By Jonathan Baldassare, MTI Contributor
The modern climbing gyms of today offer members a plethora of training opportunities to hone their skills and build upon their strength, stamina, and endurance. Most offer their guests the use of bouldering areas, sport climbing routes, systems boards, campus boards, and if you’re lucky; standardized interactive training walls, such as Moon, Kilter, and Tension boards. My local gym does not have any of these interactive boards, so I never knew what I was missing until the realities of COVID-19 set in and gyms started to close.
I quickly found myself seeking alternative training solutions to get my climbing fix when not able to get out to the crag. The most obvious (and least expensive) choice was to turn to our trusty fingerboards, but even the Beastmaker (https://www.beastmaker.co.uk/collections/fingerboards) hang-boards (with accompanying smartphone App) has its limitations. Sure, It gets your fingers strong; but there’s more to climbing hard than just strong fingers, and for that, it falls short.
I wanted to build a bouldering wall/training area in our pole barn, despite the exorbitant cost of lumber at the time. I weighed the options:
- A typical, run-of-the-mill “woody” bouldering wall
- A systems board (similar to a woody, but with many holds laid out symmetrically on the wall so that you can practice making identical moves with both sides of your body)
- A more involved, App-based, standardized interactive training wall.
I chose the third option, as systems boards have never been inspiring for me, and setting my own routes on a standard “woody” had some glaring drawbacks.
- Laziness -I knew having to set my own routes would get old.
- I’m not particularly good at setting.
- I had a sneaking suspicion that if I DID set routes, I would tend to set them to suit my climbing strengths and preferences (as opposed to training my weaknesses-which tends to yield the best results).
That being said, the adjustable angle that Kilterboards are known for, seemed difficult to make work in the space that I had. Additionally, when climbing, I wanted the solid feel of a fixed wall.
For this reason, and the fact the Moon had the most resources available, I decided to bite the bullet and order the parts to build what eventually became our full-size, 40° Moonboard, complete with LEDs (https://moonclimbing.com/moonboard/led/moonboard-led-system-v2.html) and the “2019 Masters” set (I chose 40° over the 25° angle based on our climbing ability -the steeper wall has access to harder problems).
I started with using three out of the six possible holds sets: “School Holds” (https://moonclimbing.com/moonboard/holds-and-bolts.html) sets A (white), B (black), and Original (yellow). This configuration yields over 2000 problems from v3 – v14. Adding the other hold sets would unlock more routes, but this seemed like a good start for me, as holds are expensive (each set costing over $400).
After the first week of climbing on my newly constructed monstrosity, I realized something: It’s steep, it’s hard, and it’s sandbagged. But this is a good thing once you can put your ego aside.
The boulder problems start at v3, and most feel about 1-2 v-grades harder than the set routes of the same rating found in gyms (albeit, more on par with outdoor problems). These ratings are determined by a consensus from Moonboard users the world over.
Each v-grade also has a selection of routes that are deemed “Benchmark” problems (Signified by a “B” in a yellow circle on the App). These problems were selected by Moonboard moderators as routes of high quality and a good representation of the grade (i.e. sandbagged).
Moonboard problems involve a lot of power, tension, finger strength, and footwork on insecure moves. Many demand big moves using dynos and dead-points. Pulling on these holds at such a steep angle is hard on the fingers, and one must be cognizant that injuring a pulley tendon is a real possibility. I try to warm up thoroughly and typically keep my sessions to about an hour long to limit my risk of injury.
What are the benefits of training on a Moonboard?
- Fewer people than in the gym -which could also be considered a con, as camaraderie can be motivating, but at least there aren’t kids running underneath you while you’re cruxing out (unless they’re your own). Few to no people also means that nobody is there to interfere with your 4×4 routine.
- You get more out of your v-sum workouts -In conventional commercial climbing gyms when doing a v- sum, I found that I tended to gravitate towards problems that are the least physically taxing, soft in grade and/or routes that I have wired (all of which effectively cheat me out of training just to pump up my v-sum number). This usually meant avoiding the “steep wall” of the bouldering area -but with the Moonboard ALL the problems are on the steep wall.
- Benchmarks force you to train your weaknesses -If you get into the game of trying to climb all the benchmarks of the v-grades within your ability, you will be forced to work problems that do not suit your strengths. This is something that I find hard to electively do in a conventional gym, as routes that are easier for me, and that have bigger numbers attached to them are more attractive (e.g. why do the miserable-looking v5 when I can style the v8 right next to it?).
- It’s probably as safe as climbing can be -You are never more than a few feet off the ground, so with adequate padding the falls are inconsequential.
Aside from not being free from the distractions of home, there are other significant drawbacks to not having an entire gym at your disposal.
- Moonboards can be hard to warm up on -there are some jugs on the board, but not many.
- Prone to finger injuries if not careful -a steep angle and tweaky holds can be a recipe for disaster and can wreak havoc on finger tendons.
- Hard to train endurance -or, at least, not as easy as doing laps on the sport climbs in the gym. The holds are simply hard to hold on to for more than a handful of moves.
- You miss out on routes that climb different features -slabs, corners, roofs, and volumes are all nowhere to be found on the Moonboard.
The Moonboard is the original and most popular standardized interactive training wall and is a great alternative to climbing in a commercial gym. The fact that it’s both difficult and humbling to climb on speak to its effectiveness as a training tool for mountain athletes going out to climb outdoor boulders, sport and traditional routes.
I experienced noticeable gains in both grip strength and power from my pre-season training (https://mtntactical.com/shop/pre-season-rock-climb-training-plan/) on the Moonboard. This translated to holds on outdoor rock projects to feel just a little bit larger, and the bigger moves not quite as taxing as before. I even felt the benefits of Moonboard training on steep ice routes during the winter months.
It would be beneficial, however, to utilize another form of climbing to pair with the board in an effort to create more of a balance. Sport climbing or even simply bouldering on non-Moonboard routes with walls of differing angles and features would offer more of a variety of skills to practice, and be easier for pure endurance training.
Before using the Moonboard, I generally avoided known sandbagged routes of the area. However, through using it I have gotten stronger, and have learned to embrace the sandbag and zoom in on my weaknesses in climbing. Training is, after all, “supposed to be hard, if it was easy, everyone would do it.” (A League of Their Own)
Jonathan is a recreation professional and certified rock and ice climbing instructor in New Hampshire.
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