Making a freestanding fingerboard/pull-up station and squat rack

Covid-19 has meant a huge change in the way most of us live, and one thing it has meant for many people is spending a lot more time indoors. At the start of all this there were many self righteous articles about how one should really savour this time and make the most of it. I mostly ignored all of that, but I did decide to make something that I’d wanted to make for years but have never got round to doing. A little while later and it’s now finished.

Fingerboarding

Fingerboarding is to climbing what turbo training is to cycling, or what playing scales is to a musician: it’s doubtless beneficial but very boring and requires proper motivation. Without an end goal in mind you might as well spend your time cutting your lawn with scissors.

I’ve been climbing for about ten years and have never really used a fingerboard, instead relying on being weak to ensure I don’t try any climbs that might be too hard for me.

I’ve also had the convenient excuse of having never lived in a house where I’ve been able to put one up. I’ve now got a house which I can do what I like to, but none of its door frames are suitable for mounting a fingerboard, so a freestanding fingerboard seemed like the way to go.

Gym stuff

I have a love/hate relationship with gyms. I can’t stand the idea of begrudgingly going somewhere multiple times a week just to placate your enormous membership fees. Going through the motions of jogging on a treadmill or mincing about with some weights sounds like tedium personified. However, if you’re injured and need some rehabilitation, have a defined end goal in mind, or you’re working away and the hotel gym is all you’ve got, then gyms are fantastic.

Almost anyone practising almost any sport, or simply just living, would benefit from going to a gym to work on their weaknesses or imbalances.

Squats, in particular, are a great exercise but very difficult to do without a squat rack or power rack.

Opportunity

It seemed to me a free-standing fingerboard and squat rack would be pretty cool to have at home, so I started sketching ideas and looking at people’s existing builds and any commercial designs already out there. Youtube, in particular, was an amazing resource, and there are some staggeringly impressive things that people have built and made videos about.

Aesthetics and cost

I knew that if I were to spend a couple of weekends building this thing then I’d want it to look decent. If it looked crap then I’d be less inclined to use it, it would ruin a room, and it wouldn’t justify the time or cost to make it. I don’t mind exercising in pretty grungy locations:

I’ve worked out in old warehouses covered in pigeon crap, and have run circuit training classes week-in week-out for years in fields and parks in the pouring rain, and in university campus stairwells, so while the whole grunge aesthetic of training isn’t a no-go for me, having somewhere nice to train is never a bad thing…

Making it look all right meant buying decent materials and trying to do a good job of putting it together. Regarding costs, I reckoned I could make it all for about £200 (roughly 250 USD), including buying a fingerboard. I think I came in slightly under that.

Materials

The design revolves around two big upright 4x4s (4x4s aren’t 4 inches wide when you buy them… they’re approx. 90mm), 2x4s holding them off the ground, and 2×4 supports helping prop the 4x4s up. The two 4x4s have two boards of 16mm hardwood ply to act as the fingerboard and pullup mounting station and to stiffen it all up. By offsetting the plywood sections you get more options for holds and an ‘overhang’ to climb round.

Two big 4x4s and a few 2x4s: the start of the build.

I wanted to ensure that the design could easily be taken apart and moved if required. I could have used screws throughout, but the wood around screws gets gradually weaker if you repeatedly screw them in/out, and while nuts and bolts are very strong and effective, they aren’t very aesthetically pleasing, so I decided to use bolts at the top of the board, screws for the tricky angled supports, and metal brackets and threaded inserts (insert nuts) for the critical strength bits at the bottom of the design. I am fortunate to live within walking distance of a large timber merchant who could sell me almost all the stuff I needed, with Screwfix or Toolstation doing the rest. I used iron pipe, the same stuff that you see in hipster bars holding up tables and chairs, for the pullup bar and barbell supports, and I ordered that online. The iron pipe seems to be more readily available in the USA than in the UK, and it caused me some issues later on with supply, but nothing too bad.

Making brackets

I searched high and low for some angle brackets which didn’t either look crap, have the wrong holes, or were the wrong size or strength. In the end I decided to make my own, which wasn’t as hard as I expected. I bought a piece of 3mm angle iron from a local metal dealer and chopped that up, before centre-punching and then drilling (slowly and with a good drill bit being the key factors) the various holes I needed for the bolts. This was the first mistake I made…

Making metal brackets. Time consuming but pretty satisfying.

Insert nuts are fantastic once lined up, but trying to line up a 6mm bolt in a 6mm insert nut, through a 6mm hole in the angle plate, is exceptionally difficult. You have literally zero margin for error, no wiggle room. If I were doing these again I’d drill bigger holes in the angle. Somehow I managed to bodge the bolts to all fit, but it was a bit of a nightmare despite careful measuring and remeasuring etc.. They look great now they’re done and they’re bombproof strong, but during a few hours of wiggling them in they were pretty frustrating…

Strutting about

Buying the proper tool is often key to getting stuff done right, but I also like a good bodge.

I thought that buying a mitre saw that stated it wouldn’t cut 2x4s on a bevel or mitre would be fine, and it would manage it if you were clever.

Turns out I was wrong, and unless I ran the saw with the safety guard off which I was absolutely unwilling to try, I had to cut the 2×4’s bevel cuts for the support struts by hand. I couldn’t be bothered to make a template so just bodged it. Not impossible, but it would have been easier to be accurate if I’d got a suitable saw. Fed up by this point with insert nuts, I used screws to join the support struts to the main uprights. They’re 60mm screws at the top and 45mm at the bottom, so not going anywhere.

Plywood

The carcass was still pretty wobbly at this point, despite my feeble temporary cross-brace at the top of the structure.

The whole thing was still a bit wobbly at this point, despite a cross brace along the bottom of it all and the various supports in place. Next came the job of putting the plywood boards on, and these stiffened it up considerably. I used M10 bolts to secure it all together and despite my reservations over appearance, they look absolutely fine.

In hindsight I should perhaps have used them for the attachment of the uprights to the base too; it would have been much easier. The plywood itself is 16mm far eastern hardwood ply, which was the best grade readily available. I could have used 18mm stuff to make it super stiff but I wondered if a tiny bit of flex might actually be a good thing.

I painted the ply so it looked a bit less homemade (whoever at Crown Paints thought of using makeup applicators for paint testers, take a bow) and then I made some holds out of wood offcuts, sanding them with an orbital sander. They’re roughly 20mm and 30mm edges, so small enough but not really small. I also bought a Lattice board with its big ‘warmup’ rung and its smaller 20mm edge and screwed that on the board.

It’s done… sort of

At this point the board was ready for fingerboarding and campus use. I put some small footholds on it too to provide some options and to give my partner, who’s almost a foot shorter than me, a leg-up.

Once you’ve got the main structure built, adding small things like footholds only takes a few minutes.

We found ourselves using the board a fair bit, it doesn’t wobble even when moving pretty dynamically between the various holds, and because it’s a fairly simple setup but with offset panels, there’s a surprising number of ways it can be used. I’ve put a few holds on the back of the plywood too to allow leg raises more easily, and to practice (and fail miserably at) one-armers in a more side-on position. However, the other half of the point of making it – squats – was dealt a significant delay in getting hold of iron pipe. I ended up waiting months for the bits but eventually they arrived.

Getting there: fingerboard and some holds mounted.

Hot to squat

I had dreaded this bit of the build. The strongest way to make bar holders is to stick big bits of metal through the 4×4 uprights, and the only way to do that was to drill some massive holes in the 4x4s. Once you’ve got a fully functional structure that seems a bit drastic. Not trusting myself to drill straight on an upright with a fairly hefty drill and with a mad speedy drill bit, I took the whole thing apart and drilled the 4x4s when they were laid down.

The tricky job of drilling straight holes through the 4x4s. I was using some badass Bosch speedbore drillbits with worms on the front which were unnervingly fast and effective. The old Dyneema sling was used to hold a piece of wood on the back to prevent blowout on the back of the 4×4. I don’t own any suitable clamps and masking tape was nowhere near strong enough!
Barbell holder. The iron pipe required a bit of cleaning up and then I lacquered it to stop it rusting.

Once I put it back together again one post had perfect straight holes and the other side wasn’t quite as good… this was frustrating. I genuinely considered starting with a brand new 4×4, but once I had threaded the iron pipe through the holes, proved that it worked (I put 140kg on it which was all the weight I have and it didn’t move a mil)¸ I got over the minor aesthetic error and started doing some squats.

Barbell supports in place, made of iron pipe threaded through the 4×4. Note the marking above the higher holes from reracking the barbell.

With a height designed for me and one for my partner, it was perfect. At the same time I stuck a pullup bar on the upper section of the board. I missed a trick here: I used a bar slightly shorter than the distance between the 4x4s, and that limited the length of screws I could use. The high torque on the pullup bar, with it sitting away from the ply, meant that it wasn’t sufficiently strong without me reinforcing the ply with another piece of 2×4 mounted behind it, and then using much longer screws. If I’d used a longer bar it would have spanned the 4x4s and then I’d have made it much easier for myself. My original pullup bar idea was to have all sorts of different grips and bits of bar sticking off it, but they all proved too torquey, and so the plain bar, with ends on which to do very wide pullups, ended up as the best option.

Pull-up bar in place and the squats mounts in.

I then gave the whole structure a quick sand down with 120 grit and varnished it with some furniture varnish I had lying about. This is perhaps overkill, but with the thing being in the conservatory it gets a lot of sun, a lot of cold in the winter, and a lot of heat in the summer, and if it makes it last a bit longer then half an hour with a paintbrush was worth it.

Done

The creation has now had a few weeks of use and it’s still standing, it’s still enjoyable to use, and it’s way more adaptable than I could have predicted: it’s been a success.

If I were doing it again I wouldn’t change many features fundamentally. One of the few things I’d change would be to add a lower barbell holder option, thus allowing rows from the bar and dips on the bar to be a bit easier. It could also act as a safety bar – sort-of – for doing squats.

If you’re thinking of giving something like this a go, just do it. It’s not a hard project and pretty satisfying when it goes okay. The cost saving over a commercial build is massive, and you end up with something that has exactly the features you want and is sized to fit you and the space that you’ve got available. You might find yourself inspired…

Bonus content! Plyometric box

Since making this I’ve built a plyo box – an easy couple of hours once you’ve worked out the maths of sizing the box and got the timberyard to cut the plywood – and have added that to our mini training setup. If you’re going to do this then one tool I found invaluable for putting the 102(!) 1.75 inch screws in was a Dewalt pilot hole and countersink drill bit. That must have saved me hours. The box is 18mm ply with 2×2 internals and is ridiculously strong. Most joins are glued and reinforced by screws, but the ends are screws-only and friction fit. The handles were made by drilling two 28mm holes 8cm apart and using a jigsaw to connect them. I painted the box and stuck some spray lacquer on to protect it a bit, but I’m not sure the paint’s going to last long with people jumping up and down on it. It cost me £28 in wood and about £2 in screws, so 1/5 of the price of some online options. It’s 12x18x24″, so smaller than the 28x24x30″ box common in gyms, but I’d bang my head on the roof with a 30″ box, and 12″ is ideal for grinding out alpine-style load lifting.

Fixing cyclists’ frozen feet

Keeping your feet warm while out on your bike can seem almost impossible, and it’s not long before some riders start resorting to mad ideas like wrapping their feet in plastic bags or tin foil. Leave the Bacofoil behind with some of these pointers…

Cycling’s a weird sport

Plenty of ice climbers and mountaineers going out in freezing conditions go years without cold or numb feet and are meticulous to avoid them. But, despite most cyclists riding in weather above freezing, numb feet is sometimes considered par for the course. Cyclists might not be at much risk of frostbite or frostnip, but numb feet is uncomfortable and on a long ride can be plain-up nasty.

The thing is, cycling is not a very natural thing for the body to do and your feet aren’t designed to be strapped to a bike, unmoving, for hours at a time.

That’s the major reason why your feet can often end up much colder than if you were running or walking in similar conditions. But just because keeping your feet warm is difficult doesn’t mean it has to be impossible…

Being meticulous about warm feet is essential in environments where cold feet are more than just annoying. On a bike you’re unlikely to cause yourself much harm with cold feet, but you don’t have to suffer!

Why are your feet cold?

Your feet might get cold for a few different reasons.

  • You’re cold all over. If you’re cold then your body will prioritise the core and the ‘blood shunt’ – vasoconstriction – will reduce blood flow to your extremities. With little warm blood coming in, your feet will get cold.
  • The blood supply to your feet is compromised. This is a pretty complex one, but even if you’re warm enough and so your blood should be getting to your feet just fine, there may be other restrictions stopping blood getting to your feet. Do your feet feel cold or numb even if it’s warm outside? If so, you’ve no chance of warm feet on a cold ride.
  • You’ve got too little insulation on your feet. Seems obvious, and this is what most people try to fix, but it’s not necessarily as simple as just adding more layers to your feet or you can end up compromising blood supply.
Penguin feet. Toe covers like these are pretty good for milder conditions but no substitute for proper overshoes when it gets really cold. As for the trousers… don’t ask.

Things to try

  • If you’re cold then put more clothes on. However, don’t necessarily just shove another jacket on as you’ve probably got enough of those on already. Insulation is way more efficient when you insulate evenly: no one insulates their loft then leaves the windows open all winter. So, make sure you’ve got a hat on, gloves on, there’s no wind barrelling down your chest or up your sleeves, and you’ve got warm enough legs. If you don’t have any super warm bib tights then consider wearing thermals under your bib tights.
  • If you’re wet through then you will get cold. Wet clothing conducts heat 25 times more quickly than dry clothing, and while some fabrics claim to be ‘warm when wet’, they’re never all that effective compared to if they were dry. Gabbas and similar are fantastic for many winter riding conditions but they’re not waterproof, and if you’re in pouring rain then there’s no substitute for proper waterproof clothing. If you’re getting too hot then your clothes will get wet with sweat: slow down, take some layers off, or unzip a bit.
  • Eat and drink. Your clothes don’t heat you up: you only stay warm because your body produces heat. And if you’re out of energy then your body stops producing heat, and you get cold. Keep the food and drink coming in.
If you’re going full gas up a hill and still cold then you’re definitely underdressed.
  • Set off warm. If your feet are cold when you leave the house then you’ve no chance. Keep your feet warm before getting on the bike and put your cycling shoes on the radiator so they’re not cold when you put them on.
  • Ride faster. Not always possible, but working harder makes you warmer. It doesn’t always translate to warmer feet, but if your feet are cold because your body’s cold, get your head down and try a bit harder. If you’re in a group then get on the front but don’t rip it up – stopping and starting never helps.
  • Make sure your shoes fit. It sounds obvious, but shoes that are so tight that they cut off blood supply, or so loose that you have to ‘grip’ them with your toes are useless. Invest in a decent pair of insoles and if you’ve a high arch make sure they’ve some decent support, or your feet will compress with every pedal stroke and go numb. Make sure your socks don’t compress your toes – if they’re tight then they’re no good.
Decent insoles make a huge difference to how a shoe fits and can significantly improve blood supply.
  • Does your bike fit? Numb feet can be a result of a poor bike fit, with a saddle being too high a pretty common problem. Cleats being too far forward can also cause numb feet. Youtube is a fantastic source for bike fitting information and while professional bike fits are certainly an option, anyone with a turbo trainer and laptop can film themselves and fiddle their position to see what works best for them.
Freeware like Kinovea enables pretty much anyone with a turbo trainer to make measurements and check their bike fit easily. Knowing what to do with the measurements is the difficult bit.
  • Insulate your shoes. Cycling shoes are generally designed for riding in warm and dry weather. They’re ventilated, thin, and offer very little weather protection. The easiest way to make them warmer is to tape up the vents. After that though, overshoes are essential to making your feet warmer. For proper cold riding get the highest-covering ones you can and remember that thickness equals warmth: 5mm neoprene will be basically twice as warm as 2.5mm neoprene. Try to get waterproof ones, but if your thick overshoes aren’t waterproof, you can always wear two pairs of overshoes: one thick warm pair and a thin waterproof pair. Using thick socks can work if your shoes have the space, but don’t compress your feet or compromise the feel of the shoe or you’ll ‘grip’ with your toes and cut off the circulation.
  • Keep your shoes and socks dry. This is where the plastic bags and tin foil (tin hat?) ideas come in. The idea is that they are vapour barriers, preventing sweat making your socks wet from the inside. And it’s not a bad idea in some situations – vapour barriers are commonly used by people travelling to the North Pole, for example – but for a few hours on your bike there’s no way you should be sweating so much as to need a vapour barrier liner. Alternatively people put bags or foil on over their socks, but this is mostly as a waterproof or windproof layer. You should be able to achieve waterproofness and windproofness with overshoes, so you can leave the tin foil for cooking. Waterproof socks might be worth trialling but they tend to be bulky and slippery, causing issues with circulation.
Bradley Wiggins at the Tour of Britain in 2012. It was thoroughly disgusting weather and almost everyone looked freezing. If you’re not racing, take advantage and stick some mudguards on.
  • Use mudguards. A decent set of mudguards will cut out practically all spray from your front wheel that otherwise funnels onto your legs and shoes, making a massive difference to how warm you are. Even if you’ve got waterproof overshoes on, a constant torrent of freezing water hitting your feet will cool them fast. Yes they look crap and yes they’re a pain, but they’re a massive help in keeping your feet stay warm.
  • Try heated insoles. Heated socks and heated insoles are pretty common in some ice climbing and skiing circles. I’ve never tried them on a bike but they could be worth a go. Chemical warmers are pretty effective – as long as you’ve the space to fit them into your shoes – but with most of them being disposable they’re an environmental disaster. Dedicated winter cycling shoes could be worth considering, but again remember that if they don’t fit or your blood supply is compromised then they still won’t keep your feet warm.

Suffer

It’s very easy to fall back on ‘cycling is a hard sport, and cold feet is part of the game’ but that’s just crap isn’t it? You might as well say ‘Cycling is a hard sport, so I put glass in my gloves and sandpaper in my bibshorts’.

I suffered for years with cold feet, particularly in my right foot which has poor circulation from previous damage – frostnip is a lot more serious than the name suggests – and the big breakthrough for me was supportive insoles. That meant that numb feet were no longer something I expected, but something that became unusual. The other big improvement came on wearing really thick bib tights. Who ever complained of their legs being too hot? Get the thickest bibs you can and your feet will thank you for it.