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8-month Hangboard Finger Strength Training Program Results

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Quick summary

8-month finger strength training program – Abstract

Background: Running a full-time professional career, a family, and a blog leave me with little time do train and sleep for recovery. I can rarely afford to go to the gym, let alone climb outdoors. The bulk of my training consists of hangboarding. In this post, I describe the results of my eight-month hangboard finger strength training program with Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders routine.

Objective: To verify how much I can progress my absolute and relative finger strength while undergoing a weight loss intervention, and under conditions of chronic sleep deprivation.

Design: The hangboard training program consisted of three training cycles. After each cycle, I increased the hang loads. I trained three hold positions, the 14 mm edge full crimp, 14 mm half crimp, and 20 mm 3-finger pocket. I tested my maximum finger strength with 7-second hangs on a 20 mm edge in half crimp position (MVC-7 HC 20).

Results: With the program, I increased my MVC-7 HC 20 absolute strength from 108 kg to 116 kg. During the last training cycle, I managed to reduce my body weight from 65.5 kg to 61 kg through Intermittent Fasting and Low Carbohydrate/Keto Diet. As a result, I increased my relative finger strength from 163.5% to 190%, allowing me to improve from the 7A benchmark to 7B benchmark level on the Moonboard Masters 2017 hold setup.

Conclusions: Hangboard training is an effective and efficient method of improving maximum finger strength. Satisfactory gains can be expected despite inadequate sleep and undergoing a weight loss intervention. Losing weight contributed to the increase of my relative finger strength and allowed me to progress my Moonboard bouldering level significantly.

Hangboard finger strength training – Introduction

Finger strength is one of the most important, if not the most important aspect of sport climbing and bouldering. I found on multiple occasions that a thoroughly executed finger strength cycle on a hangboard allowed me to send projects, on which I’d been stuck for months.

I’ve been hangboarding practically ever since I started climbing, back in 2005. The first hangboard workout I ever tried was the fingerboard moving hangs, described by Eric Hörst in his book “Training for Climbing” 1. It’s basically a strength endurance training routine, and the good thing about it was that it was safe, a significant factor for a beginner climber I was at the time. Still, it was not until 2010 that I became serious about hangboarding and made it the cornerstone of my rock climbing training.

I began experimenting with Hangboard Repeaters, and for a long while, it became the only hangboard exercise I did 2. But in 2018, I noticed that I wasn’t able to add more weight to the hangs any more and that my strength had plateaued. I went out on a search for purely strength-oriented hangboard training methods, and I started with the Eva López MaxHangs 34. The results were pretty impressive, and I began to gain strength quickly. At that point, I read “Logical Progression” by Steve Bechtel, and I became immediately interested in his new approach to rock climbing training 5. If you don’t know who Steve Bechtel is, you can listen to one of his interviews at 6.

Finger strength is the most crucial facet of sport climbing and bouldering. If you're stuck on a grade, first check if your finger strength is sufficient to progress!

Last year, after testing a couple of different hangboard strength training routines, including the “7-53” protocol by Eric Hörst, and the One Arm Hangs hangboard training routine, I decided to finally try out Steve’s 3-6-9 Ladders strength training workout 7. I must admit that, like many other climbers, I was a bit skeptical in the beginning, because I came across opinions that the loads used in the protocol are insufficient to trigger neural adaptations 8. Still, I figured Steve surely knew what he was doing, and besides, I wasn’t risking much anyway. In this post, I will briefly describe the finger strength training progress I made in 2019/2020 with this underrated, but safe and surprisingly effective rock climbing training protocol.

Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders finger strength training Cycle 1

According to the protocol instructions, the first thing you should do is to find the load at which you can hang for precisely 12 seconds maximum on each of the grip positions that you want to train 9510. To execute the protocol, I chose the Zlagboard Pro wooden hangboard, because it has a large variety of edges and pockets that are easy to adjust 11. I followed Steve’s advice for people who are not yet familiar with the 3-6-9 Ladders finger strength training routine, and I selected only three grip positions to train, namely:

  • Full crimp on a 14 mm edge (FC 14)
  • Half crimp on the 14 mm edge (HC 14)
  • 3-finger pocket, 20 mm deep (3-p 20)

You can see the Zlagboard Pro with the grip positions I used in Figure 1 below.

Climbing Training on a hangboard

Figure 1: Three grip positions I trained during the Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders training cycles.

For each grip position, I performed a 12-second maximum load assessment (MVC-12). The results were (July 2019):

  • FC 14: 90 kg (92% MVC-7)
  • 3-p 20: 86 kg (91% MVC-7)
  • HC 14: 88 kg (94% MVC-7)

However, when I started training with the protocol, I wasn’t able to complete the final 9-second hangs on the HC 14 grip position. The accumulated fatigue at the end of the protocol impacted my performance. You can also notice that the 12-second hang time loads are relatively heavy, above 90% MVC-7. In particular, the hangs in the HC 14 grip position were quite intense. Based on the models found in the literature, we can state that the correct hang intensity for the Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders protocol should lie between 88 – 95%, so my loads were actually at the high end of the intensity spectrum 121314151617. You can also see that in contrast to the common belief, the loads used in the 3-6-9 Ladders protocol are quite high and sufficient to trigger neural adaptations required to gain finger strength 10.

For this reason, I decided to reduce the loads slightly to be able to execute the entire protocol. In particular, in the later stages, the protocol involved 12-second hangs, and I couldn’t even pull off all the 9-second hangs 5. I also modified the order of the grip positions in the training sequence, because it felt like the hangs in the 3-p grip position were ultimately a little easier than the crimps. After a few trials, I settled for the hang sequence below, and I stuck to it throughout the entire finger strength training Cycle 1:

  • FC 14: 89 kg (91% MVC-7)
  • HC 14: 86 kg (92% MVC-7)
  • 3-p 20: 86 kg (91% MVC-7)
The exact hang and rest times for each grip position for the 3-6-9 sequence were the following:
  • 3-second hang, rest 30 seconds,
  • 6-second hang, rest 60 seconds,
  • 9-second hang, rest 3-4 minutes, depending on how hard the sequence felt.

For the 3-6-9-12 sequence, the hang and rest times were the following:

  • 3-second hang, rest 30 seconds,
  • 6-second hang, rest 60 seconds,
  • 9-second hang, rest 60 seconds,
  • 12-second hang, rest 3-4 minutes, depending on how hard the sequence felt.
The load reduction may seem only cosmetic in terms of percentage, but it made a difference and allowed me to complete the entire training cycle.

The loads used in the 3-6-9 Ladders finger strength training protocol are not light at all, and reach up to 95% maximum hang intensity!

I carried out the protocol over a total of eighteen finger strength climbing training sessions. Ten sessions took place between 15.07 – 21.08, and eight sessions were done between 10.09 – 15.10 because I had a two-week holiday break in between. A photo of my training log is shown in Figure 2.

Finger strength training progress lo

Figure 2: My finger strength training Cycle 1 training log (July – October 2019).

After completing the protocol, I measured my MVC-7 and MVC-12 loads for the trained grip positions. Below you can see the video from the MCV-7 tests after the first cycle. The complete MVC-7 and MVC-12 test results for the training Cycle 1 are summarized in Table 1 below. You can also see how my MVC-7 changed for the HC 20 and HC 10 grip positions, which I didn’t include in the Bechtel’s Ladders protocol.

Video 1: Demonstration of the MVC-7 tests on the trained grip positions after Cycle 1.

Table 1: My Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders Cycle 1 progress (July – October 2019).

FC 14 (7s)98 kg103 kg5.3%
HC 14 (7s)94.5 kg99 kg4.8%
3-p 20 (7s)93 kg98 kg5.3%
FC 14 (12s)91 kg96 kg5.5%
HC 14 (12s)88 kg94 kg6.9%
3-p 20 (12s)86 kg95 kg10.5%
HC 20 (7s)108 kg111 kg2.8%
HC 10 (7s)88 kg91 kg3.4%
HC 20 (12s)102 kg105 kg2.9%
HC 10 (12s)82 kg84 kg2.4%
Average93.0 kg98 kg4.9%

My 3-6-9 Ladders protocol finger strength training progress – training Cycle 2

I found the results of the 3-6-9 Ladders climbing training Cycle 1 to be surprisingly good, taking into account that the protocol didn’t feel very straining and that I’d taken a two-week break in-between. Therefore, I decided to execute a second cycle of the Ladders protocol, with loads increased to:

  • FC 14: 93 kg (90% MVC-7)
  • HC 14: 90 kg (91% MVC-7)
  • 3-p 20: 90 kg (92% MVC-7)

The training loads in the second training cycle were about 4.6% higher than those in July, but they still lied between 90 – 92% MVC-7, which at that point seemed to be the optimum for me. I carried out the second 3-6-9 Ladders finger strength climbing training protocol in thirteen sessions between the 23.10 – 20.12. A photo of my second finger strength training cycle log is shown in Figure 3.

You can see that I used a little trick during the last training session (20.12), which involved 12-second hangs. Namely, I increased the loads by 2 kg for each grip position, to maximize the gains from the protocol. I assumed that this approach would allow me to start the next training cycle with a higher load increase.

Figure 3: My finger strength training Cycle 2 training log (October – December 2019).

After completing the second cycle of the protocol, I measured my MVC-7 and MVC-12 loads for the trained grip positions. The complete MVC-7 and MVC-12 test results from the training cycle 2 are summarized in Table 2 below. You can also see my MVC-7 changes for the HC 20 and HC 10 grip positions, which I didn’t include in the Bechtel’s Ladders protocol. 

Table 2: My Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders Cycle 2 progress (October – December 2019).

FC 14 (7s)103 kg106 kg2.9%
HC 14 (7s)99 kg104 kg5.1%
3-p 20 (7s)98 kg103 kg5.1%
FC 14 (12s)96 kg100 kg4.2%
HC 14 (12s)94 kg100 kg6.3%
3-p 20 (12s)95 kg98 kg3.2%
HC 20 (7s)111 kg114 kg2.7%
HC 10 (7s)91 kg93 kg2.2%
HC 20 (12s)105 kg107 kg1.9%
HC 10 (12s)98 kg101 kg1.8%
Average 97.6 kg101.1 kg3.5%

My 3-6-9 Ladders protocol finger strength training progress – training Cycle 3

I was excited about the progress achieved after the second Bechtel’s Ladders training cycle, and I wanted to see how much further I could push it before I would start to plateau. I decided to execute a third Ladders training cycle, with the loads listed below:

  • FC 14: 98 kg (92% MVC-7)
  • HC 14: 95 kg (91% MVC-7)
  • 3-p 20: 95 kg (92% MVC-7)

The training loads in the third training cycle were about 5.5% higher than in October, but they still lied in the 90 – 92% MVC-7 range. I carried out the third 3-6-9 Ladders climbing finger strength training protocol in fourteen sessions between the 28.12.2019 and the 25.02.2020. A photo of my third finger strength training cycle progress log is shown in Figure 4.

Steve Bechtel ladders training log

Figure 4: My finger strength training Cycle 3 training log (December 2019 – February 2020).

I must admit that the last phase of the third training cycle became very hard for me. It was much more difficult to complete the 12-second hangs. In particular, it seemed like I hit a plateau with the full crimp grip position on the 14 mm edge. In the end, I had to extend the rest duration between hangs and sets significantly. I also reversed the hangs order, and I started with the 12-second hangs, and finished with the 3-second hangs, to minimize the effect of fatigue.

I was surprised to find that despite my struggle, after the third hangboard training cycle, I also managed to reach a significant absolute finger strength gain. The complete MVC-7 and MVC-12 test results after finishing the training Cycle 3 are summarized in Table 3 below. You can also see my MVC-7 changes for the HC 20 and HC 10 grip positions, which I didn’t include in the Bechtel’s Ladders protocol. 

Table 3: My Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders cycle 3 progress (December 2019 – February 2020).

FC 14 (7s)106 kg107 kg0.9%
HC 14 (7s)104 kg107 kg2.9%
3-p 20 (7s)103 kg107 kg3.9%
FC 14 (12s)100 kg100 kg0.0%
HC 14 (12s)100 kg102 kg2.0%
3-p 20 (12s)98 kg100 kg2.0%
HC 20 (7s)114 kg116 kg1.8%
HC 10 (7s)93 kg96 kg2.9%
HC 20 (12s)107 kg109 kg1.9%
HC 10 (12s)85.5 kg88 kg2.9%
Average101.1 kg103.2 kg2.1%

Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders volume progression

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) 5. That means that every three sessions, the total hang time of your sessions should become longer. I figured that it also makes sense to multiply the TUT by the hang loads, to see how the total training load increased in subsequent training cycles. The product of the total hang times and respective hang loads for each training session is plotted in Figure 5.
8 months of climbing hangboard finger strength training load volume progression Steve Bechtel's 3-6-9 ladders strengthclimbing

Figure 5: My Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders volume progression plot, Cycle 1 – Cycle 3.

From the plot, we can see that I reached the highest total training volume in Cycle 1 because it was also the longest one and consisted of eighteen sessions. The volumes in Cycle 2 and Cycle 3 were almost the same. I managed to achieve the highest average volume per session in Cycle 2. In Cycle 3, I had trouble towards the end when I had to execute the 12-second hangs. For this reason, I was unable to complete some of the sessions, and that resulted in a lower average. The drop in my performance does not seem related to my Keto Diet and the accompanying liver and muscle glycogen stores depletion. Undernourishment and depleted glycogen have been shown to negatively impact muscle strength 18, but I’d finished the keto period a week before. By then, my glycogen stores had already been replenished, which will be discussed in the following sections. I believe that the reason for my inability to complete the 12-second hangs during the first three sessions in Cycle 3 was the fact that the loads chosen at the beginning of the protocol were slightly too high. At that point, I was already reaching a plateau, and on top of that, I was losing weight, which made it more difficult to adapt to the sudden increase in the protocol difficulty. These few lower volume sessions did not change the fact that I did achieve some progress in Cycle 3, but in hindsight, I think I should have added less weight to my harness. When designing your 3-6-9 Ladders cycles, Steve Bechtel advises going for loads with which you can hang for 12 seconds 5. But if this indeed is your maximum, then the shift from 9-second hangs to 12-second hangs towards the end of the cycle becomes very abrupt and may prove too much to handle. Therefore, I think it’s better to give yourself at least 2 – 5 seconds of safety margin. This means selecting loads with which you can hang for 14 – 17 seconds, corresponding to roughly 90 – 92% of your MVC-7 on the given hold.

Continuous Energy Restriction

During the third training cycle, I decided to turn things up a notch and to combine my finger strength training with simultaneous weight loss. After all, the goal of strength training for climbing is to improve finger strength relative to body weight. I was curious if weight loss would compromise my gains, and whether it would be possible for me to improve despite being on a dietary regimen.

The most commonly implemented weight loss strategy is continuous energy restriction (CER) 19. CER is based on keeping the daily energy intake below the weight maintenance requirements 20. Still, athletes who undergo continuous energy restriction and are subjected to high training loads are running the risk of losing fat-free mass, leading to lowered performance because of reduced muscle strength and glycogen stores, impaired reflexes, and increased irritability 2122. Because of these potentially adverse effects I was motivated to look for alternative weight loss strategies.

Intermittent Fasting, Keto Diet and Low Carb Diets

Recently intermittent fasting started to receive a lot of attention as an alternative to conventional dietary weight loss strategies 2324. One of the most notable advantages of Intermittent Fasting over uniform caloric restriction from the athletes’ point of view is that unlike the uniform caloric restriction, which produces loss of both muscle mass and fat tissue, Intermittent Fasting reduces the fat tissue, but preserves the muscle mass 252627.

The Ketogenic Diet (KD), which is a stricter version of what is generally known as the Low Carb Diets (LChD) is another weight loss strategy that is recently very popular. I first heard of the Keto Diet when I listened to the Trainingbeta podcast with Neil Gresham. In the interview, Neil claimed that a temporary reduction of carbohydrate intake helped him lose weight without feeling hungry while maintaining high energy levels. He also said that his recovery was significantly enhanced and that “no single thing has ever made such a big difference in his climbing as this diet” 28.

That sounded almost too good to be true, so it immediately caught my attention, and I decided to learn more about this unorthodox nutrition strategy. It was only later that I learned Dave MacLeod also practiced fasting and Keto Diet to achieve weight loss when preparing for his projects 29. The LChD diet and Intermittent Fasting, in particular, became the cornerstone of my weight loss strategy. 

Details of the dietary regimen

Before Cycle 3, I did not make any conscious effort to reduce my body weight. I ate a regular western diet, based on a mix of fats, protein, and carbohydrates. I also did not take any additional protein in the form of whey during any of the cycles. In Cycle 3, I started to reduce my daily caloric intake through Intermittent Fasting. I ate two meals a day, one at 10 a.m. and the other one at around 4 – 6 p.m. I did not calculate the exact calorific value of each meal, but on average, it was probably around 700 kcal.

The good thing about IF is that you can limit the energy intake naturally, without the need to count calories. After about a week I started to reduce the amount of carbohydrates in my diet in favor of fats and proteins and followed up with a two-week period of pure Ketogenic Diet. I subsequently returned to a regular diet and the Intermittent Fasting two meals a day plan, which has since been my daily food regimen.

healthy keto diet lunch for climber strengthclimbing

Figure 5: Example Keto lunch: Fat cheese (cheddar) 80 g (320 kcal), pure peanut butter 50 g (300 kcal), and chicory 200 g (50 kcal). About 700 kcal altogether.

During the seven weeks of my dietary intervention, I was able to lose 4.5 kg, which amounted to 6.9% of my initial body weight. I tried to keep track of my body fat percentage and the percentage of my lean body mass (LBM), but unfortunately, the OMRON BF511 body composition monitor I have does not seem to be accurate enough to provide any meaningful insight. At the beginning of Cycle 3, at 65.5 kg bodyweight, my measured body fat percentage was 6%, which I think must have been largely underestimated, and should likely be above 10%.

This goes against the results published in 30, where it is claimed that the OMRON BF-511 has the tendency to overestimate BF%. However, the result is consistent with the findings published in other research papers, which show that Bioelectric Impedance Analysis is indeed likely to underestimate the BF%, and the standard error can be as high as 10% 3132. After losing 2 kg, my measured BF% dropped below 5%, triggering an “Err4” output. According to the manual, this indicates “Values of body composition are out of measurable range” 33. Thus further monitoring of my body composition became impossible with the available equipment.
The plot of my body weight before, during and after the dietary intervention period is shown in Figure 6. The initial short Intermittent Fasting week resulted in a weight loss rate of about -0.5 kg/week. After reducing the carbohydrate intake, I suddenly lost 1 kg within only three days. This abrupt weight loss was due to the depletion of my liver glycogen stores 3435. Once the glycogen stores became depleted, my weight loss rate became -0.54 kg/week during the low carbohydrate diet period (LChD), and -0.78 kg/week during the Keto Diet (KD).
weigth loss during climbing hangboard finger strength training cycle strengthclimbing

Figure 6: Plot of my weight loss during Cycle 3.

After returning to my regular diet, which included carbohydrates, I almost immediately regained 2 kg. That again was water weight bound by the restored glycogen coming from consumed carbohydrates 3435. Based on these results, I estimated that I have effectively lost about 2 kg body weight, which may have included some muscle mass, but probably was mostly fat. My diet lasted about 45 days, during which I consumed roughly 1500 kcal per day. My daily caloric intake for weight maintenance is around 1800 kcal 36. That means that for 45 days, I created an average energy deficit of 300 kcal/day, which amounts to 13500 kcal, and that’s about 2 kg of fat. This makes sense.
healthy balanced diet lunch for climber strengthclimbing hangboard finger strength training

Figure 7: Example Regular Diet dinner: Roasted duck breast 100 g (350 kcal), boiled pearl barley 100 g (150 kcal), brussel sprouts 150 g (70 kcal), and cabbage salad with yoghurt dressing 100 g (50 kcal).  About 650 kcal altogether.

To sum up, in seven weeks, I lost 4.5 kg body weight, 2 kg of which was fat, and 2.5 kg was water. You could argue that my effective weight loss was only 2 kg, but on the other hand, as long as I stayed on the Keto Diet, my absolute weight was indeed 4.5 kilograms less than at the beginning of the Cycle 3. I did not notice any deterioration of performance while being low on glycogen, nor any improvement after glycogen restoration. That goes both for strength and endurance (I will publish these results in separate posts). Therefore, it seems that losing water weight by carbohydrate restriction might be an effective tactic for climbers who want to become lighter before a competition. Weight loss strategies for athletes and climbers are a very vast topic in itself, and I am planning to explore and cover this field in more detail soon.

Adverse effects of sleep deficit on strength gains

Sufficient sleep is a critical factor when it comes to cognitive function, development of the central nervous system (CNS), and physical recovery 3738. Sleep deprivation was shown to lead to unhealthy food cravings and impairments in glucose sensitivity. On top of that, insufficient sleep also negatively affects growth hormone and cortisol secretion 39. Therefore, lack of adequate sleep could hamper glycogen repletion and potentially affect appetite, food intake, and protein synthesis 40. One of the pioneers of sleep research, Allan Rechtschaffen, stated that ‘If sleep does not serve an absolute vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made.’ 41.

If sleep does not serve an absolute vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made.

So how can lack of sleep impact your training gains? In humans, sleep restriction leads to two outcomes: it increases the secretion of catabolic hormones such as cortisol, and it changes the pattern of rhythmic secretion of anabolic hormones, including testosterone 424344. Let’s have a closer look at the potential negative consequences that these effects can lead to.

Impaired testosterone production leads to sub-optimal muscle regeneration

Testosterone is key to skeletal muscle mass regulation and muscle protein synthesis production 45. It is also responsible for the repression of genes that activate protein breakdown 46. Testosterone levels increase as sleep begins and reach their highest point after the first REM sleep cycle. You need at least three hours of normal sleep to experience this rise 47. Testosterone concentrations remain high until waking and decrease gradually during the day. 

Total sleep deprivation and partial sleep restriction were shown to lower testosterone levels and delay the blood testosterone rise during the night 4849. The nocturnal rise in testosterone depends on REM sleep, and it is significantly lower in those who did not have any REM sleep 44.

Inadequate sleep hampers muscle protein synthesis and prevents optimum muscle regeneration after training.

Sustained sleep restriction, which is common in shift workers, impairs testosterone release as well. It was found that eight nights of sleep restriction (5 h sleep per night) led to significantly decreased testosterone levels during waking hours, with differences being especially apparent between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. 50. On balance, it is clear that insufficient and poor quality sleep hurts testosterone production, hampering muscle protein synthesis, and, in consequence, prevents optimum muscle regeneration after training 51.
Sleep debt triggers a protein degradation mechanism
It turns out that the production of other anabolic hormones is also negatively impacted by inadequate sleep. Research results show that concentrations of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) drop rapidly under conditions of sleep deprivation. IGF-1 is secreted predominantly by the liver in response to growth hormone (GH), the production of which also becomes suppressed 52. This is particularly important as IGF-1 is crucial to the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis, which is necessary for growth and adaptive processes in skeletal muscles 53.

The decrease of plasma testosterone and IGF-1 concentrations results in diminishing the signal inhibition for myostatin expression. In turn, elevated concentrations of myostatin lead to muscle atrophy by promoting protein degradation. The combined negative impact on muscle regeneration of all the mechanisms described above is schematically shown in Figure 8 54.
Schematic representation of the effects of sleep debt on skeletal muscle metabolism strengthclimbing hangboard finger strength training

Figure 8: Schematic representation of the effects of sleep debt on skeletal muscle metabolism 54.

Lack of sleep may undermine your weight loss program

In a fascinating experiment, Nedeltcheva et al. investigated the effect sleep deprivation can have on weight loss 55. The participants were subjected to two separate 14-day dietary intervention periods at least three months apart. During each period, they consumed the same personalized diet with caloric content restricted to 90% of their resting metabolic rate. However, during one of the interventions, they slept 8.5 hours/night, while during the other period, their sleep was restricted to only 5.5 hours/night. 

The order of the treatments was determined randomly for each participant. It turned out that the calorie-restricted diet resulted in comparable reductions in body mass in people who slept either 5.5 hours or 8.5 hours. Still, under the conditions of sleep restriction, the decrease in fat mass was 55% lower, and the loss of muscle mass was 60% higher, compared to the results reported for 8.5 hours of sleep per night.

Sleep deprivation leads to burning less fat and losing more muscle!

In summary, the results of the investigation performed Nedeltcheva, and her team showed that two weeks of combined energy and sleep restriction led to reduced loss of body fat and increased loss of fat-free body mass, accompanied by greater hunger. As for myself, I don’t think I lost too much lean body mass during my weight loss program because I was able to progress maximum strength. The adverse impact of sleep deprivation may have been, to an extent, offset by Intermittent Fasting, but unfortunately, I have no reliable means of measuring that. Admittedly, my results would have been better both in terms of finger strength gains and body composition improvement, if I got sufficient sleep.
The role of sleep in sports training – conclusion
Many athletes and coaches prioritize exercise above sleep, in their quest to reach high levels of fitness. However, good quality sleep should be an integral part of an elite athlete’s training routine 56. Alas, my busy schedule does not currently permit me to regularly get six, let alone eight hours of sleep. Most of the time, I need to settle for five, and sometimes even four hours per night. This is, of course, not enough to fully recover after a strenuous evening hangboarding session. Still, it is what I currently have to work with, and I thought that it would be interesting to take the opportunity to see how much I could improve my finger strength despite being chronically sleep-deprived. Even though I was able to reach satisfactory results, I firmly believe that sleep is an essential part of sports training, weight loss, and general every day well being.

Summary of absolute finger strength hangboard training gains

Execution of three consecutive cycles of the Ladders hangboard training protocol yielded significant gains in terms of my absolute finger strength. Over eight months was able to increase my average MVC-7 and MVC-12 by over 10%. I also observed that the finger strength gains for the HC 20 and the HC 10 grip positions, which I didn’t include in the protocol, were a little lower than the gains for the trained positions.

You can see my complete absolute MVC-7 finger strength progress for all targetted grip positions in the plot in Figure 9. I think that the most important result is that despite the loss of 6% of my body weight in Cycle 3, I was still able to make absolute strength gains. Under such circumstances keeping a constant strength level could already be considered an excellent result. The increases in Cycle 3 were not as high as those in Cycle 1 and Cycle 2, but this can also be related to the effect of reaching a plateau.

If you can hold pure power output and the muscle steady while making the athlete lighter, then you've won.

It’s interesting to see that while in 2019, my full crimp was significantly stronger than my half crimp and my three-finger pocket, by the end of Cycle 3, all three grip positions became equal. What is also of note is that my 14 mm full crimp did not really improve in Cycle 3. Possibly the loads I used for the FC 14 mm grip position were too high, which lead to a plateau, but it is a surprising result anyway, considering that I became stronger in all other positions.
absolute climbing hangboard finger strength training gains seven second maximum hangs strengthclimbing

Figure 9: My Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders Cycles 1 – 3: MVC-7 absolute finger strength progress plot for all targetted grip positions (July 2019 – February 2020).

The absolute MVC-12 finger strength progress for all targetted grip positions is plotted in Figure 10. It’s noticeable that my half crimp on the 14 mm edge became stronger than my full crimp. These results confirm that finger strength in the full crimp grip position is not directly correlated with finger strength in the half crimp position. Both crimp positions should be trained independently, which is what Steve Maish said in one of the Power Company Climbing podcasts 57.
absolute climbing hangboard finger strength training gains twelve second maximum hangs strengthclimbing

Figure 10: My Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders Cycles 1 – 3: MVC-12 absolute finger strength progress plot for all targetted grip positions (July 2019 – February 2020).

One additional interesting observation we can make by comparing Figure 9 and Figure 10 is that the average MVC-12 is roughly 93 – 94% of MVC-7. The load to hang time dependency is an individual thing, but in my experience, for short hang times and high loads, it does not differ significantly between climbers. If you know your MVC-7 and you would like to estimate your MVC-12 quickly, then you can quite accurately assume that the respective load is 93-94% of the MVC-7 load. This can be useful when you need to design your 3-6-9 Ladders training cycles.

Summary of relative finger strength hangboard training gains

In climbing, it is not the absolute finger strength, but strength related to bodyweight that is essential 5859. That’s why in Cycle 3 I decided to test some dietary regimens, to see if I could give my relative strength an additional boost. My primary concern was that if I lost weight, I would also lose muscle mass and become weaker. I plotted my average absolute strength, my weight and my average finger strength relative to body weight in Figure 11.
8 months climber relative maximum finger strength hangboard finger strength training progress strengthclimbing

Figure 11: My Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders Cycles 1 – 3: HC 20 mm absolute finger strength, body weight and HC 20 mm/BW relative strength (July 2019 – February 2020).

To measure absolute finger strength, I used 7-second maximum voluntary contraction hangs (MVC-7) on a 20 mm edge. This provides a good reference to the results published by Lattice Training and the MaxToGrade internet poll 6061. You can see from the plot above that throughout the months preceding structured hangboard training I made very little progress in terms of absolute finger strength. During that time my training included mostly long-duration low-intensity hangs, oriented mainly at muscle hypertrophy rather than pure strength. It was only when I started Ladders 3-6-9 Cycle 1 that I began to get stronger.

You can also see that the strength gain after each consecutive cycle was becoming smaller. In Cycle 2 this effect can solely be attributed to coming closer to reaching a training plateau, while in Cycle 3 weight loss might have also hampered the progress. However, the difference between strength gains achieved in Cycle 2 and Cycle 3 is not dramatic, so I believe that the weight loss factor was less decisive. Based on these results, it seems reasonable not to engage in another strength training cycle if the absolute strength increase falls short of 2%. Instead, you can consider switching to a muscle hypertrophy protocol, such as the SubHangsIntHangs, or plain Hangboard Repeaters, for 8 – 12 weeks 26263.
Losing 5 kg of weight during the entire 8 month program really made a big difference. Getting stronger while getting leaner created a powerful combination, which made my relative finger strength skyrocket during Cycle 3. This effect ultimately allowed me to break int the 7B benchmark level on the Moonboard, and even send a 7B+ boulder. Still, I believe that you should be very careful when training and cutting weight at the same time. One should definitely not overdo it and you should settle for a healthy optimum, so as not to risk undernourishment and injury.

Moonboard bouldering progress summary

The finger strength I gained with my first 3-6-9 Ladders training program allowed me to send some of my long-term Moonboard projects and progress from the 7A benchmark level to the 7B benchmark level on the Moonboard Masters 2017 hold setup 6465. The most interesting problems I sent during each training cycle are listed below.

Cycle 1
Cycle 2
After the second training cycle, I noticed further gains. I managed to tick off five of my long term projects during a single training session! Some of those I’d been battling with for months:
Cycle 3
During the third training cycle I continued to send old projects, and also managed to quickly tick off some new hard boulder problems, including some V8s: One extra thing worth mentioning here is that apart from training two to three times a week on the hangboard and occasionally doing a Moonboard session to check my progress I did not undertake any additional climbing training. Many climbers claim that if you don’t train on the Moonboard for a week or two, your performance will significantly decrease. During the finger strength training program I sometimes didn’t climb on the Moonboard for over a month and I was still able to consistently improve my grade.

My 3-6-9 Ladders finger strength training program final conclusions

During eight months of finger strength hangboard training following Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders protocol I was able to significantly improve my absolute finger strength. At the same time, during the last training cycle, I was also able to reduce my body weight, which altogether yielded high gains in terms of my relative finger strength. Completion of the training program allowed me to ultimately progress from the Moonboard 7A benchmark level to the 7B benchmark level, which proves the fact that relative finger strength is crucial to climbing steep boulders on small holds. A short summary of my eigth-month program is given in Table 4.

Table 4: My Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders hangboard finger strength training program summary (July 2019 – February 2020).

Bechtel's 3-6-9 Ladders Cycles 1 - 3
PositionsFC 14 mm/HC 14mm/3-p 20 mm
Load90 - 92% MVC-7
Sleep4 - 6 hours
Time frameJul. 2019Mar. 20208 months
MVC-7 (HC 20 mm)108 kg116 kg+7.4%
Avg. MVC (all pos.)93 kg103 kg+11.0%
MVC-7/BW (HC 20 mm)
Max. Moon BM
7A/V67B/V8+2 V
Body Weight66 kg61 kg-7.6%

My main takeaways from the whole eight-month finger strength training program are summarized below.

Finger strength training

  1. It’s enough to train 2 – 3 times a week on a hangboard to progress on the Moonboard.
  2. Improving relative finger strength brings instant and significant progress in terms of maximum climbed bouldering grade.
  3. With Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders protocol, it’s possible to increase finger strength over many months without hitting a plateau, albeit the rate of progress will decrease over time.
  4. The Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders protocol is much harder and intensive than it is generally perceived.
    • For the 3-6-9 Ladders protocol, it’s better to use loads that permit you to hang for 14 – 17 seconds instead of the 12 seconds prescribed by Steve.
    • Using loads that are too high does not bring the expected improvement and may lead to a plateau.
  5. It’s necessary to train the half crimp and the full crimp positions separately.
    • The half crimp can become stronger than the full crimp.

Weight loss and training

  1. It’s possible to gain strength and lose weight at the same time. 
  2. Being on Keto Diet and depleting the glycogen stores does not seem to impact finger strength nor forearm endurance adversely.
  3. Intermittent Fasting is a powerful weight loss strategy.
    • It makes it more difficult to overeat.
    • You don’t need to calculate calories that accurately.
    • It helps preserve muscle mass while burning fat.
  4. Losing weight during a climbing program did not lead to injury, but you should always be careful and stop the session at any onset of pain in your fingers or shoulders.

Sleep deprivation

  1. It’s possible to sleep only 4 – 6 hours/night and still get stronger.
    • I firmly advise against it, but if there’s no other possibility, then training can still be worthwhile.
    • Gains are likely to be significantly compromised.
    • Regeneration may take longer.
  2. Inadequate sleep causes burning less fat and losing more muscle.
  3. Chronic sleep deprivation during a climbing program did not lead to injury, but I was careful and I did little training aside from hangboarding.
According to Steve Bechtel, the key to making progress with the 3-6-9 Ladders protocol is to follow it through. At the beginning of the cycle, you will feel like you are gaining strength quickly, only to seemingly plateau towards the end, which will make you want to quit early. But don’t give up, and make sure you finish the entire cycle if you want the gains to be persistent 66!

I improved my average absolute finger strength by 11% after eight months of training, while losing 7.6% of body weight! I increased my relative finger strength by 26.5%, sent many long-time projects and entered the 7B BM Moonboard level! Make sure you also follow the protocol through!

I’ve been actively hangboarding for over ten years, and I find it encouraging that I’m still able to get stronger and keep sending harder. After three finger strength training cycles with the 3-6-9 Ladders protocol, my MVC-7 on a 20 mm edge increased from 108 kg to 116 kg. What is interesting is that at the same time I was able to lose 5 kg of weight, from 66 kg down to 61 kg. My relative strength on a 20 mm edge increased from 163.5% to 190% in just eight months! Based on generally available statistical data, I should now be able to boulder as hard as V10 6167. Maybe that’s possible if I found a boulder particularly suiting by style, but my current consistent level is V8 benchmark on the Moonboard.

And what is your experience with hangboard training? What is your favorite protocol? Let me know in the comments! Please subscribe to the blog to keep up to date with the upcoming posts on cutting edge methods of climbing training! 


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6 thoughts on “8-month Hangboard Finger Strength Training Program Results”

  1. Hi

    Great write-up. Although I have been climbing for quite awhile now and am climbing 13as now, I have never trained on fingerboard (go figure!). Now, I can see that if I want to push my limits even further I need to start hanging more. I find your blog extremely interesting and useful and am sure it will help me prepare a perfect fingerboard training.

    In one of the above replies you wrote “The training session itself consisted of 3 – 5 sets per hold position”. However, in the article you mentioned seperating HC and FC. I assume you did not do that, but one would like to do it by the book what the training breakdown would look like? Could you elaborate on that?

    Thanks in advance


    1. Hi Piotr!

      Thanks a lot! If you’re already climbing 13a and you’ve never trained on the hangboard before, then you’re bound to see some serious progress once you start! I hope you will find a lot of useful information here to get you going!

      Regarding your question, Steve Bechtel’s Ladders program consists of four Phases. Each Phase comprises 2 – 3 training sessions. During each session, you train 3 – 4 selected hold positions, e.g., full crimp, half crimp, 3-finger pocket, pinches, slopers – you name it. I do separate between the full crimp and the half crimp, by the way.

      In Phase 1 of the Cycle, you do 3 sets of 3-6-9 per hold position. It means that for the first hold position you hang for 3 seconds, then you rest for 30 – 60 seconds, then hang for 6 seconds, rest 30 – 60 seconds, and then hang for 9 seconds, concluding one set. You then rest for 3 – 5 minutes and repeat the exercise two more times for the given hold (e.g., full crimp), so that’s 3 sets altogether. Next, you repeat the same procedure for the remaining trained hold positions (e.g., half crimp and 3-finger pocket).

      Next, in Phase 2, you do 4 sets of 3-6-9, and in Phase 3 you do 5 sets of 3-6-9. Phase 4 is where it becomes tricky because you return to 3 sets per position, but you do 3-6-9-12. The transition to 12-second hangs can be particularly tough in the beginning, but then you get used to it at the end of the Cycle.

  2. Thank you for putting all of this together! I’m about 6 weeks in with this protocol. It’s really helpful to see someone’s longer term experience to help stay the course

    1. Hi Tim!

      Thank you very much for this comment! I’m thrilled that the article helped you to stay motivated! Steve Bechtel says that strength training is like brushing your teeth – you must do it regularly to get the results!

      If you feel like it and if you find the time, it would be great if you could share some of the details of your program, like your loads, rest times, progress, etc.

      Keep getting stronger!

  3. Super, długi artykuł. Czekam na wyniki z innych protokołów!
    Jakie zalecasz przerwy miedzy cyklami? 1-2 tyg zupełnie bez wspinania czy przerwy od zwisów?
    W sumie trening składał się z rozgrzewki i 3 zwisów 3-6-9 sek?

    1. What pauses do you recommend between finger strength training cycles? 1 – 2 weeks of no climbing? Or maybe just no hangboarding?
    2. Did the training consist of a warmup and 3 hangs 3-6-9 seconds?

    1. Cześć!

      Cieszę się, że artykuł Ci się spodobał i wielkie dzieki, że subskrybujesz blog!:) Postanowiłem zrobić przerwę od treningu siłowego, więc w kolejnych postach skoncentruję się pewnie na hipertrofii i treningu wytrzymałościowym. Ale na wyniki pewnie trzeba będzie poczekać parę miesięcy. Pozwoliłem sobie przetłumaczyć pytanie i odpowiedzieć po angielsku, żeby inni też mogli skorzystać. W razie wątpliwości, możesz mi zawsze napisać maila:)


      What pauses do you recommend between finger strength training cycles? 1 – 2 weeks of no climbing? Or maybe just no hangboarding?
      Did the training consist of a warmup and 3 hangs 3-6-9 seconds?

      Answer to question 1:
      I don’t believe that it’s optimum to do multiple finger strength training cycles one after the other. I only did it to see how much time it would take me before a plateaued. I think you would be generally better off if you alternated maximum strength training cycles with hypertrophy cycles consisting of Repeaters, IntHangs, or SubHangs. In such a case, you don’t have to make any pauses between the subsequent cycles. However, if your fingers or shoulders hurt, you are getting elbow tendinitis, or you are just tired and bored with hangboard training, consider taking a rest. A lot depends on the volume of other climbing activities that you do and how you combine that with hangboarding.

      Answer to question 2:
      Each training session consisted of a general warmup, which ended with a series of recruitment hangs. The final recruitment hang loads should ideally slightly exceed the target session loads.
      The training session itself consisted of 3 – 5 sets per hold position. Each set consisted of a series of 3-6-9 hangs, or 3-6-9-12 hangs later in the cycle. So the total number of hangs for the three trained hold positions ranged between 27 – 45 – 36 hangs altogether, depending on the time in the cycle.

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