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Academy: Hangboard Shoulder Engagement

Part of our "Toes to Knows" Climbing Academy series--covering climbing from footwork to mental preparation.

Tags: Hangboarding, Intermediate

This post is written on April 7, 2020—a few months into the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

With COVID-19 in full swing in the outside world we’re forced to move our climbing into the home. For most, that means hangboarding! The good news is that hangboarding is a great way to get strong. The bad news is that it’s way less fun than actual climbing.

I’ve been hangboarding seriously for several years. I also have some of my climbing team members using the tool to help augment our other workouts. With COVID raging outside, hangboarding is the only climbing outlet many of us have. I’m using the opportunity to work give some guidance on how to do it the right way.

I’m not a doctor or PT. My experience comes from reading from those folks, doing it myself and coaching other climbers. Esther Smith from Grass Roots Physical Therapy has written a good article and shot a video for Black Diamond on hanging the right way. I encourage you to watch her video and read her article.

My goal with this blog post is not to give a specific hangboarding protocol, but instead to make sure you’re hanging with proper form so that when you hang you minimize your risk of injury.

When I see a people hanging for the first time, or even some more experienced hangboarders, a lot of them tend to have poor form. Most importantly, they are hanging without any engagement in their shoulders, elbows or core. Lack of shoulder engagement means you’re hanging directly on the connective soft tissue in your joints. Do a lot of this, especially under heavy loads, and you risk injury. Esther Smith calls it hanging like a bag of rocks. Our joints, especially the shoulder joints, aren’t intended to be supported in this way.

Instead, engage the muscles in your arms, shoulders, lats and core to make sure you’re hanging on muscles instead of soft tissue. This becomes critical when if you start to hang with weight.

How do you know if your shoulders are engaged? Here are a few tips:

  • Pull your shoulders and lats down
  • This results in your neck being visible above your shoulder joints
  • Tighten your core muscles
  • Put a slight bend in your elbows, say a 120° bend in the elbows
  • Rotate your arms so your elbow points a bit forward instead of directly sideways

An added benefit of hanging with bent elbows is that your grip position, and therefore strength, is altered when your elbows are bent. Tyler Nelson from C4HP suggests hanging with 120° and 90° elbow bend. Climbers need good, high lock off strength so I train both of these angles.

Practice this feeling of engagement on the hangboard in your garage. Do it enough that you get a feel for engaged vs not engaged in your lats, shoulders and arms. Habituate this feeling—you should be have shoulder engagement when you’re climbing on rock, assuming we ever get to do that again.

Hang right and you’ll get stronger and definitely climb better!

Happy Hanging!

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