In 2020 I embarked on a five week training plan with the overall goal of becoming a better climber. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 crisis, that training plan did not involve doing any climbing.
It did involve some productive sessions on the hangboard. From March 19 to April 25, I completed a 7:3 repeater-style hangboard protocol inspired by the intermediate program in the Rock Climber’s Training Manual. Unexpectedly, I gained a significant amount of finger strength in a short amount of time – and I have been training on the hangboard for years.
This is a long one, but there’s a lot of good stuff here. So go grab a cup of coffee and let’s dive into finger strength and effectively leveraging data.
Some History on my Finger Training
Before we get started here is some background on my finger training history. It has been about a year since I trained with a 7:3 repeater protocol on any grip type and it has been about four months since I participated in any formal finger training program. The last protocol I trained with was a max hang protocol. I chose 7:3 repeaters to prevent staleness in my finger training since I have not done them in a while.
Here is what a session looked like, after warming up of course.
I used the 7s on 3s off protocol for all of these holds. A 3-4 minute rest was taken between sets. In the scientific literature, six reps of a 7:3 repeater is notated at 6×7″:3″, so I have adopted this notation below.
- 3 Finger Open Hand on a 20mm
Set 1 6×7″:3″
Rest 3-4 minutes
Set 2 6×7″:3″
Rest 3-4 minutes before starting next hold.
- 2 Finger pocket on a 20mm edge
Set 1 3×7″:3″
Rest 3-4 minutes
Set 2 3×7″:3″
Rest 3-4 minutes before starting next hold.
- Half Crimp on a 15mm edge
Set 1 6×7″:3″
Rest 3-4 minutes
Set 2 6×7″:3″
As time went on, I was eventually able to add weight to the three finger and the half crimp as I did the repeaters. Additionally, I was able to increase the volume of the two finger pocket from three sets to four sets on occasion. Please note that as I was settling into the protocol, there were a couple of sessions where I played around with the edge sizes. However, the majority of the sessions used the edge sizes as described above.
Progress over Time
Here is a graph of the load score of each session over time. The load score is a calculated value that takes into account the edge size, total weight, and total time under tension in the session. In terms of weight added, it was nothing crazy. Weight added ranged from 5-15lbs. I was doing repeaters at about 65-75% intensity in terms of my max weight.
- I had to cut the session volume in half on April 8 and was not able to do two finger pockets that day.
- You can see somewhat of an upward trend in the half crimp and two finger pocket, seeing an increase in my personal best between March 28 and April 25.
- I obviously had a very good day at the beginning of the cycle after having a week off from any training whatsoever. Evidently, this burst of energy did not last.
I also graphed my sessions from a volume-only perspective.
- I was generally able to increase the volume of my sessions over time. Remember though, that this figure does not take into account whether or not weight was added.
- Again we see the gap in the 2 finger pocket data on April 8
Why I am not Going Crazy with the Analytics
Perhaps some of you want to see a big, fancy statistical analysis on this. But as much as I would love to flex my engineer skills for you all, there is no point. I am using this data to figure out if I need to keep on with this protocol for a few more sessions or if I am plateauing and it is time to call it quits. I do not need an R-squared value for that.
After taking a week off of hangboarding between April 26 and May 1, I stepped up to test my max weighted hang again. Here is a table comparing my March 19 results to my May 2 results.
In five weeks, I added 12lbs to my max weighted hang on a 20mm edge by doing 7:3 repeaters.
Assessment Results March vs. May
During my assessment on March 19, after I did my final set (bodyweight + 54lbs), I knew I had nothing left. However, when I assessed myself on 5/2, I still had gas in the tank for one more round.
I was also able to hang bodyweight + 70lbs for eight seconds. It was not the full ten seconds, so I did not include in the chart above, but I can say that there was substantial improvement from this cycle of the repeater protocol.
Discussion: Applying the Research
Going into my assessment on May 2, I genuinely did not think that my max hang would change by much, if at all. Based on the research of Dr. Eva Lopez, repeater-type protocols are theorized to produce structural adaptation in the muscles in the forearms and fingers, but not necessarily provide significant increase to max strength, not as well as a max hang protocol anyway. Here’s an analogy if you need a more thorough explanation of this concept.
Hypertrophy and Strength: The Office Analogy
I like to think about strength and hypertrophy in terms of an office building. A business can perhaps generate more money if they add more workers to their staff. So the company builds a new floor in the office. But, the business will not simply start making more income by adding another floor to the building, they have to hire people to do utilize the new work space in order to generate additional income.
Hypertrophy is the office building and neural recruitment is the staff. Make sense?
So based on the general theory, I assumed that after this cycle of repeaters, I would need to do some maximal hanging to teach my brain to recruit any newly developed muscle; however, this was not the case. It was a fun lesson to learn.
“There’s no hard line between strength and endurance training. You can get strong from a more endurance based protocol even though it’s probably not the most ideal or efficient way.”Natasha Barnes, elite climber, power lifter, and physiotherapist
In search for the reasons behind my successful training cycle, I again turned to the experiment from Dr. Eva Lopez for answers.
Comparing myself to the Eva Lopez Intermittent Hangs Experiment
There are a few key differences between what I did and what Eva recommends for her intermittent hangs protocol, so this comparison should be taken with a grain of salt. Here is a description of the protocol used in Eva’s experiment for the intermittent hangs group.
Eva’s Training Protocol
“The Intermittent method in the first 4 weeks consisted of 3-5 sets of 4 repetitions, each repetition being a 10-second dead-hang; the pause was 5 seconds between repetitions and 1 minute between sets. No added weight was used, the load was managed by choosing the smallest edge (MED) that would allow to complete all the prescribed volume and reach failure or close to failure in the last repetition of the last set.”Maximal hangs, Intermittent Hangs (Repeaters) or a Combination. Which 8-week program is more effective for developing grip strength in rock climbers?
Obviously the work to rest ratio, total volume and edge sizes are differ between my training sessions and those done by Eva’s group. In any case, here is a comparison of my results after ten sessions to the 4 week results of the participants in Eva’s Intermittent Hangs experiment.
Comparing Testing Protocols
Though my training was completed on a 15mm edge and Eva’s trainees trained on the minimum edge depth they could handle, this is not how the standardized testing was carried out. I performed my testing on a 20mm edge recording my max hang for 10s. Eva’s cohort performed testing on a 15mm edge looing for max weight for a 5s hang. Though the comparison is not perfect, here is how my results look relative to Eva’s group.
My results exceeded the average results of those in Eva’s study. There could be a lot of reasons for this. The average number of years of climbing for those in the study was 11.7 – more than double the number of years that I have been climbing. I suppose I have more room to grow than those in Eva’s cohort. Overall, this protocol was really effective for me at this time.
Using this Data to make Decisions
In hindsight, I wish I had done some assessment on the three finger and half crimp grips, but I did not. No experiment is perfect, I suppose. However I learned what I need to from my assessments.
Overall, I can see that my half crimp strength is plenty strong for my climbing goals this year (see Self-Coaching for more details on this). Additionally, I know that with my trip to Wild Iris coming up, a focus on pocket training is critical.
When I look at the graphs, I can see that my two finger and three finger grip progress has not leveled off as much as the half crimp. To me, this indicates that there are still improvements to be made.I plan to continue training these two grips as I have been doing for at least another four weeks, twice a week.
Conversely I am going to reduce the half crimp training. I plan to train it once every couple of weeks to maintain the strength, but this will not be my focus. There is no point in adding the additional stress of the half crimp grip to my training when I know I need the most adaptation in other grip positions.
With that, here are a few less tangible lessons to be learned from my self-analysis.
Don’t Get Obsessed with Numbers
Though it is fun to play around with hangboard data and look at our numbers, finger strength is just one factor in the picture of our climbing. I do not expect that just because I have stronger fingers that I will not face challenges when I get back to climbing.
The numbers give me confidence that I am strong, but climbing is so much more than finger strength.
Progress is Not Linear
Something else that is interesting to note in the tracking of these sessions is that my performance went up and down. I had some shit days during this training cycle, but I still showed up and got it done, even if it meant I cut the session volume in half. Consistency is the key to results. There are going to be bad days in your training, but it does not mean that your overall trajectory is downward. Progress is not linear.
Details Matter but Consistency Matters More
They are many ways to utilize a hangboard effectively. But you will not reap the benefits of a good hangboard program if you do not choose one and complete it with focus and consistency.
– A strength-endurance protocol can yield maximal strength benefits.
– Changing up your protocols is important to prevent staleness.
– Progress is not linear.
– Using data and assessment to track progress can be meaningful when planning your training.
– Showing up consistently is required for lasting results.
Have questions for me? Want to know more about how I analyzed my own numbers. Shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. I would be thrilled to hear from you.
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