My thoughts on Chris Webb Parsons’ high-intensity hangboard program

Chris Webb Parsons has just released an exciting promotional/instructional video on his deadhang training program. I say promotional/instructional because he is also promoting the climblox.com clothing brand which looks like pretty hip and functional stuff.

The training program is quite advanced, I would say, given that it assumes one can almost hang one-handed from an open crimp grip on an edge. I would guesstimate that less than 1% of climbers can do that so this is a graduate level program in my books. This doesn’t mean is isn’t good, but rather that it is geared toward elite climbers. I will make some suggestions to make this more available to the masses.

Chris is a ridiculously strong guy bouldering up to V15 and something clearly has worked for him so automatically his program will get peoples’ attention and he has some instant credibility. I’m generally cautious around training advice from rock stars because often they are really gifted genetically and they only have to climb a lot and they get super strong. However, Chris seems to know his stuff and overall I think it’s a good program.  I’ll give my thoughts as to the pros and cons from a mere mortal’s point of view.

Here’s the video, and I’ll post my comments below.

In summary:

  • It’s a twelve week plan
  • All hangs are one handed on an open crimped edge grip
  • Three different elbow angles are trained – 180, 135 and 60 degrees, and three hangs (repetitions) are done per grip, per arm, per workout
  • Rest between hang repetitions is 3 minutes
  • Frequency is at least 2x per week
  • A piece of rope or sling is used to assist with the non-working hand (minimum level of assistance volitionally possible)
  • The hangs differ in length by week, ranging from 5 seconds to 12 seconds, and a week or two of full rest from hangs are embedded
  • Few (or no) recommendations are made about what else to do i.e. other climbing and conditioning.

In case you missed the duration of each hang for each week, here it is:

  1. 10 seconds
  2. 10 seconds
  3. 5 seconds
  4. 10 seconds
  5. maximum duration, unassisted
  6. rest – no hangs
  7. 5  seconds
  8. 5s seconds
  9. 10 seconds
  10. 5 seconds
  11. maximum duration, unassisted
  12. rest – no hangs

Advantages to this program in my opinion:

  • The intensity is very high as the effort ranges from 5-12 second maximum effort with ample rest so it should increase neuromuscular recruitment and therefore maximum strength if done regularly. Some fingerboard routines going around these days are more strength endurance oriented in my opinion (e.g. two arm repeaters for 6 reps x 7 seconds on : 3 seconds off)
  • The volume per workout is not excessive (9 hangs x 5-12 seconds per arm) so it is less likely to cause overtraining and will leave some ‘gas in the tank’ for actual climbing/bouldering.
  • The open crimp is used, so the thumb is passive, and the index finger has a ~90 bend at the proximal interphalangeal joint (PIP) which is important if you want it to transfer to crimping on smaller holds. This grip is a good trade-off of specificity and lowered injury risk.
  • The hang duration and intensity is varied week to week and rest weeks are included which is excellent. I think that it’s a big mistake that people make, keeping workouts the same for too long without changing up the intensity and volume.

A few issues with this program in my opinion:

  • Using a sling/rope for assistance is not measurable so you can’t tell how much weight you’re taking off the working arm. Therefore, progress can only be measured by the unassisted hangs – i.e. how long you can hang (or almost hang) from one hand.
  • The intensity is extreme. He recommends at the end of each rep to let go with the assisting hand as much as possible until the active hand lets go. Since the volume is relatively low, this may be practicable but it’s definitely pushing the limits and may risk injury.
  • One-arm deadhangs, particularly with a straight arm, will put excessive strain on the shoulder, elbow and/or wrist for many people and this may affect one’s ability to get through the full 12 weeks.
  • The sling is hanging to the left of the board. This is odd because the left arm in supinated (palm in) and the right arm is pronated (palm out) so it’s not training each side symmetrically.
  • It doesn’t work on any other grips than the open crimp. Personally I think deadhangs are a good way to work on weaknesses in a controlled way, such as pockets with different combinations or 2 or 3 fingers.
  • The variation of hang duration is seemingly random. This isn’t a major issue but he doesn’t explain the rationale.

Here are some constructive suggestions to make this more effective and/or safer:

  • This could be done with two arms for less experienced (or less strong climbers), varying the intensity by putting weight in a back pack or hanging from your harness.
  • If you stick with one-arm hangs and you have the space for it, set up a 2-pulley system with weights pulling up on your harness (or hang onto that rope with the passive arm) so the assistance can be measured and you ensure that the working arm is working at an appropriate intensity.
  • If you use a sling for assistance, make it so you can hang it from either side of the board so that both arms work in the pronated (palm away) position
  • The cycling of intensity could be more linear like this, over 6 weeks: 12 sec, 10 sec, 8 sec, 6 sec, 4 sec, rest. This way the intensity goes up a bit each week, but I think it would only work if you used a pulley system, otherwise the shorter hangs might just be easier as opposed to more intense.
  • You could also so some sets with the three finger open hand grip – I think this is a good once to work on as well.

Thanks to Chris and Climblox for releasing this thought-provoking video. It definitely got me psyched to work on my one-arm deadhang strength!

Happy training :)

Fingerboard Training Routine

There are a million and one training routines out there, and I’ve tried many of them over the years, but I’ve settled in on what works best for me, and believe will work for all climbers that have a good finger strength base.

 

The minimum qualification for this is 5.11a or french 6b+ (routes), or V4 (bouldering), with some fingerboard experience. Below this level, one should focus more on technique and mileage, achieved through bouldering and/or route climbing.

The basic principles of this routine are:

  1. The workout (excluding warm-up/cool-down) should take no longer than 30-45 minutes. Fingerboard training is so specific that it’s easy to overdo it and cause injury.
  2. It must take advantage of the contract-rest cycle which occurs naturally when climbing. This will simulate the same metabolic processes and should produce more transferable gains.
  3. There should be an element of movement – i.e. not just dead-hanging since most routes/boulders involve moving on the holds, and not just hanging!
  4. The intensity should be high enough that fatigue is reached within 30-60 seconds (including rest between hangs).
  5. It should be progressive, allowing you to work harder as your strength improves over time.
  6. It should involve a variety of different hand positions (grips).
  7. It should allow you to improvise somewhat based on your body’s cues, so you can do what feels right and avoid things that feel potentially injurious.
Disclaimer
This routine is to increase your finger strength, therefore some strain will be involved in the joints and tissues. With that comes a risk of injury, so please listen to your body, avoid pain, and perform routine this at your own risk.

The Exercises

There are two exercises – no surprises here:

  • Pull-ups: Do this on the holds/hand positions with which you can hang from for 6 seconds or longer. Perform sets of 2-10 repetitions. If you can do more than 10, use a smaller hold or add extra weight (advanced only).

 

  • Dead-hang: Do this on the holds/hand positions with which you can hang from for 6 seconds or longer. Hang for 2-8 seconds, resting for 6-10 seconds in between hangs, and repeat 4-6 times per set. If you can do 6 x 8 seconds, use a smaller hold or add extra weight (advanced only).

The Routine

Warm up

15 or so minutes with light joggings, bouldering, calisthenics, skipping, etc.

Main Part (30-45 minutes)

    • Each ‘exercise’ focuses on one pair of holds. Start the workout with larger holds (“jugs”) to progressively warm your joints and muscles, and work your way toward smaller holds (or fewer fingers) with each set.
    • Using the criteria above, perform either the pull-up or dead-hang exercise, depending how hard the hold is for you.
    • Rest approximately 1-2 minutes between each set.
    • Here is the KEY to this workout: For your first set on each hold, do about 30-40% of the max number of repetitions you are able to do. With each set, add 1 or 2 repetitions until you max out on the exercise (i.e. approach ‘failure’ for that set). Then move on to the next hold/exercise.
  • Repeat this until (A) you feel your strength is starting to diminish, (B) you’ve worked to the smallest holds on your fingerboard, (C) you’ve exceeded 45 minutes, (D) you feel a sign of pain or discomfort in your fingers or other joints.
Cool Down
Perform some light stretching for your upper body and fingers.
Sample Workout

 

Here is my workout, completed on the Moon fingerboard. The numbers after the exercise specifications represent the number of reps for successive sets.

  • Pull-up, mini-jug (2 inches, positive):  4, 6, 8, 10
  • Pull-up, large 4 finger pocket, open crimp (1.25 inches, sloping): 4, 6, 8, 10
  • Pull-up, small 3 finger pocket, open hand (0.75 inches, flat): 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (note: last set of 7 is the peak effort for the workout)
  • Dead-hang, narrow edge, 4 finger open crimp, for 2-3 seconds: 3, 4, 5
  • Pull-up, narrow sloper, 4 finger open hand, in L-set position (knees raised): 4, 5, 6

 

Closing Remarks

The exact workout above is just example, please do not emulate it exactly – start slow, and build up gradually over a period of months while listening to your body. Keep a journal so you can review your progress. 

So, please try this approach and let me know how it works for you. I would love to get your feedback and share your experience with it. Happy training!