Finger strength training progress: Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders: part 1

Quick summary

Hangboard finger strength training

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.

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!

Still, it was not until 2010 that I became serious about hangboard training 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 [3][4]. 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]. Recently, after testing a couple of different hangboard strength training routines, including the “7-53” protocol by Eric Hörst, and the One Arm Hangs, 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 with this underrated, but safe and surprisingly effective rock climbing training protocol.

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

According to the protocol instructions, the first thing you should do is to find the load at which you can hang for exactly 12 seconds maximum on each of the grip positions that you want to train [9][5][7]. For the protocol execution, I chose the Zlagboard Pro, because it has a large variety of edges and pockets [10]. I also 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, 18 mm deep (3-p 18)

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

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

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

  • FC 14: 90 kg (92% MVC-7)
  • 3-p 18: 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 quire intense. Based on the models found in the literature, we can find 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 [11][12][13][14][15][16]. 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 [7].

For this reason, I decided to reduce the loads slightly to be able to execute the entire protocol, particularly because in the later stages, it 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:

  • FC 14: 89 kg (91% MVC-7)
  • HC 14: 86 kg (92% MVC-7)
  • 3-p 18: 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 load percentage, but it made a difference and allowed me to complete the whole training cycle.

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

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

Finger strength training progress lo

Figure 2: My finger strength training progress 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 cycle. The complete MVC-7 and MVC-12 test results 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.

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

Position07.201910.2019Gain
FC 14 (7s)98 kg103 kg5.1%
HC 14 (7s)94.5 kg99 kg4.8%
3-p 18 (7s)93 kg98 kg4.3%
FC 14 (12s)91 kg96 kg5.5%
HC 14 (12s)88 kg94 kg6.8%
3-p 18 (12s)86 kg95 kg10.5%
HC 20 (7s)108 kg111 kg2.8%
HC 10 (7s)88 kg91 kg3.4%
You can also see the progress I made so far with Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders strength training protocol in the plot in Figure 3 below.

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

I found the results 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. I’m now executing the second cycle of the ladders protocol, and I’m comfortable with doing the 3-6-9 ladders with the loads listed below:

  1. FC 14: 93 kg (90% MVC-7)
  2. HC 14: 90 kg (91% MVC-7)
  3. 3-p 18: 90 kg loads (92% MVC-7)

The training loads above are about 4.5% higher than in July, but they still lie between 90 – 92% MVC-7, which at this point seems to be the optimum for me.

Climbing finger strength training progress conclusions

Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders protocol is an efficient and safe way of systematically training finger strength for bouldering and sport climbing. Over three months, I’ve been able to increase my average MVC-7 by about 4%. My average MVC-12 improvement was more significant, reaching about 7.6%. In particular, the MVC-12 improvement for the 3-p 18 grip position was as big as 10.5%. This result can most probably be explained by the fact that I’d not trained this particular grip position in the period before the execution of the 3-6-9 Ladders protocol. 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 positions actually trained.

The finger strength I gained with my first 3-6-9 Ladders training cycle allowed me to send some of my long-term Moonboard projects, including [17]:

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 [18]!

I've improved my finger strength by 4% in just three months! I solidified the 7A BM Moonboard level, and I sent many long-time projects! 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 a single finger strength training cycle with the 3-6-9 Ladders protocol, my MVC-7 on a 20 mm edge increased from 108 kg to 111 kg, which at my current weight of 66 kilograms, is about 168% BW. Based on generally available statistical data, I should be able to boulder as hard as V10 [19][20]. Maybe that’s possible if I found a boulder particularly suiting by style, but my current consistent level is V6 benchmark on the Moonboard. I’ll keep you updated on the progress I made with my hangboard training for strength.

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!

References

  1. E. Hörst, Training for Climbing: The Definitive Guide to Improving Your Performance (How To Climb Series), FalconGuides; 2nd edition, Sept. 1, 2016. (link)
  2. J. Banaszczyk, StrengthClimbing – Hangboard Repeaters strength endurance protocol, Apr. 8, 2019. (link)
  3. J. Banaszczyk, StrengthClimbing – Eva López MaxHangs hangboard routine for finger strength, Apr. 29, 2019. (link)
  4. Eva López Blog – Fingerboard Training Guide (II). Maximal grip Strength and Endurance Methods and Load Training management, May 23, 2018. (link)
  5. S. Bechtel, Climb Strong – Logical Progression, Using Nonlinear Periodization for Year-Round Climbing Performance, Feb. 23, 2017. (link)
  6. N. Quinn, Steve Bechtel on Training Endurance for Climbing, Trainingbeta Podcast 110, Aug. 9th, 2018. (link)
  7. J. Banaszczyk, StrengthClimbing – Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders hangboard finger strength training, May 18, 2019. (link)
  8. r/climbharder, Steve Bechtel’s 3-6-9 Ladders – a good introduction to hangboarding? Jan 15, 2019. (link)
  9. S. Bechtel, Training: Hangboard Ladders for Finger Strength, Climbing.com, Aug. 10. 2016. (link)
  10. Zlagboard.com (link)
  11. Rohmert, W., 1960. Ermittlung von Erholungspausen für statische Arbeit des Menschen. Internationale Zeitschrift für Angewandte Physiologie Einschliesslich Arbeitsphysiologie 18, 123–164. (link)
  12. Manenica, I., 1986. A technique for postural load assessment. In: Corlett, N., Wilson, J., Manenica, I., editors. The ergonomics of working postures. Taylor and Francis; London, 270-277. (link)
  13. Sato, H., Ohashi, J., Iwanaga, K., Yoshitake, R., Shimada, K., 1984. Endurance time and fatigue in static contractions. Journal of Human Ergology. (link)
  14. Dieen, J.H.V., Vrielink, H.H.E.O., 1994. The use of the relation between relative force and endurance time. Ergonomics 37, 231–243. (link)
  15. Huijgens, J.M.M., 1981. A model for quantifying static load, incorporating muscle fatigue. In: Buskirk, W.C. (Ed.), Biomechanics Symposium, Boulder, CO, 22-24 Jun. American Society of Mechanical Engineers, New York, pp. 97-99. (link)
  16. Sjogaard, G., 1986. Intramuscular changes during long-term contraction. In: Corlett, N., Wilson, J., Manenica, I. (Eds.), The Ergonomics of Working Postures – Models, Methods and Cases. Taylor & Francis, London, pp. 136-143 (Chapter 14). (link)
  17. www.moonboard.com/ (link)
  18. S. Bechtel, The Climb Strong Hangboard Manual, 2018. (link)
  19. https://toclimb8a.shinyapps.io/maxtograde/ (link)
  20. J. Banaszczyk, StrengthClimbing – Endurance Repeaters – Forearm Aerobic Endurance Hangboard Routine, May 2, 2019. (link)

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