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.

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