Dr. Tyler Nelson’s New Active Finger Strength Training Protocols - Introduction

Dr. Tyler Nelson is among the most prolific coaches and climbing influencers today. He takes nothing for granted and constantly looks for new, most effective, and safest ways to improve our climbing skills.

He is the author of many popular climbing training protocols, the most well-known being the "Simplest" Finger Training Program and Density Hangs, which I've covered in my earlier posts [1][2]. He is also a frequent guest on climbing training podcasts, including the Training Beta Podcast, the Nugget Climbing Podcast, and the Power Company Climbing Podcast.

Dr. Nelson recently wrote two thought-provoking articles for Climbing.com (Part 1 and Part 2), explaining his latest discoveries in finger strength training [3]. So hold on tight because the world of some of you hangboarders and system board enthusiasts may soon be turned upside down!

The limits of heavy fingerboard training

Some of you might wonder why we were even having this discussion. The best way to get super strong fingers is to do weighted hangs, right? And yes, I know many climbers who've reached superhuman finger strength by adding 50+ kg to their harness and hanging from small edges. Paul is a great example, and you can read his story in this article [4].

Those who don't like lifting heavy might choose to do one-arm hangs, which gives slightly different adaptations, but it's about the same thing - putting a heavy load on your fingers and hanging statically for 3 - 12 seconds. Sports scientists call this mode of training yielding isometrics - your forearm muscles are trying to prevent your fingers from opening.

At first, this feels great - you're quickly increasing added weight every week, and progress is tangible for a month or two. For example, you may rapidly increase your MVC-7 to bodyweight ratio from 160% to 170%. But after a while, you'll inevitably see progress stalling, and it will become increasingly difficult for you to grind through those high-volume Bechtel's Ladders sessions.

Ok, no sweat, you switch to a hypertrophy program, like the 7/3 Repeaters, for 8 - 12 weeks and then retest your finger strength. Unfortunately, chances are that the results will not improve but will be significantly lower than before you started doing Repeaters. How frustrating! Even worse, though you may see measurable gains on the hangboard regarding the loads you can hold, the transfer to climbing harder may be limited.

So what's the problem? Why aren't you getting noticeably stronger and better at climbing despite doing weighted hangs? The most straightforward answer is that weighted hangs do not necessarily trigger climbing-specific adaptations. Yes, you can add more load to your harness while hanging, but could you move off a hold with this load? No way, right?

The thing is that although your hangs become heavier, even 1.5 – 2.0 of your body weight, on the climbing wall, your fingers never see such supra-maximal eccentric loads. And it's not that eccentric loading is bad. For example, our fingers generate rapid eccentric forces when latching onto a hold when deadpointing. It's just that the response is dependent on the load. The strength response goes away as soon as you remove the excess weight. According to Dr. Nelson, that's the true limiter of heavy fingerboarding.

How to use fingerboards effectively

Contrary to common belief, hangboards are an excellent training tool for beginner climbers. When you're new to climbing, you'll typically do a lot of climbing on big holds, which doesn't stimulate your fingers to adapt to grabbing small holds like crimps and two-finger pockets. So that's a great time to embark on some introductory hangboard protocols to get your fingers used to high loads. Then, as you enter higher grades, you won't be surprised by a sudden finger tweak when you cut your feet while crimping. The routines worth considering include Hangboard Moving Hangs, Density Hangs, or 7/3 Repeaters [5][6][7].

Just be mindful of your total training volume. It's best to keep it constant by replacing one of your weekly bouldering sessions with a hangboard session or carefully increasing volume in small steps. Otherwise, you could get injured. Remember that most injuries stem not from increased training loads but from sudden spikes in training volume when we add a new exercise into the mix.

If your MVC-7 on a 20 mm edge is between 125 - 160% body weight, then you're likely an intermediate climber with a fair bit of climbing under your belt [8]. That's the perfect time to incorporate weighted hangs into your climbing schedule. You'll reap the greatest benefit from your training efforts, and the transfer to actual climbing will likely be noticeable. However, as soon as you hit a plateau, you need to think about changing your strategy because constant shifting between Hörst’s 7/53, Bechtel's Ladders, and Eva López MaxHangs isn't going to move things forward [9][10][11].

One thing we need to remember is that the hangboard can also be an excellent finger rehab tool. If you're experiencing finger pain, you may use the hangboard to progressively load your fingers into the discomfort range while staying below the pain threshold. The fingerboard makes it easy to control the load and gradually increase it from session to session until you can climb at your max again.

Finger strength as a skill

According to Dr. Nelson, once you've reached a certain high level of finger strength, weighted hangs will not necessarily help you that much. In the best-case scenario, you'll see diminishing returns