In a 2003 study, 9 climbers, 9 rowers, and 9 leg athletes faced off in a competition of finger strength. On average the climbers were able to exert 40% more maximum voluntary force on a climbing-specific grip than the other two groups. Why would climbers have stronger fingers than non-climbers? Obviously because as you climb more, your fingers adapt to the stimulus of climbing and become stronger. Clearly, in climbing more than any other sport, finger strength is a critical adaptation to develop.
Finger strength is but one of many factors that contributes to climbing performance. Your skill as a climber is more important. Therefore, the majority of gains in your climbing abilities are going to come from practicing the skill of climbing.
However, as the grades get more difficult, the holds get smaller. Sometimes the difference between you and an outdoor project is a shitty crimp that you need to be able to crank down on or clip off of. In this case you might want to increase your finger strength. A great way to do that is to train on a hangboard.
What is a hangboard?
A hangboard, or a fingerboard, is a training device that replicates climbing holds. They are meant for you to hang from by one or both arms – depending on your skill level. There are tons of different kinds of hangboards to choose from and most gyms will have a least one or two for you to play around on.
6 Questions to answer before you start hangboarding
But before you get too excited about training on these colorful torture devices, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself.
What grades are you climbing comfortably outside?
Personally, I think I started hangboarding way too early. If I could go back I would have postponed my adventures in using a hangboard until after I broke into outdoor 5.11 climbing. I could have spent a lot less time doing Anderson Brothers Repeaters and more time getting comfortable leading routes and improving my technique.
In my personal opinion, I do not think the use of the hangboard is necessary if you are a 5.10 climber. I think it can be useful once you are a 5.11 climber (you can redpoint 5.11s in 1-5 tries outside/you can onsight at the 5.11 level). Some trainers even say your need to be climbing 5.12 before starting to use a hangboard.
I would say as a very general rule, don’t worry about it until you can at least comfortably lead 5.11 outside, and if you are progressing farther than 5.11 or 5.12 without one, then that’s great too.
*Please note that everyone is different. Maybe you’re newer but you can really only get to a climbing gym once a week – hangboarding at home might be all you have. Maybe your knee is injured and your only option is to get on the hangboard. I don’t like to speak in absolutes, but generalizations are helpful sometimes.
What is your home crag like?
While grades are a helpful indicator of whether you’re ready to start hangboarding, you should also consider your home crag and your projects. For example, at the Red River Gorge, many of the holds are very large even at the higher grades due to the steep nature of the routes.
In the Red, 5.11 routes like Monkey in the Middle and Air Ride Equipped are awesome and the holds are mainly jugs. There may be a few small holds here and there, but nothing extraordinarily small. To pull off routes like these, you do not need iron clad fingers. You need fitness, power for some bigger moves, and the mental capacity to keep clipping when you get pumped out of your mind.
In contrast, crags like Wild Iris are infamous for having many small pockets. Finger strength (especially on pockets) is a critical attribute to develop in order to pull off a vertical 5.11 route there.
While we should all strive to become well-rounded climbers, you want to make sure your training is aligned with what your actual goals are. If your home crag doesn’t require insane amounts of finger strength, you might be better off bagging your projects this season by practicing your climbing skills and staying off the hangboard.
Can you hang on the holds with your body weight?
Although I am aware that pulley systems exist and are readily available in some gyms, it seems to me that if you cannot comfortably hang on a 20mm edge with your own body weight for 10s, you might not need to use hangboard yet.
If your fingers are not strong enough to deal with your body weight on relatively moderate holds, you should keep climbing regularly and your tendons will catch up eventually.
Have you been climbing consistently (2-4x per week) for at least a year?
It takes a while for your tendons to catch up to your muscles. Tendons increase in strength at a much slower rate than muscles do.
Alex Honnold illustriously describes this problem in his interview on the Tim Ferriss show:
… An adult, a 25-year-old male would gain muscle mass super-fast, so really quickly they could exceed the capacity of their tendons and then basically just rip their tendons out of their arms. – Alex HonnoldTim Ferriss Show: Episode 160
Essentially, those that try to progress too fast and do not let their fingers catch up usually end up injuring themselves.
For at least the first year (and first two years realistically), you do not need to touch a hangboard to improve your climbing. Just climb a lot and your fingers will get much stronger on their own – safely and sustainably.
Are you at a Plateau?
The reason that I started my first hangboard regimen was because I felt that I had hit a plateau—like I was not getting better outside and I need some kind of punch to get me over the slump. I dove headfirst into the The Rock Climber’s Training Manual and committed fully to their 6 week program that was 50% hangboarding and 50% climbing for during the prescribed Strength Phase.
I started the Anderson Brothers Program because I was going to Spain to climb after college for 2 weeks and I wanted to be ready, so I just went for it.
Many climbers, at some point will hit a plateau in which they no longer improve just by climbing regularly. Some people work up to some pretty high grades without incorporating any sort of structured training program.
However, if you are time-constrained and you do not want to spend a 3rd season in a row climbing the same grades you were last year, it might be time to incorporate a hangboard protocol into your training.
Are you mature enough to structure your training properly around your hangboard sessions?
Simply put, hangboarding is a significant stress on your fingers. The point of hangboarding is to provide a significant enough stimulus that your body undergoes structural and neurological changes to adapt to this stimulus.
Therefore, your body needs time to recover. If you do not think you have the maturity to give yourself proper rest after a hangboard session, hangboarding might not be right for you.
Everyone is different, but I would not recommend doing a hard bouldering session the day after an intense hangboard session. Completely resting your fingers or doing a very low-intensity endurance session are more optimal activities to promote recovery from a hangboard workout.
The Anderson brothers recommend 48 hours of complete rest after performing the repeater workout shown in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual.
Additionally, according to Dr. Eva Lopez, hangboarding should always come first in a climbing session. Do not wait until after you climb for two hours to slap around haphazardly on the hangboard. If you are going to do it, do it right and make it worthwhile.
So let’s say you’ve answered favorably to more than a few of the above questions. Based on the above and your best judgement, you are ready to engage in your first hangboard training program.
There are tons of different ways to use a hangboard and tons of different boards to choose from.
For guidance on my four favorite hangboard protocols, check out this article.
What is your experience with hangboarding? If you’ve never done it, do you think it’s time to start? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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