Training on a Board? Better Read This.
It’s heinously easy to overdo it on a bouldering board... and overdoing it negates any gains you might make. Planning and discipline play important roles in a healthy board practice.
It’s no secret that bouldering walls help us achieve higher grades, and having one with a fixed grid of holds—whether it be a MoonBoard, Tension Board, Kilter Board, or a Grasshopper—gives a clear indication of bouldering fitness over time. It’s motivating to go up against problems created by climbers all over the world, and to get stronger fingers while avoiding the ever-loathsome doorjamb hangs. But there’s another element of board climbing that we often ignore: The number-one side effect of starting training on a spray wall or app-driven wall is injury.
If we are so dedicated to improving our climbing, why do we always seem to overdo it?
The short answer? Because these walls are so much fun. App walls have databases of tens of thousands of problems, and we can also set our own problems, not to mention the endless possibilities on spray walls. Thus most of us will get on a board, go for a really long and engaging session, and probably go past the point of useful training. We’ll end up in some kind of grinder session that only stops with torn skin or the gym closing for the night. If we don’t get hurt on day one, chances are we’ll come back harder the next day and the next and eventually…snap!
To truly advance using a board, starting conservatively is key. In my role as a climbing coach, I seem to repeat the Chris Sommers saying “There is no amount of training that you can do today that will make up for a well-planned week” at least 10 times a week to various athletes. We’re all capable of going deep during this or that session, but the true athlete understands that it’s the sum of 10 or 20 or 50 sessions that produces results. The way we get to that sum is to not get hurt early on. So, how do we start?
Day one, your first time on the board, set a timer, and stop after 30 minutes; rest as needed between problems. After a couple of days’ rest, go back, aim for 40 minutes, and stick to it. Work your way up to a reasonable-length session—maybe 60 to 75 minutes—and keep your goal in mind. If it’s power and strength gains, remember that long, tiring sessions are the enemy. If the goal is endurance, aim for a longer duration, but remember to hold back on the hardest of moves.
There are many ways to get more out of your board, and to gain useful skills. They don’t always have to be limit-level bouldering. Below, I’ll outline a few ideas on how to advance your board climbing without flirting with injury.
Variation of Difficulty/Intensity
The more you work one angle, hold type, intensity, or duration, the more susceptible you’ll be to injury. The well-known ring-finger tweak from too much time on limit-level small-hold problems is a great example. Dynamic moves to crimps are useful, but the gains made from doing lots and lots of them in a single session become limited in a hurry. The pro climber Josh Wharton, a diehard boarder, suggests just moving on from a problem, especially a tweaky one, after three tries—so that you aren’t hammering the same holds and tendons over and over.
With this in mind, working on moves that have more pinches or big holds can help extend your useful session length. Similarly, adjusting the angle of the wall back from the standard 30 or 40 degrees to 15 or 20 degrees for a session or two can help keep you from getting stuck in just one skill.
Varying intensities across a month of training can reduce injury, but can also increase performance. If you’re training only on a fixed-angle board with fixed holds, you need to take advantage of how difficult you make the problems, as well as session length (see the next section, Variation of Duration). Our best option is to vary the difficulty of the climbing, making sure to not just spend the whole session on limit-level moves. Accomplish this by writing out a plan for the day, one based on the volume you’ve been doing over the past few weeks and not on a video you watched of someone else’s training session. A warning, though: You’ll need willpower (and brain power) to stop doing hard problems when the plan calls for that! Use discipline to your advantage, and save some of that motivation for a great workout next time.
I like to use the following broad categories of grades in order to vary the difficulty:
Limit-Level: Problems that take more than one session to complete
Hard Problems: Problems between your flash grade and in-a-day level
Medium Problems: Problems from two V-grades below up to your flash grade
Easy Problems: Problems three or more grades below your flash level
Your training should feature some heavy days, but also several medium and light days, too. On “heavy” days, go with your animal instinct and climb 60 to 70 percent of your time on limit-level or hard problems, then spend a little time on medium or easy problems; it’s also good to intersperse the less intense work in the middle of the session and not just stack it at the end. “Medium” days would find you doing 70 percent or so of your climbing around your flash level; meanwhile, 15 percent might be easy problems, and 15 percent could be hard problems. And finally, on “light” days, perhaps 10 percent of your climbing could be limit-level or hard problems, another 30 percent would be medium level, and the rest should be skill-based movement on easy problems well below your flash grade.
It will seem like it’s not “enough” on the light days, but eight weeks from now, when you’re feeling good, with a solid training base and healthy fingers, you’ll look back and be proud of your planning and self-control. Remember that unless you fall down or get hit by something, it’s a training injury. And training injuries are always your fault.
Variation of Duration
Intensity variability, as described above, can result in profound training effects. Combining it with varying durations of sessions can be magic. Some days you might do low-volume, easy climbing—30 minutes of not-very-hard stuff and you’re done. You come in from the garage, help cook dinner or wash the dishes, talk to your spouse—and you’re not hurt. Hard and high-volume days are at the other end of the scale. You might only do one of these every 6 to 8 weeks, and it will be memorable. This is rare training and it’s educational. Most of the other sessions can be combinations of other intensities and volumes, with the goal of keeping you from going stale as well as mitigating the risk of overuse.
In very simple terms, you should alternate between a low-volume session, a medium-volume session, and a high-volume session in sequence, whether you get to boulder 2 or 3 or 4 days per week. This way you don’t always default to the same session length. Don’t worry—you’ll still train just as much as before; it’s just that the duration of your sessions will break out a little differently. For example, if your typical schedule is 60 minutes of bouldering-wall training per day 3 days per week, consider making one session 40 minutes long, one 60, and one 80—in both cases, you’re still getting 180 minutes of training.
Part of why I got talking to Boone Speed about the Grasshopper system was that my wife, Ellen, and I wanted an adjustable-angle wall for our climbing gym. In our small space, we felt that if we built a fixed-hold board of any kind, we’d want to adjust the angle, to allow for a greater variety of problems. Even if you can’t budget for a hoist-operated freestanding wall, building one that hinges and can be adjusted—if even just by a few degrees—is worth the time and money. Hinges and hoists are relatively inexpensive, and are totally worth the effort to install.
The Grasshopper wall we installed adjusts from 15 degrees all the way to 60. Although this is a bit more angle variability than most might need, it allows for tremendous versatility and marries well with a hold system that includes several big holds and jugs. Even a moderately good boulderer can climb out a board as steep as 50 degrees on jugs…which is a lot different than crimping up it at 15 degrees.
In weight training, one goal is to address major muscular imbalances. With a mirror-image or symmetrical board like the Grasshopper or Tension Board (and the wood holds on the MoonBoard’s 2017 set), you will immediately become aware of the imbalances in your left and right sides, both in terms of strength and movement. Mastering a problem on any board helps us learn better movement and skill; mastering the mirror image of that problem can be transformational on a whole different level. In fact, many climbers find that their weaker side teaches them better movement economy, which they can then use on the stronger side to reduce the tendency to “power through” hard moves.
With this in mind, I suggest that no matter what the problem, if your board is mirrored, climb it both directions before moving on to the next one. This doesn’t serve our “check-the-box” ego well, but it does serve our true pursuit, which is learning better movement. Research shows that people who are new to a particular movement or don’t practice it regularly will over-recruit the working muscles, and will even fire muscles not needed in the movement. Over time, this leads to wasted energy, poor flow of movement, and an increased chance of injury.
Power Is Power, and Stamina is Stamina
Stay on target. If you’re training for power, stop when your power fades. There is little reason to charge deep into a long, crushing session, especially when you step back and look at your training over a week’s time. There is little you can do in a single overly long session that can’t be done better across three short, high-quality sessions.
If your goal is to climb more moves at a moderate level per climbing day, then by all means, work toward that goal. If it’s a short road trip, comp, or big-wall-in-a-day goal, you really might need more capacity. In this case, your sessions should be longer, feature more problems, and perhaps occur on back-to-back days. For most of us, though, short sessions done more frequently help us get the power we’re looking for.
Trying to combine the two—hard climbing followed by a bunch of progressively easier problems as you fade—tends to elicit the worst of both worlds: increased chance of injury, and slower gains in strength.
Take a Full Week—Yes, a Full Week!—Off Boarding Each Month
This is the most difficult one of all. As with most great things, we need to act like adults, and look at the long term. With the home-gym mania of COVID in 2020, we saw a huge number of home bouldering walls go in—and a huge number of injuries that went along with their use. Are the boards to blame? Not at all. It’s the rapid change in intensity that blows tendons to pieces. The bones and connective tissues adapt slowly to loading, and by taking a week off each month, we let these tissues catch a much-needed break.
You can still go out to the crag, hit the weight room, and even catch a session on your hangboard, but look at this one week per month as a deep breath for your body, getting ready for the next big push. During this time, it’s a great idea just to do some outdoor bouldering or visit your local climbing gym for a change of pace.
This practice pays off over the long term, and helps keep your excitement high for the next training phase.
Take the Long View
Some of the greatest climbers of all time train on boards—Matty Hong, for example, just got the second ascent of Flex Luthor (5.15b) after training solely on a spray wall. The chance to go in and try the same problems across a full training phase or even season after season can’t be overstated. Being smart, and training hard some days and easy on others, is key. Taking the long view on your training will keep you from making a big mistake.
Remember that the board is a tool, and if you use it wisely, it can serve you for years to come.
Steve Bechtel is a lifelong climber, and has been coaching climbers for most of his adult life. He is the cofounder of the coaching company Climb Strong and the education director for the Performance Climbing Coach seminars. He lives with his wife, Ellen, and their children, Anabel and Sam, in Lander, Wyoming.