Hangboards are an excellent tool for training finger strength, yet the available edges are rarely the exact-right difficulty. If you're new to hangboarding, all of the edges might seem impossible. Or maybe you can hang from the largest edge, but the next size down is way too hard. Looking at the board, you might assume that the edge depths are the only variable when it comes to difficulty. You might also get the idea that training on the large edge will make you strong enough to train on smaller edges. Actually, there's more you can, and should, do to adjust the difficulty of your finger training.
Think of it this way: If you could curl a 50-pound dumbbell and wanted to improve, you wouldn't jump right up to a 100-pound dumbbell. You'd use a 55 pound dumbbell first, then a 60-pound dumbbell, etc. You'd increase the difficulty in small steps.
The same principle applies to finger strength. This article is intended for the novice hangboarder. It'll help you dial in the proper difficulty so you can train effectively, no matter how strong you are to start.
How to Reduce Difficulty
If you're new to hangboarding or lacking in finger strength, the largest edge on your board might be too challenging at bodyweight. That doesn't mean you can't hangboard, it just means that you need to make it easier. There are other situations where you might want to reduce the difficulty as well. If you've become comfortable hanging an edge, but can't hang from the next edge down, you can train on the smaller edge at an easier level and work your way up to bodyweight. Or if your project has a lot of credit card edges, you can train for the route by hanging from a half-pad edge with a lot of weight removed instead of using a big, less-route-specific edge at bodyweight. The below methods will allow you to train at the right resistance for your sessions no matter the edge.
The simplest way to reduce the load on your fingers is to place some of it on your feet. Put a chair a few feet in front of your hangboard, and start by hanging with both of your feet on the chair. You can increase the difficulty by moving the chair further out from the hangboard or by removing one foot. Higher feet will also increase the training load. (A ladder is a great option for this.) Just be sure to keep your shoulders straight down from your hands on the hangboard, so you're not inadvertently pushing yourself forward or back with your feet.
The downside of this method is that it can be difficult to keep the training load consistent and track progress. Try marking the floor with tape so you know what distance you're currently using.
Pulley systems are much more involved than the ol' chair method. They require eye bolts below your board, so this option might not work for those that are training in a doorframe or looking to save their security deposit. But for those building out a dedicated training space, pulleys are an excellent option.
For the pulley method, you'll need to install two eye bolts: one under your hangboard, and another off to the side.* Each eye bolt gets a carabiner and a pulley. Run a cord through both pulleys. Clip the end below the hangboard to your harness. Hang weights on the other end to dial in the right difficulty.
Pulleys offer an advantage over the foot-support method: the training load is measurable and consistent. When you're putting a foot on a chair, there's no good way to know exactly how much weight that foot is supporting. When you hang 20 pounds off a pulley, you know that you're reducing the load by 20 pounds. You can also observe your progress. It's motivating to see yourself improve in a tangible way.
- Your eye bolt should be offset from the center of the hangboard. The carabiner and pulley will pull at about a 45-degree angle toward the other pulley, so try to line it up so that the cord running down to your harness will be centered between the holds when this happens.
- The weights need to hang high enough that they won't hit the ground when you pull onto the board, and low enough that the knot won't jam in the pulley when you come off.
- Oval carabiners are best for attaching the pulleys. They adjust well to shifts in the direction of pull when your weight moves forward or back, and make alarming creaking noises less often as a result.
- Thinner cords reduce friction and make the whole system work better. I've found that my pulleys can stick a little at light weights, but a thin cord reduces this. Old 5 mm cord works well.
- If using a lot of weights, clip a master carabiner unto the other end of the system, and then clip weights to that on their own slings and carabiners. It's easier to add weights one by one than it is to lift a 60-pound bird's nest of dumbbells all at once.
*Why not just one pulley? A local coach told me of a client who had been training with one pulley. Upon slipping off the board, his falling body yanked the weights up on a collision course with his crotch. The injury was enough to send the climber to the hospital. So, two pulleys.
Individual Training Blocks
Training blocks, like Tension Blocks or Metolius Wood Rock Rings, are a great alternative to hangboards. While these can be suspended and hung from like a traditional hangboard, they can also be attached to weights or a cable-style weight machine. Just attach weight to the block, and then lift/pull from the desired edge. Pretty simple. This is a great option for lighter loads.
Training blocks have some advantages. Those with shoulder issues will prefer these over deadhangs. They're portable. They can be used at light loads to warm up for hangboarding. In some cases, like with Tension Blocks, they're excellent for pinch training. They also provide consistent resistance. While your own fluctuating bodyweight can throw off your hangboard routine from one day to the next, a 30-pound dumbbell on a training block always weighs 30-pounds.
Training blocks also have disadvantages. Without access to a commercial gym, you might have difficulty loading them with higher weights. Cable machines tend to be the best option here. Heavy dumbbells work too. Lifting a nest of dumbbells can be unwieldy. Consider removing fingers as in the method described below to train with less weights if this is your only option.
How to Increase Difficulty
If you're just too dang strong, but want to get even stronger, you'll need to find a way to make hangboarding harder. (I don't feel sorry for you.) You might also consider these options to build up to hanging smaller edges. If you're competent on a 25 mm edge, but can't hang from a 20 mm edge, you can either reduce the difficulty of a 20 mm edge using the methods listed above, or you can increase the difficulty of the 25 mm edge to continue improving.
This is the obvious solution. When you can finish your hangboard workouts consistently at bodyweight, it's time to add more weight. The easiest way to accomplish this is by wearing a harness and clipping weights to the belay loop. With weight plates, you can thread a sling through the hole. If you're using dumbbells, girth hitch slings around the handle.
You don't need weight plates or dumbbells, though. Anything will work. For example, a full 32-ounce water bottle weighs about two pounds. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds. You can load a backpack with whatever you have on hand and clip that to your belay loop (just be sure the backpack is strong enough that it won't tear under the load). You don't even need to know how much the items weigh. Start by putting one book in a backpack and clip it to your belay loop. When you need more weight, add another book. As long as you're consistent, it'll work.
Remove Fingers and/or a Hand
This is the low-tech way of increasing hangboard difficulty incrementally, but it's just as effective as adding weight. When an edge becomes too easy, hang it with one less finger. Start by removing your pinkie finger from one hand. Alternate which hand you remove the finger from for each set. When that becomes too easy, remove both pinkies. When that becomes too easy, try removing one index finger at a time. Once you can finish workouts comfortably with both index fingers removed, start removing two fingers from one hand at a time. You'll likely be ready to move on to a smaller edge well before you're down to one-finger hangs.
Someday, when you're a super crusher, you may want to drop down to single-hand hangs, and then start dropping fingers from there. Using this method, you can create workouts at just about any difficulty you could need using a small, minimalist hangboard, like the pictured Metolius Prime Rib, without the need for additional tools. As long as you can't hang the smallest edge on your board from one pinkie, you've still got work to do.
The main drawback to this method, in my experience, is that it can be a little harder to execute than it sounds. When I'm pulling as hard as I can with three fingers, that fourth finger will start curling as well and it's tough to keep it out of the way.
Similar to pulling on pockets, this method increases the risk of injury to the lumbrical muscles in your hand. I learned this the hard way last summer when training pocket grips on a hangboard. My fingers were strong enough to complete a workout hanging from my ring and pinkie fingers, but my lumbrical muscles were not. The result was a minor injury that nagged me the rest of the season. Pocket Change: Adapting the Way You Pull on Pockets by Matt DeStefano at theclimbingdoctor.com does a good job of explaining the risk and how to mitigate it.