Hangboarding is one of the single most beneficial exercises you can do for your climbing, but there is a fair amount of confusion around the best approach and training programme. Furthermore, it’s very easy to injure your tendons if you take it too hard, too fast. For this reason, a great amount of research has been done on how exactly our tendons and muscles react to different forces, and how to best condition our fingers for climbing.
A key contributor in this field is renowned sports scientist Dr Tyler Nelson, who has developed an incredibly simple training programme (so simple, in fact, that it’s called the “Simplest Finger Training Programme”) that can work for climbers of all experience and ability levels – all you need is a hangboard with a few different edges, and some psych to get strong!
Dr Nelson’s programme is rooted in a few key concepts – these are pretty science heavy, so we’ve broken them down into very simple terms:
1. MUSCULAR RECRUITMENT
Muscular recruitment refers to the amount of fibres activated in a muscle during an exercise; conditioning exercises work to increase muscle recruitment so that more muscle fibres are activated, which translates as an increase in strength. This is done with either short, high-intensity exercises (e.g. hanging on a small crimp for 5 seconds) or longer, low-intensity exercises (e.g. hanging on a larger edge for 20 seconds).
2. CONNECTIVE TISSUE DENSITY
Our tendons and ligaments are full of collagen-rich connective tissue. When we exert a force on our tendons, the connective fibres stretch and slide in a way that disrupts their chemical bonds. When paired with rest and nutrition, this process creates more bonds and an overall denser system of connective tissue which protects us from injury and increases our strength.
3. MUSCLE-TENDON STIFFNESS
While recruitment deals with the amount of force generated and density is focused on reinforcing the muscle-tendon unit, stiffness refers to how quickly our muscles can exert maximum force. This relates to contact strength, i.e. your ability to grab a hold with maximum strength on contact, which comes into play when you’re throwing dynamic moves to teeny holds.
There are just three exercises involved in this programme – the first trains recruitment, the second trains density and the third trains stiffness.
NOTE: You should never be training on a hangboard with a full crimp – use either an open hand or half-crimp to protect those pulleys!
1. RECRUITMENT PULLS
This first exercise has a fun catch – you don’t even need to hang for it! You can do everything you need with your feet on the ground.
- Pick a smallish edge that you can hang on for around 5 seconds. You’ll be doing the exercise one arm at a time.
- Position yourself underneath your handboard with one hand on the edge, with your elbow bent at 120º to 150º .
- Pull down with your max strength for 3 to 5 seconds (remember that you’re not trying to lift yourself here, rather you are pulling the hangboard down towards you). Note that you don’t want to exert all of your force at once by pulling really hard for 5 seconds – load your fingers slowly over 1 to 2 seconds and then grip down hard for the remainder of the time.
Beginners can start with 1 set of 3 reps, while more advanced climbers can try out 2 sets of up to 5 reps. Both beginners and advanced climbers should rest for 1 to 2 minutes between pulls.
2. DENSITY HANGS
For this exercise you’ll be hanging with both hands on the board for a longer period of time. If you want to take it easy on your tendons, you can always keep your feet on the ground and load your fingers by pulling down, as with the first exercise.
- Pick an edge you can hang on for 20 to 40 seconds and position yourself with both hands on the board and your elbows open at a wide angle or fully extended.
- Hang (or load your fingers) for 20 to 40 seconds – the goal here is to reach muscular failure, which is when you just can’t hold on any longer.
Beginners can start with 1 set of 2 reps, while more advanced climbers can try out 2 sets of up to 3 reps. Both beginners and advanced climbers should rest for 3 to 5 minutes between hangs.
3. VELOCITY PULLS
If you’re a beginner climber or recovering from injuries, you might want to stick to the first two exercises before trying out velocity pulls. These train density, and thus require you to very quickly load your fingers with a fair amount of force. You can choose whether to use one or two hands for these, and you can use any of the holds you chose for the first two exercises.
- Position yourself below the board with one or two hands on your chosen edge, with your elbow/s bent at 120º–150º .
- Engage your fingers slightly and then pull down fast for 1 to 3 seconds. You can keep your feet on the ground or do a hang by quickly lifting your feet as you pull down.
Beginners can start with 1 set of 2 to 4 reps,while more advanced climbers can try out 2 sets of up to 8 reps. Both beginners and advanced climbers should rest for 10 to 20 seconds between pulls.
This is a very simplified and summarised version of Dr Nelson’s full article that should get you started on the right path if you’re wanting to dive into some hangboarding. We highly recommend checking out his full article for a detailed explanation of the science.
Grab yourself a hangboard at your favourite local gear store and chat to the coaches at your gym if you need some help with your training routine.