Dr. Tyler Nelson's Density Hangs - Introduction

Ever since rock climbing began to be perceived as a sport, people started looking for ways to get better at it. Although what combination of skills makes someone a great climber remains a mystery, undoubtedly strong fingers are one of the essential qualities you need to send hard grades.

It wasn't long before climbers realized that hanging off the tips of your fingers on small edges is a simple and effective way to improve finger strength. Thus, fingerboards were born. Since then, many different ways have been invented to develop specific finger and forearm muscle qualities, such as hypertrophy, recruitment, and endurance. However, the first finger training method was hanging on a narrow edge for as long as possible.

Shortly thereafter, climbers began adding more variety to this rudimentary training method. Repeaters, MaxHangs appeared and hanging until failure began to be seen as potentially dangerous to the shoulders [1][2]. Only recent scientific discoveries in the structure and function of muscles and tendons allowed us to appreciate the benefits of long-duration isometric dead hangs. So let's dive in and see how going back to the roots of fingerboard training could help you revamp your climbing and potentially get you rid of nagging injuries such as tendinosis.

Dr. Tyler Nelson - at the cutting edge of rock climbing science

Before we move on, let me introduce the person who has rekindled the interest in long-duration isometric hangs for rock climbing training several years ago. Dr. Tyler Nelson is a certified NSCA Strength and Conditioning Specialist and the co-founder and a content creator for The Performance Climbing Coach seminar series, The Camp 4 Human Performance Climbing Assessment, and The Bstrong BFR Certification Course. He is a passionate climber and does invaluable research on methods to enhance climbing performance, the results of which he often shares through his Instagram and his YouTube channel [3][4][5].

Dr. Nelson developed a number of effective finger strength training protocols based on solid scientific evidence. His routines are safe and easy to implement, as he prefers to use autoregulatory protocols rather than hanging off your fingertips with dozens of kilograms attached to the harness. His Recruitment Pulls and Velocity Pulls are exciting techniques that deliver stimuli distinct from traditional hangboarding and often help climbers overcome performance plateaus [6].

Moreover, he effectively popularizes blood flow restriction (BFR) training among the climbing community. His system allows achieving strength gains at low loads while managing finger, elbow, and shoulder injuries [7]. However, I believe that his best-known protocol and one that first made him famous are the so-called Density Hangs, which are the subject of this post.

What are Density Hangs?

Density Hangs are a medium-intensity hangboard routine where you hang off an edge for 20 - 40 seconds. The exercise promotes hypertrophy of the forearm muscles and the muscle-tendon junctions, hence its name. Density Hangs additionally trigger advantageous remodeling of the tendons, making them more robust and reducing injury risk.

Interestingly enough, Density Hangs are very similar to the less known SubHangs, developed independently and in parallel by Dr. Eva López [8]. The main difference between the two methods is the underlying philosophy. SubHangs, as discussed in one of my previous articles, were designed as an endurance training protocol, aiming to improve the phosphocreatine (PCr) recovery and the total PCr levels in the forearm muscles. In addition, some muscle hypertrophy was also expected due to anabolic hormone secretion, caused by lowered blood pH and fast-twitch muscle recruitment.

Dr. Nelson's structure-oriented approach aims at building thicker and denser tissues and promoting tendon health through a specific sliding effect occurring in the tendons during long-duration isometrics. In this way, a solid muscle-tendon system is formed, allowing for handling higher training loads and increasing finger strength safely and effectively.

Density Hangs protocol details

  1. Choose 2 - 3 hold positions for training. Consider:
    • Slopers
    • Half crimp
    • Open hand
    • Full-crimp
    • Pinch (you may use pinch blocks)
  2. For each position, choose a hold on which you can hang with two arms between 20 and 45 seconds, ideally without added load.
  3. Perform a set of Density Hangs:
    • Hang for 20 - 40 seconds.
    • Rest for 10 - 20 seconds - use 1:2 hang to rest ratio.
    • Perform 2 - 3 reps - until you fail.
    • If you can do more than 3 reps, you can add 1 – 2 more, or increase the duration of the last rep until you fail.
  4. Rest 3 - 5 minutes
  5. Repeat the set for the same hold position or move to the next position.
  6. For each hold position, perform 2 - 3 sets. That amounts to 4 - 9 sets per training session.
    • According to Dr. Nelson, doing 8 sets is often the ideal training volume.

Table 1: Density Hangs protocol summary.

Density Hangs
Hang test time [s]20 - 45
MVC-7 load55 - 85%
Sets4 - 9
Hangs/set2 - 3
Hang time [s]20 - 40
Rest betw. sets [min]3 - 5
TUT [s]80 - 900
Total time [min]10 - 100

Density Hangs protocol remarks

  1. Focus on slow static loading until muscular failure
  2. Density hangs are ideally performed without added load, at around 75% of maximum strength (MVC-7)
    • To calculate your Density Hangs loads and training edge sizes, you may use my Hangboard Training Calculator [9].
    • Strong athletes should consider doing multiple reps until failure (Repeater style) instead of adding load - 1:2 hang to rest ratio