Hangboarding FAQ #1: How Do I Progress on the Hangboard?

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.

Results of progressive strength training.

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. 

Big reaches force the lagging arm into less favorable angles for pulling, thus increasing the load on the fingers

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.

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9 thoughts on “Hangboarding FAQ #1: How Do I Progress on the Hangboard?

  1. Pingback: Hangboarding FAQ #2: Should I use big holds with lots of added weight, or small holds with lots of weight removed? | Lazy H Climbing Club

  2. Do you think Usain Bolt could win the 400m? He has apparently run 45.5 and really just does not like to train for “distance” so he really does not. Would be interesting to see if he tries at some point.

    • I do think Usain Bolt could win the 400m, so let me clarify my previous statement. I meant to say, no human will ever win both events in the same Olympics. If he were to put in the type of “distance” training required, I predict it would diminish his burst just enough that the other top sprinters in the world we be able to beat him in the 100m.

  3. Pingback: Hangboard FAQ #0: What is a Basic Hangboard Routine? | Lazy H Climbing Club

  4. Hi:

    Thanks for posting all this information!

    You mention on here that hang times should be short because typically one is moving quickly and only on a given hold for a short time. However, I’m a trad climber, so there are times when I need to hang out in a particular spot for much longer than 3 seconds in order to deal with the gear.

    Obviously one important aspect there is “choose the right gear the first time, and place it correctly on the first try.” But even allowing for that (and ignoring the issue of placements that are genuinely hard to read or difficult to place), trad climbing seems like it often requires that you hang out in a given spot for a while.

    Should I incorporate that into my hangboard routine in some way? Longer hangs?

    By the way, what I have been doing in the gym as a way of addressing the same issue is ARC work, just working on staying on the wall in some form for as long as I can on low-intensity holds. That feels like a promising avenue so far, but it’s the middle of winter now, so I haven’t gotten to test out the ARC theory in the real world.

    Thanks,
    David

    • Great question David,

      While I note that crux pulls rarely last more than 3 seconds, I wouldn;t recommend using 3 second hangs during training. I recommend repetitive 10-second hangs for those new to training, and 7-second hangs for more experienced climbers. I do not recommend using longer than 10-second hangs for “strength” training (check out my Basic Hangboard Workout here). Granted, 10 seconds is probably not enough time to select a piece of gear, place it, and clip the rope in.

      When placing gear, ideally you will find a comfortable stance that doesn’t place high strain on the fingers. The intensity of hanging at such a stance should mimic your ARC intensity (especially on a trad on sight), so ARCing is the perfect training for the type of endurance required to place gear. Practice resting in unusual positions and hanging on with one arm. You can even ARC with your rack and practice pull gear off your harness, if you think you could be more efficient.

      Of course, as routes get more difficult (and steep), finding a relaxed clipping stance is not always possible. Highly uniform cracks (like those at Indian Creek) offer few casual stances, but the upside is that its usually easier to select the proper size of gear.

      Even if you can’t get the gear in quickly or find an easy stance, avoid hanging on the same arm for more than 30 seconds or so. Try alternating hands, as you would when shaking at a jug. Hang from one arm, take a piece off your rack, put it in your mouth, then switch hands. Try to plug the piece in, then shake again. Repeat until you have the right piece, shaking between each step. Once the right piece is in place, shake again, then clip in. This tactic takes calm nerves and good relaxation.

      Hopefully with practice you can speed up the time it takes to pull gear off your rack, place it, and clip in. Practice will also improve your ability to select the right-sized piece on the first try.

      Good luck and happy climbing,
      Mark

  5. Hi Mark:

    Thanks so much for your detailed reply!

    And so far, the ARC does feel super promising for dealing with this “hanging on to place gear” issue, extremely important in my neck of the woods, the Gunks, where cruxes are often near the ground or ledges, and placements are in horizontal cracks, both of which can force you to hang out in inconvenient places.

    As a follow-up ARC question (AKA “ARC for Newbies”, which maybe I should have asked on a different page on your site?): I have been doing ARC for about 3 weeks (actually 2 weeks, then a week interruption for work, and then 1 more week) on the local bouldering wall. I have route-setting privileges there, and so have installed a lot of big handholds to traverse on, with the majority of the time spent at 15-30 degrees of overhang. The best I’ve managed so far is 15 minutes of continuous climbing.

    For reference, I lead about 5.9 trad, 10b sport, have a BMI of 23.4 (6’3″, 187#), and can do a set of 15 pullups on jugs. I do occasionally fumble with gear, but mostly I place it pretty well and pretty quickly. I’ve been climbing for about 32 years, and sick of not getting better, so want to do some effective training! My current climbing goals really all revolve around being able to walk up to any Grade IV-V 5.10 trad route and feel at least in control on it, if not just plain old hike it.

    So with that info as background:

    1) Should I make the ARC traverse I’m doing even easier until I can stay on it for 30 minutes at my current strength level, or keep hammering at the current difficulty level (which results in significant forearm pump and fairly prolonged recovery)?

    2) If I stay at the current level of difficulty, and after 6 weeks I can’t do 30 minutes, should I do additional weeks, or go to some other training mode and then come back to ARC later?

    3) I’ve heard it said elsewhere (aka, random internet dudes) that for the kind of climbing I want to do, I might even consider ONLY or mostly ARC as indoor training, given that endurance is probably much more important for me than power. Does that seem right to you?

    Thanks again,
    David

    • David,

      1) It sounds to me like your ARC intensity is to high. I would try to make it a bit easier. If you can set up an easier area to ARC, you can alternate between using the steeper/more difficult wall and the easier wall.

      2 & 3) These questions have the same answer. I woulld not recommend ARCing more than 6 weeks. Each activity has its own purpose, and there are more ways to improve endurance that just undurance training. Improving your strength will improve both power and endurance. Also, your body will stop adapting to training if you don’t vary your workouts. It usually takes ~4-6 weeks to hit a “plateau” (depends on the person, their training history, etc).

      Bottom line, I think you will find transitioning to a strength phase after 6 weeks will be beneficial for power and endurance, and will prevent stagnation. Winter is a good time for strength training because its best to minimize outdoor climbing during the strength phase.

      Mark

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