Too Easy to Fail

I’ve tried, and failed, to complete more hangboard programs than most people have heard of. I’m not a training machine. I can’t just shut my brain off, sacrifice the enjoyment I get from climbing, and put in the work. I wish I could, but I can’t.

To me, hangboarding was always one of those things that looked better on paper. I hang from some small edges, my fingers get stronger, and then I crush all the boulders. Sign me up. However, in practice, I could never make it happen. I just really enjoy climbing, and I was still getting better without hangboarding, so it never seemed that urgent.

The Problem

It finally hit me when I realized I couldn’t move on with any of my projects because I wasn’t able to hang on to small enough holds. I felt stuck. For me to do new boulders, I had to keep searching out a more and more narrow selection of climbs. If there was so much as one small crimp on a boulder, I would get shut down, even if it wasn’t one of the ‘hard moves’.

I had tried hangboarding in the past. In fact, through trial and error, I managed to develop a fairly consistent system for it. I would read about a new training method, think to myself, “this time, I’ll stick with it," and then immediately start dreaming of all the boulders and routes I would dismantle with my new-found finger strength. I’d draw up a grid in the back of a notebook for recording the program. Six weeks later...I would take that journal out of my gym bag because I hadn’t actually used it for four weeks.  

I needed stronger fingers and knew that, if I could stick with it, hangboarding would get me where I wanted to be. This time though, I would make it impossible to fail.

On the topic of goal setting, author Tim Ferriss uses the approach of “rigging the game so that you can’t lose.” As an example, instead of saying that you will do core workouts five times a week, pick a much smaller goal, like twice. That way, if you only hit four days one week, instead of being a failure and potentially quitting, you just hit two more times than your goal. Celebration pizza. Eventually, as you create a habit out of the initial goal, you can slowly increase the measurement. I decided to take this approach with hangboarding.

The Plan

It didn’t take long for me to think up the lowest commitment hangboard routine possible. Two hangs, no added weight, just the smallest edge that I could comfortably hang for 10 seconds. It came out to be 20 seconds of work, no real set-up time necessary since I wasn’t adding weight, and it was brief enough that it didn’t detract from the rest of my climbing session.

I did this every day that I was in the gym and having a hard session, typically this was three to four days a week. I would warm up for around 30-45 minutes, getting to the point where I felt like I could try at a project level. Then I would do my 10-second hang, rest 4 minutes, hang again, and then carry on with the rest of my session. It was too easy not to do.

Application

I followed this plan for three months. On my first day, I couldn’t hang the smallest edge on the Moon fingerboard (hold #4) so I did my hangs on the next smallest (#3). After a few weeks, that edge felt too easy so I made the move to the smaller hold. The first attempt at the small hold was fairly hard, and I didn’t successfully make it to the full 10 seconds until my fourth or fifth day of trying. I would still step off just before failure, though. After two months, I was having to grab the smallest edge with less and less skin to make the hang difficult enough.

Results

After three months, I was on the verge of leaving for a climbing trip out west. I decided to test my strength by seeing how long I could hang on the smallest edge. I hung for 30 seconds before deciding to step off. That was all I needed to see. Celebration doughnuts.

On that trip, I went out and tried to climb as many crimp boulders as possible. It was amazing. For the first time in years, I felt like I wasn’t limited to what I could try. This included boulders in Hueco that I couldn’t even pull off the ground on in the past, and even my first V10 flash on the crimpy Finger Hut in Joe’s Valley. Another very pleasant result from hangboarding was that my fingers no longer felt tweaky on small holds anymore. I was able to climb on a much broader variety of styles, and my fingers were the healthiest they had been in years.

Finger Hut in Joe's Valley

Finger Hut in Joe's Valley

My purpose here is not to promote my method for hangboarding. There are plenty of reasons why that method isn’t the ‘best’ practice.  If I had been more willing to stick with a well-established and structured plan, I’m sure I would have had even better results. However, I wasn’t, so for me this was the best plan. Since then, I have followed more structured plans and have had great results from them. I had to take a small step in the right direction first though.

If you’re consistent with your training, and are looking for a good, well-proven method for hangboarding check out:

Eva Lopez

Steve Maisch

Beastmaker-
 They also have a hangboarding app with workouts built in for their hangboards

Chris Webb Parsons

The Anderson's training method is another fairly popular method, and can be found in the Rock Climber's Training Manual.

These all work, and work well. My recommendation is to read through them, find the one that you believe that you can stick with consistently, and go for it. Then finish the program.

What I am saying is that consistency is king. A program is worthless if you don’t stick with it. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by the idea that you need to be on some massive life-changing training plan if you want to see any progress. Start something small and do it frequently.  I didn’t do anything special. I just made it so easy that I couldn’t fail. This can be applied to anything. Whatever you want to improve, just take the smallest step in the right direction. When that no longer feels like a great effort, take another step.

When I first started climbing, I hated the idea of long term thinking. I wanted to be as strong as possible as quickly as possible. Now that I’ve been climbing eleven years, I’m able to see the big picture a bit better. It’s no surprise that my greatest improvements have never come from some shiny new exercise or program, but instead, from simplifying things and working towards getting a little bit better at the basics.

It’s easy to romanticize the idea of building a training wall in your mom’s basement and locking yourself in there for several months, only to emerge as an 8B crushing choss beast. It’s way less fun to think about the little habits you could be building to see improvement several months from now.


“Take a simple idea and take it seriously.” –Charlie Munger