Why Should I Do A Hangboard Workout?
No Substitute For Strong Fingers
In short: there’s no replacing finger strength. Even if you’ve been training core, arms and shoulders; can hold front levers with ease or do five single arm pull ups, it is ultimately your fingers in contact with the rock (or plastic) and if you are not able to hold on then you are not able to finish the route. Hangboarding is an effective way to isolate and strengthen the fingers.
Done properly hangboarding is a very safe training method. It takes the dynamic element out of latching a hold, you can add or subtract weight, can use a variety of ergonomic shapes and hold sizes and perhaps most importantly can closely monitor and adjust form. Hangboarding is also an effective tool for injury rehab due to its highly controllable nature. It allows one to dial in the correct amount of force and develop strength and robust connective tissue for a safe return to sport.
Hangboard Workout Considerations
What To Look For In a Hangboard
Hangboards typically run from about $50 up to $150. There are a number of reviews of different hangboards which I’d recommend one research before purchasing a board but a couple of my favorites are the compact Tension Simple Board for just $75 and the Trango Rock Prodigy which goes for $140.
When choosing a hangboard there are a few considerations to make. How much space do you have to mount it vs. how large is the hangboard? What variety and number of holds does it have? Does it have slopers, pinches, pockets? How difficult are the holds/depth of the edges and are you a v14 climber trying to take on the next project or a 5.10 climber coming back from a pulley strain? What material is it made from? Wood is easy on the skin and looks nice but can get “gummy” if not brushed.
Beyond just the hangboard itself, there’s not a lot that you need and it is all pretty reasonably priced. When you are really dialing in your finger training having weights and/or a pulley system can be an invaluable tool. A pulley system enables one to reduce the weight on each hand allowing for training more difficult holds that one could not hang at bodyweight from. During periods of rehab this is a particularly important tool as it allows for tissues to be gently loaded and strengthened.
If you rent an apartment or just don’t want to permanently mount a hangboard at your home there are a few nifty products out there like the Blank Slate unit. It works like an over-the-door frame pull up bar but with a blank board mounted on it that you can attach your hangboard to.
Tracking & Progression
Keeping a log of your exercises is an important step. As with any exercise where strengthening is the goal we need to overload the tissue for an adaptive response. Having a log will help you go beyond just “that felt hard” to actually seeing when/if/where progression is happening and when to dial things up a notch.
There are a lot of apps out there designed for climbers that can help you track and log progress , be timers when hangboarding or even come with pre-programmed hangboard protocols.
Popular Hangboard Workout Plans
Looking at all the different hangboard and finger strengthening programs out there can be pretty overwhelming. Just remember that the exact details of the program are unlikely to be make or break; focused and safe training will be enough to see rewards. Below I’ve outlined a few of my favorite programs.
Probably the most common and well studied of the hangboard protocols: repeaters, developed by Mark and Mike Anderson, authors of The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, is a fairly high volume/low rest program. In this program, climbers will use a number of hold types or positions (usually 8-10). At each hold one will hang for 10 seconds followed by a 5 second rest and repeated x 6. After that set there will be a 3 minute rest before moving on to the next hold. For more advanced climbers this whole process will be repeated another 1-2x. This program tends to be geared more to the power-endurance spectrum making it ideal for the route climber or boulderer looking to improve endurance.
Pros: Well established plan that has been shown to increase finger strength. Minimal equipment needed. The work/rest periods can be altered to personal preference/need. A common alternative is 7seconds on / 3 seconds off. Decreased risk of overload injury due to lower load.
Cons: Particularly time consuming and exhausting relative to other plans especially if one is performing multiple full sets. High volume training has its own set of injury risks.
In this simple and effective program one will add the maximum weight possible while being able to hang from a hold for 7-10 seconds with maximum effort. Each hang will be separated by a 3-5 minute rest with 4-6 total reps performed. The short, intense max hang protocol is geared more for developing peak strength rather than power endurance as in repeaters.
Pros: Studies have shown the largest, quickest strength response with this program: as much as a 15% increase in just 4 weeks (likely related to neural adaptations). It is also one of the least time-intensive programs.
Cons: Putting an increased load on your fingers, particularly as the weight increases, can increase the risk or injury.
Ladders are not too dissimilar to the repeater hangboard program. In this program climbers will use 3-4 hold positions (openhand, half crimp, full crimp) and perform 3-5 sets at each position. Each set will consist of a 3 second hold followed by a 6 second hold followed by a 9 second hold with as long of a rest as needed between. Each 3-6-9 set will be separated by a 3-5 minute rest. The edge chosen for this exercise is a flat edge you can hang at body weight for 10-12 seconds.
Pros: Neither as time consuming as repeaters nor as load-intense as max hangs, 3-6-9 ladders offer a good middle of the road alternative.
Cons: Although not hanging as long as a full repeater program, the 3-5 minute rests can make this a fairly long program.
The “Simplest” Finger Training Program
A final program that has been gaining popularity is the “Simplest Finger Training Program”. Simple might be a bit of a misnomer. Although all you need is a hangboard, this program takes a more refined look at the mechanisms and rationale behind a hangboarding program. The author, Tyler Nelson, states four goals for a finger strengthening program: 1. muscle size and recruitment. 2. connective tissue density. 3. adequate blood flow. 4. stiffness of the entire system to exert force rapidly. These goals are achieved through three different training techniques: recruitment pulls, density hangs, and velocity pulls.
The parameters for the three different training techniques are pretty detailed. For a detailed look at how this program is implemented I would suggest checking out this blog post at Training Beta.
Pros: All you need is a hangboard. This program goes beyond simply hanging from progressively smaller holds.
Cons: Structuring your training to allow for am climbing and pm hangboarding can be challenging for even the most dedicated climber. Although “simple” in name, this program is every bit or even more nuanced than the other programs.
For more information about finger injuries please see this past blog post:
Hangboarding exercises and their variations are done with the assumption of pain-free tissue. There are also many personal differences that can influence one’s training from years climbing, fitness and ability level, to state of injury. To ensure a thorough diagnosis of any active or chronic injury or to get personalized help with training/scaling of exercises please schedule an appointment at our Seattle-based physical therapy office.
About the author:
Jon Sparks, PT, DPT, CSCS is a physical therapist at Union PT in Seattle. He is experienced in treating acute and chronic industrial injuries, postoperative rehabilitation and orthopedic injuries. He enjoys staying up-to-date with evidence-based treatments. Outside the clinic Jon is thoroughly obsessed with rock climbing. When not climbing, he enjoys traveling, exploring new restaurants and snowboarding.