How to start hangboarding

You’ve probably seen one in your climbing gym, at a friend’s place or on Instagram. A board with various edges and holes to hang from, also known as a hangboard or fingerboard. When you had just started climbing you might have been curious and tried hanging from one of the edges to test the waters. That’s probably when reality hit you in the face and you realized that it’s extremely hard to hang from one untrained. Well, don’t worry! Everyone can learn how to use a hangboard and it will most likely be the training tool you use most, both as beginner and as professional climber.

In this blogpost we’ll go through the basics of how to start hangboarding and discuss the following:

  • Why use a hangboard?
  • When to start using a hangboard?
  • How to use a hangboard?
    • Warm up
    • Form
    • Grips
    • Load
    • Cool down
  • How often should I hangboard?
  • General tips

Note: by no means am I an expert on this subject. I recently started hangboarding myself and thus did a lot of research regarding this topic. This blog post is an attempt at summarizing what I found to be the most relevant pointers of various expert sources (links in the text and below blog), tips I’ve gotten from experienced climbers and my personal opinion.

Why use a hangboard?

Hangboards only have one purpose: to make you stronger. This might seem something that is very obvious, but is easily forgotten. Hangboarding is an exercise for building strength in your upper body and in your fingers. Despite this fact, you’ll regularly see people training their technique on a hangboard.  The only technique that ought to be trained on a hangboard is proper body form and proper grip techniques. According to Erik Horst, a renowned climbing coach, stronger fingers can grip smaller holds, they can endure longer on sub maximal holds, they can recover on smaller holds and they have more stamina. This translates itself to longer climbing sessions and being able to climb more difficult grades.

When to start using a hangboard?

Hangboarding is a strength training exercise for climbing. When you’re just starting out, you’ll probably gain the most out of maximizing your mileage on the wall (time spent climbing). Hangboarding is never a replacement for climbing, but rather a training exercise that enables you to get stronger and as a result enables you to climb harder. Some people will tell you not start hangboarding in your first few years of climbing, because your tendons and pulleys, unlike muscles, need a lot of time to adjust to the beating you’re going to put them through while climbing. To tell you the truth, they’re mostly right. In your early years of your climbing career you’ll benefit the most from improving your technique and form. Furthermore, you’ll gain enough strength while climbing. You’ll give your pulleys and tendons some time to adapt to your new lifestyle, while still improving your climbing rapidly.

It’s usually when climbers start plateauing for the first time in their career that they’ll start considering hangboard training. This is most likely your reason for reading this blog post right now.

Another reason for looking into hangboarding might be that you don’t have the time to go climbing 3-5 times a week, because you have a busy job, the crag/ gym is just too darn far away or a freaking virus hits the world and shut down every climbing site in your vicinity. In this scenario, we’d say it would not hurt to start with some hangboarding. Technically you could start hangboarding even before you start climbing (although not recommended). The general guideline for hangboarding is to do it safely at all times and avoid injuries. You really want to avoid any injuries as pulley and tendon injuries can take you out of the running for weeks if not months.

As a general rule of thumb, only exercise on a hangboard when you’re rested and in your best shape in order to avoid any injuries. If you’ve been hitting the clubs the day before or if you’re still recovering from yesterday’s climbing session, sit it out and wait until you’re rested before exercising on a hangboard.

How to use a hangboard

When you have never exercised on a hangboard, your body is not used to hangboarding and will need time to adapt. Always make sure to do everything within your limits to avoid injuries. We’ll guide you through the most important steps that will allow you to minimize the risk. Once again, always make sure you are rested before hangboarding.

Warm up

Before you start hanging from your hangboard, make sure you are properly warmed up for the task. Hanging from any hangboard is strenuous on the body and you’ll want to reduce any chance of injury. When you’re at a climbing gym you’ll want to do some easy climbs until you’re warm enough before doing any projecting or hangboard training. It’s very similar when you’re at home.

Any good warm-up has 3 components

  • Pulse raiser: jump-roping, running, skipping, cycling or other cardio exercises.
  • Stretching: make sure to stretch your arms, fingers and shoulders. Try to include both static and dynamic stretching. Some good stretching exercises can be found on this post of the university of Rochester.
  • Easy strength-based movement: pull-ups, hangboarding with support of a chair, shrugs with weights or any other exercises that mimic the body movements of hangboarding in a lighter form. Basically, you’ll want to prepare yourself rehearsing the movements you’re going to perform.

You’ll probably notice when you’re warmed up enough and feel confident enough to start hangboarding. Some people need 10 minutes to warm up properly and some will only start feeling confident enough after 25 minutes. Generally, the more warmed up you are, the better. Just make sure your warm up is not the actual exercise. Don’t try hangboarding at the end of your climbing session, because you’ll be spent and increase the risk of injuries. In general, 15 minutes is a good guideline for your warm up session.

Form

Proper body form is very important when you’re hangboarding, because it reduces the risk of injury. Keep your shoulders and elbows engaged and keep your core tight for a proper body form. Prevent your shoulders from locking down (touching your ears) and make sure you don’t over-retract your shoulders. Keep your shoulders in a neutral position. Keep your back straight while hanging and mildly bend your elbows to activate the correct muscles. You want to hang directly under the hangboard with your face pointing forwards (not looking upwards). Tip: Stand up straight on the ground with a straight back and hold your hands in the air without forcing to reach out. Now tighten your shoulders, core and elbows. This is what a proper form feels like. Mimic this form while hanging.

  • Engaged shoulders and elbows
  • Keep your core tight during hangs
  • Mildly bend your elbows
  • Straight back
  • Hang directly under the hangboard
  • Face pointing forward

Grips

There are three grips commonly used in climbing:

  • Open hand: hanging from the finger pads with the rest of your fingers below the pads
  • Half crimp: engaged and bent fingers at 90 degrees
  • Full crimp: engaged and bent fingers at 90 degrees locked off with your thumb
 

Open hand - learn how to start hangboarding
Open hand
Half crimp - learn how to start hangboarding
Half crimp
Full crimp - learn how to start hangboarding
Full crimp

 

The open handed grip and the half crimp grip are safest to use on a hangboard. The full crimp is most prone to injury and hence not often trained by any climber. When you have just started hangboarding, ALWAYS go for either an open hand grip or half crimp grip. The half crimp grip is the number one grip position in terms of strength transfer to all other grips and climbing performance.

 

Load

 

Safety is always the number one priority as the goal of hangboarding is to improve your strength. An injury will set you back for weeks if not months. Hence, we don’t ever want to hang to failure when training. We’ll explain more while discussing some basic hangboarding exercises.

 

Minimum Edge Training 

Find out on which edges you can hang about 15 seconds to failure, since you don’t want to hang to failure, when you’re actually training on this edge, we’ll hang 12 seconds for one rep. After each rep rest for 2 minutes. Do five reps for a full set. When starting out you might be able to do one or two sets. Build up your strength to a series of five sets before moving to a smaller edge and repeat the same protocol. As you become stronger you can play around with grip types and amount of fingers. Once you’re very familiar with minimum edge training, you can start doing:

 

Maximum Weight Training

Use a 15-20 mm edge and add weight by using a weight belt/ harness or a backpack with weights inside. As before we don’t want to hang to failure. Find out how much weight you can add while doing sets of three times 7 seconds + 53 seconds rest. Rest 3 minutes in between each set. At the beginning you might be able to do one or two sets. Build up to a series of five sets before increasing the weight to your hangs.

 

If you cannot hang with your full body weight from a hangboard yet, there is a fairly simple workaround to reduce the chance of injury and to start getting familiar with hangboarding with minimal risk. Get a set of portables or a pinch block with edges such as the Redge Vers or Redge Blok and hang weights from them while holding the boards up with your fingers. You can use the same training methods as mentioned above to work your way up to bodyweight hangboarding.

Lighter exercise to start hangboarding
Training fingers with the Redge Blok without hanging

Cool down

After your hangboarding session, you’re not quite done yet if you want to get the most out of your training. Fingers are small delicate joints that don’t have the same amount of blood flow your larger body parts have. To speed up recovery, we’ll want to get our blood flowing before you’re cooled down. In general, you can follow the same exercises as the warm-up, but without the strength-based movements. Start by doing some pulse raisers (cardio) to get the blood flowing and finish up by doing a mix of dynamic and static stretching.

How often should you hangboard?

Now that you know how to start hangboarding we’ve come to the part where we discuss how frequently you should train on a hangboard. To be frank, this totally depends on your own rate of regeneration. As stated earlier, you should always be fully rested before training on a hangboard. If you’re Wolverine or Deadpool you could probably train all-day every day. For us mortals though, especially when just starting out, this might be once or maybe twice a week. It’s mostly dependent on how frequently you can climb. If you’re climbing three times a week, you might not want to hangboard at all in the first few years unless you’re plateauing. If you can only spend one day a week at a climbing gym, you might want to start some light hangboarding one day a week. Remember to always listen to your body and only hangboard when you’re rested to get the most out of your training and to reduce the chance of injury.

General tips

I’ll end this blog post with some general tips.

  • Don’t advance too fast. Your fingers are delicate and need a lot of time to adjust
  • Train your antagonist muscles. Hangboarding will train specific muscles that improve your grip. To keep your body balanced and prevent tendonitis or other injuries you might want to look into training antagonist muscles such as finger extensors, triceps and chest. 
  • Make sure you’re always doing it as safe as you can: be rested, warm up properly, cool down.

If you found anything in this blogpost relevant or helpful or if you want to add any information, leave a comment below.

Sources:

Erik Horst – Training for climbing: Finger strength

 99boulders – Hangboard training for beginners: a simple 8-Week plan

Top 3 grip positions while hangboarding

Dave Mcleod – How to hangboard

University of Rochester – stretching exercises

Bouldering bobats ft Tom Randall – How to hangboard

Lauren Abernathy – Beginner Hangboarding: 6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start Hangboard Training

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