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.”
Additionally, the only unproductive ways to train with a hangboard involve doing any of the following.
- Performing your hangboard session in such a way that you injure yourself.
- Not giving yourself sufficient rest/quality recovery time after performing a hangboard workout.
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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
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
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.”