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Train, Simply: A “how-to hangboard” journey

Train, Simply: A “how-to hangboard” journey

If you’ve never tried a hangboard and you’re looking for gains in your climbing, you can follow this 8-week challenge.

I’ve never tried a hangboard before. So when I casually commented, “I’m not strong enough to hangboard”, the response I got was, “Well, try using assistance!”. And so it began. We’ve already put together a beginner’s guide to hangboarding on our blog so there really was no more excuses, was there? I’ll share my experience so that others that want to improve their finger strength, add hangboarding into their climbing mix and train with more confidence can learn the basics week by week.

This winter was the first time in many years that I’ve started to climb more regularly. I prefer climbing routes and am climbing about 5.10 at the gym. I’ve also started doing a little bouldering with the kids. I find bouldering tough - the kids put me to shame - but with some dedicated finger strengthening that just might change.

Remember, you’ll want to have some climbing experience already so that you have strength in your overall muscles you use for climbing before you start fine-tuning your finger tendons and ligaments. Check out our previous blogs for a hangboard beginner’s guide and the suggested 4-week hangboard program that I’ll be following.

Week One, Day One: Getting the hang of dead hangs

Pull Climbing how to hangboard journey

My first hangboard session was downstairs on our hangboard beside our bouldering wall. I counted out my intervals and timed my rest. It was a bit cold. It was a bit dark. And the kids kept wrestling around the stool I was using for assistance so to be honest it was all a bit annoying. I had visions of us all ending up in a heap.

I used the top of the board, the jug, and the left set of holds which felt the most comfortable. I focused a lot on form today, making sure my arms were slightly bent and tucked, shoulders and core were engaged. These are called dead hangs, but in all reality you want to make sure you’re not dead and dangly. I actually hung a couple times, and rested my toe down for the rest of the hangs. Intervals are quite boring. I wanted to do abs in between sets but I was reminded that hanging is a full body exercise, so giving your core a rest was still important. In other words, training multi-tasking was a no-no.

The first few hangs I didn’t push my fingers back far enough, so was making it harder on myself and not taking advantage of the jug depth (especially for my first session). When I pushed them back a little further I found I could lift off the stool - yah!

Week One, Day Two: The 8-second dead hang

Pull Climbing how to hangboard journey

So-much-better! First, I moved upstairs where it was warm and bright. What a difference it made. We designed our boards so that aesthetically you could mount them in your main living areas and they didn’t have to be relegated to an unused spot in the house. A huge red polyresin hangboard would never have made the cut for upstairs, but we found a perfect spot for the Pullboard 0.5 between the kitchen and living room!

Still using the jug (top rail and left set), I just had a chair, my chalk bag and a timer. I created the Beginner Hangboard program in Seconds, an interval timer. I set the hangs for 10 seconds, which gave me a little wiggle room to transition from a 8-second hang to rest and rest to hang. The caution with timers is that you can get too focused and don’t listen to your body. Just keep this in mind and pause if you need to. Having music built into the program was also great.

After a good warm up the whole routine went really quickly! I was hanging! I didn’t want to push my progression too quickly, so I did four sets of four reps. Craigh popped by and reminded me to limit any swinging, a sure way to pop off the rail.

I’m going to explore the interval timer that I’m testing out to see if there’s program sharing options.

Week Two, Day Three: Common hangboard training mistakes (I made one)

Beginner hangboard training journey

Meh! Winter flus, colds and sniffles. So week two ends up being closer to timing than week three. No matter. It felt good to get back to it.

The funniest part of training at home I think is the warm up. Who doesn’t feel slightly goofy jumping around all randomly in your tank top and tights. So after 15 minutes of jumping jacks, high knees, running on the spot, air punches and a few minutes of easy bouldering I was ready to rock.

Today I was good to go without assistance. I felt strong. I felt empowered. I could actually do a dead hang. But the level of intensity was too much for me to follow 8 reps in each set so I altered the program and reduced my reps and added a set.

And here was my mistake. *After* (oops) I finished my session I consulted with our friend, training partner and physiotherapist and was told “too fast, too soon”. Just because you feel strong doesn’t mean that your tendons are fully ready. Stick with the program progression and finish off Week Two using assistance.

Since it’s a common training trap, I thought I’d fully disclose my misstep so others that might have the same question can learn too. Training injury-free is the key, and small gains over time is better than larger gains and encountering an injury.

I’m pumped for Day 4! Better head to the gym this week too if I can muster enough courage to brave the -30C / -22F cold. The joys of living this far north.

Tip: I noticed that chalk floats around and gets on the kitchen table and floor. Yes, it took me three sessions to realize that I should be using liquid chalk for upstairs.

Week Two, Day Four: Time flies with a training buddy

Beginner hangboard training journey

I had a training buddy for today’s training session, which comes highly recommended. I see folks at the gym spelling off and chatting through a program which makes the time fly by! My training buddy is not of age for a full hangboard session, he’s only eight. But he hung in there until the end so he was able to take a turn hanging because most of all he was intrigued by the timer app.

Today I adjusted my interval app and put in 8 reps for each set. I stuck with 4 sets. Heeding the training advice from earlier this week, I used the chair and didn’t take the full weight off my toe. By the fourth set I was started to struggling. Even without a full hang - this is hard. I really had to concentrate on keeping my form. My fingers wanted to slip (and it wasn’t from lack of chalk).

When I was done, I was done. It was a short period to train but felt quite intense. The other lesson I learned after my warm down was how difficult it was to then prep dinner shortly afterwards. The strength was lacking to handle the big knife and chop those carrots. I’m sure that’s a super valuable training tip that any climber hangboarding at home would need to know.

Week Three, Day Five: Finger cramp! 

Learning to hangboard journey journal

Today was the day - dead hangs for four sets with eight reps and eight seconds with no assistance. Would I notice the difference not using assistance? Could I hang for a full eight seconds? Did my right hand fingers cramp up in a funny open hand crimp position? The answer is yes to all three questions.

At the end of my third set I noticed the fingers on my right hand start to “lock in” to a open hand crimp position. How odd. There wasn’t any shooting pain. Not sure what to do, I spent a minute or so just staring and wondering if my beginner’s journey to hangboarding was over (not jumping to conclusions or anything). With training advice top of mind, I’m happy to report I regained my composure and softly massaged the kink so my fingers could extend again. When the timing beeped on my timer at the end of my two minute rest period, I kept massaging until the cramping was gone.

I went on and completed the fourth set without anymore cramping and during my warm down kept working on massaging out the tight spots. Checking in with our friend/physio/training partner the suspect is definitely my “mousing” overuse which is fatiguing my right forearm. No signs of trigger finger. I just have to keep the fingers moving and stretched while training and of course, keep that tightness in the forearm in check. I also learned three finger stretches to add to the warm-up.

I’d love to report that I’ve been climbing six days a week since launching Pull Climbing. But there’s just life. Regardless of what you do when you’re not training, just keep that in mind and acknowledge that there may be things causing stress either way on your muscles or tendons and adjust things as you go so you come out the other end injury free.

Week Three, Day Six: Getting the hang of it

Learning to hangboard journey journal

I’m getting the hang of it. Form is feeling more natural, shoulder are set back and I find myself “thinking” less on whether my form is correct. Unlike the time I thought in the true Canadian spirit I should try curling for the first time...I never really got passed the good form part.

The key today was to keep fingers moving between each set to avoid any cramping. That’s specific for me because of my “mousing” overuse and the fatigue. I made sure to include five minutes dedicated to finger stretching in the warm-up.

This is the second day of a full program and I admit, I used a toe for assistance on the last two hang sets. I was starting to fail so I opted for a little help to finish off the set! I take it as a good sign - like any other training program if you’re getting to the point of failure it’s just right.

Week Four, Day Seven: Training session on the Pullboard Travel

Hangboard training on portable travel board

For the last week of the program I thought I’d take it outside and test out the travel board on the crabapple tree. The 23mm edge is smaller than top jug on the Pullboard 0.5 but spring weather was calling and I had to try. The usual support crew was there in (literally) full swing.

Turns out there's a reason the beginner program starts on the wall-mount jug. Not only does the change in edge depth make a wild difference but the added element of balance makes it even more challenging. Another step in my training journey... learned the hard way.

The shortened sets and reps for Week 4 was a good thing. I tried positioning the board in both directions but it was challenging either way. I now have a new appreciation for those friends that send in their travel hangboard photos. 

My other thought while I’m training today was on the name of the travel board. Craigh has told me it’s a little boring. He came up with Porta-board. I told him it sound likes Porta-potty. Traveller? Travel buddy? After today’s session I felt like I had made a new friend. So don’t be surprised if the name changes. I know the only one that will notice will be me.

Week Four, Day Eight: Hangboarding 101, mission accomplished.

Smooth sailing. I took it back inside on a rainy day and was very content to finish up the program on the top jug of the 0.5. Unlike the training session outside, where I felt a little sheepish, today I felt strong. And proud. I can’t wait for you to get to here too.

Week Five and Beyond: Where do we go from here?

Our recommendation is to repeat this beginner’s guide to hangboarding again. Take a rest week. I started with the bottom of each range, that is, 8-seconds instead of 10, 4 sets instead of 6. The most natural progression would be to aim for more sets and repetitions for the next four weeks. At that point you can assess how things are feeling and start to look at some of the other finger strength routines we have and start to bridge into those.

Happy hanging, training and climbing!

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