Fingerboards: Are they for you?

Recently, i got on the beastmaker for the first time in a long time and was entirely shut down. It was embarrassing, considering the lofty levels i had attained not six months previous, making progress with one-arm lock offs. Now, i’m struggling to complete a set and failing on some of the holds that i was holding with ease before my summer break.

While i’m getting back on it after the realisation that my finger strength has waned this summer, there is no doubt that fingerboards have been mentioned to me more and more lately. One friend recently sent a group message to myself and some colleagues asking for advice on them, despite them not actually having been climbing before – such is the rise in the profile of training for climbing. More and more, students i coach want to forgo actual bouldering to get on the training, under the pretence of wanting to get stronger to climb harder. Long gone is the thinking that the best way to get stronger at climbing is to climb (for many at least) and, in my opinion, this is slightly missing the point.

So I thought I’d talk a little about fingerboards and the role they play in modern climbing and training for climbing. What makes them so appealing? And will they actually improve your climbing?

A finger what?

A google image search for “fingerboard” returns lots of pictures of miniature skateboards. While they undoubtedly look cool, they are not the subject of this particular discussion.

No, if you don’t know what i’m talking about, refine that google search to “climbing fingerboard”. According to Rock + Run:

Fingerboards are resin or wooden training devices that consist of a variety of holds and grips.

The variety is key here. Any fingerboard you can buy – as in not one made by your mate in his garage with some offcuts of wood – will have plenty of different types of holds. Indeed, this is the primary deciding factor when buying one. But what’s the point of them?

When i first started to notice them appear on the scene, as a commercial product, there was scant information available to the consumer about what to do with them and instinctively, you grabbed some holds and did a pullup. Or two. Or as many as your could. Now, there is much more guidance.

The main way to benefit from them isn’t actually pulling up, it’s simply hanging still. In this article from Ned Feehally from back in 2011 for the BMC, a little more is explained about them and why they’re useful.

So they get your fingers strong?

Pretty much, yeah. If you can get a good training programme to follow (and we’ll have a chat about that later) then you can make real progress and with strong fingers, you can compensate for some terrible technique.

And actually therein lies one of the major flaws: there are potentially bigger gains to be made spending your time doing something else instead; namely actually climbing! [Whether you fit into the fingerboad camp or not will be covered lower down]

While there is no denying that dangling on a fingerboard will get your fingers stronger and give you a bit of a ripped midriff, it won’t make you a better climber. It won’t improve your technique and there will come a point where simply being able to hang on isn’t feasible any more. Finger strength just needs to be supplemented with other aspects of your climbing.

Photo found on https://amandaberezowski.wordpress.com/
Photo found on https://amandaberezowski.wordpress.com/

There are many aspects to becoming a better climber: technique, finger strength, core strength, stamina to name but a few. You need to take a hollistic approach to it and make sure you’re covering all these areas.

When you’re starting out in your climbing career, getting on the fingerboard just isn’t the best idea. Put simply, the time benefits on a fingerboard are minuscule compared to actually going climbing.

Yes, i know you can’t hold on to that overhang because your fingers give out and peel from the holds but fingerboarding is not the answer to this particular problem. I, as everyone will have at some point, suffered with this when i started climbing at the local wall at University.

Anecdote: At Lancaster University, when i called it home, was an old squash court that had been converted into a climbing wall. On the left was a vertical wall, behind you some slabs and on the right, a large feature wall. But directly opposite you as you walked in, a large stepped overhang.

It was what everyone went for first – and they normally failed, much like i did. There was usually a low-grade jug route up the middle and this became my project; long before i knew what a project was! At first, i got nowhere but with practice, my muscles developed and within a year, i was completing much harder climbs up the face. It just took time and practice to get those muscles stronger.

Fingerboards are brutal bits of kit. The stress they put on your muscles and tendons is incredibly great and if your body isn’t ready for it, not only will you not benefit from it, you’ll risk serious injury. At an early stage of climbing, it can be enough to put you off climbing forever.

To start with, just get on the wall. It will take patience and tenacity but this is by far the best way to progress for those just beginning on their climbing career.

So not for beginners! But when can i use one?

As long as you’re still seeing benefits from other types of training – and remember that simply going climbing is a form of training – then there’s no point in moving away from that to do a frankly rather boring session hanging from a piece of wood and staring at a wall.

If you are looking for a grade to guide you, i’d say there’s no point even thinking about fingerboards until you’re at least cranking out font 6c or V4 but this would be to oversimplify things. Those grades are merely to give you an idea.

My advice is that you should consider using a fingerboard when:

  • Your fingers are used to climbing on small or poor holds
  • You can climb 6c/V4
  • You have reached a plateau in your climbing grade
  • You have exhausted other weaknesses in your climbing, like poor footwork or technique
  • You have a project that needs specific gains (it has small crimps for example)

If you don’t tick those boxes, stop reading and go climbing. Just keep climbing, different things, different lines, different types of climbing. Come back when you’re stuck.

If that list describes you, keep reading and we’ll see how fingerboards can help.

Do they work? HOW do they work?

Yes they work, and very well for the right situations. There’s a reason i’m using them after all! Most top climbers will have utilised either fingerboards or similar to have attained the lofty positions they hold in our little mini-society. Ben Moon not only used one, he designed, made and sold them in his quest to be the best. Likewise with climbers like Ned Feehally and Dan Varian; proprietors of the Beastmaker. I dare say there’s not a top-level climber out there these days who doesn’t use some sort of fingerboard training and if there are, there won’t be many. They do really work.

Now when i say “How do they work?” i’m not going into the biomechanics of training devices. Frankly, i don’t know and so that would take a lot of research, leading to an article in itself! What we’re interested in here is what you should do with them.

As mentioned above, it’s not as intuitive as one might initially think. They’re not really there for pull ups per ce, although they’d still work for that. No, fingerboards these days are mainly used for what are called deadhangs: attaining a position and then holding it for a few seconds before releasing to come back down.

There are a myriad of different training regimes to follow out there and you’re normally best to go with the one for your specific board. The manufacturer will doubtless have something online for you to follow. Here are a few examples:

How often should i use one?

The excellent training manual, Gimme Kraft, suggests that 80% of your climbing training should be actual climbing. These boys know what they’re talking about too, having trained many of the world’s leading climbers including Alex Megos, Johanna Ernst and many others. That means that, no matter how good you are, you’re best doing every fifth session on the hangboard, campus board or something similar. No more. That’s not actually that much if you think about it.

That just goes to show how little impact these devices tend to have. Even with supplementary training, the best tonic for climbing is just that: climbing. Fingerboards and other training should be used to give you that edge, so don’t go nuts.

That said, once you’ve hit that plateau, they can certainly help. Just use a bit of common sense and don’t become obsessed with them.

The Big Advantage

There is one reason where fingerboards – and not campus boards, peg boards or anything else – are invaluable and nothing comes close: when you can’t do anything else.

I’m about to buy a pair of second hand rock rings from a friend who really didn’t need them and who actually bought them from me and absolutely did not meet the criteria set down above. The reason i sold them to him: he was working off shore in the merchant navy and needed a way to maintain strength levels while he was away.

Next year i’m having a baby and my Beastmaker is going to prove invaluable while she (hopefully) sleeps in the daytime. I can’t go out, can’t go the wall but i can train.

Home training devices certainly have their place in our modern busy schedules although even with that being said, they’ll be part of a bigger training plan; fingerboard, press ups, floor exercises, they’ll all come together. But in this scenario, they come into their own and often save you from continual repairs of door frames…

Just make sure you’re using them as a rounded exercise regimen. If you’re fairly new to climbing, it might be best to focus on other activities you can do and i would strongly recommend checking out the Gimme Kraft guides as they will get you stronger without the intensity on your tendons that often comes with crimp-centered devices.

Makes and Models – the differences

So let’s assume you’re capable and keen to use a fingerboard so what should you look for? There are dozens of other options out there. Above i’ve mentioned a few but there are so many more. So what to look for if you want one at home?

Variety. As i mentioned near the top of the article, you want a variety of holds to hang on. Yes, something simple like the Metolius Rock Rings will have their place – and be much easier to install – but they’ll only help with one type of hold. Compare that to their Simulator 3D board and you’ll be able to work a lot more on the latter.

Material. Ever got to the end of an indoor session and found your skin on fire? To the extent you’re struggling to hold the steering wheel of your car? Yeah, resin holds do that to your skin; they’re brutal. Personally i’d opt for something made of wood, which is much kinder on the skin. The aforementioned Beastmaker are my choice, covering the variety in the previous paragraph too. The 1000 series has bigger and easier holds than the 2000.

Portability. Are you going to mount this permanently at home? If not, if you’re planning on rigging it up at the crag, campsite or work in your lunchbreak, there are plenty of portable options around these days. Check out the Problem Solver guys from Stockholm who make simply sublime boards that give a myriad of options. Lapis also do some great moveable options.

Aesthetics. You might be fine with having a bright green resin feature above the bedroom door but i dare say a non-climbing other-half may have other ideas. Some look slightly nicer than others and again, the wooden ones are a bit nicer on the eye.

Suitability. I’ve got a brand new Moon Fingerboard at home, given to me by a friend because the holds were all too poor for him to actually hold. If the holds aren’t suitable for you, you’re wasting your cash.

Do i really need to own one?

Most climbing walls have them up these days so i’d ask the big question: do you really need your own? If it’s up at home, are you actually gonna use it?

If you’re mounting it at home, pick your spot carefully. Bedroom doors are popular but often being out of the way like that means you often forget to bother. If you can – single people have an advantage here – aim it at your tele. A climbing film will help build that psyche and help motivate you to not only get on it but complete the workout.

If you don’t own the house and aren’t really that keen to start drilling holes in those rented walls, there are alternatives out there. For some information, the Climbing Works has some excellent advice which is worth checking out.

Remember though that if you do own one, they’re easy to take down and take with you when you move out.

Alternative to Actual Fingerboards

There are many that cover similar bases, although subtly different. The one you’ve most likely heard of – or will come across at least – is the Campus Board.

Invented by Wolfgang Gullich, among others, the campus board is a simple but complex device, involving 20mm wide pieces of timber (give or take) screwed onto a 20 degree overhanging wall (again give or take). The idea is to “campus” up and down, without feet, working your fingers and gaining strength in the meantime. Search instagram for #campusboard for more examples of people doing some crazy workouts on the campus board.

Incredibly effective and a sure fire way to get fingers that can crush cans, they do have the downside of needing the right place to mount them. Campus boards are rarely found in people’s homes, purely because few people would actually have the space to put one up properly.

Likewise with a peg board. This is less for your finger strength as it is for the biceps and triceps and has the same disadvantage as the campus board. If you want to feel inferior with your weighted deadhangs, check out the video below (which is also HUGELY inspiring)

There are loads of other things out there too to give you the variety you need in your climbing training. As previously mentioned, if you come across these sorts of things, check out the Gimme Kraft book.

Conclusions

So, after all that rambling, what points have we come up with?

  • If you’re not an established climber, you probably don’t need to bother
  • Pick one carefully, depending on what you want to achieve
  • They’re perfect if it’s your only opportunity to train and get stronger – but not the only option
  • Get a good training regimen to follow

Hope that helps! In the meantime, i’m going to go and get back on the Beastmaker. I’ve got some very crimpy projects and need my fingers firing on full power to have any chance of success…

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