Hangboard sessions typically involve timed ‘hangs’, using various different hand grips, separated by rests. It’s common to add additional weight using a weight vest or hanging free weights from a harness, and more advanced training can include single arm hangs with pulley systems to provide assistance by reducing bodyweight.
People who are new to climbing often find the hang-board intimidating, considering it off-limits for use by experienced climbers only. It often gets a bad rep in terms of injury risk too – but the truth is that a well-planned hang-board session is one of the safest ways to increase finger strength, and can be useful for climbers of all abilities.
You could consider adding hangboard training to your weekly schedule if you answer yes to the following questions:
It’s often stated that one should be climbing for 1-2 years before even considering a hang-board program. This might sometimes be true, but it’s also a very general statement and does not apply to everyone.
Hang-boarding is suitable for anyone who wishes to increase finger strength. But the real question: is it the most efficient way for you to spend your training time? That all depends on the factors that are currently limiting your progression and performance. Would stronger fingers allow you to stick that move on your project? Or do you require better core strength, smarter body positioning, more precise footwork and some practice at the process of red-pointing a route?
To improve our climbing, we must acknowledge the multidimensional nature of climbing, and determine what our weaknesses are (and that’s NOT just physical weaknesses). Physical strength is probably one of the ‘easiest’ ways to improve our climbing, but if we fail to acknowledge the importance of technique, and the strategic and psychological aspects of the sport, we will forever be holding ourselves back. Most climbers don’t have infinite days and hours for training each week, and the best way to improve performance is to use that time to target your own personal limiting factors.
Physical strength is only one piece of the climbing pie. Where are your strengths and weaknesses?
Aaron is a person with a background in combat sports, who is hooked on bouldering at the gym. Aaron has good upper body strength and takes to bouldering quickly, improving rapidly for the first 3 months. Aaron boulders for 1.5 hours 3 x per week. Aaron's goal is to send their first V5 outdoors. Is hangboard training worthwhile?
Jodie is started climbing after becoming bored at the gym. Jodie started with general fitness goals, but after a year of climbing twice a week at the local gym Jodie has built a social network, lots of psyche, and has decided to improve their lead climbing. Jodie currently climbs grade 20, and always avoids the steep walls. Is hang-boarding worthwhile?
Correct hang-boarding involves isometric contractions. This means your muscles are producing force, but your joints are not moving and the length of the muscle doesn’t change. This type of contraction is low-risk for injury, provided you can self-monitor your joint positions correctly and reduce the resistance (or hang duration) if you feel yourself starting to ‘slide’.
It’s a hold-board, not a hang-board. The truth about hang-boarding is that we really want to avoid hanging. And for goodness sake, don’t call it a ‘dead hang’ while I am listening!
Instead, we must engage our muscles and fight gravity. This means our hang grip should feel engaged (squeezing, not sliding), our elbows have a slight bend, and our shoulders don’t sag into a ‘shrug’ position. These positions allow us to load the muscles, not the joints. Keep particularly mindful of this if you start to feel tired.
Deciding what grip positions to use will depend on your current level of ability and your goals. Do you want to get better at holding small edges (crimps or open hand?) and how are you doing with slopers and pinches?
Training at a half crimp is a great place to start. It’s lower injury risk, and will instantly produce some benefits in other grip positions. Make sure you engage your hand and thumb for a half-crimp, but don’t wrap it over your fingers, and don’t let the fingers hyper-extend.
Many people also find that open hand on a small edge is a common weakness, so targeting this might produce rapid improvements in climbing performance. Open hand a tendon-safe hang, and due to the similarities in joint positions it is also likely to transfer well to slopers.
The full crimp position will induce more strain on the tendons, and should be considered an advanced grip position. Some will argue that it should be avoided at all costs, but pretending that it doesn’t exist when training (and then using it while actually climbing/bouldering) is not a great solution either. Always remember that avoiding injury is your long term ticket to performance gains! It’s much better to get 2% stronger every week, than getting 20% stronger in 4 weeks - followed by injury and rest for months!
These variables generally have an inverse relationship, this means to achieve high volume you must use lower intensity, and to train at high intensity you must reduce your volume. In the most simple terms, volume relates to the total duration of time you spend hanging, and intensity relates to the difficulty of each hang. It should be obvious that a high intensity hang (small edge, added weight) can’t be held for a long time, and can’t be repeated over and over, but many people still seem to want to try!
You’ll have to look at your current abilities (and weaknesses) and your goals to help you decide what type of program will be most beneficial. If in doubt, start with some middle ground.
|Grip and hold size||Weight||Hang||Rest||Reps||Rest|
|Half crimp ('easy edge')||0 kg||10 sec||5 sec||x 4||3 min|
|Half crimp ('harder edge')||0 kg||7 sec||5 sec||x 4||3 min|
|Open hand ('easy edge')||0 kg||7 sec||5 sec||x 4||3 min|
|Half crimp ('harder edge')||0 kg||10 sec||10 sec||x 3||3 min|
|Sloper ('harder')||0 kg||10 sec||10 sec||x 3||3 min|
|Open hand ('easy edge')||0 kg||10 sec||10 sec||x 3||3 min|
TOTAL hang time = 186 sec
TOTAL session time= ~25 min
|Half crimp (10 mm edge)||5 kg||8 sec||20 sec||x 2||3 min|
|Half crimp (15 mm edge)||8 kg||8 sec||20 sec||x 2||3 min|
|Open hand (15 mm edge)||4 kg||8 sec||20 sec||x 2||3 min|
|Sloper ('feels hard')||0 kg||6 sec||20 sec||x 2||3 min|
|Half crimp (5 mm edge)||0 kg||6 sec||20 sec||x 2||4 min|
|Half crimp (15 mm edge)||10 kg||10 sec||NA||x 1||4 min|
|Open hand (10 mm edge)||4 kg||10 sec||NA||x 1||3 min|
TOTAL hang time = 92 sec
TOTAL session time= ~30 min
|Grip and hold size||Weight||Hang||Rest||Reps||Rest|
|Half crimp (10 mm edge)||0 kg||8 sec||5 sec||x 5||2 min|
|Half crimp (15 mm edge)||5 kg||8 sec||5 sec||x 5||2 min|
|Open hand (15 mm edge)||0 kg||8 sec||5 sec||x 5||2 min|
|Half crimp (10 mm edge)||0 kg||10 sec||6 sec||x 4||2 min|
|Half crimp (15 mm edge)||5 kg||10 sec||6 sec||x 4||2 min|
|Open hand (15 mm edge)||0 kg||10 sec||6 sec||x 4||2 min|
|Half crimp (10 mm edge)||0 kg||7 sec||3 sec||x 4||2 min|
|Half crimp (15 mm edge)||5 kg||7 sec||3 sec||x 4||2 min|
|Open hand (15 mm edge)||0 kg||7 sec||3 sec||x 4||2 min|
TOTAL hang time = 324 sec
TOTAL session time= ~30 min
Adding additional weight while you hang with a weight vest or free weights on your harness is a good way to add intensity when even the small edges start to feel easy. Weight should always be added very gradually (adding just 1-2% of body weight make a big difference in your hang time) and you should monitor your progress by recording the weight and duration of the hang. Let your target volume dictate your intensity – that means if you are training 4 x 6 second hangs, don’t load up so much with weight that you fail on your last rep. Be careful not to shock-load your joints when you have weights added (or any-time, really!).
The best way to ensure your get stronger for climbing over the long term is to avoid injuries! Worst case scenario you don’t progress as quickly as you might have hoped, but at least you’re not going backwards while you wait for injuries to heal.
Dr Ashlee Hendy is a Lecturer in Sports Science and Neuroscience at Deakin University. She teaches Strength and Conditioning and Motor Control to students studying Exercise and Sports Science. She also conducts cutting edge research in the field, leading projects that use non-invasive brain stimulation techniques to understand the neural adaptations to training. She supervises PhD and Honours students, has published 25 scientific articles, and presented at leading international Sports Science conferences. She began climbing indoors in the early 2000’s, but these days her heart and soul reside in the Wimmera, where she spends her weekends working projects on glorious Grampians sandstone.