I’m a strong proponent of hangboarding for increasing finger strength for rock climbing. I’ve tried many different methods, and IME, hangboarding is the most effective. For basic instructions on how to go about hangboarding, check out “The Making of a Rockprodigy”, a training plan my brother Mike & I developed many years ago. I get a lot of questions about the specifics of hangboarding, and it seems like many of the same questions come up over and over, so here is the first in a series of Frequently Asked Questions about the subject, in no particular order.
Hangboarding has a number of benefits, and we can debate the terminology until we’re blue in the face, but the primary goal is to increase finger strength. Performance athletes have known for decades that in order to force muscular adaptation to increase strength, training must be “progressive”. This means the resistance on the forearm structures must increase over the course of the training phase in order to stimulate strength gains. On the hangboard, there are three basic ways to increase resistance: increase the duration of the hang, reduce the size of the hold you are hanging from, or increase the weight. Like most things in life, there is no clear answer, and its not black and white. The solution is most likely some combination of the three, but first, let’s consider each method individually.
Increasing hang duration seems to be the most obvious and the most popular. For one thing, its probably the easiest, since it requires little equipment. Most of the bozos greasing up the board at your local gym are using this method, informally, when they feel compelled to hang from the jugs to impress their girlfriend. They basically hang, swing their legs around a bit, until it becomes uncomfortable, then they move along to grease up the systems board on their way to the gymnastic rings. Believe it or not, this method was really popular in the Golden Age of sport climbing. Jerry Moffat, Wolfgang Gullich, Ben Moon and many others made a point to dead hang one-handed from a 1-cm flat edge for as long as possible. Moffat got his time up to over a minute. An impressive feat for sure, but what is the climbing application? When do you really need to dead hang a 1cm edge with one had for more than a minute? If you look at video of a polished climber on a rehearsed route, you will note that generally during crux sequences, a single hand is rarely loaded for more than 3 seconds. Often its more like 1 second. It may seem minor, but these things make a big difference. It takes an Olympic runner ~9.8 seconds to run 100m, and and ~45 seconds to run 400m. No human will ever win both events, because the types of physiology required are too different. The same must be true for climbers, even if we haven’t gotten near enough to our genetic potential to prove it yet.
My advice is to select a hang duration that is “specific” to the type of climbing you do, and stick with that duration for several seasons or years, until you have a good reason to change it. In my opinion, it should be no more than 10 seconds for a single repetition. As you become more in-tune with your strengths & weaknesses over the years, you may decide to change the duration. I started out about ten years ago doing 10 second hangs followed by 5 seconds rest. After a few seasons of this, I noticed I never failed to send a project if I could do all the moves (meaning my endurance was superior to my power), so I decided to reduce my hang duration to 7 second hangs with 3 second rest. This seemed to even things out a bit more for me, but I still climb better on routes than boulder problems, so I plan to experiment with 5 second hangs followed by 5 second rest to see what happens.
The next option is to reduce the size of the hold. This is not a bad idea, but creates obvious practical problems, because you would need many hangboards with many different, slight increments of hold size for each grip you train (Spaniard Eva Lopez has created a hangboard for this exact purpose) or some other apparatus designed to gradually reduce hold size. Remember we need to have the option to increase resistance between every workout, assuming our fingers keep up. We also need to be able to quantify the resistance with respect to past seasons, so that we can predict a reasonable resistance for future workouts. Not an easy thing to do while constantly changing hold sizes. Before we start building a better mousetrap, first lets review the primary argument in favor of this type of progression.
Consider how routes change as the grades go up. Basically, the holds get smaller, the holds get less positive, the walls gets steeper, the holds get further apart, oriented more poorly, or some combination of these. For the first two, the most specific way to adress the physical affect on your fingers is by progressively changing hold size on the hangboard (making the holds smaller &/or less positive). What is the affect of the latter three? These all put more load (weight) on the fingers, without changing hold size at all. As a wall gets steeper, less of your body weight rests on your feet, so your fingers have to take more of the weight. As holds get more distant, it becomes necessary to lock off holds lower and lower to make big reaches, thus forcing you to pull more outward on the hold (rather than straight down). As the direction of pull changes, your fingers must generate more force to maintain the same normal force on the hold. Holds oriented in less favorable directions create the same affect, making it necessary to generate more force on the hold than simple body weight. In three of the five examples, adding weight to force progression appears to be more specific than reducing hold size.
You could make the argument that, in terms of specificity, its about a wash between reduing hold size and adding weight, though I would lean toward the latter . There is no doubt adding weight is much more practical, easier to quantify, easier to vary and easier to fine tune with readily accessible materials.
In conclusion, I recommend you select a reasonable hang duration, and plan to stick with it for several years. Pick a specific hold size and plan to stick with that for several seasons. Figure out (through trial and error) the right amount of weight to add (or subtract), and plan to change that resistance almost every workout, but generally in a progressive manner (meaning, gradually increasing the weight on your fingers). At the end of the last set for a given grip, if you still have some gas in the tank, do an extra rep or two until you reach failure.
The next obvious question is, if I need a fixed hold size, what size should it be? See Hangboarding FAQ#2 for an answer.