Thursday, July 5, 2018

Fingerboard Training Guide (III). Program design and Periodization of MaxHangs, IntHangs and SubHangs. Samples of MaxHangs training programs

Versión en español

Previous entries:
I. Dead-hangs training guide. Preliminary evaluation.
The first blog entry in this series. If you need a refresher, here it is.

II. Methodology 
The methods, naming conventions and load management were the topic of the second post. You can find it here.
*Note: Most of the times in my entries I have been talking about MED or minimal edge and progressing in smaller edges, but I have to clarify that we would be referring to edges when talking about half-crimp (and also open hand) training. But in reality we could use these same proposal methods to work on every grip type we are interested to enhance: Open hand, sloper strength and pinch strength. Depending on which training goal we chose, we would be talking about edge size or more generally, difficulty of the hold. For instance, if we want to enhance our open hand grip strength, we should choose edges, but these should be more rounded edges, or with softer edges, compared to half-crimp. If we want to work on sloper strength, we would use balls or slopers of different difficulty (slope and diameter) for adjusting the intensity. Lately, for working on our pinch strength, we could use a non-hanging device such as pinch blocks of different width or depth. Only for certain climbers profile could be recommended certain types of hanging or bodyweight exercises (see this entry) like dead-hangs or others. (paragraph added on 12 December, 2018)

III. Periodization
Today’s content. What most people are waiting for, right? I’m sure you are eager to get to the meat of it and have your questions answered:

how many days per week do I work my dead-hangs?
is it better at the start, the middle or the end of the session?
what method do I use, with[out] added weight, intermittent?
do I start with longer or shorter hang times?
how many sets?
if my objectives include strength and endurance, do I start with strength or do I train both simultaneously?

Let’s tackle one bit at a time.

3.1 Training Frequency
For improving: 2 days/week, 48-72 h recovery between sessions.

Maintenance: once you get to a reasonable level, 1 day/week can be enough to keep your gains.

In case you train up to 5-6 days per week, or if you don’t climb on the weekends you can do 3 hangs sessions per week, but the 48-72 h rest between sessions is still compulsory.

During impact microcycles or extended periods using high loads, leave 72 h between sessions to facilitate recovery. The same can be beneficial in these cases:

- When you are under high stress, or if your daily job is very physical.
- If you notice that you can’t reach the same absolute load (hold depth/difficulty or weight) from one session to the next without apparent reason; also if your focus is on high-quality training, prioritizing either the dead-hangs or the rest of the session contents.
- In case your recovery ability is compromised for any reason, or you notice that your performance regularly suffers in the second session of the week.

Anyway, you need to review the way you train/climb the rest of the days, if your diet and sleep habits are right (Chennaoui et al., 2015; Fullagar et al., 2015; Halson 2014). Everything  counts, so you should control the factors that influence you fatigue, cognitive performance, motivation and, critically, those that can end in overuse syndromes or overtraining.

3.2. Order in the session and in the microcycle
3.2.1. Where to place it in the session
A maximal dead-hangs workout (MaxHangs, see the glossary here) should always be the first content of the session. Intermittent dead-hangs (IntHangs) and SubHangs also work better at the start of the session, unless the main content for the day is boulder, in which case the hangs will be after it, and before other climbing-based [power-]endurance methods if there are any.

3.2.2. Order in the microcycle or week
If you train 4 days per week: place MaxHangs on strength/boulder days. However, if you are a boulderer, I would recommend you to dedicate training days only to fingerboarding together with any other strength & conditioning content that didn't involve fingers and others days to climbing-based workouts. For IntHangs choose power-endurance/endurance days. This is valid for linear, nonlinear or undulating periodizations (see next section).

If you train 2 days per week: follow the rule set in 3.2.1.

3.3 The Training Plan: How to periodize or progress from week to week

You are already familiar with the principle of progression, one of the three principles every training plan must honor (with specificity and personalization); the idea is to apply increasing, strong (but not excessive) stimuli, spaced enough for recovery, aiming to gain performance while avoiding injury or overtraining (more correctly, non-functional overreaching).

Our strategy will consist on manipulating volume, intensity and/or rest between repetitions or sets, which is another way of saying ‘periodizing’. The variable we will be tuning depends on our goals:

Maximal grip strength, through neural aspects, or structural developments (hypertrophy, capillarization, etc.). For more on these adaptations look at this entry.
Grip strength-endurance, when the objective is to extend the time to fatigue on progressively more difficult holds, or recovering quickly between successive high-intensity grips.

In short, we are looking at different schemes for MaxHangs, IntHangs or SubHangs.

3.3.1. Progressively changing the number of sets: The basic method for planning MaxHangs, IntHangs and SubHangs training

This is a staple of periodization, and I propose you use it when starting with ANY of the methods, up to the point where playing with this parameter does not yield further gains. It’s simple:
Choose a method, and change the number of sets along 4 to 8 weeks: add some sets during weeks 1-4, then rest for 1-2 weeks and do another 4-week cycle increasing the number of sets. The body needs time to undergo the necessary physiological adaptations, and we need to keep the other parameters fixed while they take place. This way the physiological stimulus does not change and we get the desired effect. According to your training experience and level I suggest the following:

Whenever we use a new method, for any level, it is advisable to start with 2 sets to learn the method and/or exercise correctly, controlling the load in a facilitated manner. This approach is also recommended when restarting training after holidays, rest periods or some injuries. Some patterns and their explanation:

a) 2-3-4-4 in a 4-week cycle, which means:
Week 1: 2 sets; Week 2: 3 sets; Week 3: 4 sets; Week 4: 4 sets

b) 2-3-4-4 :1-2; 3-3-4-4 for two 4-week cycles:
Week 1: 2 sets; Week 2: 3 sets; Week 3: 4 sets; Week 4: 4 sets
Week 5 or Weeks 5 & 6: don’t do dead-hangs
Week 7: 3 sets; Week 8: 3 sets; Week 9: 4 sets; Week 10: 4 sets

3-4-4-5 : 1; 3-4-5-5

We can reach up to 8 sets of MaxHangs during a 6-week cycle if we rest for about 2 weeks after.

In the case of IntHangs and SubHangs it’s possible to link up to 8 weeks (3-4-5-5-3-4-5-5) followed by a compulsory rest from dead-hangs 2-3 weeks long.

3.3.2. Follow-up systems to keep progressing
We designed our 4-8 week plan and successfully completed it, what are our alternatives at this point? There are several:

a) Repeat the same initial plan because you consider it still has potential to yield positive results.
b) Implement a qualitative change:
- Using a different method; or
- Keeping the method and changing other parameter: volume, intensity or rest duration. Examples:

In the IntHangs methods it is common, every 4-8 weeks, to alter the pause between repetitions, then the pause between sets and later the number of repetitions per set; in the long term we can change the hanging duration for each repetition. The decision must take into account if we want to promote intensity (using smaller/more challenging holds -in case you are training sloper strength or heavier weights), adjusting volume and pauses in order to sustain the high load along the workout, seeking hypertrophy and high-intensity endurance; or instead we might focus on volume, which leads to metabolic changes, oxidative capacity and substrate buildup associated to endurance.

In SubHangs we have two options: we can a) keep the pause between repetitions and the intensity (edge or *hold size/difficulty or added weight) and extend the hanging duration for each set in 4-week cycles, or b) use a fixed hanging time and hold/weight while shortening week by week the rest between sets along said 4 weeks.

Finally MaxHangs, where varying the intensity is the way to go; as the intensity goes up the hanging time or the margin to failure go down, also in 4-8 week periods.

*Note: Most of the times in my entries I have talked about size edge or smaller edges when talking about half-crimp training, but in reality we can and we should use these methods to work on every grip type: open hand, sloper strength and pinch strength. For such training goals we should use more rounded edges, with softer edges, compared to half-crimp for open hand training; balls or slopers of different difficulty (slope and diameter) and pinch blocks of different width or depth for the pinch grip workouts (using dead-hangs for improving strength for this latter grip type wouldn't be recommendable except for certain climbers profile).

Let’s have a closer look at each strategy. Progressing in training intensity
In maximal strength methods this is crucial when the aim is neural development; in MaxHangs this is achieved with smaller or more difficult holds or heavier added weight (which correspond to shorter hanging time) and/or reduced margin before fatigue or muscle failure.

When we are working our endurance with the IntHangs and SubHangs methods we have two possibilities:
a) extend the time to fatigue for a fixed absolute intensity (edge depth or added weight). In other words, try to make this absolute intensity into a lighter relative load (a lower percentage of our maximal strength).
b) maintain the relative intensity with moderately long hanging times; to achieve this we need to choose smaller edges/more difficult holds or add more weight as our endurance improves. This way the relative intensity is stable while the absolute intensity goes up.

Time for zooming further in, starting with the margin. When is it advisable to modify the margin before failure?
For the MaxHangs method I suggest altering this value if you started with 5+ seconds of margin, and have used it for at least 4-8 weeks. The rest of parameters stay the same while the margin would go from 5 to 3 seconds. The following example shows how this translates into a change in intensity:

If you did MED hangs x 15”(5) :3’ for 4-8 weeks (2-3-4-4, 3-4-4-5, etc.) then switch to:
MED hangs x 15”(3) :3’; the holds used in the previous cycle allowed to hang for 20” (even though the hanging time was ‘just’ 15”), but we now must choose a smaller edge/more difficult hold because the potential hanging time is 18”: the absolute intensity is higher, right?

Those among you familiar with 3-second margins, which places you in the intermediate level group, can experiment with 2 and 1-second margins in some cycle. But don’t lose sight of the fact that longer hanging times and mid or mid-high intensities (from 10 seconds onward) combined with margins shorter than 3” put you really close to muscle failure and are comparatively more exhausting. The same three-second margin is harder in a 12-second dead-hang than in a 6-second one. In the former case you’ll probably have to change to a deeper hold or remove some weight as the session progresses. When the margin is too short the expected neural effects can be compromised while metabolic and structural changes are favored, in the form of hypertrophy or enhanced substrate repletion, even if we respect the recovery periods between sessions and mix them correctly with the rest of contents.

No margin or failure:

Failure or near failure is desirable at the end of a IntHangs or SubHangs session when the pause between sets is less than 2 minutes. When the pause is longer, up to 3 minutes, we want to reach failure in the last repetition of each set (IntHangs) or at the end of each set (SubHangs).
In the case of MaxHangs, as we already mentioned, reaching failure is discouraged in principle. Nonetheless, if you haven’t had any previous bad experiences in this regard, you can experiment with maximal strength and failure; occasionally, for one repetition, session or even a cycle, you can test your limits or provoke some impact in your training. Sufficient recovery for that kind of effort must be enforced. If you are interested in fatigue control I recommend you read the recent article by Morán-Navarro et al. (2017). When should I employ the hanging time for intensity management?
Being consistent with my philosophy of “using the lighter stimulus that still causes adaptation” and “tune one variable at a time”, when the goal is to promote maximum strength via neural improvement it would seem logical to increase the intensity (which implies shortening the hanging time), but only if we have already played with the margin to failure according to the guidelines exposed above. This said, there are special cases where we can skip the margin modification altogether and directly alter the dead-hang duration:

a) When we need to keep a margin of 5-10 seconds, like we would do with young athletes and during the early recovery from an injury. One example:

- We have finished a couple of weeks of MED Hangs x 15” (3) :3’. This is the now familiar 4-8 week planning; we could then switch to:
- MED hangs x 12” (3) :3’ for another 4-8 weeks, and later even progress to:
- MED hangs x 10” (3) :3’

b) In the case of SubHangs we aim to extend the hang duration (lowering the relative intensity to maintain certain absolute intensity); this means sticking to an edge depth/hold difficulty for MED or to an added weight for MAW, like:

Weeks 1 to 4: 3-4-5-6 set x MED SubHangs x 20” ;2’
Weeks 5 to 8: 3-4-5-6 set x MED SubHangs x 30” ;2’

c) When designing a IntHangs plan we have just learned that it’s preferable to start by changing other parameters in each 4-8 week cycle: shortening pauses, then adding more repetitions/set and later focusing on high-intensity by shortening the hanging time like this:

Weeks 1 to 4: 3-4-5-5 sets x 4 reps x MED IntHangs x 10” :5”/1’
Weeks 1 to 4: 3-4-5-5 sets x 5 reps x MED IntHangs x 10” :5”/1’
Weeks 9-10 rest
Weeks 11 to 14: 3-4-5-5 sets x 4 reps x MED IntHangs x 7” :5”/1’
Weeks 15 to 18: 3-4-5-5 sets x 5 reps x MED IntHangs x 7” :5”/1’

3.3.3. Progression by modification of the break between sets or repetitions
You’ll be right to think that this strategy makes sense in the context of IntHangs, SubHangs or other strength-endurance methods (maximal strength needs complete or near complete pauses by definition). But we should not forget that even in endurance methods the rest periods must make it possible to sustain the average intensity that we want throughout the workout. Changing the rest period length in IntHangs and SubHangs

IntHangs: we can, as an example, start with a 4-week cycle where the pause between repetitions is 30”. The next 4 weeks we cut it to 20”, and later we would do another cycle with 10-second pauses between repetitions. The future progression we could start making the recovery between sets shorter, going from 2 minutes to 90” to 1’.

In SubHangs we started extending hang times; now, perhaps a season or a year later, the edge depth/hold difficulty or weight will still be fixed and our goal will switch to  briefer recovery times. Example: in the initial 4-week cycles the pause was 2’ and the hanging times 20”, 30” and 45”. Now we are in a new phase and the hang durations can go from 20” to 30” but, additionally, the time between sets will be 90”, 1’ and, in the last 4-week cycle, 30”. MaxHangs and recovery
In this method we have already stated that making the rest interval length shorter is not terribly useful; the opposite is true, though, and we can rest for more than 3 minutes in the following situations:

a) When we realize that, whatever the cause, we don’t feel recovered in 3 minutes.
b) When both the absolute and relative loads are high, especially if the hang time is 8 seconds or less.
c) When we feel extra strong and during high-intensity/competition microcycles.

If the categories above don’t apply, the standard pause between sets is 3’; in case you are learning a new exercise, device or method and, thus, are using loads much lighter than the ‘real’ training ones, a 2 minutes rest would be acceptable, you have a choice there.

3.4. Designing a Training Plan: choosing a periodization model and sequencing methods
When deciding which method to choose for each case you first need to be familiar with the effects of the tools available. there is information about a study that compared the effects on grip strength of different hangboard programs, and in this one, the influence on grip endurance. To learn more about intermittent dead-hangs you can visit this blog post and this last one shows why it is better to start with a method were no added weight is used (MED hangs) if you are new to hangboarding, and when you could start with added weight (MAW hangs).

In general, if we seek long-term gains, the way to obtain greater and more sustainable improvements is to periodically change the stimulus by tuning one variable or other. This is what periodization means. We are going to achieve this via a wide range of intensities and hang durations and/or alternating or sequencing methods.

3.4.1. The most usual periodization model: Linear
In the short- and mid-term, most of our periodization proposals can be considered as linear. We are using this scheme when every four to eight weeks of MaxHangs we shorten  one or two seconds the duration of each set, increasing both the absolute and the relative intensity. The same goes for IntHangs when we tune the recovery times while keeping the same total effort duration (sets x reps x repetition duration).

Reverse periodization is another example of the linear pattern, like we do in SubHangs: the absolute intensity (edge size or hold difficulty/weight) is fixed and the hang time goes up every 4-8 weeks.

This kind of periodization is more suited for those who plan to achieve an optimal performance at an specific date or period and is also the most used in sport periodization.

When we zoom out and start looking at the long-term I propose we use a nonlinear pattern, though. There are a variety of schemes and terms, but we can point to two of the best known ones: Undulating (daily or weekly) and Block periodization. In a nutshell, they consist of frequent oscillations in intensity, with a periodicity that can go from monthly to daily.

My suggestion is choosing a linear pattern the first year we start a method and  then switching to a nonlinear one. Let’s see how this works.

3.4.2. Nonlinear models: Undulating and Block Periodization
The novelty and variety these schemes offer make them suitable for:

Athletes with extended experience with linear periodization that do not progress anymore.
Stretches of time when the goal is to maintain the previously acquired level, or when the goal is not reaching peak performance at a specific point in time but to perform at an average level for some time (this is habitual in team sports).
It also makes sense when we value a more relaxed approach to training that prioritizes richness and variety of inputs.
A few examples:

a) Daily undulating periodization:
Mondays: MaxHangs; Wednesdays: IntHangs; Fridays: SubHangs.

b) Weekly undulating periodization:
Week 1: MaxHangs; Week 2: IntHangs; Week 3: SubHangs.

c) Undulating periodization oscillating the load every two weeks:
For intermediate level climbers: Weeks 1-2: SubHangs x 20”; Weeks 3-4 : MED MaxHangs x 15” (4); Weeks 5-6: MAW MaxHangs on a 18 mm edge x 10” (4) .

Turning the intensity up and down in 2-week cycles: from 20” to 10”, then 5”, 8” and so on.

I particularly like block periodization and use it a lot because it fits neatly with the others contents of the mesocycle and my vision of the macrocycle. A 12-15 week-long macrocycle is divided into blocks of 4 to 8 microcycles, each one aimed at some aspect of a quality, the idea being for all aspects to come together at the end of the macrocycle. For example:

- Block 1: 4-8 weeks of MaxHangs for maximum strength. Block 2: 8 weeks of IntHangs or SubHangs to work endurance. Block 3: rest from dead-hangs if it is a competition cycle, or 2-3 weeks of MaxHangs with shorter hang times to recover some maximum strength.

3.4.3. Sequencing and combining methods
Generally speaking, MaxHangs allow us to gain strength via neural changes, while IntHangs improve our endurance and also have certain effect on strength (possibly via hypertrophy). MaxHangs have shown some influence on endurance as well. However, these effects depend on personal characteristics, and we will explain this now.

I’ll soon be presenting at the 4th IRCRA Congress a study conducted by myself where participants with a lower level of strength would gain endurance on an 11 mm edge after performing 4-weeks of MaxHangs, while stronger ones (> 30kg for 5 seconds on MAW test on 15 mm) tended to gain little or even lose endurance after the same intervention, probably due to the fact that more trained athletes need a longer training program or higher stimulus, or more varied to experiment strength gains (Deschenes & Kraemer, 2002; Häkkinen et al., 1985; Mangine et al., 2015; 2018). In any case, with an endurance goal in mind you may opt for IntHangs directly if you fit in the latter group or propose a longer program (> 8 weeks). While if you think to belong to the former there’s a potential advantage to first gaining some strength through MaxHangs -even if your goal is endurance- and then proceed to IntHangs. The immediate result is that you will work your IntHangs on smaller edges or more challenging holds, and what climber doesn’t want to grip a succession of tiny or terrible holds?

My research also gives some pointers regarding the length of each program:
- Those new to MaxHangs can expect benefits in just 4 weeks, but strength will keep going up for 8 weeks, or even further if the hanging time is reduced (from 15 to 12 and 10 seconds, and even 7 and 5 seconds).
- The minimum recommended length of a IntHangs cycle is 8 weeks as was explained in this previous blog.

No matter what method we are dealing with, its marginal effect decreases with time, up to the point where we plateau. This is specially true of MaxHangs with times shorter than 10 seconds. Be prepared to detect this trend and implement changes before it happens (by now you won’t be surprised if I tell you that switching every 8 weeks is a good rule of thumb). At certain point, though, we have to realize that maintaining certain level can be considered a success; the body does not have an unlimited ability to adapt. In the context of strength there are facets that go beyond maximum force: explosive strength is important and at times we’ll have to make room for specific exercises like jumping to edges, explosive dead-hangs and campus board.

3.5. Samples of MaxHangs training programs
At the start of this series we noted that the examples that follow must be taken as a template; they don’t have to be completed or done in the order they are shown. The information we have provided will allow you to:

- Choosing one cycle and repeating it while it still yields some benefit, the default when you are new to a method or start from a low level for some reason.
- Picking one method and sticking with it for one cycle, for example 8 weeks of MED or MAW (instead of 4 wk MAWt + 4 wk MED).
- Shaping the programs to suit your preferences and experience, playing with one variable like hang time, number of sets, etc.
- Applying different linear and nonlinear periodization patterns.

And remember that in the long run there is no “magic bullet”meaning magic load or method, and the stimuli need to be varied periodically and keep in mind the “minimal effective dose” rule. Review all the info if necessary.

3.5.1. MaxHangs planning proposal for lower levels of finger strength climbers and beginners in fingerboarding
Clic to enlarge
3.5.2. MaxHangs planning proposal for those familiar with hangboarding and climbers with medium level of finger strength
Clic to enlarge
3.5.3. MaxHangs planning proposal for expert, high-level hangboarders
Clic to enlarge

3.6. Tips for reducing the incidence of overuse syndrome and plateauing, a for monitoring your training
Signs of excessive load while working out: raising the shoulders, elbows, torso or legs, and too much tension anywhere in the body.
Signs of excessive fatigue that should convince you of aborting, and delaying the session one or two days: difference >2 mm in edge depth or >25 % in added weight from the previous session. Smaller, occasional differences can in principle be due to normal fatigue and require just adjusting the load.
Signs of inadequate load progression: needing an easier edge or added weight for >2 sessions in a row; pain in fingers, wrists, elbows or neck; reduced performance in general. Revise your planning and do lighter workouts while you figure it out.
Start with the plan for beginners after your holidays, when you finished re-conditioning after an injury and, of course, if you are a beginner. Rest for 1-2 weeks after every 4-week MaxHangs cycle or 8 weeks of IntHangs.
In advanced phases and long cycles rest for 2 weeks after 8 weeks of MaxHangs or 16 of IntHangs, and observe two or more one-month no-hangs periods every year.
Keep a training log: exercises, edge sizes/hold difficulty and weights, perceived fatigue and progression, incidents, etc.; it helps monitoring your process, self-knowledge an motivation.
Signs of an effective planning: being able to hold smaller edges/more difficult holds or heavier weights as the cycle goes on. If your evolution feels a bit slow remember that the higher your starting level is the slower and smaller the gains will be, and vice versa.

And this ends today’s post. Thank you very much for your motivation, I hope you com back for more as I follow with this series, which will feature IntHangs and SubHangs programs as well as nonlinear periodization examples where MaxHangs, IntHangs and SubHangs will be combined.

Fingerboard training Guidelines: Condensed version of the info in this series in format poster
The training guidelines that are provided with the Progression and Transgression hangboards  in format poster (330 x 483 mm) contain a condensed version of the info in this series, plus IntHangs programs yet to be published. These guides are now also available separately from the boards. You can order them now at Its price is 18€ if you live in Europe, and 20€ for the rest of countries.
"Progression hangboard training guide". Indicated for beginners and lower-level in finger strength climbers
"Transgression hangboard training guide". Indicated for intermediate- lo higher-level in finger strength climbers


Fingerboard Training Guide (II). Maximal grip Strength and Endurance Methods and Load Training management
Fingerboard training guide (I). Preliminary evaluation
Maximal hangs, Intermittent Hangs (Repeaters) or a Combination. Which 8-week program is more effective for developing grip strength in rock climbers?
Why do intermittent dead hangs?
Comparison on the effects on finger endurance of Max Hangs vs. Int Hangs vs. a combination. (ahead of print in Journal of Human Kinetics).
Some Finger Training Instructional Videos
Intermittent Dead Hangs Programs for Your Smartphone

  • Deschenes, M. R., & Kraemer, W. J. (2002). Performance and Physiologic. American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 81(Suppl), S3–S16.
  • Chennaoui, M., Arnal, P. J., Sauvet, F., & Léger, D. (2015). Sleep and exercise: A reciprocal issue? Sleep Medicine Reviews, 20(June), 59–72.
  • Fullagar, H. H. K., Skorski, S., Duffield, R., Hammes, D., Coutts, A. J., & Meyer, T. (2015). Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise. Sports Medicine, 45(2), 161–186.
  • Mangine, G. T., Hoffman, J. R., Gonzalez, A. M., Townsend, J. R., Wells, A. J., Jajtner, A. R., … Stout, J. R. (2015). The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiological Reports, 3(8), e12472. 
  • Mangine, G. T., Gonzalez, A. M., Townsend, J. R., Adam, J., Beyer, K. S., Miramonti, A. A., & Ratamess, N. A. (2018). Influence of Baseline Muscle Strength and Size Measures on Training Adaptations in Resistance-trained Men. International Journal of Exercise Science, 11(4), 198–213.
  • Morán‑Navarro, R., Pérez, C. E., Mora‑Rodríguez, R., de La Cruz‑Sánchez, E., González‑badillo, J. J., Sánchez‑Medina, L., Pallarés, G. (2017). Time course of recovery following resistance training leading or not to failure. Eur J Appl Physiol, 117(12), 2387–2399.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Fingerboard Training Guide (II). Maximal grip Strength and Endurance Methods and Load Training management

Versión en español

I. The current state of affairs: Preliminary Evaluation
This topic was addressed in the first part of this series. You can read it here.

II. Methodology

2.1. Naming Conventions and Training Methods
In case you aren’t aware of the terminology we will explain it through examples of each method.

2.1.1. Maximal dead hangs on the minimum edge depth (MED hangs), no added weight.

3-5 x MED Hangs x 5”-15” (1-5) :3’-5’

EXAMPLE: 2 x MED Hangs  x 12” (3) :3’

The first number (2) indicates the number of sets; after the “x” we write the name of the method or protocol and exercise (MED = minimum edge depth; Hangs = dead hangs); what follows is the duration of each dead hang in seconds and the effort level (EL) or margin in parentheses; last is the rest interval length indicated by the colon. It reads like this:

“Perform 2 sets of dead hangs on the smallest edge that would allow you to hang for 15 seconds max, but do just 12 to keep a margin of 3 seconds; rest 3 minutes between sets”.
Traning MaxHangs MED on Transgression board. Photo: Javipec.

This term was proposed by González-Badillo & Gorostiaga in 1993 and was called ‘carácter del esfuerzo’ in the original Spanish. Some English-speaking authors like Schoenfeld (2016) have used alternative terms like ‘intensity of effort’ to refer to the same concept.

The particular layout we use to describe a session puts the EL between parentheses, to the right of the effort duration for each set. The effort level tells us how close to our limit we get, the difference between the # of seconds or reps that we could possibly do and how many we actually do. In other words, how many seconds (or repetitions) we leave before muscle failure. The closer to our limit, the higher the EL and the more fatigued we get. We can also think of it as a margin, buffer, distance to failure or ‘repetitions in reserve’ (RIR; Steele et col., 2017).
When we are working our maximal strength with methods that seek neural adaptations through the use of high loads, the effort level is one of the parameters that will help us monitor and adjust the load. The reason is twofold:

  1. It has been shown that leaving a margin yields similar results than reaching failure as far as these methods are concerned, with the bonus of reduced risk of overuse and injury, and faster recovery between sessions (Davies et al., 2017; Morán-Navarro et al., 2017; Sampson & Groeller, 2016).
  2. Additionally, controlling the intensity of each set via the margin ensures we achieve the desired results in contrast to reaching failure in each set (Sánchez-Medina, 2010). The latter modality makes us remove some added weight or choose a deeper edge for each successive set due to fatigue. The physiological consequences (lactate, uric acid and ammonia buildup) are associated to the glycolytic pathway and phosphagen depletion (González-Badillo & Sánchez-Medina, 2011), which would trade the neural adaptations we seek for others, conducive to changes in endurance instead.

The practical application of this concept in MaxHangs is shown in this video.

2.1.2. Maximal dead hangs with added weight (MAW hangs)

In this method we start by choosing one edge size:
3-5  MAW Hangs x 8mm-20mm x 5”-15” (1-5) :3’-5’
Only Babette Roy can train weighted hangs on that edge size. Gym: Allez up centre d'escalade (Montreal, Canada). Hangboard: Transgression board. Source: Instagram. Photo courtesy of Babette.

EXAMPLE: 3 x MAW Hangs  x 18mm x 10” (3) :3’

And that reads: Repeat 3 times (sets) the dead hangs exercise with a 18mm-deep edge, adding enough extra weight to last 13 seconds, but hanging just for 10 seconds to honor the 3-second margin; recover for 3 minutes between sets.
This figure helps learning the MaxHangs nomenclature. It is part of the Transgression and Progression training guides, that will be available for purchase separate from the fingerboards shortly.

2.1.3. Intermittent dead hangs (IntHangs) on the minimum edge or with added weight

Check this blog post to learn more about this method.
No added weight:

3-5 x 4-5 x  MED IntHangs x 10”-7” :3”-30”/2’-1’

Performed with added weight (advanced, ample training experience needed):

3-5 x 4-5 x MAW IntHangs x 10mm-18mm x 7”-10” :3”-30”/2’-1’

EXAMPLE: 3 x4 x MED MaxHangs x 10” :20”/2’
The long version: Perform 3 sets, comprised of 4 repetitions each, of 10-second dead hangs with a 20-second pause between repetitions and 2 minutes between sets; the edge will be the smallest that allows to complete all the repetitions.

You’ll have noticed the lack of a margin before failure indication, but this is by design because here we want to reach failure in the last repetition of the last set, but not before. To achieve that, we have to learn to manage the intensity by choosing the edge depth carefully, based on our perception of effort.
The basic nomenclature for the MED IntHangs method.

2.1.4. Submaximal dead hangs (SubHangs), on the smallest edge or with added weight
This is the first appearance of Submaximal dead hangs (SubHangs) in this blog. The configuration is similar to that of MaxHangs, with the difference that longer hanging times have effects on grip endurance, and presumably on maximum strength via hypertrophy. Your hangboarding workout in this context requires the optimal combination of mechanical tension and metabolic stress (Schoenfeld, 2016), so I recommend pauses between sets longer than 1 minute to maintain the intensity (edge size or added weight) reasonably stable throughout the session.

When opting for MED the edge will obviously be much bigger than the MaxHangs one; as for MAW, I’d only prescribe them to someone with a high or elite level very familiar with advanced finger training.

4-8 x MED Hangs x 20”-45” :30”-2’
4-8 x MAW Hangs x 14mm-20mm x 20”-45” :30”-2’ (really advanced method)

It is advisable to start with a longer pause, 2 or even 3 minutes, and shorten it step by step, down to 90” or 30” while keeping the hang duration or the edge size constant; alternatively you can increase the hang time and keep the pause unchanged. Which one suits your needs better? Your goals will inform your choice: the need to have a quick recovery between efforts or hold the grip on a particular hold size for the longest possible time.

2.2 Load Training Management
It is vital to control the training load day by day, exercise by exercise and of course, set by set. Intensity is the key variable in strength training. As climbers this translates into the need to make sure the hold size or the added weight are in tune with the pre-set method requirements. In short: honoring the programmed hanging time and margin in order to obtain the desired training effects.

2.2.1. Determining and controlling intensity in the MaxHangs method
Before choosing the load for the first set we must warm-up, doing 3-4 dead hangs if you have already done some climbing on the wall, or 6-8 otherwise. Other factors like individual characteristics and temperature can condition warm-up volume. These initial sets will be progressively harder, from 50% to 90% of the training added weight or hold depth; the last set helps us guessing the load required to comply with the effort duration and the margin for the day, and we should get near failure in this set to accomplish it. The way I see it, you only need this procedure the first time you start performing a method.

Once we have a baseline, we will employ this approach in all subsequent sets and training days: if you feel you won’t comply with the EL, the solution is to add or remove added weight as necessary, or change to an easier or harder edge in order to keep a constant load. Guessing your time to failure seems difficult and not very precise, but it doesn’t take long to learn it, and accuracy improves with experience, based on my own experience and recent research (Steele et col., 2017). Training always to failure does not require this cognitive investment, but as we have already mentioned the drawbacks are not worth it (Morán-Navarro et col., 2017).

Suppose your planning for today prescribes hanging for 12 seconds off an edge that you could hold for 16 seconds (4” margin), and you have chosen a 20mm edge; warming up or in the first set you realize your maximum time would be 13 seconds (1” margin), so you change to a 22 or 24mm edge. The process is the same in MAW but adding or removing weights (2-5 kg depending on body weight and perception).

Here you can watch a video on handling the load in a MAW Hangs workoutand in a MED Hangs workout. Body posture and general execution are important to avoid injury. The right technique is shown in this video.

2.2.2. Determining and controlling Intensity in IntHangs and SubHangs
Before choosing the load for the first set we must warm-up, doing 3-5 dead hangs if you have already done some climbing on the wall, or 8-10 otherwise, Other factors like individual characteristics and temperature can condition warm-up volume. These initial sets will be progressively harder, from 50% to 90% of the training load, adding weights or reducing edge depth. The effort duration will be similar to the training one, for example doing sets of 10 seconds with 10-second long pauses for IntHangs and longer, or around 30-second hangs for SubHangs. The last warm-up set should help you guess the initial weight or hold size for the day, which is not set in stone and can change from one set to the next.

Having determined this initial training load we should repeat the above procedure in each set, each session. The goal here is to end the session with failure, and guessing the right weight or edge from the get go is unlikely, making corrections on the fly to finish all the reps and sets (IntHangs) or all the sets (SubHangs) is part of the game. Failing too soon or not failing at all will have a different effect than the one we were aiming for when designing the exercise.

2.3. What hangboard should I choose?
When we focus on constantly controlling the intensity and personalizing the training, access to a variety of weights and edge sizes makes our life a lot easier; the Progression and Transgression boards have you covered, but there are other options for different kinds of holds, like slopers. A cheaper alternative is having several wooden rungs with varying depths, or building your own adjustable edge or adjustable sloper (see pictures below).
The TRANSGRESSION board offers 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14 and 18 mm edges.
Source: Surfaces for Climbing
The PROGRESSION board offers 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24 mm edges. Fuente: Surfaces for Climbing
 If you are on a budget, you can build and install the edge sizes you need. Source:
These DIY contraptions are cheap and use recycled materials but still allow you to change how hard the hold is to grip, making it possible to manage the load and carry out a progressive and personalized training program. Left: our adjustable sloper; right: the adjustable edge, built to test and train strength on edges for my first research works in 2004.

The width of the device/edges should be around 50 cm, so you can place your hands at the distance of your elbows or a bit wider and thus decrease the chance of overload due to excessive pronation in the pronator teres, wrist or elbow.

Remember that training the open hand grip with 1, 2 or 3 fingers calls for holds with rounder lips. If your edges are long enough you can make some sections blunter with a file or sandpaper, leaving a more aggressive profile in other parts to use the half crimp.


  • Davies, T, Orr, R, Halaki, M, and Hackett, D. (2016). Effect of Training Leading to Repetition Failure on Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sport Med 46: 487–502, 2016.
  • Sánchez-Medina, L., & González-Badillo, J. J. (2011). Velocity loss as an indicator of neuromuscular fatigue during resistance training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, (22), 1725–1734.
  • González-Badillo, J. J., Marques, M. C., Sánchez-Medina, L.  (2011). The Importance of Movement Velocity as a Measure to Control Resistance Training Intensity. Journal of Human Kinetics, 29 (Special Issue), 15–19. 
  • González-Badillo, J.J., & Gorostiaga, E.. (1993).  Fundamentos del entrenamiento de la fuer za. Aplicación al alto rendimiento deportivo.
  • Morán‑navarro, R., Pérez, C. E., Mora‑rodríguez, R., De La Cruz‑sánchez, E., González‑Badillo, J. J., Sánchez‑Medina, L., … Pallarés, G. (2017). Time course of recovery following resistance training leading or not to failure. Eur J Appl Physiol, 117(12), 2387–2399.
  • Sampson, J. A. & Groeller, H. (2016). Is repetition failure critical for the development of muscle hypertrophy and strength? Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 26(4), 375–383.
  • Schoenfeld, B. (2016). Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy. Human Kinetics.
  • Steele, J., Endres, A., Fisher, J., Gentil, P., & Giessing, J. (2017). Ability to predict repetitions to momentary failure is not perfectly accurate, though improves with resistance training experience. PeerJ, 5(November), e4105.
  • Sundrup, E., Jakobsen, M. D., Andersen, C. H., Zebis, M. K., Mortensen, O. S., & Andersen, L. L. (2012). Muscle Activation strategies during strength training with heavy loading versus repetition to failure. J Strength Con Res, 26(7)M 1897-1903.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Fingerboard training guide (I). Preliminary evaluation

Versión en español

We have already talked extensively about how, why and what effects do Maximal Hangs (MaxHangs) and Intermittent Hangs (IntHangs) have on grip endurance and strength. What follows is the start of a series where we will put all those results into practice.

I will suggest a set of guidelines to build a training program; we will see how to progressively modify volume and intensity for each method. Later we will review some MaxHangs and IntHangs planning proposals, and learn when to use them (by themselves or combined) according to your short-, mid- and long-term goals.
Disclaimer: the guidelines and planning that I’m going to put forward are just a subset of all the possible combinations that can yield positive results, which include those proposed by other authors and, of course, the ones that you will create. Anyway, to help you make informed decisions I think it is a good idea to go step by step. Here we go!

I. The current state of affairs: Preliminary Evaluation
There are some questions you need to ask yourself before submitting your fingers to such an intensive and specific method to make sure it will benefit your performance:

1.1. Have you been climbing and training in a systematized fashion for more than 2 years?
Systematized means training or climbing 2-3 days per week, with some consistency and order, specially for the last year, given that the first couple of years it is normal to have a less organized approach to the sport.

On the other hand, this requisite acknowledges that while muscles can adapt to the sport in a matter of months, other structures like capsules, cartilages, tendons and ligaments take years to develop the mechanical adaptations (thickness, tensile strength, etc.) needed to safely perform dead-hangs. Based on my experience and what literature says, I would suggest two to three years as a reasonable interval.

The following question is important although it can overlap slightly with the previous one:

1.2. Do you have an average technical-tactical repertoire?
If you don’t have a lot of spare time for training and are wondering whether to invest part of it on training your fingers, would that detract from the much needed technical gains that you would achieve by climbing in the gym instead and are so important in the early years?
Johnny Dawes. Source: Into the Wild Blog
1.3. Are you 16 or older? Are you past your growth spurt?
The works of  Morrison & Schöffl (2007)  and Schweizer (2012) show correlation between intensive finger training and the use of the crimp grip before puberty and the incidence of severe injuries like stress fractures. The most dangerous period is the growth spurt that takes place at age 11-12 in girls and 13-14 in boys, but the risk remains until the growth plates (the zone where the bones grow) are closed.

Regularly using the full crimp and the half crimp under high loads, like grabbing tiny holds or applying high acceleration on medium ones, can harm an adult’s ligaments, sheaths, capsules, tendons or ligaments, while a youngster can experience from sporadic inflammation and pain to tears, fractures and chronic deformity. The problem is that this tissue is 2-5 times weaker than its surroundings, and one of them is located just where it meets the flexor digitorum superficialis (see picture below).
 When crimping, the dorsal area at the base of the medial phalanx bears a considerable tension precisely where the growth plate is located (copyright by Swiss Medical Weekly, 2012, 142, 1–9)

By the way, we should take this into account when designing our climbing classes and setting routes and boulders in the gym or in competitions.
Iziar Martínez Almendros, a promising climber competing at the “Open La Ola 2017” in Salamanca, Spain. Source: Instagram
If you are still interested in kids developing some grip strength don’t worry, there is a blog post coming to help you precisely with that.

1.4. Are you injury-free? Do you suffer from any condition that makes finger training inadvisable?
Have you adequately recovered from your last injury?

The less severe lesions take at least 2 months to heal, others can take 6 or more. In truth, once the subacute phase is over and reconditioning work starts, dead-hangs are not out of the question. An experienced physical therapist can guide you through a routine of analytic exercises followed by assisted dead-hangs (with rubber bands or pulleys) on deep, rounded holds. In all cases the programs will NOT be the ones recommended in this series.

1.5. What are your level and objectives?

1.5.1. Is your finger strength low, but not ‘very low’?
Check this with the following test on a 25 mm edge (one phalanx and a half):

- If you can hang for 15 seconds you could start doing dead-hangs as a method to develop your grip strength.
- If your time is less than 15 seconds I’d suggest you work your fingers by climbing instead of using an analytic method. Remember my philosophy: “Use the easiest dose, exercise and method that still makes you improve”. If I were you, I’d rather keep on developing my strength by climbing than doing hangs on a deep edge or a bar; instead, you could:
- Occasionally climb on steeper (more overhanging) walls than you are used to.
- Including some (10-20%) small foot- and handholds in your training routes or boulders.

Gekoaventura, Indoor Adventure and Climbing Park in Valladolid, Spain.
It’s still possible that you like to try every kind of method from the very beginning, and you have the time and capacity for it; in the end the choice is always yours.

1.5.2. Using a percentile table to assess the starting level
We can add some extra information to the test above by getting an idea of our position relative to a climber population. I built a percentile table based on data from a 2004 study of maximal hang time on several wooden edges (6, 8, 10, 12 and 14 mm) that was part of my thesis (n=37, levels 6a to 8c+). However, please be aware that the sample size is small and that in the intervening 14 years the population level must have changed. In this line, we have to take in account that this statistical measure is dependent on the study sample features (Spanish climbers, living in Toledo and Madrid, who trained and climbing in specific areas...) so you should be cautious when interpreting it. You can take it as a curiosity. Furthermore, you also need to follow the standardized test protocol (check my Doctoral thesis) to be able to compare the results.

The percentile is a measure that tells us in what position a mark is with respect to a population. In this table, if your maximum time on 14 mm is 30 seconds, then you are approximately in the 25th percentile, which means that in a representative sample of 100 people around 25 would have a worse time than yours and around 75 would do better than you.

As an interesting aside, the 14 mm test was the most reliable and showed a significant positive correlation with sport level. This means that it could be used for predicting performance or even detecting new talent, but always as part of a suite of metrics that measure other physical, technical, tactical, psychological or anthropometric aspects.

Three broad categories can be established based on the table:
Lower level: those equal or below the 25th percentile, like hanging for less than 10 seconds off a 10 mm edge.
Intermediate level: between the 25th and the 75th percentiles.
Higher level: above the 85th percentile.
1.5.3. Objectives and training grip type
If your usual climbing spot or your choice project require climbing on edges, specially at the crux, it’s advisable to train the half crimp or the open crimp (check this series to learn about grip types). If, instead, it’s mainly pockets or slopers it will be a good idea to train the open hand. For training your pinch strength, have a look at this blog post.

Anyway, if you have the capacity, time, experience and level (medium to high) consider training 4 days/week with 2 days for each grip type and 48h rest between them, or work both the same day reducing 25-30% the volume of each grip; for example, instead of doing 3 sets of half crimp/open crimp and 3 of open hand, do just 2 of each. If you need to choose one grip type do it attending to your weaknesses or, by the contrary, looking at what increases your immediate chances of success.

Here ends the first phase of “Designing your own dead-hangs training plan”. The next article will tackle Methodology: naming conventions and methods: MinEd, MaxW, IntHangs, load management and which fingerboard to choose.

-Why do intermittent dead hangs?
López-Rivera, E. y González-Badillo, J.J. (2012). The effects of two maximum grip strength training methods using the same effort duration and different edge depth on grip endurance in elite climbers. Sport Technol 5: 1–11.
Abstract of my article studying the effect on finger endurance of Max Hangs vs. Int Hangs vs. a combination.
-Some hangboarding Instructional Videos
Intermittent Dead Hangs Programs for Your Smartphone-Complex Timer: A Training app for Climbing
Published Research Article, and a Summary of the Guidelines on finger strength Methodology described in this Blog
#1 Doubts about finger training — The Arch Climbing Wall

  • Balyi, I., & Hamilton, A. (2004). Long-Term Athlete Development: Trainability in Childhood and Adolescence, Windows of Opportunity, Optimal Trainability. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: National Coaching Institute British Columbia and Advanced Training and Performance Ltd.
  • Canadian Sport for Life. (2017). Sport climbing for sport, for life. LTAD Long Term Athlete Development. Canadian Sport for Life.
  • Morrison, A. B., & Schöffl, V. R. (2007). Physiological responses to rock climbing in young climbers. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(12), 852–861; discussion 861.
  • Schweizer, A. (2012). Sport climbing from a medical point of view. Swiss Medical Weekly, 142(October), 1–9.
  • Schöffl, V., Lutter, C., Woollings, K., & Schöffl, I. (2018). Pediatric and adolescent injury in rock climbing. Research in Sports Medicine, 26(1), 91–113.