By Dan Wagman, PhD, CSCS
Publisher, Journal of Pure Power
Consultant, Body Intellect
(WEBMASTER NOTE: Recently I issued a writing contest, in which I challenged lifters to write about an unusual training implement/device that they use in their training. The stories were submitted and judged, and I’m going to initially publish the top three stories in the USAWA Daily News as they were the contest award winners. Thank you to everyone who submitted stories for this competition, as they were all excellent. Here’s story RANKED NUMBER TWO:)
My oddest training device is my fingerboard; it comes out of the realm of bouldering. In the rock-climbing world this strength-training device is rather common as climbers use it to strengthen their fingers and pull-up prowess. I use it in my Dungeon exclusively for weighted pull-ups and one-armed pull-ups.
What’s different with a fingerboard compared to a chinning bar is that you have different gripping options. You can use a narrow or shoulder-width grip, but you can also change the amount of grip your hands actually have. So you can use a grip that’s similar to what you’d have on a bar or you can pull while palming the fingerboard, meaning that your fingers aren’t wrapped around anything, but instead are flat on a slightly conical surface that extends from your fingertips down to your palm. That’s how I warm up my pull-ups and I have found it to increase my grip strength. Then there are slots and holes of different sizes so that you can pull with the first link of any number of fingers you’d like to use. And of course you also have the option of doing one-armed pull-ups with any combination of fingers or hand-hold method you’d like. All of this turns pull-ups into an entirely different dimension, quite different than what the usual weight lifter would do. But once I go from my fingerboard to a regular chinning bar, I’m moving a lot more weight.
My Historical Context
Although I don’t know much about the history of fingerboards in the climbing world, I can tell you that it’s nearly non-existent in weight lifting gyms. But here’s how this training came about for me. When I started lifting as a teenager, I was consumed by trying to become as strong as possible. One of the guys in the gym would always do pull-ups. He also added weight around his waist with some silly looking ropes. But he also pulled himself over the bar with ONE ARM, and could do that with both arms for reps. That blew me away and after watching him for some weeks I built up the courage to approach him.
Turns out he was training for his main passion — bouldering. When you’re on a rock-face, it can be very important to be able to pull yourself up to the next hold with one arm. And so those silly ropes he used to hold additional weight, well, they were two different types of climbing ropes with specialty knots, one around his waist and the other attached via a carabiner for additional weight. The next time I saw him he brought ropes and a carabiner to the gym and made me my own chinning rig. Now that’s the best present I ever got and I still use it all the time.
So in my training back then I continued to pile on the weight for my pull-ups. But when I tried a one-armed pull-up, I couldn’t even bend my elbow an inch — literally. So I reduced the difficulty by doing one-armed pull-downs. Once I could do my body weight, I increased the difficulty by pulling on a chinning bar instead. But it still took some time until I was able to pull myself to the bar with one arm. For the last 15 years or so, however, I use a bouldering fingerboard for all my pull-ups. Why? It’s just another method to increase the difficulty of pull-ups. And I suppose I don’t have to explain to a bunch of all-round lifters why that’s a good thing, do I?
My passion for lifting weights and one-armed pull-ups lives on as strong as ever. I was able to send my friend a picture of me doing one-armed chins weighing 190 pounds with a 35-pound plate around my waist as it appeared in Milo. He was proud to know that he was the one who started this insanity in me. But of course he’s insane, too; how many guys do you know who in their late 50’s do one-armed pull-ups for reps with each arm?