus workout on that third day.
I also, don’t train before a climbing day. You don’t get stronger training/climbing. You get stronger resting.
Difficulty and Intensity without Injury
In general, I tend to stick to bigger grips and create difficulty by adding or subtracting weight. I have found this to be more beneficial than simply decreasing the size of the hold and less injurious.
How to Add Weight
This is the component of the workout that I focus on the most to create the challenge I need to make gains.
Once I dial in a number of sets and circuit of grips that I feel best target my current goals and is challenging but doable, I do it. Then I systematically go about making the workout more difficult by adding weight. Adding weight is simply a matter of hanging weight from your harness belay loop. I bought 2 sets of 5, 10, and 20 lb weight plates. They are cheap, easy to use, and not that awkward to hang from your harness. Girth hitch a sling around the weights and clip it to your belay loop with a carabiner.
How Much Weight?
My goal is to feel challenged during every set but not to the point of failure. If I can just barely make it through the fifth 8-second hang in the set, without compromising my form to get there, then I know I am in the correct range of difficulty.
Once I can just do the whole work out with out failing I add more weight. For the next work out I will add just 5 pounds. Once I can do that workout without failing, again, 5 more pounds.
Once I am approaching having to add 50 pounds, I will either change the grip position to something more challenging. Or, better yet, I will take a break from the boredom of hangboarding, head out to the cliffs and focus on crushing projects with my newfound finger strength.
About The Author
Dan Mirsky, 32, grew up in the American climbing epicenter of New Paltz, New York, where the Shawangunks is located; his first pair of climbing shoes were Lynn Hill hand-me-downs. But it wasn’t until Dan attended Colorado College as a freshman that he really got hooked on rock climbing, cutting his teeth at Shelf Road and making frequent road trips to Rifle. After graduating college in 2004, Dan remained in Colorado, living in Carbondale and later Boulder, where he has worked as a professional mixologist for various restaurants, while remaining dedicated to rock climbing.
Read about the day Dan sent Solid Gold (5.14c), one of his hardest red points, here on Evening Sends.
Dan is sponsored by Black Diamond.