Hang-boarding is the most common way that climbers train to increase finger strength.
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.
Should I include hang-board training in my weekly schedule? If you answer ‘yes’ to the following questions, you could consider adding hang boarding to your schedule.
A note on limiting factors: 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 ofclimbing, 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?
Example: Aaron is a 21 year old male with a background in combat sports. He gets hooked on bouldering at the gym. He has good upper body strength and takes to his new sport quickly, improving rapidly for the first 3 months. He is able to train for 1.5 hours 3 x per week and his goal is to send his first V5 outdoors. Is hang-boarding worthwhile?
Answer: Probably NO. While Aaron might wish for stronger fingers (c’mon, we all do!) it’s probably not what’s holding him back from improvement or sending a new grade outside. Can he make a critical assessment of his footwork, body positioning and ability to read routes and moves? Furthermore, being a young male, his body already responds well to the physical demands of bouldering itself (with a large spike in testosterone and protein synthesis post training). If he adds more strength training to the mix, he may gain strength so rapidly that he increases his risk of soft tissue injury.
Example: Jodie is a 32 year old female who started climbing after becoming bored at the gym. She started with general fitness goals, but after a year of climbing twice a week at her local gym she has built a social network, lots of psyche, and has decided she wants to improve her lead climbing. She currently climbs grade 20, and always avoids the steep walls. Is hang-boarding worthwhile?
Answer: Probably YES. In cases like this, finger and upper body strength may be a major limiting factor preventing improvement. The social sessions she has been taking part in to date, may not have been high enough in intensity or duration to create meaningful muscular adaptations and strength gains. Since Jodie has only been climbing for one year, she will certainly need to continue working on her technique, but this in itself can be more effective if she has a little bit more baseline strength to work with. In addition to finger strength on the hang-board, Jodie may also consider a whole body resistance training program to improve her general strength.
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.
Example of a high intensity session (‘max’ hangs) for moderate/advanced climber
|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
Example of a high volume session (repeaters) for moderate/advanced climber
|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
Example of a beginner's mixed-goal session
|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
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!).
Many people believe that training intensity (particularly adding weight) is higher risk for injury that training volume. But this is not necessarily true. Overuse injuries (like tendonitis) develop when volume is increased, and training for volume induces more fatigue, which also puts you at risk for acute injury (like soft tissue tears). Take home message is that we should pay careful attention to our body during ALL types of training.
MOST IMPORTANT: The best way to ensure your get stronger for climbing over the LONG term is to avoid injuries! When in doubt, leave it out. 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.
Is hang-boarding safe?
YES! Hang-boarding uses isometric contractions, which are very safe when performed correctly. You don’t need to ‘train-to-failure’ to achieve substantial strength gains, and you can (and should) easily monitor your training load, performance and improvements.
How do I make hang-boarding interesting?
This might be one of the hardest parts about hang boarding! Personally, I set up my iPad with a good climbing video while I train. Super-sets (i.e. adding in sets of other exercises during your rest periods) can also be a great way to get through the session. Be careful to choose appropriate exercises and monitor fatigue if you do this.
How do I warm up?
The best thing to do before you hang (hold!) is some easy climbing and/or bouldering, working up to moderate and eventually some high intensity. But often we do a hang-board session because we can’t make it to the gym, so we need to come up with ways to warm up on the board, which can be a little tedious. Do a few minutes of general activity to get the blood flowing (push ups, walk/run, stress ball squeezes) then ramp up slowly on positive holds with body weight or pulley assistance. I usually recommend that the first 5-6 sets of a session be sub-maximal (i.e. don’t feel hard), but some days you’ll might find yourself needing more time to warm up, so it’s important to pay attention to yourbody.
How do I know when to progress?
It’s good to stick with a training block or program for at least 4-6 weeks before making changes. That said, a little ‘trial and error’ is often required when you start a new program. Read about intensity and volume (link above) and determine which will be the major focus of your program. From there, you may need to make small adjustments to the other variable in order to make your sessions effective. For example, if your goal is volume (4 x 8 sec hangs) you may need to reduce your intensity (by using a larger hold, reducing weight or use a pulley for assistance) in order to achieve your goal hang durations.
What if I get pain?
Easy answer: STOP! Seek advice from an experienced coach before you continue on the hang-board if you experience pain in you joints or tendons, or notice anything else unusual. Sometimes beginning a new type of training can reveal underlying issues such as muscle imbalance or joint stability problems that need to be addressed before we continue with the new program. When introducing hang-boarding for the first time, pay attention not only to the health of your finger joints, but also wrist, elbows and shoulders.
How long should my session last?
If you are starting out, you will probably find your hang sessions last 45-60 mins. This includes 15-20 mins dedicated to a warm up, with the session itself taking 20-30 mins. You might find the hang-board is a useful option for maximising a 30 min training window when you can’t make it to the gym. If you are in a rush, never compromise by skipping a warm up.
Should I hang-board before or after my boulder/lead session?
Great question – many have debated this, and different (all valid) opinions exist! Because the hang-board is a simple isometric activity, it should be situated towards the end of your session. Climbing/bouldering involves complex compound movements that require much more skill, meaning you to have a fresh body and mind to maximise benefit and minimise injury risk. That said, it’s not wise to jump on the hang-board after a full-length exhausting gym session. Generally speaking, most of the scientific evidence suggests that training to failure and exhaustion is not the best way to maximise your gains (this is when most injuries are sustained, regardless of the activity).
How many sessions a week?
Start slow! Even adding one 45 min session per week is likely to produce noticeable benefits for someone who is less experienced. After 4-6 weeks, check your progress and consider adding more sessions (you will notice that your recovery time will speed up as you adapt to the new training stimulus). Pay attention to your recovery, and think about how adding extra sessions might affect performance in your other training/climbing sessions before you add them to your schedule. Sometimes, less is more.
Max-hangs or repeaters?
Many people will debate this, the age old battle between max hangs (focus on intensity) or repeaters (focus on volume). But the truth is, the answer for two different individuals will never be the same, and probably, most people will benefit from either! For beginners, I always recommend a middle ground approach, that is, not too high in volume orintensity. Once you have I good understanding of your own personal strengths and weaknesses, you can then shift your program to target your goals.
Do I really have to climb for 1-2 years before I hang-board?
No! Anyone can hang-board. But the big question is whether or not it’s the most effective way to spend your training time (and energy). Read above about limiting factors to help you decide.
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.
Couriers and Australia Post are experiencing shipping delays due to increase demand.More Info