CLIMB STRONG

High Performance Climbing

A Year of Hangboard Training

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Men’s Health is a great source of entertainment, especially when it comes to the “Six Week Shred” and “5 Moves For Six Pack Abs.” The promise of great and quick results is a siren song to overworked, overfat men whose last connection with their younger and fitter self is a magazine full of “guy stuff.” You know the truth, though...more Men’s Health readers will die from shark attacks each month than actually go from fat to ripped in the same period. There’s nothing wrong with the exercises, it’s the promised timeframe that is flawed. It took them years to decline this far, so it should be expected that it will take years to fix the problem.

 

This same situation is cropping up across the internet climbing training world. Somehow, someone decided that you could get strong fingers during a normal 4 or 6 week training cycle. With this short timeframe in mind, climbers then hit the hangboards harder and longer each session than ever before. Weightbelts, timers, pulleys...anything you’d need to dial in and intensify the load on those poor little digits. One climber asked me, “What do you do when your harness starts to cut into your hips[during weighted hangs]?” Clearly, we have left the path of wisdom.

 

I have a dream article I’d like to write, but no one would ever buy in: “260 Weeks to Stronger Fingers.” It would be too much like that boring advice about saving money daily for retirement - we’d all rather bet on the longshot, to be the guy that wins big in Vegas. Why in the world would you spend five years on a hangboard program when a month of training seems so long?

 

The short strength cycle is based on the original periodization models popularized in general fitness in the 1980s and 1990s. The history of this model dates back to training weightlifters and other strength athletes. The understanding that this model, 4-6 weeks of general base training, followed by power, then by strength, was designed for novice weightlifters is important.

 

The reverse of this model, called short-to-long programming, was applied to track and field. In these programs, athletes would train short duration activities such as sprints and strength for a month, then increase the duration and back off on intensity for another month, and finally ramp up to sport-specific endurance. Sound familiar? The thing most of us miss is that the activities this model works best for are activities that require little strength in the performance phase. How much absolute strength does a cross country runner have to display? Last time I checked, rock climbing and bouldering required stronger fingers every time I went out.

 

With this in mind, I suggest climbers get on board with the idea of lower-volume, lifelong finger strength training. Our newest programs dispense with discrete strength or power phases, but rather call for separating the time cycle associated with each fitness quality. For purposes of clarity, I divide the year into three general phases. It looks sort-of like this:





SESSIONS PER WEEK

 

OFF SEASON

PRE SEASON

IN SEASON

STRENGTH

2+ SESSIONS

2 SESSIONS

1 SESSION*

FINGER STRENGTH

3+ SESSIONS

2 SESSIONS

1 SESSION

POWER

1-2 SESSIONS

2-3 SESSIONS

1 SESSION

ENERGY SYSTEM WORK

1 SESSION

2-3 SESSIONS

1 SESSION

 

*In-season strength can occur as infrequently as every 12-14 days as long as strength numbers don’t decline.

 

I think energy system development is oversold. Power endurance, strength endurance, and general anaerobic fitness are qualities that are functionally dependent on our base levels of strength and power. This fitness can be gained and lost relatively quickly, so I suggest one focus on it only for a few weeks at a time a couple of times a year.

 

Strength and power are different. They are called persistent facets of fitness, which are characterized by slow rates of increase and decline. It takes a long time to get strong, but once you gain it, it’s relatively easy to keep. Most climbers have great opportunities each year to build strength in earnest for a few months, and then can “back burner” their training for a cycle or two. Stopping strength training, however, is a mistake.

 

Which Hangboard Protocol?

I get several emails a day about training. Three or more times a week, I get a question along the lines of “Which hangboard protocol is the best?” This is a novice question, as there are very few bad training programs that stay around for long. Also, to think that one session template is somehow “the best” is comparable to asking “What is the best dinner recipe?” The truth is that training adaptations work in long waves: it takes 4-8 weeks to see a significant strength benefit from most programs, and after that time, they cease to provide. At this point, it’s time to switch up to the next level of training.

 

Many climbers fall on one side or the other of 4-8 week mark: some could never repeat the same session format for 8-16 workouts and thus never see the benefits. Others love the “routine” of their favorite program, and thus stick with it long past its useful life. The smart climber switches between aggressively building strength and maintaining it. He changes sets, hang times, session formats, and hold types, all in an effort to bring up the weak positions and reinforce the ones he needs most.

 

The details of the protocol don’t matter as much as the type of stimulus being created. In general, strength protocols feature loading times of less than 10 seconds per position and a rest period of at least 3-5 times the work interval, such as 10 seconds on, 50 seconds off. Some climbers fail to benefit from strength-style hangboard training because it doesn’t “feel” hard enough. Recall that most strength gains in the fingers are the result of neurological adaptation, not metabolic overload, so the feeling of tiredness is rarely part of progress.

 

Hypertrophy programs feature similar loading times, though usually in the 5-12 second range. The rests in these programs are shorter, and thus necessitate lighter loads across the session. Although not ideal for building strength, these programs are appropriate during parts of the year.

 

The big difference between a strength-building cycle and a strength-maintenance cycle is the volume of training, both in the session and across each week. Loading can stay relatively high for most experienced climbers.

 

Let’s look at a year of hangboard training, starting the week after Thanksgiving, the official start date for off-season training.



4-Week Period start date

Season

Session Type

Session Volume

Sessions per Week

11-27-17

Off

Strength

High

3

12-25-18

Off

Strength

High

4

01-22-18

Off

Strength

Medium

4

02-19-18

Pre

Hypertrophy

Medium

2

03-19-18

In

Strength

Low

1

04-16-18

Off

Strength

High

3

05-14-18

Pre

Hypertrophy

Medium

2

06-11-18

In

Strength

Low

1

07-09-18

Off

Strength

High

3

08-06-18

Pre

Hypertrophy

Medium

2

09-03-18

In

Strength

Low

1

10-01-18

Pre

Hypertrophy

Medium

2

10-29-18

In

Strength

Low

1

 

A typical off-season week will feature three training days of relatively high volume. We stick to strength-building protocols that focus more on intensity and allow for plenty of rest. Pre-season, a lean toward hypertrophy-style sessions is a nice change of pace, and should be done twice a week. In-season, our athletes still hit the boards, but at low volume. Typically, they will train hangboard and strength in a combined session right after climbing on a redpoint day or early the next morning.

 

An important take-home here is that the specific workout format matters less than the fact that you do some sort of progressive finger strength training year-round. I think that a good program will feature perhaps a dozen different protocols as the year progresses. Most of this training should be done at a level that makes the climber feel like he is not quite pushing hard enough.