Quick summary

Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders hangboard finger strength training

The 3-6-9 Ladders hangboard finger strength training routine was developed and popularized by Steve Bechtel, who is a well-known climber, coach, and writer. His aim was to create an effective hangboard finger strength training program that could be safely used all year round, both off-season and during the season, while not leading to overtraining or injury. The main idea behind Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders program is to reduce the loads to the necessary minimum and progress the volume, leading to increased time under tension (TUT) [1]

According to Steve, the program does not require any specialized hangboards, leads to less fatigue and reduced injury risk, and is sustainable over long periods of time. While the initial strength increase may not be as spectacular as in the case of the MaxHangs protocols, the gains will be more persistent, as they will originate from the development of more efficient neurological pathways, rather than from improvements in energy-system efficiency, as it is the case with high-intensity training [2].

Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders protocol details

  1. Choose 3 – 4 different grip positions.
    1. Try to include full crimp, half crimp, and open hand grip positions.
  2. For each grip position determine the load that will allow you to hang for a maximum of 12 seconds.
  3. For each chosen grip position perform the following sequence 3 – 5 times:
    1. Hang 3 seconds, rest 10 – 60 seconds;
    2. Hang 6 seconds, rest 10 – 60 seconds, or more;
    3. Hang 9 seconds. That’s one set.
  4. Rest as needed between sets, typically 3 – 5 minutes.
  5. In week 4 of the training cycle add a 12-second hang to each set.

Table 1: Steve Bechtel’s Ladders protocol summary.

Steve Bechtel's Ladders
Hang test time [s]12
Margin [s]0 - 9
MVC-7 load88 - 95%
Positions3 - 4
Sets/position3 - 5
Hangs/set3 - 4
Hang time [s]3 - 12
Rest betw. hangs [s]10 - 60+
Rest betw. sets [min]3 - 5
TUT [s]162 - 360
Total time [min]30 - 141+

Steve Bechtel’s Ladders routine remarks

  • You may adjust the rest time as needed – make sure you don’t get pumped.
    • Long rests lead to strength gains through neurological factors, such as muscle recruitment and firing rate.
    • Short rests lead to strength gains through hypertrophy (muscle growth).
  • If you’re new to the protocol, start with lighter loads – about 90% MVC-7 and see how it feels.
  • Keep a clear and detailed log of your hang loads, rest times between hangs and between sets.
Training log for Steve Bechtel's Ladders hangboard finger strength protocol.

Figure 1: Make sure to keep a log of your hang loads, rest times between hangs and between sets.

3-6-9 Ladders hangboard finger strength 4-week training cycle

  • A typical Ladders hangboard finger strength training cycle is four weeks long.
  • Perform two sessions per week.
  • Start with three hold types.
  • Schedule:
    • Week 1:
      • For each hold type perform 3 sets, that’s 9 sets in total per session.
    • Week 2:
      • For each hold type perform 4 sets, that’s 12 sets in total per session.
    • Week 3:
      • For each hold type perform 5 sets, that’s 15 sets in total per session.
    • Week 4:
      • Add a 12-second hang to each sequence, making it 3-6-9-12. For each hold type perform three sets, that’s 9 sets in total per session.
  • After completing the 4th week, perform a 12-second strength assessment for each hold type and increase the loads accordingly.
  • Add anywhere from 2 – 5% body weight after each 4-week cycle.
  • You want to keep adding weight over a long period. Increasing the load too early will lead to a plateau.

Bechtel’s Ladders hangboard finger strength routine results and discussion

The main idea behind Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders hangboard finger strength training protocol is to effectively improve finger strength, without running the risk of injury or overtraining, while still being able to climb outdoors regularly. To achieve this goal, the program relies on progressing volume rather than load. To support his strategy, Steve refers to a research paper from 1983, where it was shown that seven daily 1-minute actions at 30% of max resulted in around a 30% gain in strength in just six weeks, indicating that low loads can successfully be applied to strength training [3]. This approach was met with some skepticism amongst experienced climbers because the study Steve refers to was done on untrained men doing isometric squats. Furthermore, it was argued that the low loads in the Ladders hangboard finger strength training program would be insufficient to trigger strength gains in the case of experienced athletes [4]. Indeed, the most critical issue with the current state of literature is that the majority of studies were carried out on untrained subjects, while it is well established that trained individuals respond differently than those who lack training experience [5][6].

It is currently generally accepted that loads of at least 65% 1RM (one-repetition maximum) are required to trigger hypertrophy, and even higher loads are needed to maximize strength