Intro for beginners
When we narrow things down, finger strength is the most important physical component of climbing performance. It doesn’t matter how strong your arms are if you can’t hang onto the hold, and thus hangboarding—or deadhanging, an isometric (static) exercise for finger strength—is invaluable.
1. When to start hangboarding
For new climbers, the most important concern is developing technique. While novices should be able to deadhang at low-load levels, it makes more sense to climb a year or two first to gain an understanding of the sport you’re training for.
Juniors below age 14 should avoid deadhanging for maximum strength. Instead they would train at lower-load levels for endurance and base strength, and always under adult supervision.
You don’t need an elaborate hangboard to train effectively. Two or three different-sized, flat edges or campus rungs will suffice. The most useful depths for those climbing V2 – V6 are large (1 – 1 ½ inches), medium (¾ inches) and small (½ – ¾ inch). Climbers hotly debate whether wood or resin is best—try both to see which you prefer before buying a board.
3. Top hangboard safety tips
Hangboards are often blamed for causing injury, whereas pilot error is usually the culprit. In fact, hangboarding may be less likely to cause injury than hard bouldering, which can subject the joints and tendons to dynamic forces or shock loads at awkward angles.
- Warm up thoroughly. (See below.)
- Always do a trial set. Before starting, pre-test the body loading by easing carefully onto the holds and hanging for 2 – 3 seconds. Rest 30 – 45 seconds, then do the first main set.
- Pay attention to angle. Avoid deadhanging with arms either completely straight or fully locked off (in a bent position).
- Avoid monos. Only advanced climbers should experiment—and then with care.
- Minimize use of full-crimp grip (fingers fully bent and thumb over the index fingernail). Train it in smaller doses and at lower load levels than other grips. Excessive full-crimping can strain pulleys.
- Hangboarding counts as training. Don’t do it on rest days!
- Concentrate. If you feel a tweaking sensation in your tendons, let go now!
4. Warm up
You would never leap straight onto a hard boulder project without a warm-up. Same with hangboarding.
- Pulse raiser. Start with 2 or 3 minutes of burpees or rope skipping to get warm .
- Mobility and stretch bands. Do controlled shoulder circles, finger clenches and spinal twists, mixed with stretch-band work for the shoulders. Focus on the rotator cuff.
- Scapula shrugs. To promote safe shoulder-blade engagement, hang with straight arms from the jugs on the hangboard. Stand with one foot in a stretch band or pulley rig (with approximately 12 – 20 pounds assistance), or place one foot on a chair. “Shrug” slowly and carefully, squeezing your shoulder blades together, engaging your lower shoulders and lats, with elbows very slightly bent. Lower and repeat. Do 2 – 3 sets of 3 – 6 reps with 30 – 60 seconds rest in between.
- Progressive loading sequence. The most important component of the warm-up is foot-assisted deadhangs and/or pull-ups with 1 – 2 minutes rest between each one, using your foot for assistance in a pulley/ stirrup rig or resistance band. Give yourself slightly less help from your foot each time, increasing the load gradually, until you’re ready to go footless.
The whole warm-up, including pulse raise and mobility, should take at least 15 – 20 minutes. For safety and effectiveness, no shortcuts!
- Half-crimp. For most climbers, this is the top grip to train, as it builds finger strength, which translates to the broadest range of holds. Bend the index, middle and ring fingers at 90 degrees, keep your little finger straight, and rest your thumb next to the index finger.
- Hang/open/drag. The open grip builds strength for pockets or catching edges at full reach. It is usually performed with three fingers, excluding the little finger. Hanging is a more passive form than others, so also great for conserving energy on longer routes.
- Slopers. Take a holistic approach. While deadhanging on slopers is worthwhile, it is more important to practice when bouldering, to train relevant technique and core strength. Supplement by training wrist strength with weights and supportive thumb strength with pinch blocks.
- Pinches. Better to use pinch blocks, as deadhanging on pinches can strain the wrists.
Calibration is used to increase or reduce your body load for your chosen protocol. For example, when training strength, if you intend to hit failure around the 8 – 10 second mark but can hang for 20 seconds, then increase the load. If you can only hang on for 3 seconds, reduce it. Some methods are:
- Reducing / increasing hold size. Switch to a smaller edge to increase load or to a larger one to reduce it.
- Reducing or adding weight. Use a weight belt or vest or suspend weight from a harness. Beginners, please avoid.
- Counterweight-pulley system or resistance bands. A counterweight and pulley rig is a precise and effective method for calibrating deadhanging. Attach one end of the rope to your weights, and attach a sling or loop to the other end for a foot stirrup. Attach the pulley to the clipping point below your board with a carabiner.
- Removing / adding fingers. When training the half-crimp, you can remove one or both little fingers to focus on the “front three” digits. Alternatively, remove one or both index fingers to train the back three. If you can hang the same edge longer on your back three than front three, your index may be weak and your pinky strong. If you’re only removing a finger on one hand, then alternate hands for each set: For the first set, remove the little finger on your right hand; for the second set, replace it and remove the little finger from your left hand.
7. Basic rep-set protocol
A good approach for beginner-intermediate hangboarders is to do base-strength hangs and repeaters for endurance. There are many more possibilities, and we’ll examine further methodology in Part 2. Note that there are many different interpretations of the various protocols and no one best way. Try things out and see what works for you.
- Base-strength hangs. This protocol involves a relatively small number of hangs at a relatively high load level (similar but slightly less intense than the popular “max-hangs” protocol). For example, do 3 – 5 hangs with very short rests—say, 2 – 4 seconds—in between. Set the load level so you can hang for approximately 14 – 18 seconds at your limit, but when training hang for 6 – 8 seconds, 3 – 4 times in a row. Avoid going to failure or only do so on the last hang in the last couple of sets. The number of sets will depend on a host of factors, such as how many grips you’re training, or whether or not you’re mixing hangs with climbing in the session. As a rule of thumb, 3 – 6 sets per grip is a staple.
- Repeaters for strength-endurance. Find the level where you can hang for anything between 30 and 50 seconds at your limit, but instead of hanging once for a long duration, do multiple stints of 6 seconds on, 4 seconds off, or 7 seconds on, 3 seconds off. You can divide these bursts into blocks, such as 1 minute on, 1 minute off.
8. Targets and progression
Set targets and record progress. For strength training, a popular system is to work at an exercise for a few sessions at the same load level, with the goal of increasing hang times and then, upon reaching a target time, increasing the load level. Repeat. For endurance, do longer work intervals, do more intervals, and reduce rests. Keep notes and write down what you aim to do next session.
9. Deadhang scheduling
Beginner-intermediate hangboarders should try to deadhang 2 – 3 times a week over a period of, say, 4 – 6 weeks. One option is to train day-on-off, with the day on being either a climbing day or a hangboard day. Another is to train strength on the first day and endurance on the second, followed by a rest day. It is possible to combine hangboarding and climbing in the same session, but that can get complicated! Avoid finishing a hard climbing session with deadhangs for strength because your fingers will be way past their best, and the training will be ineffective. Far better to warm up with, say, 15 minutes of bouldering and then do a short, high-quality stint of deadhanging (10 – 15 minutes) before the main climbing session. Or, if you wish to finish the climbing session with deadhanging, do repeaters for endurance. Last, we adapt to training, so keep changing your routines.
Feature image: Ben Grubb / Stronghold-UK