IMPORTANT NOTE: Under 18s are still advised to avoid fingerboards as growth plates are yet to develop fully. Other training methods are advised instead, please get in touch for more advice
In my previous article on fingerboards – which can be viewed here – i was pretty dismissive of their use unless you’re at the right point in your climbing career. What i did touch on is how they can be hugely beneficial when there are no other options; a point that became hugely apparent during the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020. This article continues that point, building on the Big Advantage point made before.
It is a bit of a paradox. If you haven’t got access to climbing for whatever reason, fingerboards can be a great option to help maintain both psyche and strength. They’re very accessible pieces of kit that can be installed at home.
However the original points still stand and the reputation of fingerboards for hurting people and causing injuries hasn’t come out of thin air. Doubtless if you’ve seen one in a wall then you’ll have noticed a sign clearly stating “No under-18s” (i hope anyway!) and the risks for anyone not primed in their use are equally important.
So this article is focused at those of you who want to use a fingerboard, for whatever reason, but aren’t quite at the point where it’s actually feasible yet.
Note: under normal circumstances, any fingerboard training should be incorporated into a rounded climbing training program, including antagonist work and normal climbing. A one-in-five pattern is a good guide to show how often many recommend their use.
The Three Methods of Use
To start with, let’s outline the three main methods people employ on a fingerboard. Some of these were dismissed a little too quickly in the last article and have since become more commonplace.
The BMC link in the previous article shows one method of use of a fingerboard known as a repeater. The idea of these is to hang for a period of time (eg 7 seconds), rest for a smaller period of time (eg 3 seconds) and repeat (eg 6 repetitions) before a more substantial rest.
The premise of repeaters is to stress the muscles repeatedly, pushing them to the point of near failure over and over so that they develop strength. This is probably one of the older prescribed methods of use and is often done with arms at near-straight, 90 degree bend and fully locked off. Remember you should be getting to the end of sets though.
Great for: endurance and power-endurance
2. Max Hangs
Max hangs are slightly different. While you should be getting to the end of sets with repeaters, the whole premise of max hangs is to continue until you can’t hang on any more.
For those operating at sub-6b, these are probably the most risky things to try. They’re generally done on the hardest holds for you to hang and put an inordinate stress on the body with a high risk of injury. If you’re reading this article, shy away from these for now.
Great for: developing power
3. Pull Ups
The simplest method of use of a fingerboard. Grab the holds, pull up until your chin is level with your knuckles and lower yourself back down. Speed, holds and repetition can all be adjusted with pull ups and while they’re not necessarily that useful (propulsion in actual climbing nearly always come from the legs) they are a very simple and easy method of using a fingerboard.
Where pull ups do score is the muscle groups they work. Dead hangs don’t work the lats (lattisimus dorsi) muscles that well and pull ups can do that better. Pull ups involve what is known as concentric and eccentric actions, rather than isometric with methods 1 and 2 (dynamic rather than static or moving rather than stationary).
Great for: endurance and power-endurance
This one hasn’t taken off yet, although i’ve been pondering it for some time and Neil Gresham eluded to it in an amusing Instagram post too so it’s something i’ll both mention and look into more in the future.
While all the other exercises involve the hands staying static on the board, it is possible to incorporate more movement into your fingerboard session by taking some weight with your feet and moving your hands from hold to hold. Bear in mind you will most likely not be able to do this without taking some of the weight with your feet, see below.
Great for: endurance and for those whose enthusiasm wanes quickly
Warming Up With a Board Alone
So let’s assume for a moment that you’re using a fingerboard because it’s all you’ve got. One of the biggest challenges is how do you warm up sufficiently before getting going? Warm ups are a crucial part of our session and most definitely need to be incorporated into your fingerboard routine. There are three main points to your warm up:
- Increase blood flow/pulse raiser.
This one is relatively straight forward to do anywhere, really. Running up and down or on the spot are popular options, star jumps work well or anything else that gets your heart racing.
However consider incorporating your Mental Prep (see below) as well by including some technique challenges to your pulse raiser. There are multiple examples of this in the At Home Exercise Series, such as hopping on a small spot.
- Warm up muscles.
The elastic band analogy works well here: a cold elastic band prone to snapping, a warm one will be more flexible under load. Part of this will come from increasing blood flow and at the wall it will often come from the “easy climbing” start to your session.
If easy climbing is climbing made easier, doing this on a fingerboard follows a very similar pattern. For me, i use the same holds i’ll be using later in my session but i won’t take my weight fully onto the holds. I may simply bend my legs to semi-load my arms, gradually increasing the load over a series of repeaters.
BE VERY CAREFUL TO TAKE THIS SLOWLY and listen to your body for feedback on what feels okay and what feels too much. DO NOT OVERDO IT TOO EARLY.
- Mental prep.
This is the one that i think is often neglected, both in normal climbing sessions and in training sessions. The warm up is getting you ready for the session you’re about to have and this includes in your mind as well as your body. For me, music or climbing films can help get me psyched and excited to train and get me enthusiastic about what i’m about to do. I have a feeling that this has a physical benefit to the body too, improving getting the body ready purely by thinking but this is totally untested so don’t rely on this.
Reducing the Load
We’ve touched on reducing the load in the warm up but once you want to progress a bit more, there are other possibilities too.
This one is most likely one you’ll use at a wall rather than at home to be honest. It will require an eye bolt screwed into the wall below your fingerboard to attach a karabiner and pulley to, as well as a weight on a rope; quite a bit of extra stuff! Logistically it also means you’ll have an eye bolt sticking out of the wall in your door frame too, which isn’t ideal.
One end of the rope is tied to you (normally attached to your harness) and the rope feeds from there, through the pulley and on to a weight. The weight will need to be off the floor when you are stood on the ground. This weight will then counteract some of your weight, meaning you have to put less effort in to stay in the air. Alternatives could include incorporating a theraband or bike inner tube, tied off on the bolt.
It is by far the most adaptable system of reducing load but also the most difficult and expensive to set up. It is also quite faffy to set up and requires quite a bit of adapting to find the right configurations. Once started though, it’s easy to slowly reduce the weight-assistance to progressively move towards unaided fingerboarding.
Using Your Feet
A simpler – albeit slightly riskier – method of reducing the load is to keep using your feet. Think of a fingerboard as 100% load on arms, 0% on your feet. Standing on the floor is the other way round. In between are all the other combinations available.
Our warm up of bending the knees to slowly load the hands is one method of doing this but often isn’t enough of a difference, or is tricky to achieve. Another option is to take some of the weight with your feet on a chair in front of you. You can progressively move the chair further away from you to put more weight on your arms instead.
Safety note: be careful that you don’t power off the board with your fingers with your feet on a chair and land on your backside. A pad underneath you may be wise and make sure it is only the tip of your toes on the chair so the feet release first. A spotter may also be a good idea.
This gets a little more advanced but can be a good progression from, say, jugs onto smaller holds. If you can hang jugs with both hands, keep one hand on the jug and put your second hand on a smaller hold. Remember to mirror all exercises: left hand jug, right hand crimp then repeat with right hand jug, left hand crimp for example.
This will allow you to work your weaker hand on the poorer hold (the whole point of fingerboarding) while keeping much of the load on the good hold. Offsets are a great option for progression to harder and harder holds, no matter what your ability level.
There are many exponents of this apparatus and it’s hard to look past the two obvious candidates: Neil Gresham and Dave McLeod.
- Neil has a great Instagram account with much information which is well worth checking out. He is one of the leading coaches in the country.
- Dave McLeod will probably be known to anyone of the right age as THE British rock climber. He produced a great video for Hangboards for Beginners which is worth a watch, although he is about as wordy as me…
- There are a few good apps out there. The Beastmaker app is one option, although the new Grippy app is probably better.
And, of course, you can always get in touch with me! Personalised coaching advice is always best as it suits your particular and individual needs. Feel free to get in touch and happy hanging!