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Hangboarding: Considerations for Form and Safety

Hangboarding: Considerations for Form and Safety

By Helmut Becker, MScPT Physiotherapist


A global pandemic and the interest in hangboard training

Hangboards have been a part sport climbing for a long time now. They are an excellent tool designed to augment the strength in the upper body and the ability to grip on different hold sizes and shapes. They can be a great complement to training, and while they don’t offer a substitute to the value of actually climbing, at times like these they can provide some alternate training.

However, more recently, as a global community we have been faced with drastic changes to our lifestyles. Fitness facilities, including climbing gyms, have been closed and have pushed us to look for alternative ways to train. Not everyone has the luxury to have their own home wall to maintain a healthy climbing routine. The hangboard can be a great solution to fill in that gap but a bit more understanding can go a long way about safety and associated application of form.

These concepts of form and safety are intertwined and therefore have direct influence on one another. The objective of this article is to bring awareness to the multitude of elements that need to be taken into account, even with a seemingly simple activity as hangboard exercising. The individual foundational fitness and climbing experience are another factor to be taken into consideration as to how often and how intense exercises and progressions are to be applied at a climber’s own discretion or by their coaches. Like any other activity, especially when new, a gradual progression of load is recommended.


Hangboard form and safety goes beyond finger strength

The general understanding about hangboard training is that it is primarily focused on hand strengthening. The hands are only a part of the equation within the activity altogether. But in fact the whole body is involved!

Hangboard exercises can be performed with full body weight or with assistance in order to reduce body weight. When using assistance, it can be by counter weight, by stepping on a bench or in a resistance band. The common denominator is that the primary body part to be in contact on a board is anywhere encompassing as much of the palmar surface of all fingers including a bit of the palm of the hands to as little as the tip of any finger. Nonetheless, is still proportionally a considerable small body part to hold the whole body itself.

Hangboarding protocols can be designed for progressing into new status of strength or for maintenance. It can also be argued its beneficial applications over rehabbing injuries as well, which is a different topic to be elaborated.

When performing hangboarding exercises, exertions do not occur in isolation while holding on to the board. In other words, all of the body as a dynamic unit is involved in the task with different levels of contributions from different parts at all times. Understanding this principle will help comprehend the importance of having all of the elements well prepared in each exercise in order to avoid higher levels of injury. That means pre setting adequately each time prior to engaging.

A thorough warm up is fundamental for any proper exercise gains and injury prevention. It should include mobility exercises for the spine, shoulders, elbows and hands including fingers. Dynamic stretching and resistive exercises with low and moderate loads contribute to preparing all of the different tissues for the main portion of the workout. In the core of the session, a progressive build up in the exercise difficulty is also best, as well as a cool down portion in the end.


Hangboard design and general set up

Taking a step by step of all these layers can start for example by first setting up the area of exercise where the board is installed. Without being too specific of where and how the board is installed, let’s assume that is over a doorway for example, a place where most typically is the least cluttered and easy to reach up for height. If a step is needed in order to be able to reach up for the holds, assure that it’s a sturdy one. Portable boards should be securely anchored and because of their nature will create an added training challenge for core and stability.

Using rungs to exercise on a hangboard may be the most versatile way to gain gripping strength as lots of climbs are typically composed of edges. Also, different gripping techniques can be applied as means of variety and progression.

Hangboard manufacturers have built their boards including various holds or grip surfaces, which include, jugs, edges, slopers, pockets and pinches. These all have different impacts on the hand and fingers when being loaded due to differences in biomechanical positioning. Caution in how each of these are gripped must always be exercised. The accumulative load over the tissues based on inadequate technique, instead of promoting progressive adaptations, could in fact result in physiological breakdown and chronic injuries. In other words, consider each hold type, how relevant it is in your training program objectives and how you approach your progression.


Hangboard training is a full body workout

How does the rest of the body connect in the exercise routine during hangboarding?

Since all of the dynamic body is composed of numerous different layers and structures, and as a whole is involved in the activity, attention needs to be taken right from the initial position of pre-load. Even the position of the legs have a role in the overall positioning. Each region influences one another depending how it is positioned even though the primary contact point is still the tip of the fingers on the board.

Within these multiple layers, muscles for example are only one of the anatomical elements in the structure of the dynamic body. The articular structures (joints between bones, their connecting ligaments and capsules and other structures) also must be considered. These are all involved in the exercise once load is applied every time.

Another way to understand how the body connects as a unit is to realize how the muscular system overlaps within regions. The overlap of forearm muscles into the upper arm and the overlap of the upper arm muscles into the shoulder girdle and consecutively into the vast footprints of the torso. Continually, the torso via the pelvic girdle which contains too, muscles that directly influence the lower extremities and so on. That communication is a two way stream of adaptive movement patterns. This concept translates when you are training on a hangboard, you are actually doing a full body workout.

All hangs should be active at all times when exercising because having the body as a unit connected and engaged promotes the desired effects and therefore prevents onset of injuries. In this case, even a “dead hang” should be active, not relaxed with straight arms and a floppy lower body. The name is completely misleading!

The body should be prevented from swinging as a pendulum under the board because it causes stress fluctuations due to vector changes. Pre-positioning steadily under the board should prevent this. This principle is applicable to assisted or non-assisted hangs.


Hangboard training and the anatomy of the hand

Since it is typically believed that hangboarding is focused in exercising the hand, a few considerations must be taken prior to set up.

The hand in general has a complex anatomy with respect to all the structures within. It does contain muscles located in the palm, but also tendons travelling through from distant muscle origins. The muscles that are within the hand itself are called the hand intrinsic muscles as a group. The thumbs and the pinky fingers also contain their own dedicated groupings of muscles within the hand.

However, the forearm region contains all of the muscles that in general moves the fingers and the wrists. These have a variety of size, length and location. Amongst these are the sets of muscles that flexes or extends the fingers, which are typically identified with tendinopathies associated with trauma and overuse. Now we can begin to understand that by default the hand does not function in isolation from the forearm!

The general morphology of the hand has other aspects to consider. The fingers are the extension of the palm of the hands and are composed of three phalanges, except for the thumb. Each finger has a different length. This is easy to realize if you hold your hand straight before the eyes and observe that each finger when straight has the very distal part matching with a different part of the adjacent one.


Proper hangboard form: Hand and grip positioning

The hand in general is a small body part compared to others yet it handles significant stress when performing climbing related exercises, like on a hangboard. The muscles within are small and rather fragile and the tendons along the fingers are more exposed with loads. The difference in stresses applied between each part of the hand including fingers can result in tissue breakdown and lesions if overloaded or overused. That’s the reason why grip technique is so closely examined for hangboard training. Let’s look at the options.

Classically, there are three main gripping techniques applied when exercising on a hangboard, particularly if the holds used are the shape of an edge or rung. These are the closed crimp, the half crimp and open grip. Associated to these, there are a fair amount of argumentation and debate of which is best or worse. I believe that further analysis with more profound observations may be necessary in order to draw conclusions. Perhaps, the problems associated with gripping techniques are not necessarily directly linked with the gripping technique in the first place at all. Maybe there are larger considerations in the equation not explored enough related to the question of gripping and its physiological implications of healthy technique versus injuries.

I believe that the specificity of objective and environment guides the predominance of the main focus of a training program. I don’t necessarily see an advantage in attaching a particular bias over any technique if there is a balanced combination of awareness, experience and purpose to support the process. I do believe that having an acquainted technical knowledge and experience with each of these gripping techniques is a plus for a climber’s repertoire. There are different ways each of those can be introduced and applied for each individual circumstance. Awareness, patience and time are paramount for anyone that intends to explore each one. After all, one can potentially get injured applying any of these techniques. The focus here is to appreciate what is involved no matter which technique is applied.

Perhaps a suggestion is to try a bit of each of these three gripping techniques with assistance, to simply feel each one and self evaluate in terms of comfort. Each circumstance requires specific types of technical approaches.


Hangboard grip: Closed crimp

A very popular gripping technique because it provides a sensation of stability when holding onto a very small edge. I find it quite interesting observing less experienced climbers that tend to frequently grip holds, sometimes not even that small, with a closed crimp by instinct.

A primary characteristic is how the hand appears to be closed over a hold. The thumb usually wraps around the index finger for more support, which adds more pressure over the index finger as well. The alignment of the combined straightened middle and distal phalanges with the hold is rather vertical, resulting in a flexed position between the proximal and middle phalanges. This positioning, articularly results in increased contact and pressure of the joint surfaces in the proximal and distal joints and its associated structures. That can cause discomfort or pain overtime. The overall area of contact to the hold is reduced since the fingers have a pin point position pressing on the hold.


Hangboard grip: Half crimp

Some like to consider this a position in between the other two, where the hand appears less closed over the hold. The orientation of the middle and distal phalanges is less vertical on the hold, or can even be closer to perpendicular to the wall. That means that there is more area of the finger contacting the hold, perhaps the whole distal phalanx. Even though the middle and distal phalanges are straight, the amount of bend or flexion between the proximal and middle phalanges are still similar to the angle found in a closed crimp.

A primary difference to be noted between the closed and half crimp gripping techniques lies in the change of vectors and how they apply mechanical stress in the joints. For example, the element that changes between the half crimp and the close crimp primarily is the observable change in angle between the bones in the palm of the hand (the metacarpals) and the proximal phalanx of the fingers, which becomes smaller in the closed crimp. That implies an intrinsic load difference within tendons amongst other structures within the hand.


Hangboard grip: Open grip

The open grip resembles the grip of a primate holding a branch. Fingers are more elongated and angles between joints are larger, therefore with less contact pressure in the articular surfaces. Likely as result, there is much less contact pressure within the joints as well. Perhaps in many instances, this is an easy technique to learn.

What happens for example when a 1 inch depth flat rung is used and loaded with an open grip technique by all 4 fingers? In this case, probably on average, the contact surface would be the majority or all of the distal phalanx of the fingers. Each distal portion of the fingers would match along the straight rung - otherwise the hold isn’t optimized - which mechanically bends or flexes each finger differently from each other because of the length difference. There is a difference between the pre-loaded gripping position and the loaded gripping position (applied by hanging); typically the index and pinky fingers become straighter compared to the two middle fingers, possibly resulting in a substantial difference of load distribution between each one. So when using this grip, it should be acknowledged that the difference between the pre-loaded gripping position regarding the fingers of the hand is altered as soon as load is applied by hanging.

No matter how much climbing experience one has, being in tune with how the body feels is a start. Before each hang, regardless of the chosen gripping technique, note the general alignment of the fingers, that they don’t have a diagonal orientation, and that they are placed as close as possible to symmetry between one another for example.

Apply load by hanging slowly. Be mindful of the volume of the session not to be excessive. Be sensitive to how the hands feel during the session, and stop if it doesn’t feel right. How the hands feel after each session also counts as a measure of stimulation.


Proper hangboard form: Wrist and elbow positioning

Awareness of the position of the wrist and elbow alignment in relation to the hands is also important. The sense of comfort should match a reasonably neutral alignment between the forearm’s midline with the middle finger. From there, notice how much apart or close can the elbows be without altering the alignment of the wrist. Both elbows and shoulders should be at least slightly bent because that position allows the various muscle groups to be engaged and ready to load more easily.


Proper hangboard form: Shoulder positioning

Setting up the shoulders in position has associated misconceptions, but also personal variances that are typically best learned via proprioceptive cueing on an individual basis. Nonetheless, it is easier to assume an adequate position with the arms no higher than the shoulder height. That means that it would be advisable to step up on a bench by matching approximately the height of the board to the shoulders prior to loading. Trying to hang from too far below and loading the body weight on the arms, and then trying to engage the scapulas in place will not work in the same fashion. We definitely must avoid having the shoulders placed too high and close to the ears considering what has been described.


Proper hangboard form: Torso and spine positioning

Finally, positioning the torso focused on the spine is one way to pre-set prior to load. Watching for the position of the neck by keeping the head in line with the torso and by positioning the pelvis are good measures to take. It is advisable to avoid too much arching or flattening of the lumbar region. Keeping the hips slightly bent and knees bent at approximately 90 degrees can assist maintaining the torso with the pelvic positioning in place without much strain. The muscles that form the abdominal walls ought to be engaged prior to loading as well. Exhaling typically helps with that.


The path of patience

Exercising with a hangboard is not complicated, but it requires attention and practice, so start slow and take time to progress and allow for adaptation. Strength in the hands and fingers and its other associated structures takes a very long time to consolidate. To do that without injuring is a path of patience and inner sensitivity.

Having a better awareness of the bigger picture involved in the activity allows it to be properly and safely executed. Like everything else, if an adequate habit is applied with discipline, it becomes a normal routine that will yield wanted results and prevent at best possible injuries.

Becoming a better climber is a personal journey. As many things in life, make sure to enjoy that journey - whether it’s training or climbing - because it’s about the journey as much as it is the destination.


About Helmut Becker

Helmut Becker is the owner and founder of Redpoint Physiotherapy. Originally from Brazil, Helmut moved to Canada in 2002, graduating with a Masters of Science in Physiotherapy (MScPT) from the University of Alberta in 2006. He also holds a Bachelors in Physical Education obtained from Gama Filho University in Rio de Janeiro, followed by a Specialization in Science of Performance Training Post Bachelor Certification by UNOPAR from Southern Brazil. Helmut grew up amongst the natural beauty of the rainforest and beaches of Rio de Janeiro. From early childhood he could be found exploring and photographing the nearby mountain ranges, eventually introducing him to a lifetime passion in climbing. His accomplishments as an elite rock climbing athlete taught him the value of hard work and perseverance, and helped develop his passion for injury prevention and rehabilitation.

http://redpointphysio.com/

May 27, 2020

Great article. Thanx Helmut Becker. Cheers from Brazil

Eliseu

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