Are Most Climbers Getting Fingerboard Training Wrong? (Part 1)
“At a certain point, your muscles can only produce the strength they use when you’re doing a weighted hang when in the presence of that extra weight.”
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You’ve likely heard that fingerboard training is good for advanced climbers and dangerous for beginners. In my experience testing and tracking professional climbers for many years, I’ve realized that this narrative is unsubstantiated. In this article, I’ll suggest that fingerboard training is the most accessible tool to gain finger strength as a beginner and an intermediate climber; I will also demonstrate why experienced climbers aren’t gaining much additional benefit from it and should instead adopt different training methods.
I. Why do athletes strength train in the first place?
The goal of strength training seems simple: you progressively overload a movement, generally by adding weight, to increase force output over time. For example, on a fingerboard we gradually add weight to the body to document an increase in strength. Most hangboarding protocols assume that this added load on the fingerboard reflects our ability to grasp and pull hard on smaller holds. But when we look at what the latest science suggests about adaptations to strength training, we’ll see that the picture is more complex.
Multiple adaptations happen when we strength train, but the most important of these are coordination (learning the skill), muscular recruitment (how many fibers are activated), muscle size (hypertrophy), and tendon stiffness (viscous behavior).
Let’s dig into each briefly.
I put coordination first intentionally. Rep to rep, set to set, and session to session, your body learns to be coordinated with a new movement. So the initial “gains” you see with any new activity (added load), including the fingerboard, are not necessarily the result of your ability to apply more force (i.e. recruitment). Instead, you’re becoming more coordinated: you’re getting better at hanging from your fingers.
2. Muscular recruitment.
Increases in muscular recruitment (both agonist activation and antagonist coactivation) occur only after you’re skilled with the movement. For example, once you’re confident on a given edge, using a specific grip position, you can increase your voluntary activation, which is also known as high-threshold motor unit recruitment. But here’s the catch: this only works up to a point, and beyond that point (we are still determining exactly where that point is, but it seems to be in the 1.5-2x bodyweight range), we see no additional utility in adding load because it doesn’t transfer to the climbing wall.
3. Hypertrophy / increased muscle size.
While hypertrophy has a significant genetic component, size gain is inevitable for most climbers thanks to the sheer volume of loading that we put our forearms through—and it comes with a significant trade-off for climbers. From a training standpoint, high threshold motor units (muscle fibers) start to increase in fiber diameter (size) when put under tension regularly. This is why bodybuilders use 6-12 rep maxes rather than 1-3 rep maxes. Increasing size increases force production (strength) but limits the speed at which the muscles contract, which reduces power output. So hypertrophy gives you strength but reduces your power.
4. Tendon/ligament stiffness.
The single best reason for climbers to hang from their fingers is that it allows them to increase connective tissue stress. Heavy loads (heavier than the sport, at least) are naturally slow, and slow loads have little strain (damage mechanism) and high stress (health-promoting mechanism) on connective tissue. This high-stress, low-strain load promotes stiffness in the tissues of the fingers, which is a good thing because this is how we build capacity for our sport. The problem, as noted above, is that continually increasing intensity/weight does not necessarily produce more strength and stiffness. That’s the most common mistake we make.
II. How do we get a transfer to climbing?
Now that you have a basic understanding of some of the adaptations our bodies make when fingerboard and strength training, let’s discuss the more critical component: how we get fingerboard strength to transfer to our sport. Because adding weight to a fingerboard routine is not the same as rock climbing.
Most new climbers are told that simply climbing will be enough to get them stronger. That’s true up to a point. But the average hold size in modern climbing gyms isn’t that small. And over their first year or two of climbing, most new climbers build solid climbing movement skills (footwork, body position, use of momentum, etc.) but receive less overload to their finger flexors. Meanwhile, their technique gains subtly “underload” the fingers as they learn to put more load through the feet to conserve energy. In other words, most of a new climber’s grade progression is a coordination adaptation brought on by better weight distribution. In this context, incorporating low-volume sub-bodyweight to full-bodyweight hangs on a 25-30mm edge a few times per week is the easiest way for new climbers to build capacity in the connective tissues.
As climbers increase their climbing grade, the holds get smaller, the moves get farther apart, and the skill changes. Now it’s harder to technique your way through those smaller grips. By reaching the V6-V7 grade, many climbers realize they need a finger training program to continue progressing. But unless they’ve been using a low-volume hangboard plan from the start, adding one now can be risky. At this time, they’ve likely increased their climbing volume (they’re able to climb harder for longer because they’re more skilled) and power output (they’re physically capable of making big moves) even while their fingers lack capacity. These climbers will now be susceptible to fatigue injuries with the addition of a new training program. For this reason, I think it’s a mistake to wait until an athlete climbs a specific grade before suggesting that finger training is OK. Instead, beginner climbers should be told that finger strength training reduces injury risk and promotes longevity in our sport, so long as it’s done thoughtfully.
Timing aside, at some point, climbers start adding load to their bodies on a specific edge (usually 20-22mm) and see quick gains in the amount of weight they can hang. To the athlete, this appears to be an immediate change in strength, but remember that our initial adaptation is coordination, not recruitment. So even though these athletes are using the principle of progressive overload, it is only after weeks and months of coordination gains, when these loads get heavy (supramaximal), that recruitment increases. This is because the muscle fibers in our fingers are so much more efficient in the eccentric style load we use on the fingerboard.
As climbers progress in their ability to grab smaller holds, they can add heavy loads to their fingers. But once they’re adding 1.5 to 2 times body weight, these loads are not additionally helpful and, as I’ve mentioned, maybe be counterproductive. For many advanced climbers, the risk of injury outweighs the reward since very few of those excess strength gains transfer to rock climbing.
This statement is a shocker for most climbers, so let’s clarify this further.
The myth of eccentrics
A big myth in the exercise world is that eccentric muscle contractions (lowering or yielding a load under tension) produce higher levels of recruitment. This is not true. The confusion stems from eccentric muscle contractions allowing a greater load tolerance, which means you can bear 1.5 to 2 times your max concentric load. But now we understand that this phenomenon is due to the tension brought on by passive structures (connective tissues around the individual fibers), not because recruitment levels are higher. An easy example is that hanging on two monos at body weight does not mean you can produce 50% of your body weight on each mono in isolation. I’ve tested a bunch of single middle fingers, and the max forces are generally only in the 35-50 lb range.
I know what you’re thinking. “Why wouldn’t we want more passive tension and connective tissue load? That should make us more resilient and super awesome.” Well, not really. Injury risk aside, the most important caveat is that your muscles’ response to a supramaximal eccentric load depends on that external load; in its absence, your adaptation goes away. In other words, at a certain point, your muscles can only produce the strength they use when you’re doing a weighted hang in the presence of the extra weight.
The result? You’re wasting time and energy when doing super heavy hangs because the response will never transfer to rock climbing performance. It will not magically allow you to produce more force on the wall. So, when climbing, we are all stuck with our active recruitment (high threshold motor units) threshold and the passive tension that accompanies it.
An example of a traditional fingerboard protocol
The ethos of measuring hang times and max loads is so embedded in our culture and history that it seems very counterculture to suggest that these exercises aren’t as helpful as we once thought. Yet we can now measure the actual efficacy of these protocols, and the news isn’t great. Indeed, the most popular form of finger strength measurement—the max weighted hang test, which typically consists of 5-second, 7-second, and 10-second hangs—does not accurately predict an athlete’s max finger strength level. Instead, it uses the principle of eccentric overload (no other sport does this) to prescribe training loads for a sport that never uses that much passive tension. But if we never use that much passive tension while climbing (remember, it depends on the load), is it worth training it as regularly as we do? I don’t think that it is.
An example of passive tension
An example of active tension
When I teach people this concept, I get a lot of questions about the “point of no return.” Or: at which load or strength/weight ratio are they no longer benefiting from doing weighted hangs? My honest answer is I don’t know exactly. I can say, based on data collected from over 100 climbers, that the difference between an estimated weighted hang load as used on a fingerboard and an isolated finger curl load, where you’re flexing only with the fingers in isolation, is around 35-50%. Right on par with the literature produced by the wider sports science community, which has found that eccentric overloads are 35-50% greater than concentric loads.
I’ll use myself as an example. If I pull on a 20mm edge with my whole upper body in a closed system, using my entire upper limb, I can produce around 175 lbs of force on each arm. That predicts my two-hand max hang load to be about +190 lbs for a few seconds. Conversely, if I stand and flex my fingers upwards (isolated finger flexion with no upper body), I can produce around 112 lbs of force on each arm. That predicts my max hang load to be about +64 lbs for a few seconds. That’s a 126 lb difference in the load I can hang compared to the force I can produce with my fingers. That’s a massive difference.
So where is all that 126 pounds of extra force being produced? You guessed it, the passive tension of my entire upper extremity, from my fingers to my shoulders, chest, and core. I can tolerate so much more load by hanging due to the eccentric-like muscle contractions of the upper extremity, not because I am producing more force in that position. Indeed, the opposite is likely true since when we do a typical one-rep max movement—a pull-up, for example—the lowering/eccentric portion uses roughly 50% of the fibers for the upward concentric movement.
If our goal is to increase the kind of finger strength that will transfer to climbing, we need to be more aware of how our bodies respond to different types of training. It requires more than giving blanket statement advice to climbers around the globe who have access to a 20-22mm edge. The coach and athlete need to consider current strength (measured in both ways) and make better prescriptions for training.
III. Review and suggestions
Fingerboarding is the easiest way to gain finger strength (recruitment and coordination of high-threshold motor units). Beginners (climbers with 1-2 years of experience) need this intentional load more than anyone because they aren’t getting it on the climbing wall thanks to the hold size in commercial gyms. For them, fingerboarding doesn’t need to involve adding load, but it must be done frequently and be a little more strenuous on the fingers than the climbing they do in the gym. In this population, it’s less about tracking numbers than “building a base” for future training.
Intermediate climbers (with 3-5 years of experience) can gain the most from adding load on a fingerboard. They’ll get a sudden boost in recruitment, especially if they’ve been doing it already and are coordinated, which they’ll see immediately on the wall. At some point, however, they will note a plateau in their “gains,” which is a good sign that they’ve plateaued in their recruitment. A new fancy hang protocol isn’t going to fix this plateau. They need to stop relying on it.
Experienced climbers have the least to gain from heavily weighted hangs. They own the skill (they’re coordinated), have reached their recruitment threshold (high-threshold motor units), and are already yoked (hypertrophy). When they insist on strapping on more weight, they’re only adding additional overload to the connective tissues of the hand, which is risky. In this population, using the fingerboard regularly as an everyday warmup routine for their “hard on their fingers” climbing is enough to keep their connective tissues healthy. If this demographic wants to get stronger, they must employ a different method…
Stay tuned for Part 2
Dr. Tyler Nelson is the owner and content creator for Camp4 Human Performance (@c4hp). For the last seven years, he’s been exclusively writing about and managing climbing injuries for athletes around the globe. His home base is in Salt Lake City, UT (USA climbing headquarters), where he does a lot of diagnostic ultrasounds, consulting and programming, performance testing, and writing for the climbing community.
While in chiropractic school, he completed a dual master’s degree in exercise science, emphasizing tendon loading and rehabilitation. This interest has led him to challenge the status quo with climbing training. He wants to better educate climbers and coaches about the rationale behind training interventions. He firmly believes that our sport moving forwards requires this nuanced approach.
In addition to his work as a physician and coach, Tyler enjoys playing the guitar, skateboarding with his boys, bouldering, and trad climbing with his daughter.