Beginner Hangboarding: 6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start Hangboard Training

photo by Teagan Maddux

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.

Lauren Abernathy Hangboarding
Me hanging with some extra weight added.

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.

lauren red river gorge
Me falling off a steep, thuggy route in the Red River Gorge.

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.

Lauren Abernathy Wild Iris
Me pulling on some pockets in Wild Iris, Wyoming.

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 Honnold

Tim 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.

What’s next?

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 lauren@senderellastory.com

And make sure to stay up to date and subscribe to my monthly newsletter! In addition to letting you know when new posts come out, you’ll get five quick tips, tricks and tidbits to help make you a better climber straight to your inbox each month!

As always, if you don’t already, give me a follow on Instagram or a like on Facebook

Please note that this blog post contains Amazon Afiliate links for products that I have personally used and enjoyed. If you are interested in purchasing any of these products, kindly consider using the links in the post above. This helps keep SenderellaStory.com in existence and keeps it ad-free!

Four Hangboard Protocols to Increase Finger Strength

There is no “best way” to hangboard, but boy are there a lot of ways to do it. Many people, myself included, get a little overwhelmed about choosing the most effective method of hangboarding. The risk for “paralysis by analysis” is very high when examining the many different hangboard programs.

Do not fear the many nuances and options for hangboard protocols, embrace them. You can achieve results with many different protocols long as you follow a few simple rules. In the words of Eva Lopez, a literal PhD in finger strength in climbers, when working to improve your finger strength, “Novelty is enough.”

Me on the hangboard at my local climbing gym

Additionally, the only unproductive ways to train with a hangboard involve doing any of the following.

  1. Performing your hangboard session in such a way that you injure yourself.
  2. Not giving yourself sufficient rest/quality recovery time after performing a hangboard workout.
  3. Not recording your hangboard workouts in detail and thereby not progressively overloading your fingers to stimulate strength increases

With the “don’t”s out of the way, let’s take a look at the four protocols.

Repeaters

The Repeater protocol, popularized by the Anderson Brothers, involves hangboarding in high volumes with minimal rests between hangs.

The Anderson Brothers repeater protocol specifically calls for 8-10 hold types/positions. Below is a little taste of what a repeater workout might look like. For each hold type you will perform 6 repetitions. One repetition is equal to 10 seconds on followed by a 5 second rest. After completing 6 reps, you move onto the next hold type.

Sloper, 6 sets.
10s hang followed by a 5s rest. Repeat 6x.
Rest 3 mins.

20mm Edge, Half Crimp Position, 6 sets.
10s hang followed by a 5s rest. Repeat 6x.
Rest 3 mins.

20mm Edge, Full Crimp Position, 6 sets.
10s hang followed by 5s rest. Repeat 6x.

The timing convention varies for the work to rest ratio. Some people like 7s on 3s off. Some people only do 4 sets instead of 6. Personally, I do not believe it matters what you do as long as you pick a method, stick with it for 6-8 sessions (or until you start plateauing), and record results meticulously.

Pros: You can do a full workout at home if you have a hangboard setup. Additionally, repeaters are a long term investment in finger strength.

According to research done by Eva Lopez Ph.D, repeaters are effective in producing structural changes to your fingers and forearms thus increasing your finger strength.

Additionally, due to the high volume/low resistance nature, you are not as likely to overload your fingers with weight. However, the high volume training has its own risks.

Cons: The repeater protocol is obviously high volume which is both exhausting and time consuming. A full Rock Prodigy Hangboard session of 8-10 hold types is a lengthy workout. Note that this is not the only repeater workout, but it is the classic example that most cite when discussing a repeater hangboard program.

Additionally, per the previously mentioned research performed by Eva Lopez Ph.D, the repeater protocol takes a long time to show significant strength gains. If your bouldering trip is in a month, a repeater protocol is not going to quickly yield significant strength gains.

Targeted Result: Structural changes. Power Endurance.

Resources: Eva Lopez on the Power Company podcast, Maximal Hangs vs. Intermittent Hangs – Eva Lopez Ph.D, Anderson Brothers Research Paper on the Rock Prodigy Hangboard, Basic Hangboard Routine from the Anderson Brothers

NERD ALERT
Examining Structural vs. Neurological Adaptations

Generally speaking, there are two different pathways for strength increase. The first is through neurological adaptation, the second is through structural changes. In Eva’s experiment she compared three different groups over 8 weeks–one performing a Max Hang protocol, another performing a repeater protocol, and the other group performing 4 weeks of max hangs followed by 4 weeks of repeaters.

It was found that in the repeater group in the first 4 weeks there was a +4.6% strength increase followed by a +13.9% overall strength increase in the subsequent weeks. Compared to the overall 28% gains in 8 weeks from the max hang protocol, the repeater protocol seems staggeringly low.

According to Dr. Lopez and supporting literature (you can find citations/references in her blog post) the way in which strength increases occurred for the repeater protocol is indicative of hypertrophy and structural changes. Whereas for the max hang protocol, the changes seemed to be primarily neurological.

Her study is nicely summed up in this awesome infographic. I would highly recommend checking out her post for more details on the subject. The research is very interesting and highly applicable.

http://en-eva-lopez.blogspot.com/2018/03/maximal-hangs-intermittent-hangs.html

Summarily, the reason that different hangboard protocols produce differing results is due to the fact that the body reacts to differently to different forms of training stimuli.

Max Hangs

Method: In broad terms, perform a 7-10s hang at a high intensity (in terms of weight, edge size), followed by a long rest of 5+ minutes between sets.

Max Hang Assessment hanboard
My boyfriend, Michael, performing his first max hang workout. Notice he is using a weight pin to add/remove weight as he determines the appropriate resistance for his max hang workouts.

An example workout that I perform during a max hang protocol is as follows:

First I warm up on jugs and large edges. I do 3-4 hangs total. Then I proceed with the following:

Pros: The strength results of this protocol are mostly neurological adaptations. This means that you are training your brain to use the muscles, tendons, etc. in your fingers and forearms more efficiently for greater strength outputs. This is a pro because neurological adaptation happens more quickly than structural adaptation.

Therefore, if you’re picking a protocol and you need to ramp up your finger strength for your trip to Wyoming in 6 weeks, this protocol will help you do so.

Cons: Putting heavy loads on your fingers is very taxing. However, if done properly, you will never be loading your fingers with more than they can handle.

Targeted Result: Neurological adaptations leading to increased finger strength.

Resources: Eva Lopez on the Power Company podcast, Maximal Hangs vs. Intermittent Hangs – Eva Lopez Ph.D, TrainingBeta: Max Hangs with Steve Maisch

Example: Jimmy starts hangboarding

Jimmy starts hangboarding, and he does the max hang protocol for 6 weeks. During that time, Jimmy’s strength goes up significantly and Jimmy is pretty psyched. Based on the literature, Jimmy’s strength is improving from neurological adaptations. Jimmy’s fingers are physically not changing much; however, Jimmy has trained his brain to “fire all four cylinders instead of just two”.

In order to keep progressing and avoid plateau, Jimmy decides to change up his hangboard program. Jimmy switches from the max hang protocol to the repeater protocol. Jimmy is frustrated because he is not getting as strong as quickly as he did when he was max hanging. But Jimmy is smart, so he keeps on with the program for 8 weeks, making minimal strength gains. What Jimmy cannot see, is that with the repeater protocol, his fingers are adapting physically to the stimulus of high volume hangboarding. Keeping with the engine metaphor, Jimmy has added a couple of cylinders to his engine; however, Jimmy’s brain has not yet adapted to having six cylinders instead of four.

Jimmy then returns to a max hang protocol and again has success in increasing finger strength. Jimmy now has more cylinders to fire. During his max hanging, Jimmy becomes neurologically adapted to “firing on all six cylinders” instead of just four. Jimmy’s fingers get super strong and Jimmy sends his project. Jimmy is smart. Jimmy trains intelligently and takes good notes while he hangboards so he can get stronger. Be like Jimmy.

3-6-9 Ladders

3-6-9 Ladders, to me, are a brilliant combination of the repeater and max hang protocols. What sets ladders apart from max hangs lies mostly in the total resistance load on the fingers. Steve Bechtel describes in his book Logical Progression, that he does not prescribe the max hang protocol and instead opts for ladders due to the lighter load placed on the fingers during training.

“The benefits are many, including better execution, less fatigue, reduced injury, and less stress. If you give me a program that doesn’t smoke the athlete, but shows increases in strength, I’ll try it. If it works every time, I’ll buy it. Over the past few years, we’ve come to regard the simple Ladder program as the safest, most effective strength protocol we’ve ever tried.” – Steve Bechtel, Logical Progression

The ladder protocol is fairly simple. In my training using this protocol (per the advice contained in Steve Bechtel’s Logical Progression) I perform the ladders on an edge (typically a 15mm or 20mm based on my current training data and hangboard available), in the open hand, half crimp, and full crimp positions.

How to execute a 3-6-9 Ladder Workout

A hangboard ladder workout looks like this.

To complete one 3-6-9 ladder, you rest between the mini-sets for as long as you need. E.g. after the 3 second hang, you rest until you feel ready for a 6 second hang–same for the rest between the 6s hang and the 9s hang.

Personally I rest 5-20 seconds between executing each hang. e.g. Hang 3s, rest 5-10s, hang 6s, rest 10-15s, then once really rested after 15-20s, I execute the 9s hold. One set of 3-6-9 is one set. You rest 5 minutes between each set. You repeat three “3-6-9” ladder sets per hold for a total of 54s of hanging time per hold.

Pros: Because of the volume, you are not likely to overload the fingers with added resitance. Additionally the protocol offers a decent amount of hangboard volume without the exhaustion of a full-length repeater workout.

Cons: It can be difficult and to understand what rest periods you need within a 3-6-9 ladder set (5s, 10s?). Additionally, it is similarly time consuming to the Anderson Brothers workout.

Resources: Logical Progression by Steve Bechtel

Webb Parsons

If you are looking to balance out your strength on each side as well as work on your lock off positioning, this is the protocol for you. This is a more advanced protocol and is a progression to the very advanced practice of one-armed hangs.

The protocol calls for assisted one arm hanging by placing one hand on the hangboard while the other holds onto a rope. Additionally, while finger position is held constant at a half crimp, arm position is varied. The climber will perform the assisted one arm half crimp position with 1. arms fully extended 2. partially bent (~45 degree angle) and completely locked off.

Check out the video below for an explanation of the Webb Parsons Protocol

Pros: Does not require added weight and helps with an muscular imbalances. Additionally trains lock off strength which is not present immediately present in the aforementioned protocols.

Cons: Depending on your gym/setup it might be difficult to find a way to hang a rope. Additionally, it is difficult to measure resistance–though this is not entirely necessary. Takes extra time since you do both sides separately.

Targeted result: balanced strength on both sides of the body, lockoff strength

Resources: Review of the Webb Parsons Program at Climbingstrong.com,
Logical Progression by Steve Bechtel

Hangboarding is a Long Term Investment

These are the four main protocols that I have experienced/experimented with in my time on the hangboard. All of them improved my finger strength without injuring me and all of my data during these sessions was recorded.

All one can do is being consistent with hangboard training and change stimuli when needed. However, it is important to remember that hangboarding is a long-term investment. One of my favorite quotes from Steve Bechtel goes something like this: “The work you do in the gym on Tuesday isn’t going to help you send on Saturday.”