I was just starting to get hooked on indoor climbing when COVID-19 arrived and all the bouldering gyms closed their doors. The truth is, there’s really nothing that replaces the exhilarating sensation of shimmying your body up a wall using tiny plastic holds, but the climbing cross-training practice known as hangboarding comes pretty darn close. And I keep reminding myself that even though my vertical pursuits are temporarily out of reach, I can emerge from quarantine a stronger climber than before.
If you’ve never seen a hangboard before, it’s a workout surface that emulates the same-shaped holds (the plastic pieces of varying sizes and shapes that you use to ascend a wall from top to bottom) you’d find on a bouldering wall. Climbers use the workout tool to boost finger and grip strength that is eventually needed to climb, but these skills also translate for everyday movements—like, say, opening a pickle jar—as well. Made of wood or plastic, most hangboards will run you less than $100 (I have this one, which costs $55) and can be really effective when used safely and (keyword here) sparingly.
That’s about all I knew when I called up Alannah Yip, a member of the Canadian Climbing Team, to teach me how to create a beginner hangboarding workout that would (almost) scratch my quarantine climbing itch. Yip has some seriously impressive climbs under her belt, including seven total Senior National Titles, and she tells me that hangboarding offers the kind of functional upper-body strength you need to work your way toward more difficult climbs.
“The first thing to keep in mind is that a hangboarding workout isn’t going to feel the same as a regular, full-body strength workout because you’re training the tendons and ligaments,” Yip says. “These take a lot longer to develop, and you don’t want excessive strain on them before they’re ready.” While in normal climbing, your bodyweight gets distributed through your arms and legs, that’s not true of this kind of workout. “When you’re hangboarding, you’re just hanging off of two hands, so you need to be quite careful with the amount of load that you put on,” adds Yip.
That’s why a little bit of hangboarding goes a long way—especially if you’re new to the sport. In fact, Yip tells me that I should only be doing my shiny new hangboarding workout twice a week for a total of 30 minutes—even if it feels like I want grab those holds more often. Below, you’ll find the full workout she gave me. If you invest in a hangbaord, give it a go for yourself.
Professional climber Alannah Yips’ 30-minute beginner hangboard workout
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Before you jump in, a quick note on grip. For beginners, Yip recommends something called a “half crimp,“ which means you should go ahead and wrap all your fingers—except the thumb—around the largest hold of your hangboard. Let that digit hover in the air. This will ensure that if you do fall, your fingers will automatically release and you won’t end up injuring your hands or wrists. Once you get more advanced, you’ll be able to wrap your thumb around the hold too in what climbers call a “full crimp.”
The warm up
1. 10 jumping jacks: Come to standing with your feet together and your arms by your sides. On an exhale snap your arms upward into a V-shape, snap your legs out into an upside-down V-shape. Return to starting position on an inhales.
2. 10 high knees: Run in place, pumping your arms and drawing your knees up above the plane of your hips.
3. 10 butt kicks: Run in place, pumping your arms and kicking your feet toward your butt.
4. 10 of each joint exercise: shoulder shrug circles, wrist circles, neck rotations, and arm rolls
5. 10 arm line rotations: Extend your arms straight out into a T-shape. Rotate them so that your thumbs face back and your palms reach toward the sky. Then rotate your thumbs down in back.
6. 10 finger flicks: Ball up your fists and then release, flicking your fingers out all at once.
7. 10 cat cows: Come into all fours on the floor. Drop your belly and lift your gaze into cow pose, then arch your back, tuck your chin, and come into cat.
8. 10 bird dogs (each side): From tabletop position, extend your left arm forward and your right knee back. Bring the knee to the elbow, engaging your core. Re-extend the arm and leg.
9. Shoulder pull-ups: Using either a pull-up bar or the largest hold on your hangboard, come to hanging and shrug just your shoulders. Return to hanging.
For the first two weeks, complete only two sets of the following three exercises for each session. Once you’re in weeks three, four, and five, go for three sets per sesh. At six weeks, you can complete four or more sets each time you do the workout. Begin using the largest hold, and when that feels comfortable (you can hang on for 15 seconds) reduce the size of the hold you’re using.
1. 10-second hangs: At the beginning of each minute, hang for 10 seconds on your chosen hold. Rest for the remaining 50 seconds. After the five reps of your first set, rest for three whole minutes.
2. 5 eccentric pull-ups: Stand on a chair and start at the top of the pull-up position. Slowly lower for five whole seconds. Repeat four more times for this set, or until you can no longer control the lowering down.
3. 10 knee raises: Hang onto the largest jug for this part of the workout. On an exhale, tuck your knees into your chest. Release on an inhale and repeat for a total of ten reps in this set.
Rest for a full three minutes before you complete the next set.
1. Forearm stretch: Reach your arms straight out in front of you. Use your right hand to pull gently back on your left. You should feel a stretch through the forearms. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
2. Crossbody shoulder stretch: Reach your right arm across your body, cradling it with your left elbow. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
3. Overhead tricep stretch: Reach your left hand over your head. Bend at the elbow and grip it with your right hand, gently pulling down to stretch your tricep. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
4. Child’s pose: From figure four, sit back onto your heels, walk your arms forward, and rest your forehead on the ground.
I tried Yip’s workout and… oh. boy.
Yip’s workout looks simple‚ but let me assure you—it’s anything but. On my first go, I whip through the warmup, pull a chair up to my own hangboard, and start the 10-second hangs. While my feet are dangling in mid-air, my arms (and fingers) feel like they’re getting the workout of a lifetime. The eccentric pull-ups give me similar trouble in that slow burn kind of way, and by the time I reach the knee raise, they feel like—I kid you not—a rest break compared to the preceding moves.
The whole second set consists of me offering enthusiastic pep talks to myself. (“You got this! Hold on! Pretend you’re Alex Honnold and you’re free-soloing El Capitan!”) By the end of the 30 minutes, I’m not even sweating, but my upper body muscles aches like they truly did just propel me up the face of a giant Yosemite rock. I’m both fatigued and satisfied. Even though the hangboard doesn’t quite emulate the puzzle-slash-exercise you get at a bouldering gym, I’m stoked to—once more—be hanging in the air.
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