The hangboard (aka fingerboard) is a highly effective means to develop climbing specific strength and endurance. However, training on such a board is only effective when using a proper technique with the required intensities and when complete with other climbing specific exercises. Many climbers have encountered a situation where, after an intensive several-week training on the board, they improved their finger strength, but were unable to transfer it to climbing, or even began to feel pain in the neck. In this article we will give you some tips on how to make training on a hangboard as effective as possible and avoid injuries.
One- or two-arm hang?
In the previous article “How to control volume and intensity in climbing” we discussed the importance of assigning the right workload intensity while training. Assigning the right intensity when performing one-arm hang is easier to organize as it does not require additional weights to achieve a high percentage of the maximal force (% Fm). Yet another reason to prefer one-arm hang is the fact that the forearm muscles are involved to a greater extent compared to two-arm hang (aka dead hang). Each arm is stronger when acting alone. This is the so called bilateral effect – the sum of the forces that can be generated separately by each arm is higher than the force that can be reached by both arms acting together. That is why training separately each arm will increase the exertion of the muscles and will induce a greater training effect compared to two-arm hanging. Moreover, you can simulate a typical climbing posture when loading the contralateral leg. In this case, you activate the whole muscle chain, from the fingers, forearm, through the shoulder, the muscles of the trunk to the tip of your foot. Such muscle activation will result in a better force transfer to climbing compared to the simple two-arm hang.
As a general recommendation, you should use all the grips the hangboard provides. However, to achieve maximum forearm muscle activation, a hold depth of at least 2.0 cm should be used. On the other hand, you can produce high forces on very large holds that can lead to shoulder or other injuries. This is why the optimal hold depth for finger training is between 2 and 4 cm.
When you put your fingers on the hold, you can initially push in the little finger with a slight external rotation of the wrist and forearm (supination – elbow inward), which will facilitate correct positioning of the shoulder joint in external rotation (see below).
Fig 1. Active grip (A) is safer and allows better spreading of all fingers on the rung than having the palm stretched and inclined toward the little finger (B,C).
The little finger is much shorter than the other fingers and to evenly distribute the force among all 4 fingers:
a) bend your palm and fingers as if you would hold a softball;
b) rotate slightly wrist and forearm internally (pronation).
This is called active grip and is much safer for ligaments than the passive grip where the palm is completely stretched (Fig 1). Moreover, at least initially, open grip is to be preferred over crimp grip (Fig 2). Open grip is safer for finger pulleys and engages more weakened deep forearm muscles.
Fig 2. Prefer open (A) to crimp grip (B). Open grip is safer and engages more weakened deep forearm muscles.
Elbow and shoulder
When hanging, the shoulders should be level to one another, depressed (down and away from the ears), and with shoulder blades retracted (pulled together). The arm is slightly externally rotated in the shoulder, i.e. you push the elbow inwards. The arm is slightly bent at the elbow (Fig 3).
Fig 3. When hanging, the shoulders should be level to one another (A). Avoid pushing your elbow outwards (chicken wings) (B) or hanging from a completely straight arm with an elevated shoulder (C).
Hanging from a completely straight arm and with an elevated shoulder transfers all of the force to the ligaments, resulting in the disconnection of the shoulder and trunk muscles. This will ultimately weaken the shoulders and can lead to injuries. Moreover, avoid pushing your elbow outwards (chicken wings). Although you can produce a greater force with the chicken wing, it is not suitable for training as it leads to incorrect shoulder position and increases the risk of injury.
Trunk and lower limbs
Apply a slight squat to complete the exercise – do not flex the elbow!
Keep your arms and shoulders motionless. Your spine should not diverge from the vertical axis and should not bend in the lumbar area (Fig 4).
Fig 4. Try to keep your spine straight (A) and avoid bending at the lumbar area (B).
You will increase the effect of the exercise if you intentionally push the ground away with your contralateral leg (Fig 5). The wider the stance, the greater the trunk and shoulders involvement.
Fig 5. To increase the exercise effect, it is possible to push with your contralateral leg (A) not the opposite (B).
Finally, it should be noted that all these recommendations are more general and the individual characteristics and needs of the climber should also be considered. Moreover, it has to be emphasized that training on the hangboard must be conducted in the absence of any upper limb injury such as tendinitis, finger pulleys, sprain, rupture, compartment syndrome, etc.