My 4 year self assessment of climbing, strength training, and hangboard

I wanted to write down some of my thoughts on climbing from my perspective. This post will be mainly about bouldering, strength training, and hangboard and how it relates to bouldering performance.

Background

I’m not an expert on climbing, but I do have a good background on strength and conditioning and bodyweight strength training from Overcoming Gravity, gymnastics, and parkour coming into bouldering. Hence, I’m not your typical “random” person that comes into climbing from nothing or maybe another sports background but no knowledge of systematic strength and conditioning.

The first edition of Overcoming Gravity has been use by many climbers, including Steve Maisch’s articles on isometrics on hangboard for climbing. Many of the protocols that are being used currently such holds in the 7-10s range for hangboard trend can be traced back to there or Eva Lopez’s work as well. Generally, I tend to use the equivalent of 2s isometric = 1 repetition, which I discuss in Prilepin Tables for bodyweight strength Isometric and Eccentric exercises.

Started climbing around 27-28 years old. So much older than your typical climber who wants to send hard. I’ve been climbing for about 4ish years now. Technically about 5 years, but I’ve have several months and weeks of breaks because of various things such as physical therapy internships, vacations, traveling, missions, etc. Maybe if I had been climbing 4 years straight I might’ve had better progress because a lot of time has been spent regaining hand strength. It is what it is.

Coming into climbing, I had and have a very strong strength background from training and Overcoming Gravity. I’ve always been able to do about 1-4ish one arm chinups (OACs) the whole time while climbing, dipping at least 90+ lbs for 5 repetitions, weighted pistols +50% bodyweight, at least 1-3+ freestanding HSPUs, 10+ weighted hanging leg raises, and so on.

  • Strengths: Pinches, compression, thuggy moves, stemming, crossovers, lockoffs
  • Moderate: Heel hooks, body positioning, dynos, slopers, overhangs
  • Weaknesses: Balance-y slab, crimps, pain tolerance, sweaty fingers 🙁

Currently, I’m about in the range of sending 90-100% V8, 40-50% V9, and 0-20% V10s indoors. I’ve sent multiple V9s when I go to other gyms, so it’s not that my current gym (Earth Treks) is soft or hard or anything. If anything, it seems to be middling in the V6-7+ range but a bit soft in the V0-5 range. Most V8s go in a session or two, V9s in 1-5+ sessions, and V10s are all 3-5+ session projects. At the current juncture, I’ve sent 70+ V8s, 25+ V9s, 4 V10s and 1 “V11.” I haven’t really bothered counting V8s and V9s closely after I sent more than 10, so it’s just an estimate.

Update: 5/2017 — Sent several V7s and a “V8” outside in a session or two, so not a very big disparity between outside and inside for me. Governors Stable seems to be an exception because of the terrible footwork. The 3 main things I’ve learned from outside climbing are:

  • Send in the first go. Skin gets torn up a lot quicker.
  • I’m bad at microcrimps. One of my weaknesses was already crimps, so I need to get better on them.
  • Need better footwork. Governors Stable bouldering was terrible for me for this reason.

Technique focus with strength base

Most climbs from the V0-4/5 range focus on learning significant amounts of techniques including body shifting, weight transfers, toe/heel hooks, hand and shoulder positioning, and so on. If one is strong, they can mostly just muscle their way through the V4-5+ range within a few months while virtually ignoring technique.

Unlike most conventional wisdom, I would not necessarily count this as a detriment in the true sense of “detriment” (although I will say it is somewhat debatable). Higher grades tend to require more technique than the lower grades, which means you are forced to learn good technique. Obviously, I do think that learning technique the earlier the better is important, but you will learn it regardless anyway if you are focused on pushing your grades up.

Focusing on proper foot placement and all of the things I mentioned will help speed up the ability to climb better, even if it’s at the expense of sending.

My current opinion: Train technique from the beginning if possible for “optimal” results. For only “good” results, muscling through problems works but will come back to haunt you a bit later on even though it can be corrected. I don’t necessarily think that muscling through problems is “bad,” but you eventually need to be more technique focused.

Contribution of strength training to climbing

In general, a solid strength base will help an athlete progress up to the V6-7 range fairly rapidly. If one came in with similar strength levels as me, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of them reaching the V6-7 range within 1.5 years at the max and probably less than a year. Maybe even as small as 3-6 months.

Although a general S&C or strength background does not confer significant hand strength, there is already a solid amount of hand strength from being able to do one arm chinups and other various bodyweight feats.

The benefits of strength focus at higher strength levels start to lose steam in the V7-V10 range. Generally speaking, hand strength becomes much more important as holding onto smaller and smaller holds in the 4-10mm range become more important. After all, what good is your strength if you can’t use it because your fingers can’t hold onto a hold?

Over the past ~6 months, I’ve started trending toward more hand strength focus over training strength focus with better measurable progress and results on the wall. I’ve adapted into a more minimalistic routine of OAC/OA DB Rows, dips, and pistols with more hangboard focus. This has pushed me back up from some/most V7 into most/all V8s while the grades in our gym have been trending from easier than outside to about the same as outside grades.

List of exercises I’ve found most effective are:

  • Legs: Deadlifts and/or weighted pistols.
  • Core: reverse hyperextensions and weighted decline situps.
  • Upper push: Weighted dips, and maybe overhead pressing or pseudo planche pushups.
  • Upper pull: One arm chin progression as a main, and maybe front lever row progression and/or one arm DB rows.
  • Antagonist exercises: rice bucket or wrist roller or DB wrist extension

I personally use weighted pistols, weighted decline situps, weighted dips, and OAC as main exercises. Then supplement a session as needed.

My current opinion: Get strong in the gym, but don’t prioritize gym over climbing or hangboard (if you’re more advanced). If you are doing strength training especially in the form of push (dips), pull (OAC), legs (weighted pistols and/or DL), core (weighted decline situps, reverse hyperextensions), then prioritize your training down to a few exercises like that to focus on getting strong with so you have more recovery to do more climbing and hangboard. Those are my preferred exercises for each of those categories, if climbing is your main focus.

Grade chasing versus completing all problems at level

These two things are not mutually exclusive, but most people have a preference. I tend toward “grade chasing” along with most of my friends, but there are a few that prefer to complete everything at a given level. Both have their place from my perspective.

It’s useful to acknowledge that grade chasing will bring up your technique in other areas. When you’re working at the limit of what you can do, you’re generally challenging the strength, technique, fitness, hand strength, and other variables from a lot of different perspectives.

I almost exclusively grade chased until a few months ago, and I think focusing on both facets has made me a bit more well rounded (still suck on pure slab though). However, it hasn’t changed my life in terms of thinking that this is something I should have been doing all along.

Completing all of the grades at a certain level is generally more ‘telling’ when climbing you’re a “VX” climber. Generally, in my mind when someone claims they’re say a “V8 climber,” I would expect them to be able to send a V8 in front of me in a session or two. It can be humbling to claim your highest grade as “the grade you climb,” especially knowing that it was probably soft for it’s grade. Generally, all of the first grades you get are going to be soft unless you find a problem that perfectly fits your style.

In general, I think whatever fits your personality best is the way to go. I prefer grade chasing and that is what motivates me to continue climbing well. I want to eventually be able to send V12 and flash V10s. Others who are motivated by completing all of the climbs or being well rounded — which is indeed better for competitions if you are into that — should stick to that.

My current opinion: Both grade chasing and being well rounded work well because they fit different athlete’s various motivations. Switching athletes out of their inherent motivation is generally a bad idea. There probably is a 80/20 split where you get the best of both worlds. If you’re a grade chaser, spend a session every week or two working the “lower level” problems that you don’t care for to make yourself more well rounded. If you are a well rounded climber who rarely projects, spend a session every week or two projecting very hard climbs.

The effect of hangboard on climbing

Generally speaking, if you are going to do one thing aside from climbing to improve your climbing beyond intermediate strength levels, it should be hangboard.

Eric Horst’s article on Energy System Training accurately summarizes the pyramid aspect of climbing.

  • Climbing is the foundation of the pyramid and the main focus. Most of the time spent on climbing should be aimed at improving sports specific training.
  • A standard foundation of strength and conditioning for agonists (pulling muscles), antagonists (pushing muscles, and forearm extensors), legs, and core should be built on that.
  • Specific work such as hangboard, campus board, and system boards are after that to focus on specific weaknesses and bring up hand strength. Hand strength strongly correlates with climbing ability, based on various studies
  • Finally, energy system training is to maximize performance after all of those factors.

This type of pyramid progression — sports specific, strength and conditioning, isolation work, and energy system — works for most, if not all, sports and disciplines from novice to elite.

This jives well from my experience, as it should. I had a solid strength base coming in which helped me improve very rapidly up to V6-7 range, but after that range I needed a lot more climbing specific isolation work.

Right now, I currently do a routine of 3x a week bouldering for 2-3 hours, 20-30 minutes hangboard, then brief strength workout 20-30 minutes. I find that works better than 4-5x a week for me, and I can do recovery work on the other days such as cardio if need be.

My current opinion: Hangboard, campus board, and system board and energy system training are good tools to use to break through plateaus in climbing. Likewise, they can be used concurrently with climbing and strength training to make continued progress without plateaus.

Various holds in hangboard

I’ve experimented a lot with different holds for improvement in hand strength over the past 2 years, especially once I found that just climbing and strength training wasn’t working as well to improve my climbing ability.

  • What works: half crimp max weight, open hand crimp, minimum edge
  • What doesn’t work well: Slopers, pinches, repeaters (to an extent).

Let’s go over what doesn’t work well first.

  • I’ve found pinches to not work at all for me. On the Rock Climbing Training Hangboard (Anderson Brothers), I worked my way up from 0 lbs pinching to +40 lbs, with a 50 lbs hold thrown in as well. This did jack squat for improving my climbing ability. On the other hand, Reddit’s climbharder has had similar effects from different results. In general, they’ve found little to no improvement from cycle to cycle. You only see great improvement over the course of many cycles. My current theory on pinches is that they correlate to getting stronger in the upper body. The harder you can pinch is similar to how hard your co-contraction is in your forearm flexors/extensors and upper body such as biceps/triceps, shoulders. This would explain why newbies tend to get increased gains from doing pinch work, but those who have been climbing in the intermediate V5+ range don’t benefit as well if at all.
  • Holding slopers just does not work. It’s too dependent on humidity and skin friction to matter. They don’t even translate to the wall which sucks. That’s all I’m going to say about it. It’s a waste of time. Open hand hanging translates significantly better.
  • Max hangs are better than repeaters for hand strength. This should not be a surprise to anyone give that repeaters typically train more endurance than strength with shorter rest times. I don’t see a point to doing repeaters at all unless you’re a route climber.

What works.

  • Half crimp max weight. Work by hanging weight off you and doing it on a hangboard or no hang devices such as the Grippul. Either seems fine from my experience, although no hangs have an easier set in my opinion. These get your hand strength up. There’s a range of about 1-2s to about 10s that you can work with as long as you get enough climbing + hangboard volume to improve. I usually do about 2-5 sets of 5-10 seconds.
  • Open hand crimp is what slopers holds wish they trained. Open hand crimp builds finger strength in open hand and is less stressful on the connective tissues. Generally, you can do much more weight open hand when trained than half crimp. I’ve been working 3 finger open hand crimp on the RCT Anderson’s hangboard to solid effect. Down to 3 fingers on one hand with some added weight.
  • Minimum edge you may need to use a board like the Transgression board to get accurate sizing of holds to work systematically down with. Some larger gyms carry them in their training section (Earth Treks has some for example). Min edge seems to be mostly about training pain tolerance, distal interphalangeal joint (DIP joint) connective tissue integrity, and getting strong(er) on smaller holds. Generally speaking, if you’re in the V8+ range you’re going to encounter < 8mm crimps, so if you tend to work a lot of crimp problems then minimum edge training may not be necessary.

I recently wrote this up on reddit on my switch in training philosophy from strict minimum edge training to minimum edge pulling.

Previously, I had mainly been doing it for the pain tolerance as I didn’t really see that much carryover from it to being able to pull on smaller holds that well.

About a 3-4 weeks ago, I decided to try ~3ish sets of 3-5 pullups on minimum edge as my minimum edge training. I’ve seen a clearly improve difference in my ability to pull on smaller holds while still getting the pain tolerance training that the fingertips need to some extent. I’ve worked up from 3 sets of 3 pullups with no weight to +25 lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps on the small edge of the RPTC hangboard (trango) which is the 7.9mm. Joints were slightly sore for the first couple sessions, but have since not hurt at all during the training.

This makes logical sense to me since when I climb I don’t necessarily need to hang on the smallest hold. What limits me is going to be my ability to exert force off the smallest hold that my fingers can tolerate. One of my bigger weaknesses has always been terrible crimps, but I’ve noticed that I’m actually decent on terrible crimps now.

Anyway, just want to hear some different types of experiences to see if this has been the case for other people and/or if some other people may want to see if it benefits them better than straight minimum edge hangs.

My current opinion: Half crimp max weight (hangboard or no hang) and open hand crimp are the two critical grips to train. Min edge and repeaters have some use depending on various goals and climbs on the wall. Pinches, slopers, and other variants not mentioned do not seem to have as much use to them. YMMV.

Scheduling sessions

I’ve experimented with different scheduling sessions numerous times over the past couple years. What I’ve ended up as the “best fit” for me seems to be oriented around 3x a week scheduling.

  • 2-3 hours of bouldering, 20-30 minutes of hangboard, 20-30 minutes of S&C

I’ve tried hangboard before climbing, but it doesn’t feel as good to me. Bouldering then S&C and hangboard or bouldering then handboard and S&C are similarly most effective.

Overall, I’ve found that with my style of “grade chasing” that climbing more than 3-4x a week isn’t that good for me. If I were to climb 5+ times a week, then I would have to cut down my sessions to 1-2 hours to build up volume and potentially do some lighter sessions.

Scheduling in additional work such as hangboard and/or S&C work is also another potential factor. I know that some people like scheduling this on their off days, but I like scheduling it on the same day so I have about 48 hours between workouts. That has also seemed to work best for me, but I also know others who do workouts on their off days effectively.

I know several people who train days in a row or multiple days in a row, and their progress has been effective as well. However, for newer people, more than 3x per week seems to yield an increased incidence of overuse injuries.

My Current Opinion: Beginners should start out climbing 3x a week. Whether you incorporate S&C and hangboard on the same day is up to you. It can be trained effectively doing either. Adding more climbing days after your body has adapted to 3x a week may also be beneficial if programmed effectively. It really depends on the work capacity, capabilities, susceptibility to injuries, and scheduling of other activities whether or not to add extra climbing days and/or S&C and hangboard on certain days. This is where a solid coach may be useful to help a beginner progress effectively.

Obviously, as you become more experienced, you can experiment with more training days on. However, it needs to be well balanced in terms of recovery lest you develop overuse injuries.

Conclusions

Obviously, these are simply my thoughts based on my background of experience and experimentation. These thoughts should not necessarily be taken as “expert” opinion or recommendations. If you want to try any of these recommendations, they are at your own risk.

  • Technique versus muscling climbs: Train technique from the beginning if possible for optimal results. For only “good” results, muscling through problems works but will come back to haunt you a bit later on even though it can be corrected.
  • The applicability of strength training: Get strong in the gym, but don’t prioritize gym over climbing or hangboard (if you’re more advanced). If you are doing strength training especially in the form of push (dips), pull (OAC), legs (weighted pistols or DL), core (weighted decline situps), then prioritize your training down to a few exercises like that to focus on getting strong with so you have more recovery to do more climbing and hangboard. Those are my preferred exercises for each of those categories, if climbing is your main focus.
  • Grade chasing versus grade completion: Both grade chasing and being well rounded work well because they fit different athlete’s various motivations. Switching athletes out of their inherent motivation is generally a bad idea. There probably is a 80/20 split where you get the best of both worlds. If you’re a grade chaser, spend a session every week or two working the “lower level” problems that you don’t care for to make yourself more well rounded. If you are a well rounded climber who rarely projects, spend a session every week or two projecting very hard climbs.
  • The place of hangboard and similar implements in training: Hangboard, campus board, and system board and energy system training are good tools to use to break through plateaus in climbing. Likewise, they can be used concurrently with climbing and strength training to make continued progress without plateaus.
  • Holds to train on hangboard: Half crimp max weight (hangboard or no hang) and open hand crimp are the two critical grips to train. Min edge and repeaters have some use depending on various goals and climbs on the wall. I now prefer minimum edge with pullups as my preference for minimum edge type training. Pinches, slopers, and other variants not mentioned do not seem to have as much use to them. YMMV.
  • Scheduling extra climbing days, S&C and hangboard: Beginners should start out climbing 3x a week. Whether you incorporate S&C and hangboard on the same day is up to you. It can be trained effectively doing either. Adding more climbing days after your body has adapted to 3x a week may also be beneficial if programmed effectively. It really depends on the work capacity, capabilities, susceptibility to injuries, and scheduling of other activities whether or not to add extra climbing days and/or S&C and hangboard on certain days. This is where a solid coach may be useful to help a beginner progress effectively.

If I missed any categories in this article, I will add them later on.

Author: Steven Low

Steven Low, author of Overcoming Gravity: A Systematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength (Second Edition), is a former gymnast who has performed with and coached the exhibitional gymnastics troupe, Gymkana. Steven has a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Maryland College Park, and his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Maryland Baltimore. Steven is a Senior trainer for Dragon Door’s Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC). He has also spent thousands of hours independently researching the scientific foundations of health, fitness and nutrition and is able to provide many insights into practical care for injuries. His training is varied and intense with a focus on gymnastics, parkour, rock climbing, and sprinting.