'The essence of climbing as of dance is good movement' Michael Loughman
(Note: 'Technique' in this section refers to movement techniques and not safety techniques using ropes and equipment which are covered in other sections)
By adopting correct movement techniques at the start of your climbing career you will have the foundation to climb more efficiently, thereby open up more advanced, and strenuous routes. Learning to move efficiently cannot turn you into renowned climbers like Johnny Dawes or Ben Bransby, but it will help you to reach your true potential. Without movement climbing simply becomes weight lifting.
The fastest way to learn movement is by watching and climbing with better climbers, but not all of us can do this because we all have our own way of learning. Climbing advice has historically consisted of a fellow climber shouting 'use your feet' or 'keep three points of contact'. The first advice is meaningless and the second is simply wrong. Here I want to look at how to learn and practice movement.
How we learn movement is complex, but every time we move a muscle this sends information to the brain. The brain abstracts information about the movement and synthesises it into rules, a 'motor programme'. With practice the programme becomes more refined and consistent. Because climbing is like free dance, the brain is constantly receiving messages from the body and searching for the correct programme to apply. A talented climber's brain can filter out unnecessary information and choose the correct programme from the brain's wide repertoire, whereas a novice has fewer rules and the information the brain is receiving is unfiltered and confusing.
climbing silhouette © kovaricekpavel
There is however, a downside to the way we learn movement. We can also learn poor movement patterns that are difficult, if not impossible, to erase. Therefore, you should not practise movement when you are stressed, tired mentally or physically, or scared, because the feedback to the brain will be inefficient. Practice your movement techniques at the start of a session when you are fresh, not at the end.
You cannot learn to climb well by simply reading about it. Gymnasts claim that you must practice a single move a thousand times before the brain has processed the rules that create it. The following eclectic exercises are not magic, they can only accelerate your learning if they are practised regularly and frequently.
TOP TIP - warm up and stretch before practising movement.
The relationship between body and feet
Learning to climb with poise and grace is largely about learning to use your feet and keeping the rest of your body (your centre of gravity) in balance over them. Your feet are tools to position you to obtain the best orientation to make the next move. In general, aim to keep your feet below your hands. Try the following exercises and see what they are telling you about movement:
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your centre of gravity over both feet. Try to lift one off the ground. You can't, it's impossible. Now move your bodyweight over one leg; lifting the other leg up is now easy. Shifting your body weight allows you to easily move your foot to a new hold.
Climb, but move your feet four times before moving your hands. Your body will stay flexed rather than extended. You'll probably end up squatting like a frog.
Try moving sideways on a vertical wall - moving your hips out to move your feet, and moving them in to move your hands. Remember move your feet first. On slab climbs your hips are kept out from the rock to keep the pressure on your feet. As the rock becomes vertical you will start to do the opposite and you'll have to move your hips closer into the rock over your feet. On overhanging rock you will twist sideways to keep your weight over your feet.
Reposition your centre of gravity by moving your upper body around or bending and dipping the lower body (i.e. hips and knees sideways).
Learning to use your feet
There are two ways of using your feet: edging and smearing.
- Most climbers use the area around the big toe because this is the most sensitive part of the foot, but any part will do - inside, outside, front or back. Keep your foot rigid and use your ankle as a hinge.
- This involves spreading maximum rubber on the rock but to keep your foot in place, you must apply force to it, and the more pressure on it, the more it will stick.
To prove the importance of footwork, climb without looking at your feet and then try it without looking at your hands. Which is easiest? Learn to move your feet before your hands. If you find yourself snatching for footholds or handholds it means that you have not moved your centre of gravity over your feet. Practice footwork on different rock types and holds, and on routes of different angles.
Try to climb without making any noise from your feet. This exercise is especially effective on indoor climbing walls where the boards can make a lot of noise if you have sloppy footwork.
Practise precision by hovering your foot over the hold for a few seconds before placing it.
Try 'no hands' climbing.
Learning to Use your Hands
Practice movement on both sides of your to avoid becoming one sided.
Exaggerate your movements to highlight those parts of the movement that are under control and those that are not. It may help to release tension in your body.
Holds are never the same but broadly, there are three different ways of using them:
The open handgrip is the least damaging to joints and tendons. It is, however, not as useful for concentrating the forces to the tips of the fingers, so it is less useful on small holds. Using the open handgrip on a flat or round hold is also the fastest way to become 'pumped' (a build up of lactic acid in the muscle), so use it for endurance training.
The crimp grip uses the strongest digit (your thumb) to back up the ring finger. Keep your thumb close to the rock to reduce leverage. This is the easiest way to damage fingers.
The pinch grip is obvious but few people have strong pinch grips, so train it.
Holds are not always horizontal and many climbers often miss vertical holds (sidepulls) or upside down (underclings) holds.
For undercling holds, the feet need to be moved higher to enable you to reach a higher handhold. You must exert pressure through your feet to prevent them skidding away. The left-right rule (described later) is essential for performing side pull and undercling movements effectively because you must sometimes use the outside edge of the foot opposite the handhold you are using. This allows the hip opposite the pulling hand to twist into the wall.
Practise using sidepulls and underclings by leaning exclusively left or right as you climb or make very long reaches.
If a handhold is too small to accommodate all of your fingers, give priority to the middle and ring finger because these are usually the strongest.
Gaston or Comici Technique
This is in the same genre as a sidepull and can be done with one or both hands. With both hands in a crack or on two holds, they pull in opposite direction to each other as if trying to open a lift door. Moving from this position usually requires leaning to one side. The opposite can also be done, by pulling or squeezing both sides of a large block.
There are movements peculiar to climbing that require the use of opposing pressure from either the hands (e.g. the Gaston, the feet (bridging) or both (layback).
- This one of the most exhilarating forms of climbing. It is mainly used in corners and on arêtes but a layback can also be found on walls. To layback, grab the crack with your hands and push your feet up in front of you. The steeper the rock the higher your feet must be to maintain the pressure. Keep your arms straight and shuffle or leapfrog them up the route.
- In its purest form, the legs are placed either side of a corner with the centre of gravity evenly distributed between the two. The only thing keeping you in place is the pressure through your feet. It is a very creative form of movement and is used everywhere in climbing. Try using your hands to push against the walls.
Learning to twist as the rock becomes steeper
The physics behind climbing are that you are trying to direct the forces through your body to your feet. When climbing a slab you move your body away from the rock to increase the pressure through your feet. As the rock becomes steeper it becomes more important to bring your body closer into the rock face and over your feet. Once the wall has become vertical your hips must be pushed in tightly to the rock to keep your weight over your feet. As the wall becomes overhanging it is much easier to reach and move by twisting your body sideways.
Your body is strongest at 'locking off' when it is turned towards the hold being used so that you can use your larger muscles. Try a pull up on free hanging rings like the gymnasts, or imagine climbing a rope ladder. The end position will be the same as if you are twisting on rock. The difference is that during a climb, your hands are fixed so you have to twist your body. On rings, your hands are free and can move, the upper arm is rotated towards the torso, with the effect that the stronger muscles like the pectorals can work better. If the upper arm is rotated in the opposite direction, the stronger muscles are less effective. Twisting also allows you to reach further; the longest reach is possible with the hand that is opposite the foot you are standing on. Letting the spare foot come off the rock can also extend your reach.
The Left-right rule
Think how a lizard moves. Its arms and legs to the side, centre of gravity close to the wall, head moving from side to side to keep its weight over its feet. The movements of a climber are very similar. Climbers generally work in diagonals across the body left-right or right-left. If a move feels 'barndoor-ish' you may have missed the correct left-right rule. On a steep route, try climbing by moving left arm and left leg then right arm and right leg, then try alternating the movements ... which works best? This is most easily tried on an indoor wall or a climb with a plethora of holds.
Using whichever leg is not touching the rock to counterbalance your centre of gravity should come naturally at this point. Think about what you are doing and how your body is working for you.
Crack climbing techniques
Face climbing relies on exterior holds and more natural movements whereas jamming in cracks is unnatural (and even painful) when done poorly. The sequence of hands is the first thing to tackle:
Jamming in cracks in a face requires crossing one hand over the other.
Jamming cracks in corners requires the hands to be shuffled because the body cannot be twisted side to side so easily. Whether you have right or left hand on top depends on which shoulder is against the rock.
The best way is to insert your fingers, thumb upwards or downwards, and wedge your knuckles in place. When using both hands, put the top hand in the thumbs down position, your lower hand can be thumbs down or up. The thumb down method increases torque on the fingers whereas the thumb upwards allows further reach. When all the fingers fit into the crack put the thumb downwards against the wall (a thumb sprag).
Hand jams begin when the crack is wide enough for you to slide your hands in as far as the wrist. Your hand can be up or down depending on the crack. Push the fingers and the palm of your hand against one side of the crack and your knuckles against the other side, tense your hand and it will jam. When the crack gets too wide for this, form your hand into a fist and jam it in place. On pure crack climbs you can contort your feet so they cam into the crack. Short movements with the feet are better than long ones.
In addition to learning efficient movement, learning to rest can have a profound effect on your climbing. Being able to take a rest on a route depends on three factors:
- Body position - Maintain your centre of gravity over your feet.
- Fitness - The ability of your body to clear lactic acid from the muscles.
- State of mind - How many times have you been 'gripped' while placing gear only to find you relaxed as soon as it was placed?
- Down climb to rest points rather than struggle up them.
- Keep your arms low while climbing.
- Grip the rock with only the force needed to stay there.
- Move your weight around.
- Keep your arms straight when placing gear (squat down if necessary into a frog)
- Breath calmly when resting.
- Use anything to take the weight off your arms: heel hooks, chin hooks, or wedge yourself in between holds.
- If your arms are pumped, hold them low to allow the blood to drain the lactic acid from the muscles. Shake them high and let them drop but do not shake them violently. Stretch out the forearms against a hold. Don't stay too long, it may be counterproductive, continue as soon as your breathing returns to normal.