The World of Hangboard
Somewhere along your jaunt down the nice wandering cobble set path of life you were unexpectedly jabbed by the climbing bug, its infectious poison penetrating all the way into your soul, leaving your mind consumed with the indomitable desire to get vertical. The only way you have found to cull the tireless pulsations of the poison is to trek with other wonderful individuals suffering from the same condition; to scale magnificent pebbles, illustrious walls, and great monoliths across our fabulous planet. With each exploit you find victory and defeat that pushes you to move deeper into your compulsion. As you develop as a climber, your body adapts allowing you to perform new feats of vertical resistance. Your ambitions become greater and your rocky foes become bigger and badder. At some point, your weapons, those ten-digit armaments you use to smite your inanimate opponents just are not good enough.
Oh yes, you know what I’m talking about. We have all had that moment on the wall when you’re up flashing your myriad of grip signs along the wall like your playing guitar hero, trying to nail each one right on cue, when you start to feel the power meter dip. You reach up flashing your next grip as you latch the hold, you start pulling, face in full grimace with eyes bulging in absolute focus. Next thing you know you have blasted off the stone, catapulting toward the earth in a free fall failure. After numerous stubborn attempts to beat your project, you come to realize simply dialing down the sequence is not good enough to triumph over this thing. The truth becomes apparent, you need stronger fingers to best your rock nemesis.
As the determined and astute rock warrior you are, you set off on a digital quest through the wondrous lands of the internet to find the sage trainer that will help you develop those lovely stone battling finger mallets into project beating weapons of crush. During your journey you come across an expansive collection of hang board protocols designed to hone your fingers into ascension masterpieces, but which one is right for you? To discover which one is the panacea to your programs let’s break down the structure of a standard routine and discuss the scientific evidence behind it. Sorry the fantastical is being left behind for the systematic. We are getting rid of the wands and picking up the strain gauge.
Under your analytical eye you notice some consistent components between all of the protocols; there is frequency, intensity, time, and type to each routine that is nestled between a warmup and a suggested recovery time frame before you repeat the workout again and then there are the more subtle differences such as the grip positions. The most striking difference is between the two primary strategies used, max hangs and repeaters. To help you navigate the world of the board we will break down each piece and provide evidence for their purpose, so let’s get started.
Now that we have our central theme, let’s get into the first piece of the hangboard puzzle, the warmup. Yeah, I know it’s the least glamorous and interesting part of this puzzle, but it is not to be taken lightly, it’s essential to your success. Not warming up is equivalent to trying to race a car that has not been fueled or given oil. Sure, you might get off the starting line, but it is very likely you won’t make it very far before you find yourself sputtering to a halt or even worse find yourself injured. What research has found is that a proper warm up increases localized blood flow the supply chain to your tissues, increases tissue temperature which improves cellular function allowing for more efficient energy utilization, and excites your central nervous system which helps to develop a quicker and stronger contraction of your muscles.1-6 Currently there is limited or absent evidence to support a singular set of activities or length of warm up that is optimal.6 Expert opinion suggests that it should consist of 10-40 minutes of light to moderate intensity activity that targets tissues involved in the primary workout. This is a place where you can get creative and try a variety of activities to get yourself warmed up such as bouldering, traversing, pushups, pullups, yoga, sub maximal dead hangs, or any combination of activities that get you revved up to dangle from those meat sticks you call fingers. The important thing to remember is that your fingers/forearms should be properly engaged before starting hangboarding. So, mix it up and try a variety of activities to see what works best for you.
- Warming up is essential to prime your body for an effective training routine.
- Body parts being trained must be targeted during warm up for best training results.
In any workout frequency is defined as the number of times to perform the workout in a week. While you were out researching routines to follow, this parameter was the one that changed the least. In most programs you found that often prescribed 2-3 hangboard sessions per week.7,8,9,10 The reason for the consistency between routines in number of hangboard bouts comes down to rest. A well-planned workout may be the catalyst that leads to increases in strength, but it is the rest period that allows your body to respond to the exercise by remodeling the body’s tissues to handle the exaggerated forces placed on it. In hangboarding routines, the muscles and connective tissue of the hands and forearms are stimulated to adapt. Because both tissue types are heavily involved in the activity, the rest period must account for the slowest recovering tissue and in this case the slowest modifying tissue is tendon, requiring up to 72 hours to recover from a bout of high intensity loading.11 It is highly recommended that the frequency duration be strictly followed to keep the connective tissues of the hand and forearm healthy. Moreover, it must be mentioned that other forms of high intensity workouts such as limit bouldering must be considered with the hangboard routine. Both are high intensity so they should be spaced accordingly to allow for adequate musculoskeletal tissue recovery.
- Training sessions in a week must be controlled and considered with other workouts.
- To fully recover from a hangboard routine 2-3 days of rest is necessary for effective training which promotes the greatest improvements and lower incidence of injury.
Hangboarding is intended to improve a climber’s strength by stimulating positive adaptations in neural, muscular, and connective tissues. Neural adaptation occurs early in a new training program and is primarily responsible for any short-term improvements seen. Research has shown that improvements in muscular strength can be achieved with intensities as low as 60% of 1 rep max (RM) and tendons as low as 70%.12,13 During a dead hang, muscular and connective tissues are loaded singularly or repeatedly to stimulate changes in the tissues. When considering the two primary mechanical tissues involved in gripping, it is the tendon that has the narrowest conditions for positive adaptation and must be considered when programming a successful hangboard routine. While you were overviewing hangboard protocols you probably noticed that most of them have an intensity set somewhere around 80-90% 1RM. Within this range is likely the ideal loading intensity to stimulate positive adaptation in muscle and tendon while limiting muscle diameter growth (hypertrophy) which is stimulated the most in the 70-80% 1RM range.8,12
- Intensity matters
- Intensities over 70% stimulate both muscular and tendinous
- Higher intensities promote more strength.
- Lower intensities promote more endurance.
When you have chosen an intensity, you want to work at there is a correlated repetition count that should be completable for that intensity in a set. The reason for this is the size principle of motor recruitment. This principle states that smaller, more fatigue resistant fibers are activated first. As the demand for more force production is needed more fatigable Larger powerful fibers are recruited.12 An example of this relationship can be seen in two of the most popular training protocols, Eva Lopez’s max hang protocol and the Anderson brother’s repeater protocol.8,14 The max protocol uses single hangs of the max amount of weight you can hang from. Alternatively, the repeater protocol has you complete five to seven repetitions per set. Both are effective, but their differences must be considered when choosing the right routine for you. Evidence supports max hang routines as the optimal developer of strength and repeaters as the optimal method to develop power endurance.
- Repetitions are related to intensity.
- Higher intensity=less reps, lower intensity=more reps.
Determining hold duration for each repetition must account for intensity level, intended adaptations from the bout of exercise, and experience level. At higher intensities only short duration holds (< 5s) will be possible due to the limitations of the energy systems used by the larger fast twitch fibers that are needed to produce maximum force.15 At lower intensities less fast twitch fibers are recruited, meaning that the other fiber types that can utilize more sustainable energy pathways are active, thus contractions can be maintained longer. Essentially, muscle fibers needed for max contraction fatigue faster than the smaller more fatigue resistant fibers. Another piece to account for is the duty cycle of a climber, which is the ratio of a climber holding a hold to resting. Observational testimony by the Anderson brothers suggests that cycle is close to 7 seconds on and 3 off, so following a similar duty cycle may be advantageous for producing sport specific benefits.8 Generally, you will see hang times anywhere between 3 to 15 seconds. Interestingly, research has found that the optimal duration of load to improve tendon strength is between 3-12s. If you are a less experienced climber it may be more beneficial to use a longer duration hang and rest period to manage yourself more easily on the board and reduce risk of injury as you gain proficiency on the board.
- Higher intensities less hang time, lower intensity longer hang time
- To improve strength of muscle and tendon hangtimes should be between 3-12s
- The more novice hang board participant should use longer hang and rest parameters.
Choosing a number of sets is fairly straightforward. Higher intensity exercises have less completed sets and more endurance-based exercises generally have more. Of all the pieces of a hangboard routine, this might be the most controversial component. When looking at protocols you will see sets vary from 1 to 9 sets depending on the number of hang positions and intensity of the hang. Heavier hangs and routines with more grip positions tend to have less sets. Ultimately it comes down to overall volume of training which is the combination of intensity x reps x sets.12 At this point there is no definitive consensus on number of sets, although one researched did find that 8 sets per muscle group was ideal for increasing strength.16 What is important is that the routine provide sufficient overload to cause failure by the end of the routine.8,12
- Sets vary between protocols.
- Higher intensity workouts generally have less sets.
- Sets should be sufficient to cause failure by the end of the workout.
The last piece to consider with intensity is the rest interval between sets. Yeah, be prepared to listen to a book on audible or do some core exercises, because resting during a hangboard routine is just as important as the loading. Again, the greater the intensity of the protocol, the greater the amount of rest is needed between each set. The reason for this comes down to the body’s ability to recover the energy stores necessary to meet the demands of the exercise, reduce neuromuscular fatigue, and to give the connective tissue time to recover its mechanical properties to reduce risk of injury. In standard resistance exercise protocols 2-5 minutes of rest is necessary between each set for strength training.8,12
- Rest is essential.
- Don’t do exercises involving finger flexors in between sets.
- 2-5 minutes between sets for hangboard routines.
Specificity is the principle that suggests to get the best results from training the exercises must be sufficiently similar to the activity you want to improve in. Put another way, if you want to be better at two finger pockets, doing two finger pocket hangs will be more effective than training 4 finger crimp hangs. In Climbing participants use their hands in a diverse set of configurations that are not all similar. To best improve in climbing then it would be most advantageous to train in a variety of hand positions to adhere to the principle of specificity.8 When choosing a hangboard routine this idea becomes very important. Evidence has shown that different hand positions recruit finger flexor muscles differently, thus if you only train small holds which are more Flexor Digitorum Profundus dependent, you maybe undertraining Flexor Digitorum Superficialis which is more active in large hold positions such as jugs..17,18 When training max hangs there maybe more global improvement in strength of the finger flexors, but that strength may not be fully available to you in all hand positions due to neurological inefficiencies present due to a lack of training in that hand position. This could be one of the reasons why the Anderson brothers advocate for training multiple hand positions.8 In the end it comes down to your training goals.
- The position you train in will be the position you get stronger in.
- Larger holds result in greater recruitment of the muscles.
- Hangboard routines should be chosen to match demands of the type of climbing you do.
When participating in a workout there are three primary types of movement/activation of the muscle. These three types are concentric (muscle shortening), eccentric (muscle lengthening), and isometric (no movement). Research has found that each of these contraction types cause different physiological responses.19 Force production is greatest in eccentric exercise followed by isometric, and lastly concentric.19 Energy cost for contraction is greatest to lowest in concentric, isometric, and eccentric, respectively.19 Another consideration is the duration of time to recover from a bout of each of the contraction types. Although eccentric exercise may require the least amount of energy use and it produces the greatest amount of force, it also has been found to increase muscle soreness following a bout of exercise which may increase recovery time, thus reducing the amount of times training can be completed in a week.20 Additively, when considering which type of contraction should be used on a hangboard, specificity must be considered. Climbers predominantly use an isometric grip when climbing, that is they don’t move the position of their fingers once they have been placed on a hold. Considering the principle of specificity, it would suggest that Isometrics would be the preferred contraction type. There is evidence to back up this selection of contraction type with hangboarding. Isometric contractions have been found to produce the greatest strength gains of any contraction type.21,22 The problem is that the gains are only seen in roughly a 15 degree arc from the position trained.8,21 The importance of this, when training isometrically, is that multiple hand and finger angles must be trained to effectively, meet the demands of a climb that places the hands in a variety of configurations.
- Accounting for all physiological responses to contraction type and adhering to the principle of specificity, isometric contractions are the preferred contraction type to improve strength and transferability to climbing specific demands.
Sticking with it
So, how long do you have to stick with a routine to see quantifiable differences in your strength? The truth, it depends. If you haven’t been climbing for long or have only gotten serious about climbing recently, you may see progression within a few weeks due to neurological changes that improve your efficiency. If you have been climbing consistently and are already athletic you should expect to not see changes for 4-8 weeks.12 Another thing to consider is that evidence suggests that tendinous changes are not observable until 12 weeks of training.13 Most protocols suggest 4-8 weeks of strength training on a hangboard before moving on to a different aspect of training. The question is, is that sufficient time to get the necessary adaptations in the tendons and ligaments to safely withstand the increase in muscle strength that is seen around 4-6 weeks if sufficient overload has been applied to it? The answer at this point is unknown.
- Initial improvements depend on previous fitness and climbing participation.
- Expect to spend at least 4-12 weeks with a protocol to develop any meaningful change in strength.
- Evidence suggests tendons need to be sufficiently loaded for a longer time than muscles to see advantageous changes in its structure.
- Persistence will pay off
This is the most important part of any hangboarding routine. When you start a hangboarding protocol, be realistic. If you start the protocol and you can’t complete it or it causes you pain or discomfort, it is not worth continuing. Improving your climbing is a process and it doesn’t happen overnight. Pay attention to how your body and how it responds to the workouts. If a certain grip feels tweaky, change it or reduce the load. If you still feel sore or fatigued from your last workout, consider reducing the load or better yet, come back the next day and do it when you have fully recovered. The last thing you want to do is get a ruptured pulley or muscle strain. It will only set you back from reaching your goals. If you do get hurt, seek out medical attention to help you develop a plan to recover from the injury.
- Don’t be afraid to modify the protocol.
- Listen to your body.
- If you think you are in over your head seek out professional help.
- Don’t push through the pain, it’s telling you something.
After gallivanting across the landscape of research with me, you have a lot of good information to help guide you toward the right routine for you. With time and practice you may one day become a knight of the board after you have developed those fingers of yours into mighty weapons of crux busting project slaying greatness. Yes, there are many variables to consider when creating a good hangboarding routine. If all of this seems like too much and you want help developing a specific plan for you that specifically meets your needs or you have a nagging finger injury that is preventing you from being able to hang board you can set up an appointment with John to get you a specialized plan for you.
Good luck on your hangboarding endeavors.
- Asmussen E, Bonde-Petersen F, Jorgensen K. Mechano-elastic properties of human muscles at different temperatures. Acta Physiol Scand. 1976;96(1):83-93. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.1976.tb10173.x
- Bergh U, Ekblom B. Influence of muscle temperature on maximal muscle strength and power output in human skeletal muscles. Acta Physiol Scand. 1979;107(1):33-37. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.1979.tb06439.x
- Pasanen K, Parkkari J, Pasanen M, Kannus P. Effect of a neuromuscular warm-up programme on muscle power, balance, speed and agility: a randomised controlled study. Br J Sports Med. 2009;43(13):1073-1078. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2009.061747
- Petrofsky JS, Laymon M, Lee H. Effect of heat and cold on tendon flexibility and force to flex the human knee. Med Sci Monit. 2013;19:661-667. Published 2013 Aug 12. doi:10.12659/MSM.889145
- Fradkin AJ, Zazryn TR, Smoliga JM. Effects of warming-up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(1):140-148. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c643a0
- McGowan CJ, Pyne DB, Thompson KG, Rattray B. Warm-Up Strategies for Sport and Exercise: Mechanisms and Applications. Sports Medicine. 2015;45(11):1523. Doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0376-x
- Riebe D, Ehrman JK, Liguori G, Magal M, eds. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Kluwer; 2018.
- Anderson M, Anderson M. The rock Climber’s Training Manual. 1st ed. Boulder, CO: Fixed Pin; 2014.
- Levernier G, Laffaye G. Four Weeks of Finger Grip Training Increases the Rate of Force Development and the Maximal Force in Elite and Top World-Ranking Climbers. J Strength Cond Res. 2019;33(9):2471-2480. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002230
- López-Rivera E, González-Badillo JJ. Comparison of the Effects of Three Hangboard Strength and Endurance Training Programs on Grip Endurance in Sport Climbers. J Hum Kinet. 2019;66:183-195. Published 2019 Mar 27. doi:10.2478/hukin-2018-0057
- Docking SI, Cook J. How do tendons adapt? Going beyond tissue responses to understand positive adaptation and pathology development: A narrative review. J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact. 2019;19(3):300-310.
- Haff G, Triplett T. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 4th ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2016.
- Bohm S, Mersmann F, Arampatzis A. Human tendon adaptation in response to mechanical loading: a systematic review and meta-analysis of exercise intervention studies on healthy adults. Sports Med Open. 2015;1(1):7. doi:10.1186/s40798-015-0009-9
- Lopez, E. Fingerboard training guide III. http://en-eva-lopez.blogspot.com/. Accessed December 10th, 2020.
- Baker JS, McCormick MC, Robergs RA. Interaction among Skeletal Muscle Metabolic Energy Systems during Intense Exercise. J Nutr Metab. 2010;2010:905612. doi:10.1155/2010/905612
- Peterson MD, Rhea MR, Alvar BA. Maximizing strength development in athletes: a meta-analysis to determine the dose-response relationship. J Strength Cond Res. 2004;18(2):377-382. doi:10.1519/R-12842.1
- Quaine F, Vigouroux L, Martin L. Effect of simulated rock climbing finger postures on force sharing among the fingers. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2003;18(5):385-388. doi:10.1016/s0268-0033(03)00045-7
- Schweizer A, Hudek R. Kinetics of crimp and slope grip in rock climbing. J Appl Biomech. 2011;27(2):116-121. doi:10.1123/jab.27.2.116
- Franchi MV, Reeves ND, Narici MV. Skeletal Muscle Remodeling in Response to Eccentric vs. Concentric Loading: Morphological, Molecular, and Metabolic Adaptations. Front Physiol. 2017;8:447. Published 2017 Jul 4. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.00447
- Mike JN, Cole N, Herrera C, VanDusseldorp T, Kravitz L, Kerksick CM. The Effects of Eccentric Contraction Duration on Muscle Strength, Power Production, Vertical Jump, and Soreness. J Strength Cond Res. 2017;31(3):773-786. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001675
- Kubo K, Ohgo K, Takeishi R, et al. Effects of isometric training at different knee angles on the muscle–tendon complex in vivo. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2006;16(3):159‐167.
- Oranchuk DJ, Storey AG, Nelson AR, Cronin JB. Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2019;29(4):484-503. doi:10.1111/sms.13375