I suspect there are two common types of climbers that use hangboards: elite climbers that use them correctly, and average climbers who use them incorrectly. Obviously, these elite climbers see tremendous gains from hangboarding, while these average climbers do not. This probably explains why the internet is rife with arguments over hangboarding's effectiveness, potential for injury, and so on. But average climbers certainly can benefit from hangboards if the training is done appropriately. So, if you are generally familiar with and are thinking about starting a hangboard workout, here are some thoughts on a correct approach to hangboarding that will benefit average climbers:
You Are Not An Elite ClimberJust face it, you're not. Neither am I. And most climbers aren't either. So watching YouTube videos of elite climbers showing how they use the hangboard isn't going to do the rest of us any good, and in fact it will probably lead to frustration and injury. Also most of the hangboard workouts out there are written by and/or for elite climbers, and those that are supposedly for "beginner" and "intermediate" climbers I don't think are really that good, because the concepts behind them aren't appropriate for non-elite climbers. The remaining thoughts below are meant for climbers between the 5.10 and 5.11+ range- if you can't climb 5.10 you should not be hangboarding, and if you can climb 5.12 you should be doing specific hangboard workouts designed for elite climbers (a Google search will yield dozens of options, but here is a great start from a guy who really knows his stuff: Power Company Climbing).
You Maybe (probably?) Shouldn't Be HangboardingLike I said above, if you are not climbing at the 5.10 level, do not hangboard. Your arm and hand muscles and tendons are just not ready for it. Plus, even if you were to hangboard and avoid injury, you would see far greater returns in climbing ability by just climbing more.
If you are comfortable climbing 5.10, then your body is probably ready for some hangboarding. But this doesn't mean that you should be hangboarding. What you should be doing is climbing more. Except at the elite level, there is just simply no greater training for climbing than climbing. Let's take a second and consider a truth about elite climbers and their training. By definition elite climbers are already really, really good at climbing. This means that they have already developed a huge repertoire of climbing skill and technique; there probably aren't many techniques they need to learn. Instead, they need to be able to hold onto smaller and smaller holds and make harder and harder moves. Thus, serious time spent at the hangboard can literally be the difference between sticking a move or not. But remember: you are not an elite climber! Serious time at the hangboard for you is a serious waste of time, because you weren't using that time to go climbing.
There are, however, a couple good reasons why the average climber should consider hangboarding. The first is that if you just can't make it out to climb regularly, hangboarding is probably the next best thing. Second, if you are willing to commit to hangboarding, it will make you stronger.
Concepts Behind Your HangboardingHere are a few concepts that underlie appropriate hangboarding for the average climber:
It will not make you a better climber.
Hangboarding will only make you a stronger climber. It will not improve your mental game. It will not improve your technique. It will only allow you to hold on to smaller holds with more ease (and therefore will indirectly help your endurance too).
It must be supplemental.Because hangboarding only increases strength, climbing more should still be your main goal. Hangboarding is only training for climbing; since it is so effective at increasing strength it makes an excellent alternative to climbing if you truly can't make it to the rock (or gym for many of us). But if you have enough time to get a good hangboard session in, you likely have time go climbing. If you live far enough away from the rock or gym that the travel makes climbing often impossible, then you would be better served making even a small bouldering wall at home. Although hangboarding is the next best thing to climbing, it is still a last resort.
Gains happen over the long runIf you are thinking about hangboarding, you should really first think about your level of commitment. If you cannot honestly say that you will have a regular schedule, and will stick with it for several months, then you shouldn't start hangboarding. This is because the strength increases from hangboarding come primarily from increases in tendon strength, not muscle strength. It is just a physiological fact that our tendons take much, much longer to strengthen than our muscles. At a minimum, you should be prepared to devote 30 minutes, twice per week, for three months.
Isometric not dynamicHangboards are named hangboards, not pull-up boards, move-around-on boards, or anything else. They are meant to statically hang from. Sure, you can do pull-ups on move from hold to hold on them, but that is not what they are meant to train. In climbing, isometric strength is called "contact strength." It is simply and only the ability to hold on to a given hold. Contact strength is extremely important in climbing because if you just can't hold on to a hold, there is no way you can move above it.
Isometric training is generally considered the best way to strengthen tendons. If you hang with slightly bent elbows, the weight of your body becomes an isometric resistance that your fingers must overcome. In a very basic sense, fingers bend by the forearm muscles pulling on the long tendons that connect the muscles to the finger bones. Since most climbers' forearm muscles are pretty strong, the tendons are usually the weak link.
Here's a simple experiment that shows this: make a really hard fist with one hand and grab your forearm with you other hand. Next, do the same thing but instead of making a fist pull on something that resembles a crimp. Your forearm probably doesn't feel as "flexed" on the crimp than it did when making a fist, right? This is why you can peel off of a crimp hold without your forearms feeling pumped, but you can pump out on huge jugs that are easy to grab.
The point is that training contact strength requires your tendons to learn to overcome isometric resistance, and this is why you want to hang from hangboards. Unfortunately it takes a long time for this to occur.
Remember the goalPerhaps the most important concept - and what ties the previous ones together - is that becoming a hangboard wizard is not the goal of hangboard training. The goal is to become stronger so that you can become a better climber. Hangboarding by itself will not make you a better climber. But by committing to a consistent workout of isometric hangs you will become stronger, so when you climb you will be able to more easily use smaller holds.
Keep It Simple
There are hundreds of hangboard workouts and dozens of commericially-made hangboards out there. You can if you want, but you don't have to use any of them. The single most important factor here is that you set yourself up for success. You need a simple board that has the grips you need, and a simple workout that you wont start to dread.
The hangboard itself can be as simple as a couple pieces of scrap 1x4 and 2x4 nailed above a door, or you can spend over $100 on the latest design from the coolest new hold company. I'm personally not a fan of big, complex hangboards. Remember, all you need is something you can hang from, with a small variety of grip sizes suitable for your current strength level. Here is a picture of the setup I have in my garage:
Metolius Rock Rings (which are great because if I am traveling somewhere I can take them with me), an old edge hold, a cut down scrap1x4, and an old campus board rung. I can get a great workout in and hit all the grips I need with this.
At Hoosier Heights we have several hangboards up, but by far my favorite is the DRCC v5.12. It has the best texture of any board I've used, has a nice variety of all the holds and sizes needed, is small, and is priced very well. Here is a pic of it:
You probably notice that neither of these setups have any pockets. I think that average climbers will get a enough benefit from training on edges, so specifically using pockets is unnecessary. Moreover, using three- or two-finger pockets significantly increases the chance for injury since the stress is concentrated on only those fingers. If you really do want to train pockets, hanging on a flat edge with three or two fingers simulates a pocket just fine.
Appropriate Hangboard WorkoutsFinally, you've come to what you probably wanted right away when you started reading! There are so many hangboard workouts out there readily available with a five second internet search that I am hesitant to write yet another one. So instead, first, here are some rules that you should follow for any hangboard workout:
- Warm up. Jumping straight to hangs is a guaranteed way to severely injure yourself. The very first thing you should do is something to get your heart rate elevated. Once your body is ready for a workout, then you should stretch and rub your hands and forearms until your blood is really flowing and they feel loose and ready to go. I've found that a quick mini-massage of the hand and forearm significantly helps my workout.
- Keep your elbows slightly bent. Hanging with straight arms puts too much stress on your joints. A slight bend is harder to hold, but this is exactly one of the weaknesses you want to train.
- Get a core workout too. You might as well be efficient and get two things done at once. During each hang, lift your knees up and/or hold your feet out in front of you. This will really strengthen your core, and will also help teach your body that between moves in climbing your core should be tight.
- Challenge yourself. What's the point of doing a workout if you do not want it to be difficult. You should work up to having to really strain to hold on to the holds.
- But don't go too hard. You don't need to use the tiniest holds on your board. Elite climbers gain from holding the small holds, even if only for two seconds. If you try this, you will probably get a tendon injury. Also, because you are training isometric resistance, you probably won't get a pump like you do when you are climbing. This is how it is supposed to be; not getting pumped doesn't mean you aren't going hard enough.
- Stick with it over the long run!
- Warm up.
- Largest holds for 15-20 seconds. This is really part of the warm up. You may want to do some pullups during the 20 seconds too. Do one hang, rest for 60 seconds. Repeat three times.
- Next smaller holds for 12-16 seconds. Do one hang, rest for 60 seconds. Repeat three times.
- Next smaller holds for 8-12 seconds. Do one hang, rest for 60 seconds. Repeat three times.
- Next smaller holds for 4-8 seconds. Do one hang, rest for 60 seconds. Repeat four times.
- Next biggest holds for 8-12 seconds. Do one hang, rest for 60 seconds. Repeat two times.
Give these pointers and the workout a try. Please comment with your thoughts, hangboard approach and/or specific workouts.