“Priority number one is maintaining your finger and large-pull-muscle strength,” says Tyler Nelson, a climber, exercise scientist, and strength and conditioning specialist in Utah. The key is finding safe ways to continue to load your fingers at home without ratcheting up your pre-pandemic volume or intensity. “If we spend all of our time in quarantine doing new types of random workouts, that’s a recipe for injury, and it won’t necessarily translate back to climbing,” he says.
According to Nelson, the best tool to help mimic previous climbing habits is the hang board. Professional climbers like Kyra Condie and Sarah Hay are making good use of their hang boards while social distancing, but you don’t have to be an experienced climber to take advantage of this device. That’s because it lends itself to customization: you can easily control your workout difficulty by using different-size grips and adding or removing resistance. And at a time when experts are calling on outdoor enthusiasts to minimize their risk to avoid injuries, the hang board is a practical way to get a workout in. “Hang-boarding, by and large for the fingers, is much safer than climbing, because we have more control over individual variables like velocity and force vectors,” says Nelson. In other words, you’re not going to make big, dynamic moves like you do while bouldering, or run the risk of a foot popping and sending a shock load into your tendons and pulleys.
Follow this at-home, all-levels training routine recommended by Nelson to help maintain your climbing strength and keep you prepared for a return to the gym or crag. Experienced climbers can use a board to train maximal finger strength, while exercises such as density and recruitment hangs are good for beginners, says Nelson. “Even if a beginner is grabbing on to a board and pulling hard, they’re not putting that much stress through their fingers, because their fingers aren’t that strong,” he says. If you don’t have a hang board at home, you can use the top edge of a door frame (first check to see if it’s strong enough) or the upper-floor landing in a stairwell, or get creative and make your own. Any finger-friendly edge will do, but it’s good to have a variety of size options.
Hang Board Climbing Simulation
What it does: Mimics the finger stresses of climbing and serves as a good warm-up for strength-specific finger exercises.
How to do it: Place a sturdy chair or stool on the ground just behind the hang board (the farther away it is, the more difficult this will be, since it simulates steeper climbing). Grab the jugs or large holds, place your feet up on the chair, then “climb” on the hang board as you would on a climbing wall: let go with one hand, reach toward the ceiling or out to the side, and return to a different grip. Try to mimic the movement of climbing as best as possible. Repeat with the other hand, aiming for 60 to 80 percent effort. Use different types of holds and edge depths for variety and to change the intensity.
Volume: Complete sets of 10 to 15 moves, with two to three minutes of rest between each set. Continue on and off for 45 to 60 minutes total. “It’s not as fun as climbing, but if you’re stuck at home and bored, this is a really effective use of time,” says Nelson. “With short sessions, more experienced climbers can also train their fingers again later in the day.”
What they do: Strengthen the body’s big pulling muscles—the lats, biceps, shoulders, and upper back—through isometric holds.
How to do them: Grab a pull-up bar or the jugs on a hang board, with your palms facing away. Engage your shoulders and core, then pull up until your elbows are bent 90 degrees. Hold for five seconds, then lower until your arms are straight, keeping your shoulders engaged to protect the joints. Complete another set with your arms bent to 120 degrees. If this is too challenging, use a resistance band for assistance: girth-hitch one end around the pull-up bar, and place your knee in the bottom of the loop to take the weight off your arms. If it’s too easy, wear a weighted vest or your harness with weights hung from it.
Volume: Two sets (one at 90 degrees, one at 120 degrees) of five reps (five seconds on, three seconds off), with one to three minutes of rest between sets.
One-Arm Recruitment Pulls
What they do: Train maximum finger strength by forcing motor units to fire in unison.
How to do them: Find an edge size on the hang board that will work for your finger strength. Beginners should aim for around 20 millimeters; experts, 15 to 10 millimeters. Stand underneath the hang board, reach overhead with one arm to grab the edge using either an open hand or a half-crimp grip, then pull down with 100 percent effort for three to five seconds. It’s OK if your feet stay on the ground, says Nelson, as long as you’re pulling with maximal effort. Keep your elbow bent at a large angle (120 to 150 degrees) and not completely extended during the pull. Repeat with the other arm.
If that’s too easy, do a one-arm hang with your feet off the ground: find an edge depth that allows you to hang for around five seconds before hitting failure. Wear your harness and hang additional weight off it if necessary.
Volume: Three (beginners) to five (experts) repetitions for each grip (open hand and half crimp) on each hand. Rest for one to two minutes. For expert climbers, complete a second set.
What they do: Strengthen the flexor tendons and muscles of the fingers to help make them more resilient against injury and allow you to climb and train at a higher intensity.
How to do them: Find an edge size on the hang board that you can hang from with both hands for approximately 20 to 40 seconds, then do so, keeping your shoulders engaged, until failure. Beginners should use two grip positions: open hand and half crimp. Experts should use three positions: open hand, half crimp, and full crimp. (Based on your strengths and weaknesses, you might need to use different edges for each hand position.)
Once you can hang for 30 seconds easily, progress by switching to a smaller edge. For advanced climbers without a smaller option, don and add weight to a harness.
Volume: One (beginners) to two (experts) sets of two to three repetitions per grip. Rest for three to five minutes between hangs.
What it does: Trains climbing-specific core strength, targeting deep-core muscles, abs, your back, obliques, and hip flexors.
How to do it: Grab a pull-up bar or the jugs on a hang board, with your palms facing away. Engage your shoulders and core, then pull up until your elbows are bent to 90 degrees. Keep your body completely straight from heel to head, then lean back as you raise your legs to enter a partial front lever. Go as far as you can while maintaining a rigid plank form, whether that’s only a few degrees back or a full front lever with your body parallel to the floor. Focus on breathing in this position. Hold for five seconds, then lower and rest for three seconds.
Volume: One to two sets of five seconds on, three seconds off, for five to seven repetitions.
Allow time for at least a 15-to-20-minute warm-up before diving into the workout. Try to match the volume and intensity of your climbing-gym routine as much as possible, starting with easy boulder problems or routes, resting between each, and gradually increasing the difficulty until you’re ready to roll. Jog or jump-rope to raise your heart rate, then do a set or two of pull-ups and burpees to get your big muscle groups fired up. Then do short, easy hangs (five seconds on, ten seconds off) to warm up your fingers.
Once you’ve warmed up, transition to the workout. If you’re a sport climber, aim for shorter rests between sets—around 15 seconds to a minute—to emphasize endurance and capacity training. If you’re a boulderer, use longer rests—two to four minutes, or as long as you need to reach full recovery—to focus on maximal strength and power. If you normally have a mobility or stretching routine, feel free to add that to the mix as well.
Beginner climbers should aim to do four training sessions per week. Split the recruitment pulls and density hangs between different days, separated by at least two days. Experienced climbers can realistically knock out eight training sessions per week, splitting climbing and finger sessions between mornings and evenings.
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