Training for Climbing: Hangboard and Strength Training Module

This weekend we transitioned into the Strength Phase of our climbing schedule, which focuses on increasing your finger strength (using a hangboard set-up) and full-body strength (by way of supplemental exercises).

If you want to catch up on what we’re doing, you can read about the training program we’re following, starting with the Base Fitness Phase.

Finger strength cannot be obtained overnight; it takes months and years of work to strengthen the small muscles and tendons in your fingers. For certain finger grips, it has taken us years to see any type of strength gain, so it’s a slow and steady process, for sure!

Hangboard Portion

This specific hangboard program uses a weight-and-pulley system to help strengthen various finger-grip positions (i.e. two-finger pockets, pinches, slopers, crimps). While the book includes sample routines for the beginner, intermediate and advanced hangboarders, it also recommends you tailor your specific routine towards the types of holds on your goal-routes (i.e. if a goal route is full of small edges, you should make sure some of your routine mimics those holds). Also, if you’ve never done any serious hangboard training, you should definitely start with a beginner routine (bigger edges, more fingers on the edge, etc.) to reduce any chance of injury and consider skipping the 2-finger variants until your confidence grows.

For this phase, you will need the following equipment:

  • Hangboard: Ours is the Metolius Simulator board.
  • Fan: Position so that it blows over your hands during the routine (nothing is worse than worrying about sweaty fingers slipping out of holds).
  • Stopwatch or timer: Jonty wrote an interval-training timer program, so we can set the duration of our hangs and rests, and just listen for the timer “beep” instead of looking at a clock. If you use Linux, feel free to download the program here.
  • Chalk and a brush: Place these close to your set-up, for quick chalking during the rests.
  • Harness: You will use the load-bearing belay loop to remove weight to your body.
  • Pulley system: Used to remove weight from your body. Our system uses a pulley, two carabiners, ~6 feet of 7mm static cord, and a long screw with a washer and bolt on the end that we can place our free weights onto.
  • Weights: We use both free-weight plates (to remove weight from your body) and a weight vest (to add weight to your body).

This is our general set-up:

For an intermediate hangboard routine, the book suggests choosing 5 or 6 grip positions and performing two sets on each position with a 3-minute rest in between sets. Here are a few examples of grip positions:

  • Warm-up jug (just perform 1 set)
  • Large open-hand edge
  • Middle-Ring finger shallow 2-finger pocket
  • Small half-crimp edge
  • Index-Middle-Ring finger deep 3-finger pocket
  • Wide pinch
  • Sloper
  • Narrow pinch

Again, the specifics of your grip positions will be tailored to your finger strength capabilities and goals, so be adaptive. For example, I can do a half-crimp edge on medium edges with a little bit of weight added to myself. Jonty, who has been training on the hangboard longer than me, can do a half-crimp edge on thin edges with a lot of weight added.

Before you complete a hangboard routine, it is very important that you properly warm up your fingers. We do about 25 minutes of continuous climbing at the gym and warm up each of the finger grip-positions we will be training on at home.

The routine is as follows. For each grip position:

  • Set #1: Hang for 7 seconds, rest for 3 seconds
  • Set #1: Repeat 7x (hang/rest (=1), hang/rest (=2), hang/rest (=3), etc.)
  • Set #1: Rest for 3 minutes

Repeat this grip-position again, with 10 lb added weight

  • Set #2: Hang for 7 seconds, rest for 3 seconds
  • Set #2: Repeat 6x (hang/rest (=1), hang/rest (=2), hang/rest (=3), etc.)
  • Set #2: Rest for 3 minutes

Move onto your next grip position

This routine will take you about 50 minutes to complete, and you will feel absolutely bagged by the end!

We keep a log of our exercises and weights used, which acts as a good reminder of what we did last time and how much we’ve progressed. We record our body weight for that day (with harness on), the grip position used, the weight we added (or removed), and any personal comments on our progress.

The first time we did this, we had to figure out how much weight we needed to add or remove to ourselves for each finger grip position.

Word of the wise: unless you have done this before, start by removing tons of weight. It’s better to go light initially in order to avoid injury. Like, for the 2-finger pockets, I start by removing 45 lbs from my body weight!!

Your ideal weight choice (added or removed) for a grip position should leave you just barely able to hang on by the 6th rep of the 2nd set. Figuring out these numbers may take a bit of time. As you get stronger, you should be able to add more weight to yourself.

Supplemental Strength Exercises

The book then recommends to do supplemental strength exercises after your hangboard routine. These exercises focus on whole-body strength and include training for the pulling muscles, pushing muscles, upper arm and shoulder muscles, and core muscles.

We deviate from this model, as it takes a lot time to travel between the climbing gym (for warm-up) and home (for hangboard), so we do all of our supplemental exercises once a week before we go to work (and we do this year-round). We have a personal trainer who comes up with the craziest exercises for us to do, focused almost exclusively on core and antagonist muscles. We’ve been with her for over a year, and her exercises have been unbelievably beneficial to us! Oh, and yeah, you get great abs 🙂

So, after finishing any of these hangboard sessions, you should be absolutely, completely and utterly spent! But the good news is you get two days off before you have to go through it again! 🙂

Your off-days can include some optional light aerobic exercise (cycling, running, etc.) or optional light climbing. On the days you are doing the strength building exercises, you should be giving it 110%, so should also make sure you give your body ample time to recover.

So this is how our next few weeks will be looking:

This is a very general idea of what we’re doing for this section. If you’re interested in trying this yourself, I would recommend you get your hands on a copy of this book, as it covers so much more than what I’m including here. The authors also know way more about it than I do, too 😉