I have finally finished my exams and am traveling home for Christmas, so I now have time to write and climb again! A few months ago I put up a couple of posts regarding core and upper-body training. To complete the set I will be talking about technique training at some point, but first, finger and forearm training. Enjoy.
The Missing Link
One of the unique things about climbing that differentiates it from almost all other sports, is that it requires a lot of finger strength. When climbing, and especially when bouldering, finger and forearm strength become major limiting factors. I have done introductory/training sessions with many fit people, but along with technique, the big difference between beginners and more seasoned climbers is their finger strength. Climbers’ fingers (and toes) are like the wheels of a car; they are our contact points with the rock and if they break we are pretty stuck. The reason climbers go on about their skin so much, which sounds pretty weird to most non-climbers, is that skin is like the tyres of our metaphorical car. Worn out tyres means less grip and a whole lot more pain.
In the Beginning
Now, I don’t want to come across as overly-cautious. But, as a general guideline most climbing centres advise that beginners shouldn’t touch a fingerboard for at least the first 6-18 months, depending on how often you climb. As a beginner the last thing you need to be worrying about is hanging off small edges to seek out improvement. The best thing for you to be doing is climbing, as much as you can, on as many varied terrains as you can and with as many people/coaches as you can. Just the act of climbing will be a far better use of your time to improve in all areas and stimulate your fingers to adapt to new stresses. As well as this, most under 18 year olds (unless training at the top level perhaps) definitely shouldn’t worry about using hang boards. Partly for the same reasons as beginners, but partly because the bones and tendons in the fingers are more susceptible to injury caused by the intensive loading from this sort of training. There is nothing wrong with having a go and seeing what you can do as a beginner. I would just advise taking things slowly and working well within your limitations, until you are experienced enough to use hang boards as a safe and effective tool when you really need it.
The primary aim when using a fingerboard is improving your finger strength, and to a lesser extent endurance, depending on how you use it. I also like to incorporate training tools like Lapis Balls into my hang board sessions to give my forearms and pinch grip a more solid and all-round work out. Find a grip on the board which you can hang on for between 5-10 seconds. Any less than 5 seconds and it’s probably too hard, more than 10 and it might be too easy. For example, I would try using all fingers on both hands, with an open handed grip, in a deep edge as a starting point. Personally I only ever use open handed or half-crimp grips on a board. Full crimping is very intense. It’s far more likely to cause injury and most people already use it enough in real climbing. Importantly, when using a board, don’t ‘drop’ onto the hold. Ease your weight onto the hold over the course of a second or so, and definitely don’t ‘ping’ suddenly off of a hold (you will probably give yourself an injury). Take your weight and then let go. To be clear, campus boards are slightly different as they provide a more dynamic upper-body work out and are better suited to improving contact strength. They are also a lot harder to fit in most people houses!
When? How long?
I normally use my hang board when I can’t get as much real climbing in as I want for short periods, or as part of a brief training program in addition to my climbing. It’s a great tool to measure specific improvements which can then be translated back onto the wall. I give myself short and progressive routines which I can put a lot of energy into for a few weeks at the most, and then take a break to do something else/recover. Choose a few grips that you can hold relatively comfortably for up to 10 seconds and then give yourself some structure. For example, my current routine uses four different grips (alternating between small edges (for finger strength) and sloper/pinch type holds (for forearm-pump) like so:
(10sec hang X 15 sec rest on grip one) X 6 repetitions
This is followed by 2 minutes solid rest and then repeated for my three other grip types.
My aim is to be able to finish the session in good form, but only just. Good form means my fingers are not slipping off the hold, my fingers are not ‘uncurling’ from half-crimp, my core is tight and my arms remain slightly bent to protect my elbows. There have been many times where I can’t quite do the last rep of the last set. This shows me the intensity and difficulty are near perfect and I am constantly adjusting things depending on how I am feeling (normally trying to make things a bit harder). If you want to tailor the session for pure finger strength, increase the difficulty of hold/grip, and drop the hang time and duration of the session. You can also increase rest time if needed. For more endurance type sessions do the exact opposite, but keep the hang time below 12 seconds and primarily reduce rest time.
There are a million and one sessions you can create depending on what you want to do. There are also many ways to make things harder. One problem with hang boarding is it can be boring and people run out of inspiration. That’s why I try and keep my sessions short and precise so I can measure improvement, mix things up and try and find new ways to challenge myself. Some of the best ways to make things harder and more interesting, apart from small but progressive tweaks in timings, include:
- Using a weight belt or weights attached to a harness:
This can make things nice and intense so take it easy to find your feet and monitor your fingers’ feedback. Increase the weight as part of progression and don’t be afraid to stop a session early if things are too hard and rethink your intensity level next time round.
- Moving around the board/ incorporating other movements:
Transition into other grips while you’re still hanging or incorporate pull ups/leg raises etc.
- Use a pulley system:
This is very useful for precisely measuring the amount of weight you need to take on one arm, while you hold onto something with the other. It is also great for training one-arm pull ups.
Hints and Tips
- Warm up thoroughly. Always.
- Use an app on your phone to make sure your timings are always the same and measure improvement (e.g. Beast Maker Trainer).
- Don’t skimp on the chalk. Don’t increase the risk of injury by slipping off.
- If you’re pumped, don’t stretch your forearms. This limits blood flow and does not help! Instead relax your arm and you can also put it against a cold surface for 10 seconds… this does wonderful things!
- Stretch your fingers and forearms after cooling down. I also like to do a few antagonist exercises afterwards and sometimes ice my fingers for few minutes.
- Find out what other people are doing for inspiration, from the professionals and from your friends.
- There are lots of models out there. Check out which one is right for you
For further reading check out this post by Dave MacLeod