This post was kindly written by the prodigious and brainy Anderson brothers, Mark and Mike. They’re the authors of the coveted book, The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, and their complete bio is below.
Enter Mike and Mark
“Because your fingers are the link to the rock, finger strength is probably the most important strength you can have. Your fingers can never be strong enough.” — Jerry Moffat
Everyone could use greater finger strength – it can overcome many other weaknesses. While technical skill is incredibly important in climbing, as you improve, you will inevitably be limited by finger strength. While some routes can be finessed, there are many that simply cannot be climbed without a decent serving of brute force.
Besides the ability to pull on small holds, increased strength improves endurance as well. By raising one’s strength ceiling, a move that previously may have required 80 percent effort might only require 70 percent effort in the future, resulting in less fatigue over a sequence of moves.
Our new book, The Rock Climber’s Training Manual (RCTM) describes a comprehensive training program (aka The “Rock Prodigy” method) for continuous improvement at rock climbing, and the cornerstone of the program is finger strength training.
Jonathan Siegrist recently used this program to break through a three-year plateau, culminating in his ascent of the grueling power & endurance test piece, Realization (5.15a). This article gives you the Cliff’s Notes version of finger strength training only, so please check out our book to learn about other important aspects of climbing training.
You can also check out our website: http://rockclimberstrainingmanual.com/ for ongoing content on all things training.
The Importance of Hangboarding
Regardless of your preferred style, finger strength will inevitably become central to your quest for continuous improvement, so you should constantly be working to improve it. Unfortunately, strength gains are not realized “overnight”; however, the gains that are made build from one season to the next, and year-to-year, making impressive strength gains possible over the course of your career.
While muscles respond to training within a matter of weeks, it takes many years for the critical connective tissue supporting those muscles to adapt to the increased forces that stronger muscles will impart. That said, if you have never tried hangboard training, you will see dramatic results in your first season – many Rock Prodigy converts experience a multi-letter-grade boost in their climbing in just their first 3-month training cycle.
If you need convincing, a thorough discussion on muscle force production, physiology, and training theory is included in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, but we’re going to skip ahead to the practical matter of how to get strong!
The hangboard (aka fingerboard) is a sport-specific tool developed for the exact purpose of improving finger strength in climbers. There are myriad other tools available, including the Campus Board, system board, etc., (also discussed in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual), but the hangboard is hands-down the best tool for isometric finger-strength training for these reasons:
- Nearly every aspect can be carefully controlled to produce the desired results.
- It is easy to isolate sport-specific grip positions.
- You can precisely control the resistance to train these grips to failure.
- Injury risk can be carefully controlled and minimized.
- Hangboard equipment is relatively small and portable, allowing virtually anyone to use one.
Hangboard Selection & Setup
A good hangboard-training setup is essential. For very-detailed instructions on how to install a hangboard and deck it out with all the accessories, check out the book and this article on our website: “How’s Your Hang?”
Selecting the proper hangboard used to be very difficult, and most of us used multiple boards and selected bolt-on holds. Now you can skip all that hassle with the Rock Prodigy Training Center.
It is the only hangboard specifically engineered by hangboarding experts with advanced finger training and injury prevention in mind.
Your board should be installed in an area that is isolated from distractions (so you can focus on training) and where environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity can be somewhat controlled. To maximize strength gains, it is essential to document the results of each workout. At a bare minimum, record:
- Grip positions used
- Goal resistance for each set (usually in terms of weight added or weight removed)
- Actual resistance for each set
- Number of repetitions, or partial repetitions, completed for each set
- Rest taken between repetitions and sets
In addition, more-obsessive training fiends will also want to record
- Body weight (including clothing, harness, etc.)
- Comments on how each set felt
- Any other information that helps reconstruct the quality of the workout.
Your notes will be critical in establishing goal resistance for future workouts, and it can be extremely motivating to track your impressive progress from week to week. The Rock Climber’s Training Manual includes a Log Book with worksheets just for this purpose. Feel free to include strategic reminders into the log sheet, such as “Breathe!” or “Tape middle finger here.”
Tools for Effective Hangboard Training
The following list of accessories painstakingly developed and tested over more than a decade by hangboarding lab monkeys, will help you get the most out of your hangboard workouts:
- Fan: Positioned to circulate air across the surface of the hangboard.
- Stopwatch: Placed in the climber’s field of view, used to time reps and rest periods.
- Chalk and a toothbrush: Placed within arm’s reach and used for cleaning holds and drying hands between sets.
- Skin-Care Kit: Available nearby to address any skin issues that arise during the workout. (see the RCTM for details on skin care).
- Harness: Should be comfortable (padded) with a load-bearing haul loop for “adding” weight (it’s OK to use an old, worn-out harness for hangboarding).
- Pulley System: Critical to effective hangboard training because it precisely removes weight, allowing you to train on smaller holds that are more relevant to your climbing. Instructions are provided in the book and kit.
- Weights: Several five- and ten-pound plates or dumbbells available for “adding to” or “subtracting from” your body weight.
The following finger-strength exercises utilize two-arm “dead hangs.” That is, two hands will be used on the board at all times — with each hand on the same size and type of grip for a given set — and you will hang with your arms in a static position throughout each rep. Elbows and shoulders should be slightly bent to avoid unnecessary connective tissue strain, but you should not pull-up, lock-off, or otherwise vary your body position during the repetition. Nevertheless, the muscles of the upper arm, shoulder, and upper back should be flexed during each hang to take your weight, rather than hanging purely from your joints (see adjacent photos for examples of proper form).
Each workout will consist of a predetermined number of “exercises” or climbing-grip positions. Each exercise will consist of one, two, or three sets corresponding to the beginner, intermediate, and advanced routines, respectively. Only the beginner routine is described here, see our book for intermediate and advanced routines.
This routine is intended for climbers who are new to hangboarding but are not necessarily “beginner” climbers. In addition to improving finger strength, the purpose of this routine is to learn the basics of effective hangboarding and identify any weak grip positions. We recommend first-timers start with this workout. If it proves too easy after a few sessions or seasons, you can quickly transition to the intermediate routine. For the beginner routine, each set will consist of six reps. A repetition begins when your legs are slowly lifted off the ground, and ends when your feet gently return to the ground. Repetitions should not involve any jerky or sudden movements.
Establish baseline levels of resistance (in terms of weight added or removed with your pulley system) for each grip position. This takes some trial and error, and baseline resistance will be different for each grip. Novice hangboarders should err on the side of using too little resistance (which will require removing 30 or more pounds for most grips); it’s much more motivating to progress quickly than regress or stagnate, and using too much resistance can cause injury.
If every repetition of each set of a given exercise is successfully completed, increase the resistance during the next workout for each set of that exercise by five pounds. It may take a few sessions to get to your true baseline resistance for each grip. That’s ok! Patience is the key to injury prevention.
Attempting to perform too many total sets diminishes the quality of the workout, so include only the most fundamental (and important) grip positions. Utilize the same grips for each workout within a training cycle so that progress can be made and tracked.
The Beginner Hangboard Routine should include one set each of eight to ten different grip positions. The following are recommended:
- Warm-up jug
- Large edge
- Medium edge
- Small edge
- Wide pinch
- Medium pinch
- Index-middle-ring (IMR) deep three-finger pocket
- Middle-ring-pinky (MRP) deep three-finger pocket
- Middle-ring (MR) deep two-finger pocket
- Middle-ring (MR) shallow two-finger pocket
When selecting the type and size of grips to use for hangboard training, remember the principle of specificity. Anticipate the type and size of holds you will encounter on your most important and challenging goal routes, and train on similar holds. In terms of hold size, your goals may dictate using relatively large holds with extra weight added, or smaller holds with weight removed.
If you climb primarily at a single crag, determining hold type and size should be fairly simple. Ideally, the selected training grips will be a bit of a stretch at first. A 5.11 climber should select hold sizes typical of the 5.12s at her favorite crag, since she will be progressing quickly through the grades once she begins training. It may be beneficial to add a specialized grip to address a particular weakness or prepare for an important goal route.
Plan to stick with the selected grips for several seasons in order to track progress over time, but expect to downsize each hold every few years as your strength improves. If you visit many different crags you will have to select more generic grips.
Once the grip positions are identified, arrange them in a sensible order. Place the more important or basic positions earlier in the workout, but also separate like exercises as much as possible. For example, avoid arranging the pocket grips back-to-back-to-back.
Recommended Grip Positions and Order
|Beginner Hangboard Routine|
|– Warm-up jug|
|– IMR deep 3F pocket|
|– Medium edge|
|– Medium pinch|
|– MR deep 2F pocket|
|– Large edge|
|– Wide pinch|
|– MRP deep 3F pocket|
Hangboard workouts should only be done after a thorough warm-up. Warm up with low-to-moderate intensity traversing for at least 20 minutes. Movements should be easy at first and then become progressively more difficult. Work through all the grip positions that you will use during the workout, increasing intensity throughout the warm-up.
Beginner Hangboard Routine
This routine will provide a solid base of strength to build upon. Climbers should advance to the Intermediate Hangboard Routine (described in detail in the RCTM) after one to three complete training cycles.
For each exercise, complete a single set of six repetitions.The first exercise of each routine should be a “warm-up” exercise, performed on a relatively large, open-hand grip with relatively low intensity. The purpose of this exercise is to prepare the shoulders and elbows for the coming loads, so this exercise should be performed at similar loads to those planned for the ensuing exercises. Rest three minutes between each set in the routine. Note that you will most likely need to remove weight in order to complete the prescribed sets.
A repetition is a static dead-hang of a relatively short, timed duration, followed by a brief, timed rest period. For the Beginner Hangboard Routine, a repetition is a 10-second hang followed by five seconds of rest. For example, a set of a given exercise of the Beginner Hangboard Routine would last 85 seconds and transpire as shown:
|Repetition Number||Start Time||End Time||Activity|
This timing is used for several reasons. First, it loosely replicates the duty cycle typical of less-experienced climbers on the rock. Second, the relatively long repetitions permit lower intensity, limiting the risk to untrained fingers. Finally, this timing is practical, resulting in 15-second cycles that are easy to track while fatigued. The more advanced routines described in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual utilize 7-second hangs with 3 seconds rest.
A properly-executed hangboard routine may not feel exhausting, but will thoroughly exhaust your fingers. We strongly recommend against any additional high intensity climbing or other finger training during your Strength Training Phase (limited quantities of low intensity training like Base Fitness ARC training are acceptable). Hangboard training is high intensity, so we recommend a relatively long rest-period between workouts.
Remember, training doesn’t make you strong, training makes you weak! Rest after training makes you strong—so get plenty of rest! We rest two full days (~70 hours) between each hangboard workout. Complete 6-10 such workouts during your Strength Training Phase, then move on to the next phase in your periodic training cycle (ideally, Power training), as described in the book.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it has piqued your curiosity. The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, along with our website, thoroughly describes how hangboard training integrates with many other exercises at the correct intervals to create the comprehensive Rock Prodigy program. When faithfully executed, the Rock Prodigy program has produced consistent long-term improvement in a wide variety of climbers, and will take your climbing to the next level!
About Mark and Mike
Mark and Mike Anderson are brothers who live in Colorado who love to train and send hard. They’re both hard 5.14 climbers, despite the challenges of having full-time jobs and families they’re very involved with. After many years of climbing and studying all things training for climbing, they started blogging to share their knowledge, and finally this year they released their book, The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, to finally let us all in on their secrets. You can find their hangboard at trango.com and their writings and more about them at rockclimberstrainingmanual.com