Pinch Block with Kettlebell, Photo by Mei Ratz

by Steve Bechtel

I’ve been asked to weigh in more than a few times on various discussions on which was the “best” method of hangboard training. Although this is much like deciding which is the best dumbbell workout, it got me thinking. To truly decide what the best hangboard program for you is, you’ve got to know where you want to go. For my athletes, the hangboard is simply a tool we use to prevent injury and improve strength. I am not concerned with attempting to set any time records, hit a hangboard weight max, or improve endurance. I am interested in building a training plan that an athlete will actually follow for an entire training cycle. Finally, I am interested in a program that is simple to implement and that can be executed in a variety of training environments.

The general argument I’ve seen is between “repeaters” and “max strength” methods. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, I’ll briefly lay them out here. The max strength method is sort of where we started with hangboarding. You grab a small hold, hold it for a few seconds and rest. It was a simple, very effective program. I think that’s why we had to complicate it. It’s like the old saying goes “It worked so well, I stopped doing it.”

Today’s understanding of max strength is largely based on the work of Eva Lopez. An excellent sports scientist, Eva has developed very nice training program to be used with her Transgression hangboard. On her max strength program, you spend four weeks adding load for short duration sets on a medium-sized edge followed by a phase of doing short sets trying to reduce the hold size you use, without additional load. The whole program requires the Transgression board, which is brilliant, but unfortunately very expensive to purchase outside Europe. With this method, climbers work very close to their max ability to hold on to the edge, but the stimulus switches each phase which is designed both for avoiding injury and for continued gains in strength. The loading phases generally are just 5-10 seconds with three minutes’ rest between. Bottom line: High intensity, low volume.

 

The repeater method was originally developed by the Anderson brothers, and consists of brief loading periods(7-10 seconds) followed by brief rests(3-5 seconds), done in sets of 5-7 reps. This results in a load that is primarily borne by the anaerobic-lactic energy system rather than the alactic system. By definition, then, this is not a strength protocol, but a hypertrophy or strength-endurance protocol. Although the loading in this format is necessarily lower than one would be able to use in a max strength set, this is still an excellent way to condition the fingers for strength, especially within the context of rock climbing. Medium volume, medium intensity.

It has to be understood that these are very different programs, so saying one is “better” is nonsense. In truth, there is probably a time and place for each of these in one climber’s program. However, I think that both programs allow for focusing on loading too close to maximum for effective long-term improvements.

The research on gaining strength is fascinating. Yes, working close to your max is one way to get very strong, but it’s not the only way. This is particularly true in isometric training. Isometrics sort of “burst onto the scene” in 1953 when two German scientists reported 5% gains in strength per week with only one daily 6 second action at 66% of maximum. This almost incredible increase in strength gained a lot of attention and many follow-up studies. The result of the follow-ups was basically this: Yes, the strength gains are substantial, but they are only applicable within a very small range (joint angle variance). This limited the usefulness of isometrics for most sports, but it is just great for climbing.

Subsequent research shows that any number of set/rep combinations can yield effective results. Most interestingly, Davies and Young (1983) showed that seven daily 1-minute actions at 30% of max resulted in around a 30% gain in strength in just six weeks. Multiple studies done at varying percentages of maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) show similar results. Coupled with the relatively weak structure of the fingers, these findings tend to support using lower loads for isometric strength gains.

Several studies, including Garfinkel and Cafarelli’s landmark 1992 study, tend to show us two other important factors. First, longer-duration isometric actions tend to build greater strength than short actions. This counter-intuitive information might suggest that holding positions for ten or even 20 seconds could cause greater gains than loading heavy for five. Second, the total volume of load (duration x contraction) is more important than the degree of load. I’ll rephrase, because I had a hard time believing it: the time you spend under load in a given position is more important than how heavy the load is.

The best source of information on effective training programs is not sports science, but the actual training programs done by elite athletes. The smart scientists take this data and build their studies around it. Although we intuitively know that exercising close to our maximum (90%+) will lead us to the greatest gains in strength, there is a problem: our bodies can’t take it. The relatively low volume of exercise an athlete is capable of at this level compromises the plan’s effectiveness. Therefore, we see more and more that the optimal training load for gains in strength is in the 75-80% zone. This is not only shown in strength athletes’ programs, but in the research that followed. It also reflects the findings of the isometric studies above.

In many of the strength programs at our gym, we’ve abandoned the classic 3×3 or 5×5 approach, and have settled in at training our athletes at lighter loads. The benefits are many, including better execution, less fatigue, reduced injury, and less stress. If you give me a program that doesn’t smoke the athlete, but shows huge increases in strength, I’ll try it. If it works every time, I’ll buy it. The same basic principles that apply to strength training in the gym apply to the hangboard.

Couple this information with the knowledge that climbers frequently sustain injury on the hangboard, and the path becomes more clear: more time under tension with 70-80% loads meet all the criteria for a great program. If I can see great strength gains without having to use a weight belt, risk debilitating injury, or buy a specialized hangboard, that’s the program I’ll pick.

In the search for simplicity, I looked for a way to build a plan that would meet all the criteria of a great program:

  • simple to implement
  • no need for specialized boards
  • building strength at lower loads over a variety of hang times
  • repeatable over long training periods
  • very low risk of injury

In my mind, one of the best plans that fits these criteria is the Hangboard Ladder Program, or 3-6-9 as it’s popularly known. It goes like this:

Select 3-4 hold types or positions. You’ll stick with these throughout the 6 week phase, so pick well. I suggest full crimp, half crimp, and open hand. Again you could conceivably come up with several dozen hold types and combinations…but don’t. You have very little adaptive capacity, so don’t waste it. These three hold positions will get you where you need to be. All hangs will be done at bodyweight. Pick a hold that you can comfortably hold for 12-15 seconds.

Week 1: 3 straight ladders 3-6-9 sec. resting as needed. As soon as you start timing rest, you have left the path of strength. You should never feel pumped, tired, or sweaty. If fatigue comes into the session, make your rests longer.

this means:

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

Week 2: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 3: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 4: 3 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 5: 4 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 6: 5 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

In truth, you don’t even need to progress the volume that steeply. You can approach it much more organically, increasing loads as you see fit, or even add more “waviness”…adding in sharp increases and decreases in volume as the weeks go by. The top strength coaches all agree that loading must be varied, but the linear progression we’re used to isn’t always the best way to progress our training. Variability in volume is a big key – especially if you are on a plateau.

Want even more simple? Grab a small hold, hold it for a few seconds and rest.

When it comes to deciding which hangboard program is best, you need to understand that finger strength is earned over the long haul. Bearing this in mind, figure out what you’re willing to do a few days a week for the next very very long time. The best plan in the world won’t help if you won’t do it.

Alex Bridgewater Demonstrates a 1Arm Hang Lock Off

By Steve Bechtel

Over the past few years, we’ve seen some incredible climbing gyms opening around the world. We’re talking multi-million-dollar indoor crags here, some so diverse and huge that you might never want to wander outside again. Strangely, though, the gyms aren’t cranking out superstars as fast as you’d think. I had a great discussion last year with one of America’s top climbers, and he summed it up nicely: “The crag doesn’t make the man.”

Many of our members train in basements, garages, or co-op gyms. Some aren’t so lucky and at best manage to work out on a home hangboard. Fascinatingly, these are some of our best climbers. And although this is a great intro to a “get your mind right” article, this is about a specific workout that is as close as I’ve seen to a one-size-fits-all hangboard plan.

This idea originally came from Pavel Tsatsouline in his book Enter The Kettlebell. I mentioned the idea to Chris Liddel (one of the guys who has a hangboard only to train on) and he went crazy with it for a year before coming back to me. Chris has a board, a few weights, and some plates he could add for resistance, but he didn’t like the weight adding part, so he changed things around a little.

In Pavel’s book, he shows that isometric strength is better developed through increasing volume and frequency of training than through adding load alone. I’d seen this assertion elsewhere, so we thought we’d give it a try.

The general gist is that you do several sets of exercise at the same load (weight), but vary the volume with each set. By laddering up 1 rep, 2 reps, 3 reps, and then repeating, the athlete is forcing more volume into a workout and allowing for more adaptation potential.

We picked 3, 6, and 9 second hangs to force a change in stimulus between sets. Each time you come back to the 3 second hangs, you get a little reprieve on the difficulty, but even these shorter sets add to the overall load. For climbers not able to add load to hangs, or for those who have hit a hangboard plateau, this is a good option.

Protocol 1:
2-3 sessions per week. The big key is to start on holds that feel easy, that you can hold comfortably for 9 seconds. The overload to the system is not so much muscular as it is a strain on the connective tissue of the hands and fingers. This takes a long time to develop. Several compelling studies (yes, real university studies!) show that submaximal work can create big jumps in isometric strength, so take it easy at first. You’ll know when you’re strong enough to progress.

Select 3-4 hold types or positions. You’ll stick with these throughout the 8 week phase, so

3-4 positions, all held straight-arm with “active” shoulders.

Week 1: 3 straight ladders 3-6-9 sec. on a 45 second clock.
this means:
position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

position 1: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 2: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.
position 3: 3 sec, rest, 6 sec, rest, 9 sec, rest.

Week 2: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 3: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 4: 3 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 5: 4 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 6: 5 ladders 3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 7: 4 ladders 1-3-6-9-12 sec.

Week 8: 5 ladders 1-3-6-9-12 sec.

These are all done without added weight. The value breaks beyond just strength training, and gives a good endurance stimulus as well. The time commitment toward the end gets big, and that’s where we separate the (mentally) weak from the strong.

Protocol 2:
2 sessions per week. 3 hold positions. These are done “Circuit Style” rather than straight. This protocol is shorter, more intense, and better in-season. We use half-crimp, full crimp, and an open hand position.

Week 1: 3 circuit ladders 3-6-9 sec. on a 30 second clock.

Week 2: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 3: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 4: 3 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 5: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 6: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 7: 4 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Week 8: 5 ladders 3-6-9 sec.

Example of Mono Systems Board Hang, Photo by Mei Ratz

By Steve Bechtel

The hangboard is perhaps the best tool for developing finger strength in climbers. Unfortunately, it is too often “over-sold” by manufacturers as a one-stop training device for all climbing movement. When your desire is stronger fingers, let that be your goal; don’t be fooled into trying to get a pump or do a bunch of pull-ups.

A hangboard should be selected based on its variety of both open-hand and closed-grip holds. The best boards have 2-3 sizes of each hold, and these should feel like they fit you. A nice jug is helpful, too. Don’t be fooled by tons of pockets, slopers, pinches, and such…these are sales flair more than being of actual use to the climber.

Because this is the most direct and intense finger training you’ll do, a good warm-up is paramount. The warm-up should be at least 10 minutes in length, starting with general upper body movements (easy climbing, weights, or body-weight exercises), then some hand exercises such as wrist curls or grippers, and finally some easy hangs on big holds.

It is important and informational to keep records of your training. Maintain a hangboard log to monitor progress and assure continuity of your training. If you have never trained on a board before, there is no need to get fancy with your grip positions or your workout format. Save complicating this stuff for when you start to plateau.

Work slowly into this training, taking a few sessions of easy hanging to build up to the hard stuff. Eventually, you’ll work toward holding 3-4 different positions, up to 4 sets each. Hold each position straight-armed for 4-10 seconds. If you can hold all four sets for 10 seconds each, the position is probably too easy. If you can’t hold a position for four seconds it might pose an injury risk.

Intensity can be increased by:

decreasing hold size

adding weight to your body

using one hand at a time

 

Intensity can be decreased by:

putting feet on a chair, bucket, etc.

using a counterweight system

keeping one hand on a jug hold while the “training hand” is working

 

The goal is to gain strength, not to get pumped! Rest 30 seconds to one minute between sets. At first it may seem easy, but as you advance, you’ll feel the need for this rest. Remember that fatigue has no place in strength training.

The focus of a workout should address each climber’s weaknesses or be congruent with his climbing goals. Keep this in mind if working out with friends.

It is neither necessary nor possible to train every potential hold position. In general you should focus on three main positions: full crimp, half crimp, and open hand. These can be trained at various different sizes during a workout. Pinch grips, though rare, should be considered if you climb on them regularly. I recommend “pinch blocks” for this training rather than using a hangboard.

FULL CRIMP

HALF CRIMP

OPEN HAND

Improvement takes time. Plan to train no more than 2 times per week on the hangboard, and expect results to take many weeks. Improvements will only continue for a short time before a rest cycle needs to occur and a new training build started. If this doesn’t happen, expect injury. I often tell the climbers in our programs to look at this like farming: plant the seeds, water regularly, and wait – there’s no hurrying strength.

Alex Bridgewater Demonstrates a Mono Systems Board Hang, B&W, Photo by Mei Ratz

By Steve Bechtel

Contact Strength is a term unique to climbing. It refers to one’s ability to grasp a hold with maximum strength “on contact.” The ability for different climbers to do this varies widely, and many climbers have to “ramp” their strength a bit each time they grab a new hold.

Although we see our use of holds as “static” or isometric exercise, when moving quickly to a hold there is a very slight stretch-shortening event that takes place in the fingers and forearm muscles. For example, when moving dynamically to an edge, the fingertips touch the hold and the muscles of the forearm contract as force is added to the system (in the form of our bodyweight being transferred to the edge). The finger joints open slightly under this load, then contract again to a more mechanically advantageous position.

This is where climbers’ ability to use the holds begins to show differences. Some have almost no ability to use holds in this dynamic fashion. Others can stick almost anything they touch. One way to look at it is that each climber has a hold-size limit that he can use in a speed situation.

Improving your contact strength is difficult and intense business. Paying attention to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Implied Demands), we want to keep these sessions as close to climbing as possible. Campus boards, system walls, climbing gyms, and boulders can all be useful. However, some specific rules apply.

The training requires a lot of time on your fingers. You’ve got to be comfortable with the campus board or at least be experienced at the use of a hangboard. If you haven’t spent the cursory time training, it would be best to put this off and spend a few training cycles just bouldering.

Warm Up:

Training contact strength requires an extensive warm-up. It is best to start with 15-20 minutes of general activity. Several minutes of deadhangs on progressively smaller holds should complete the warm-up. If there is any pain or feeling of stress in the joints at the end of this warm-up, the session should be stopped and no more climbing should occur that day.

The Workout:

A system wall or a campus board is the right tool for this job. Start out with holds you can use easily, choosing a matched pair of start holds and a “catch” hold 12″ to 18″ higher. Begin by reaching up first with the left, catching the hold momentarily, and then returning to the start hold. Repeat this move 5-7 more times then step down and rest. After 1-2 minutes rest, repeat the same number of repetitions with the right hand. Do this exercise 2-3 times (sets), then move on to more difficult exercises. No more than three total exercises need be done in any given session.

The intensity can be changed either by spacing the holds further apart or by reducing the size of the holds used. This type of training is best done on edges, though effective workouts on slopers or pockets are also possible. After your three exercises, call it a day. You should not work so long at this to feel fatigue. This is power and strength training, and increasing your levels of fatigue in a workout does not improve either of these attributes.

Because this type of strength is gained primarily through neuromuscular function, you should not notice a “pumped” or “wasted” feeling at the end of the session. Accept this, and allow that good results will come. After 4 weeks of steady training, your improvement should be quite noticeable. Cycle out of contact training for a few weeks, and then come back to it, trying for smaller holds and longer reaches each phase.

Forearm Dumbbell, Photo by Mei Ratz

By Steve Bechtel

Unless we’re talking about super lean people, about the last thing any climber wants to do is get bigger. The bigger you are, the more you weigh, and the harder it is for you to climb. But climbers can really benefit from creating more mass in the forearm musculature; it helps improve finger strength and it can improve your endurance significantly, as well. The problem with most climbers is that they’ve already got highly developed forearms. So…how to make them bigger?

There are three steps to success in bulking your forearms:

  1. Add more training time.
  2. Add new exercises.
  3. Increase the load.

When we train for forearm hypertrophy, it’s a painful, slow, and hard-training phase. You’re also probably not going to climb too much or too well during this time of the year. If you want bigger forearms, though, you have got to do the work. Look at it this way: you’re saving up for the future.

  1. Add more training time.

When we look at adding more training time, it’s not overall training time, it’s hypertrophy-focused training time. You probably spend a couple of hours bouldering in the gym a couple of nights a week. That’s four hours we can spend getting thicker. Spread this out between 3 or 4 workouts, and you’re in business. Keep in mind that the primary factor in hypertrophy training is more time under load – look at how much time you spend with your forearms flexed each week, and turn it up by 20-50%.

  1. Add new exercises.

Climbing is a great forearm workout, but I didn’t need to tell you that. However, climbing works the forearms in just one way: isometric (or static) holds of the flexor muscles. We want to add more movements and different contractions. This is because isometric training has been shown to be very bad at creating mass in the muscles – the reason that even full-time climbers can still be seen with very skinny forearms.

First, let’s look at all the movements:

  • wrist flexion
  • wrist extension
  • gripping (or crushing)
  • rotation (pronation and supination)
  • radial and ulnar deviation
  • pinching

Then let’s look at the different contractions:

  • concentric (“closing” the muscle)
  • eccentric (“opening” the muscle)
  • isometric (holding the muscle in one position)

What you’ll want to do is add as many movements and contractions as possible to your workout. We look for 5 exercises per workout, and do 5 or more sets of each. You’ll want to scale the resistance to force your muscles to contract a total of 20-25 seconds per set. This means a 20-25 second hold if you’re doing an isometric exercise, or about 10 two-second repetitions if you’re doing a concentric/eccentric move.

  1. Increase the load.

Over the course of your hypertrophy training cycle, you want to see the total load increase each week. That means when you multiply workouts x exercises x sets x reps x weight, the huge number you come up with should increase by about 10-15% each week. Just forgetting this rule alone will railroad most training plans. Keep good records, and you’ll see big gains.

An example workout:

A1: Heavy Finger Rolls 6×8

A2: Radial/Ulnar Deviation With Hammer 6×10

B1: Medium Edge Hang (Half Crimp) 8x20sec

B2: Reverse Wrist Curl 8×10

C1: Heavy Gripper With 3s Hold 6×4

C2: Hammer Rotations 6×6 (both directions)

Hypertrophy training (for rock climbers) is best accompanied with other “limiter” workouts. Do some core work, some mobility and stability exercises, or do some medium-intensity bouldering. If you’re climbing, try to get sickly pumped several times during a workout (take care to avoid climbing poorly during this training, as your body learns bad form as easily as it does good form). Keep OVERLOAD in mind at all times, and understand that you probably won’t be a better climber right at the end of this phase…you’re simply laying down the foundation for big improvements later in the season.