The most time- and energy-efficient training tool for building climbing-specific grip strength is a hangboard. If you don’t have one at home, I’m sure your climbing gym has several. I own two boards, both from Metolius: the newer Contact Training Board, which I love for the huge variety of incrementally smaller-size grips, and the longtime standard, their Simulator 3D, which has somewhat easier grips.
Hangboard Training Routine
This little hangboard routine is one I made for myself for those times I first begin to think about rock climbing, usually sometime in March and again in August. March is often the best month for ski mountaineering and a good time to alpine climb in Canada and the Alps. August is good for lots of great summer activities.
This routine was built to be simple and quick so I can get it done and start to build up a strength-endurance base for my fingers before the prime rock climbing days roll around. And it is conservative because I want to keep my risk of finger injury as close to zero as I can.
Keep in mind that I don’t consider myself to be a “serious” rock climber. Meaning that rock climbing is not my primary sport, and I don’t rock climb year-round. As an alpinist, I always prioritize aerobic fitness over finger strength. I chuckled when I once heard a well-known rock climber express his goal of climbing “8a at 8,000 meters.” He’d never been to 8,000 meters. While I applaud lofty goals, I know that climbing 8a (5.13b)—which I’ve done—and climbing 8,000ers—which I’ve also done—are vastly different activities in terms of the physical demands. With such a small amount of oxygen available for metabolism at extreme altitudes, I do not believe a human could manage to fuel and oxygenate the full-body muscular endurance requirements of such hard climbing.
Assuming you could feel your fingers and toes, which you would not.
Back to the workout. I try to complete this routine 2–3 times per week for 8 weeks, 16 times through in total. The 8 weeks often goes into the beginning of my rock season.
Go to the climbing gym and complete an easy, slow, nearly continuous 15-minute traversing/bouldering warm-up. Then pull a chair up to a hangboard that looks like it has some bigger holds and play around on the board a bit to locate the smallest grips you can easily hang from (arms straight) for 20 seconds, meaning without feeling any pump or shaking. I like to use grips that allow all four, and possibly five, digits of each hand to make contact. I avoid finger pockets; it’s much safer to train all digits together.
A Quick Note on Theory
With this work/rest interval we are building strength and endurance, not targeting either. This fact makes this workout best for beginners, or experienced climbers trying to gain finger strength and endurance with minimal time spent training.
Now that you’ve located the smallest hold you can hang from for 20 seconds without a pump (usually a jug or a 3/4-inch four-finger edge), figure out the next two smallest holds. We’ll call these three holds A, B, and C. A is the largest hold, B is the next smallest (still four fingers per hand in contact), C is the smallest (four fingers per hand in contact).
The Rules of the Game
- Always warm up for a minimum of 10 minutes, better 15, by doing some easy bouldering or climbing.
- Drop off when you start to have to strain to hold on. Don’t go to complete failure or until you are shaking, only until it feels like you’re about done.
- Do some of the hangs straight-armed and some in various levels of flexed-arm to avoid straining your elbow joints too much by hanging straight-armed all the time.
- Always hold the grips open-handed. I (nor anyone else I know) don’t recommend crimping on a hangboard ever. The risk of finger injury is too great.
- Rest a full 60 seconds between each hang.
- The rest periods are long (60 seconds) between hangs for two reasons: you want to be as recovered as possible before the next hang, and you want to be conservative regarding finger injuries.
How to Read the Chart
The 1–10 along the top are the 10 minutes. As you progress you can make your workout as long as 20 minutes. The A, B, C in the left column are your biggest hold (A), your medium hold (B), and your smallest hold (C).
If you cannot hang for 20 seconds on any hold, then use a rubber band or a chair to take some weight off your legs until you can manage 20 seconds. If this is the case for you, meaning your strength reserve is too low to work endurance, you need to concentrate on many reps—for example, 20×20-second hangs with a 1-minute rest in between each hang while using an assist, like feet on the chair and never going to failure. In this case, double the length of the table below for recording purposes. You’ll be wise to use the assist until you can easily hang on a big hold with no pump or strain for 20-plus seconds, usually 2–4 weeks for most folks.
Hangboard Training Progression
You can progress the workout by lengthening it. So after 4 weeks I might keep repeating for 15 minutes. But I can also make the holds smaller, meaning hold B becomes my hold A. Hold C, previously my smallest hold, becomes my middle hold. And my new hold, hold D, is the next smallest on the training board. Once my hold D is the tiniest edge on the board, I work up to being able to complete the routine for a full 10 minutes.
In my experience, after using this routine for 8 weeks and with a bit of work on a route (for me usually 4–5 days), I can climb hard (for me) again. Even if it is only for a short time before the next alpine or winter season rolls around, that’s the life of an alpinist.
-by Steve House