When I first started climbing I was hooked, immediately integrating it into my schedule. But soon I began experiencing repetitive strain injuries, chronic tightness and soreness, and eventually threw out my back when I fell bouldering. A physio told me I needed to start strength training if I wanted to end what had become a worsening two-year cycle of injury. Without insurance, I couldn’t afford physiotherapy or other regular treatments, but something about strength training felt extremely daunting. I had put it off because I genuinely didn’t believe strength training—like hangboarding—was meant for me. I was ashamed I hadn’t committed to working on my injuries myself. But recently I’ve inquired a little deeper, a little more mindfully, about why I was so reluctant to approach strength training—and I realized it wasn’t so simple as a lack of willpower.
The first time I saw a hangboard it was at the gym and I had no idea how to approach it. I had no point of reference for how to navigate this thing—I had never done a pull-up, I was too shy to ask anyone, and not confident enough to play around with it until it began to make more sense. Online I found videos of people doing training programs, but without explaining the steps they took to get off the ground in the first place.
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The hangboard remained little more than an aspiration until I began introducing members of my PoC and queer communities to climbing. Feeling a sense of purpose in encouraging people to explore the whole gym space, I realized training doesn’t have to look any which way, as long as you’ve got enough insight to be safe with your own body, mind and energy. Of course the support of community doesn’t hurt, either.
So what about hangboards is so daunting? Why did it take me almost five years before finding my rhythm on one? I think it comes down to the fact that different folks carry different lived experiences—and everyone will be on a spectrum when they consider something like hangboarding. Some folks will jump in, no hesitation. Some will do a little research and access their readily available peers to learn in a few sessions. Some folks have a great relationship with their bodies and figure things out even if it’s a little messy and they’re not too worried about being seen struggling.
Some folks might not tolerate being witnessed struggling to learn something because they could have a history of experiencing prejudice, systemic oppression or physical violence. Some folks are not at home enough in their bodies to push through the learning curves of hangboarding and other training—they might inhabit a body that is politically charged, carries trauma, or would not be considered fit or beautiful by problematic Euro-centric standards. The list of complicated responses is long and nuanced, but it helps us understand the varied ways different people, in a variety of communities, might approach something as beneficial as hangboarding.
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Abby Dione, the owner of Coral Cliffs climbing gym in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is a strong advocate for hangboarding as a way to train at any level, with the proper technique. She invites climbers to set an intention for themselves and approach training from a place of patience and persistence. We all deserve the benefits of training, and Dione breaks down how to do it. Here are some of her tips.
Hangboards are for people committed to putting in the mileage at the gym or at home (they’re easy enough to hang at your house), including beginners with enough attention to form and the proper precautions.
Form is everything. Dione’s key technical tips include engaging the scapular muscles, keeping shoulders stable (make sure your shoulders are engaged), making room for your neck so it’s relaxed, and not locking your elbows.
There are two main variations in using the hangboard: for pull-ups (isometric training) or for hanging (isotonic training). For hangs, Dione recommends starting on the jugs (the biggest holds), before moving to the 30mm pocket, and then down to 20mm, eventually varying the holds, including the slopers and so on. There are multiple ways to assist hangs. Some facilities have step stools to help take weight off by placing your feet down, or there might be holds on the wall in front of the board for that purpose. Another option is a pulley system or resistance bands you can loop around one foot to stand on, taking weight off your hang.
While hanging, choose a point in the distance, soften your gaze, see how long you can hang with good form. Whatever your max is, you want to start doing reps of roughly 40 percent of that time. So if 12 seconds is your maximum hang, each rep will be about five seconds. Follow each hang with a rest for half of that time. The number of sets you do is pretty arbitrary, but being systematic makes it easier to measure progress. Tangible gains, according to Dione, are key motivators.
For me, these broken-down details were the hardest to come by and I’m grateful to people like Dione who prioritize making sure everyone in her gym feels like they understand how to optimize their time in the space to achieve their particular goals.
A few final things to keep in mind:
- Remember you deserve to be in that space. If that’s not working for you, having a set up at home can make all the difference to get you training.
- Hangboarding is beneficial after you’ve been climbing long enough to know how to engage the proper muscle groups: shoulders and back most importantly.
- Tendons take a very long time to strengthen, so progress needs patience. Tendon injuries take forever to heal.
- Hangboards are also great for getting fingers warmed up before jumping on the wall.
Photos by Leone Legot.