Q&A #3: When Should I Start Training for Climbing?

This question comes up quite a bit, along with the more specific, ‘when should I start hangboarding?’  Obviously this is a personal decision, and for many climbers (perhaps the vast majority) the answer is ‘never’.  For that reason it makes sense to start with the question, why train at all?  A few reasons can be found here.  I’m going to assume that if you are reading this blog you have at least some interest in training (or you are cyber-stalking me, in which case I live in Iowa with my many shotguns and doberman pinschers).

Gratuitous climbing shot: Kate cruising Edge of Time with The Diamond looming behind.

I used to always tell people that a reasonably fit person ought to be able to work up to redpointing 5.12a sport routes just by focusing on movement skills and climbing regularly (2-3 times per week), and therefore, that was about the point one might consider following a structured training program.  In retrospect, I think I said that simply because that is what I did.  With hindsight, I think I would have been better off as a performance rock climber had I started training earlier.  The two years or so I spent getting from 5.11- to 5.12- included three major finger injuries and lots of frustration.  I’m confident I could have avoided those injuries, and likely progressed further, faster, had I followed a structured training program.

Considering the above, why not start training immediately?  There are at least three standard reasons often cited:

1) Developing proper movement skills is the top priority for beginners, and time/energy spent training will take away from movement training. 

2) If you get too strong, too early, you will develop bad movement habits that will plague your entire career (i.e. you will campus every move, never use your feet; Chris Sharma has this “problem”).

3) The delicate connective tissues in your hands and lower arms will not be able to handle the stress of training, thus resulting in injury.

Hopefully by this point I’ve been on my soapbox long enough that we can just eliminate #3 with minimal discussion.  Training stress is simply a function of volume (itself a function of intensity and duration) and recovery time, both of which are FAR easier to control in a structured training program than in random climbing activities.  When done properly training reduces injury risk.  That said, it would be wise for children & adolescents to use caution until we learn more about how their fingers respond to such activities.

Its never too early…Logan records his performance between campus sets.

Number 2 is a simple matter of self-discipline.  Anyone Jedi-enough to follow a structured training program ought to be able to focus their attention on acquiring and practicing movement skills with sufficient frequency to keep pace with the relatively slow rate at which muscles and connective tissue adapt to training stress.  Its simply a matter of paying attention and continuing to work on it.  A good training program will incorporate specific phases and activities focused on movement training, resulting in far more time spent on such activities compared to the typical ‘random climbing activity’ control group.  Developing finger strength is a life-long pursuit.  Even the best finger-strength program on the planet will not have you ripping holds off the wall overnight.  You will have several years (perhaps decades) to perfect your outside flag before you will surpass Chris Sharma’s crimping power.

If you get too strong, too fast, you might end up like this guy…wouldn’t want that.

Number one is probably the most valid, but as I suggest above, there is more than enough time to do both, in my opinion.  You can only spend so much time practicing drop knees and back steps before your mind goes numb.  Most movement training is not especially strenuous by design, leaving some gas left in the tank for other training activities.  If a typical beginner were to climb every third day in a climbing gym, they could spend the first 30-60 minutes doing movement drills, which double as a warmup, and the next 30-60 minutes on sport-specific training.  That is plenty of time to acquire new skills and new strength, endurance and power in significantly less time than it takes for a single day of unfocused cragging.

And that leads right into the best reason to delay training, and that is that most of the time, climbing is a lot more fun than training.  As my brother Mike once said to an enthusiastic begginer:

‘Why don’t you just enjoy climbing for another couple years. You have your whole life to systematically, slowly, and painfully, but certainly suck out every golden drop of innocent joy that the sport ever offered you….Get back to me when you find yourself camped out at the base of some shitty road-cut chosspile throwing F-bomb infused woblers every time your foot pops off that polished, over-chalked smear at the crux of your super-sick new linkup/eliminate of “Warmup Problem” and “Center Problem Direct” (the good crimper is off) with a downclimb of “Middle-Left-Right-Left-Down Problem”.’*

[*In fairness, I should probably point out that Mike was recovering from a potentially career-ending injury when he wrote this, so he was in a bit of a dark place at the time–he’s feeling much better now ;)]

Which brings me to the bottom line.  If you can maintain a relaxed attitude, have fun with your ropemates and continue to progress steadily through the grades, why not just keep at it?  This is a completely valid approach and it works to some extent for many climbers.  Once you get to the point that you have stopped progressing at a rate that satisfies you,  start training.  This is why I describe the decision as personal.  Each person needs to decide how to weigh the fun & casual aspects of climbing against the performance aspects.  What rate of progression is satifying to you?  Looking back at my own experience, its easy to say that I regret not taking things more seriously when I was younger.  But at the same time I had some of the most rewarding experiences of my career during those chaotic years.  I would like to think its possible to have balance between the two but to be honest, that is something I really struggle to maintain.

In conclusion, from a purely physical perspective, I don’t buy into any of the standard reasons given to delay training.  If you’re psyched to start a structured training program, including hangboarding or other sport-specific finger strength training, I don’t see any reason to wait.

Hangboard FAQ #0: What is a Basic Hangboard Routine?

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 I will be adressing common questions in a series of Hangboard FAQs.

I get some form of this question all the time, and I usually refer people to The Making of A Rockprodigy.  However, that is a bit of a long read, and I assume that most people are, like me, too lazy to read through the entire thing, so here is the Cliff Notes version of a “basic” hangboard routine (note, “basic” does not mean “easy”, it means “uncomplicated”).  Keep in mind that a hangboard can be used a myriad of different ways, for different purposes.  This is one way that has shown excellent results for increasing finger strength.  If you want to know the ‘why’ behind this routine, refer to the above linked article.

First of all, this routine only involves “dead hangs”, which means hanging straight-armed (with a slight bend in the elbows) throughout the entire workout.  No pull-ups, no lock offs.  Additionaly, this routine is designed to be used with two hands on the hangboard for every repetition (no one-arm hangs).  Hangboard workouts should only be done after a THOROUGH warmup.  I recommend at least 20 minutes of climbing, starting out easy and getting progressively more difficult, working through all the grip positions that will be used during the workout.

The proper posture for hangboarding: Arms straight, with elbows slightly bent, head up. Note the pulley-system for removing weight.

The first step in tailoring this routine to fit you is to select a set of “exercises”.  These equate to grip positions, so an example of four “exercises” would be: Open Crimp, Two-Finger Pocket (Middle/Ring Fingers), Wide Pinch, Sloper.  Conduct these exercises in an order that makes sense.  In my experience, you will get the most bang for your buck if you limit the number of exercises to around 7 or less.  Much more than that and it becomes difficult to maintain the appropriate level of intensity throughout the routine.

For each exercise, complete 3 “sets” of “repetitions”.  These should be done in a “pyramid” fashion, meaning the first set will involve relatively less resistance but high repetitions, and the third set will have relatively high resistance and low repetitions.  The ‘Rockprodigy’ routine calls for 7 reps in set #1, 6 in set #2 and 5 in set #3.  Rest 2-4 minutes between each set in the workout (I recommend 3 minutes).  Complete all three sets of one exercise before moving to the next exercise.

A repetition is a dead-hang of a relatively short, timed duration, followed by a brief, timed rest period.  For example, a 10-second hang followed by 5 seconds of rest (a good “beginner” rep) or 7-second hang followed by 3 seconds rest (a good “advanced” rep).  So to roll it all up, the third set of a given exercise for a “beginner” would last 70 seconds and transpire as shown:

0:00 – 0:10 Exercise 1, Set #3, Deadhang Rep #1

0:10 – 0:15 Rest

0:15 – 0:25 Deadhang Rep #2

0:25 – 0:30 Rest

0:30 – 0:40 Deadhang Rep #3

0:40 – 0:45 Rest

0:45 – 0:55 Deadhang Rep #4

0:55 – 1:00 Rest

1:00 – 1:10 Deadhang Rep #5

1:10 – 4:10 Rest for Exercise #2, Set #1…

An example 3rd “set” of the Middle-Ring 2-finger pocket “Exercise” of an Advanced Hangboard Routine.

Finally, the key to this routine is the “resistance”.  That is, the amount of weight hanging from your fingers during each set.  This varies greatly from athlete to athlete, so you will have to figure it out yourself through trial and error.  A big hint: start out with much less resistance than you think you should.  There are basically no consequences to using too little resistance, but potentially devastating consequences to using too much.  For many people the resistance will be LESS than bodyweight, which means you will need to rig up a simple pulley system to REMOVE weight.  You can get a pulley kit here, or assemble your own. Hangboard FAQ #2 addresses the “resistance” issue in a lot more detail, and explains how to rig a pulley system for removing weight.  And while you’re at it, you might as well read Hangboard FAQ #1, which is mostly useless drivel.

As stated above, you will want to gradually ramp up the resistance between sets (and between workouts).  I generally add 10 lbs. between each set of a given exercise, and I strive to add 5 lbs. between each workout (assuming I succeed in executing the previous workout as planned).

A properly-executed hangboard routine may not feel exhausting, but will thoroughly exhaust your fingers.  I strongly recommend against any additional climbing or other finger training, and suggest a relatively long rest-period after completion.  I rest two full days (~70 hours) after each hangboard workout.  Complete 6-10 such workouts, then move on to the next phase in your periodized training cycle (ideally, maximum recruitment training).

Confused? Good, you’re several years ahead of where I was when I started!

Training Intensity

Intensity is simply a matter of how much effort you put into a given training activity.  In other words, how “hard” you are trying.  You may already be performing the prefect training activity, but if the intensity is wrong, you won’t get the proper results.  After observing many climbers in their natural habitat its clear that intensity levels vary greatly between climbers.  Unlike pure aerobic sports (where a good heart rate monitor or power meter can do the trick), intensity in climbing is difficult to quantify, which makes it very difficult to prescribe.  It also makes it very hard to get accurate feedback as to whether the proper intensity has been applied. 

However, finding the proper intensity for each training activity is vital.  It is absolutely possible to follow a precise training plan and see few results if the intensity is wrong.  There are two primary culprits, the first and most obvious being that many people just plain don’t know how much effort to apply (and many don’t realize how much effort they are truly capable of).  That is primarily what I would like to address in this post.

Applying the proper intensity during a hangboard session.

Its worth noting there is a potential to apply too much intensity, especially when recovering from injury, but in my experience the opposite problem is far more common, particularly among folks that came to the sport of climbing without much background in other organized sports.  If you’ve never really pushed your body to the limit you will have trouble knowing just how much effort to put into a workout.  Not all pain is bad, and its worth discovering the difference.  If you have access to an actual coach, it may be worth the money to have them assess your training intensity in real-time, but most of us will end up figuring it out on our own.

Determining the ideal intensity is somewhat personal and will take some trial and error for each athlete to get it dialed in, but here are some starting points for various activities to get you headed in the right direction:

– Local Endurance Training: AKA “ARC” or “CIR”, the earmark of this training is its LOW intensity.  Sounds simple, but this can be one of the most difficult to gauge correctly.  Even if you find the right intensity, it can be difficult to keep it up for the long set lengths involved (routinely greater than 30 minutes).  The danger of too much intensity is that the effort will become anaerobic, theoretically producing different results than those desired.  In my experience most climbers err on the side of too little intensity and I think this is a mistake.  These workouts should not be effortless; try to push yourself by climbing on steeper terrain or avoiding the best holds.  Avoid vertical (or slabby) terrain and any hands-free rest stances.  If you have a heart-rate monitor you might try using it for these workouts to establish a baseline, but don’t assume it will correlate to big-muscle aerobic exercises like running or swimming.  If you struggle with finding the right terrain, consider a “Fartlek” style workout, by alternating between periods (Say, 5 minutes or so) of more intense and less intense climbing.  Varying the intensity will allow you to give more focus during the intense period and relax a bit or hone technique during the easier interval.  During a typical ARC workout, I will keep a pretty good sweat going and will be breathing steadily as you would for a moderate-intensity run or bike ride.

– Movement Technique Training:  Most technique training should be done in the low intensity range.  When new techniques are introduced, the intensity should be very low, but eventually you will need to increase the intensity to “stress-proof” your technique.  At some point you will find yourself using these new skills on a limit-level boulder problem or redpoint crux, but you can’t consider yourself a master until you are routinely applying the technique while onsighting at your limit.  Usually in such a scenario the intensity will be very high.

– Hypertrophy and/or Muscular Strength Training:  This phase can be tricky because its not black or white.  Let’s assume that we are following a strength building regimen that involves different “exercises”, each with multiple “sets” of a varying number of “reps”.  Each individual “exercise” should be done to failure or very near failure, implying 100% intensity.  However, it is unlikely you can achieve failure at the last rep of the last set if you give 100% intensity to each prior rep.  Generally your intensity should ramp up as you work through the sets.  I generally use 3 sets for a given exercise, so the first set will be around 80% intensity.  Not “easy”, requiring attention, but completely in control.  I will be fatigued at the end, but I could do more reps if I wanted to.  By the third set, I will be breathing heavily, perhaps trembling a bit, my form will just be starting to suffer and I will be giving 100%.  For a 5 rep set, by the 3rd rep or so I will have doubts about my ability to complete the set.  By the end of the 5th rep I will just about be sliding off the hold.  If you’re a screamer, you should be screaming on the 4th & 5th reps.  The second set will be somwehere in the middle, starting out controlled and perhaps relatively casual, but will feel very difficult by the end of the set.  If this doesn’t sound familiar, increase the resistance until your experience is similar.  If you are applying the proper intensity, you won’t be able to handle much more than 20 total sets in a single workout (i.e., 7 exercises with 3 sets each).

– Power/Max Recruitment Training:  This one is pretty simple on paper; give 100% or more to each set, once you are properly warmed up (if campusing, your warm-up should inlcude some low, then moderate intensity campusing), then rest however long you need to be able to give 100% again.  The tricky part is summoning 100% intensity for a 5-10 second effort.  In my experience that is easier to do during a progressive strength training or power endurance routine, where you can gradually dial up the intensity over several minutes.  In a true Power scenario, you will need to summon that intensity very quickly.  A gradual warmup can help with this, as well as learning how to tap into elevated states of arousel.  The cliff notes version: screaming, boisterous encouragement, and aggressive breathing can all help with arousel.  Fortunately dynoing can be painful if you aren’t very accurate, and pain will help stimulate arousel as well.  Succeeding on every set is a good sign that the intensity is too low.  If you’re really attempting the most powerful movements, you should be failing most of the time.  Another indicator is number of movements in a single set.  True Power or Max Recruitment should trend toward a single extreme movement, but certainly no more than five.  In my experience after three movements you can’t really give anything more of value.  If you’re doing more than that, and they’re all ‘hard’ moves, then the workout is not  really  targeting Max Recruitment.  As for warming up, while its important to be thorough, be careful not to waste all of your power during your warmup.  Power is the first thing to fade during a workout so experiment with different warmup lengths and keep track of what works best (I’ve seen  a clear decline in performance when my warmup last more than 45 minutes).  Finally, once the warmup is over, there are no easy campus sets.  If you can’t give 100% effort then the workout is over.  Move on to something else or save it for antoher day.

In this example, only the 2nd movement is truly at my limit, the others being mostly window dressing.  I’m not a grunter, but I did grunt spointaneously during the hard move.

– Power Endurance Training:  Similar to Hypertrophy, PE workouts should begin in control but get progressively more intense to the point where you can just barely finish.  Near the end of the last set, my motor skills will be totall shot, and I’ll have to swing my feet to get them from hold to hold; every hand movement will become a dyno.  At the end of my best PE workouts I literally feel like vomitting and passing out (not necessarily in that order).  My breathing is completely out of control, on the verge of hyperventillating, and I can’t stand up unsupported.  My forearms are totally pumped; not only can I not squeeze anything, I can’t relax my grip either.  When I go to record my effort, its difficult to write because my hands are shaking.  Unless its extremely cold, I’m dripping with sweat.  Some plans suggest taking a 10-15 minute break and then repeating the workout.  There is no way I could do this, and in my opinion if you can, then the intensity is too low for PE (but it would make for great stamina training). 

– Rest:  A bit tongue-in-cheek, but many climbers aren’t very good at resting.  Proper rest will probably take some effort.  Digging a trench, building a retaining wall, running a marathon; these are not rest activities.  Plan to do basically nothing for at least a week, and take it easy on your fingers for the entire rest period, or add anditional rest time once the retaining wall is finished.
Beyond an understandable lack of knowledge, the second most common cause of improper intensity is a simple lack of effort in one form or another.  This is usually not caused by laziness, but a number of other possible causes including  external distractions during the workout time, unexpected interruptions, general fatigue from overtraining or lack of sleep, and other factors that culminate in a gneral lack of focus on the task at hand.

At the end of the day, you’re unlikely to get much out of your training program if you’re just going through the motions.  I’ve found myself in this position on many occasions.  If you’re scratching your head after a season of ho-hum results, think hard about the effort you put into your training.  Were you giving it 100% (when 100% effort was called for), or were you mailing it in through your Hypertrophy phase, just counting the workouts until you could start bouldering again?  Did you save some strength for the Campus Board during you Max Recruitment phase, or did you blow all your power during your so-called warmup? 

Most of us have a large resorvoir of desire and are able to access it when needed*, but focus and attention are not so easy to maintain.  The majority of my own sub-par efforts stem from a lack of focus or attention when the opposite was required.  Fortunately this can be simple to correct once you learn how.  Look for more on this topic in the near future….

(*If you routinely find yourself struggling to muster the desire to give it your best effort, check out some of my tips on motivation here.)

What’s Right For You?

“There is no ‘right’, there’s only what’s ‘right’ for you.”    -Coach Beloit, The Jericho Mile 

John Steinbeck (author of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and many others) has long been one of my favorite authors.  His novels paint a vivid picture of the human condition, and in my experience, provide plenty of cunning insight about the way people behave.  Hands down my favorite Steinbeck quote is this line from The Winter of Our Discontent:

Climbing Training expert John Steinbeck, contemplating the proper 4×4 protocol

“No one wants advice, only corroboration”

Nowhere is this more true than in the sphere of training advice, and climbers are certainly not exempt from this pitfall.  To borrow a phrase, 9 out of 10 climbers are looking for confirmation that what they are already doing is good enough.

So even if 95% of the message is “do something different”, the reader is inclined to only hear the 5% that encourages them to continue with their current routine.  I don’t know why humans are inclined to behave this way.  Perhaps the cause is Newtonian in the sense that objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion tend to stay in motion.  Often the activities that will produce the best results are among the most unpleasant, so we find a justification to convince ourselves that the path of least resistance (or the path we are already on) is the “right” path for us.

Gratuitous climbing shot: Kate cruising Topographical Oceans over Memorial Day weekend

Needles to say, this creates an obvious problem: How does the “Self-Coached Climber” determine which program or activity is “right”, when you can’t trust yourself to make an unbiased decision?  One tried and true method is to resign from self-coaching.  A good coach will be able to identify activities that will result in improvement, and they will have no qualms about making you suffer.  The downside is that a good climbing coach is hard to find, and they usually don’t come cheap.  The next best thing is a dedicated partner who can observe you in your element and provide recommendations.  If you choose this option, ensure your partner doesn’t have their own agenda.  Chances are they have their own favorite activities on their own personal path of least resistance, and these activities may not be ideal for you either. 

Online coaching, or attending a short seminar with a pro coach can be a good compromise, but when it comes time put your head down and suffer through another set, your online coach won’t be there to crack the whip. Most climbers will have to make do with self-coaching, and although this is tricky, there are things the coach in you can do to get better results from the athlete. 

1. Flatter Your Role Model.  Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, find a role model, find out what they are doing to prepare for climbing, and get on the same program.  In this metaphor, a “role model” is not necessarily someone you “look up to”, or someone who crushes 5.17d, but someone of a similar body type, with a similar lifestyle & priorities, but who climbs harder routes than you.  The more you can find in common the more likely you will have success following the same program.  Keep in mind that the best climber you know may not have the best training program.  If your role model climbed 5.14 in their first year of climbing, will they understand what it takes to break through a 5.11 plateau?

2. Write Down Your Training Plan.  Once you’ve settled on a training program, write it down, in detail.  Do this at a time of rest, when you are far-removed from the pain of training.  Just like shopping for groceries on an empty stomach, if you try to make your plan while you are training, you will be fighting a constant battle against cutting corners.  Even if you have a tremendous work ethic, the problem persists, although the symptoms may present in the form of biting off more than you can chew, thus resulting in injury.  If you have a coach by correspondence, this is the time to get his or her insight on your plan.

A top-level training plan, showing Rest, Local Endurance, Hypertrophy & Max Recruitment phases. In addition its a good idea to have a detailed plan for each individual workout (example below)

3. Follow Your Plan.  As discussed above, you can’t be trusted to make changes on the fly.  Every plan needs to be flexible to account for unforeseen challenges, and every training resource I’ve come across encourages the athlete to “listen to their body”, but this can be taken too far.  My advice?  Try really hard to follow your plan.  If you find yourself considering a change, think it over for a while, discuss it with other informed people, and make the decision at a time of rest.  Over time you will get a better feel for when your coach is being prudent, and when he is cutting corners, but to do so you need to be very honest with yourself and really dig down to the root of what is instigating your desire to change the plan.  I recommend once your plan is set you see it through for at least one season before your try something dramatically different.  If its a good plan you should see results in one season (unless you’ve been training seriously for many years already).

4. Document What You Did; Use It For Motivation.  Often one of the best ways to get the most out of a workout is to have a training partner (or an entire “team” of partners) to work with.  This can bring your natural competitiveness to the fight and encourage you to give it your best effort.  Many of us don;t have this option for whatever reason.  Even if you have dedicated climber partners, its rare that they are following the same plan, and even if they are its unlikely that your training schedules synch up.  The solution is to create a virtual training partner–yourself from last week, last season, last year or five years ago.  Document the results of your training, use the identical (or at least progressive) training apparatus from season to season, and you can use your previous results as motivation.  For this to work you need to have your training records at the tip of your fingers during the workout.  While resting between sets (whether its a Hangboard workout, Campus Session, 4×4, etc), flip through some previous results and see how you compare.  This method never fails to motivate me to push a bit harder on the next set.  Identify thoese magical seasons where everything came up roses and use those as your target.  In a parallel sense, if you ahve a training partner, but you are either geographically separated or train at different times of day, you might consider sharing your results to create some friendly competition.  Just remember, a rising tide lifts all boats–don’t let the competition get in the way of your partnership.

A log sheet for documenting Hangboard Workouts. This particular sheet is used to track my “PR”s for each exercise– a great real-time motivator

5. Make It Suck.  If your workout doesn’t “suck”, it may not be right for you.  In other words, if whatever you are doing comes naturally, flows seamlessly, or feels effortless, you’re proably leaving some stones un-turned.  Usually improving on a weakness will produce the most dramatic improvement, and we tend to suck at our weaknesses.  So if your training is addressing a weakness, it will probably feel unpleasant, uncomfortable.  If you wake up dreading the workout youhave planned, you might be on to something!  It may come as a shock to read something advocating hard work, since all those ads on the internet & cable TV have sought to brainwash us into believing that we can achieve all of our dreams without any sacrifice (other than 3 easy payments of $19.95 plus shipping & handling), but in reality if it were easy, everyone would be climbing 5.15.  (Of course this can be taken to extremes as well.  Sprinting up 10 flights of stares with a sack of sharp rocks strapped to your back is sure to suck, but it won’t make you a better rock climber.)

Hangboarding FAQ #2: Should I use big holds with lots of added weight, or small holds with lots of weight removed?

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 a series of Frequently Asked Questions about the subject, in no particular order.

First, review Hangboarding FAQ #1, as these topics are related.  Next, consider the concept of “Specificity”.  This is a fundamental concept of all forms of training, and it basically means your training should be as similar as possible to what you are training for.  In the context of this question, that means you need to determine the type & size of holds you will be climbing on when you are at your limit.  If you primarily climb at a single crag, this should be fairly simple, as hold types and sizes tend to be fairly consistent at a single crag, with difficulty varying with other factors such as length, steepness, or hold orientation & spacing.   

Pinch Fest, 5.12b, Rifle, CO: Overhanging with jugs, deep pockets, and thin pinches.

If you travel a lot, and visit many different types of crags, this can be difficult to nail down.  The typical hold on a 5.12 at Rifle is much different than a 5.12 at Smith Rock.  Everybody needs to train edges, but maybe you are particularly keen on pocket routes or big slopers.  Pinches are very common at overseas limestone crags but not so common in the US.  In this case, consider which types of routes really inspire you, or are more important to you, or represent a more limiting weakness for you.  Perhaps you have a “big hairy goal” route in mind.  What are the holds like on this route?  Even for those who travel extensively, you probably have a favorite crag or type of route, the type of route that you typically select when you’re looking for a next-level project.  Use that type of route as your guide.

Watts Totts, 5.12b, Smith Rock, OR: Vertical, with tiny edges and knobs

To maintain specificity, select hangboard grips that best replicate the size & shape of these “limit holds”.  Ideally these holds should be a bit of a stretch for you when you’re starting out.  If you typically climb 5.12, I recommend hold sizes more typical of the 5.13s at your favorite crag, since you will be progressing quickly through the grades now that you’re training.  If you’re an enduro jug-haul fiend, its likely your holds will be relatively large, so expect to add lots of weight while hangboarding, or use one-arm hangs.  In my experience it gets pretty dicey once you’re adding 75lbs. or more.  If you are set on this type of climbing, you may consider doing more than the standard number of reps and/or sets as another way to increase resistance without adding dangerous amounts of weight.

Use two pulleys, two or more eyebolts, a harness and length of cord to “remove” weight while hangboarding.

For thin face climging afficianados, the selected holds will probably make it necessary to remove weight.  This is easier than it sounds, but be sure to use a repeatable, quantifiable method for doing so.  Popular methods include hanging from elastic bands, putting your feet on a chair, or getting a power spot from a partner.  These methods all suck, so top using them!  Instead, install a simple pulley system, like the one sold here.  Install two (or more) eye bolts below your hangboard, attach the pulleys to the bolts and run a cord through the pulleys.  Clip one end of the rope to your harness and the other end to however-much weight you want to remove, and voila! you just lost 40 lbs as far as your fingers are concerned.

Once you’ve identified the right type & size of holds, plan to stick with them for several seasons (so you can gauge your progress from season to season), but also be prepared to down-size as you improve.  If all goes well, eventually you will find yourself crushing grips that once seemed unreasonably small, so be on the lookout for the appropriate-sized holds once you attain that next level.

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.