Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Technique (Part 10)
Climbing technique is a huge topic and not one that I’m likely to cover in any complete form in a 10-part series of blog entries. I won’t even pretend that this can happen. Instead, I aim to help you first gain a deeper understanding of what climbing technique depends on – some key factors that play into a climber’s technical development – along with what we mean by “good” and “bad” technique (I actually prefer the terms “more efficient” and “less efficient”). From there, I’ll cover the basics of how to approach learning any new climbing technique. Finally, I’ll cover several major technical issues that I most often observe when teaching climbing clinics.
It’s hard to designate technique as easy, medium, or hard – in part because some techniques are harder to master than others. Plus, for some people, learning techniques will come more easily than for others. The reasons for this are multifold, and include the following:
- Athletic Background. One big factor that plays into a person’s ease of technical development (not to mention strength and fitness base!) is athletic background, meaning, what did you bring to the table before climbing, or did you start climbing at a young age? My unscientific observation is that those with a strong base in sporting activities that rely on tremendous amounts of complex body awareness, strength and active flexibility combined tend to have an advantage over those who don’t come to climbing with such a background, in terms of technical development. So if not rock climbing from a young age, people involved in dance, gymnastics, martial arts and yoga, to name a view, seem to have an overall advantage in developing sound technique more rapidly than those who do not have such a background. Their already-honed body/spatial awareness plus higher-than-average strength and active flexibility in climbing-relevant areas likely account for this advantage.
- Genetic Potential. Genetic potential (also known as training potential) contributes to a person’s quickness of adopting and learning new physical techniques. As I’ve mentioned before, genetic potential is a very real factor in athletic training. Some people are born with two left feet; others can perform what for most people would be very complicated physical tasks with nearly perfect coordination relatively effortlessly with little practice. While a person’s genetic potential can’t be changed, almost every person has some untapped potential to work with. In other words, even if you’re not as gifted when it comes to coordinating complex physical movements as another person, this doesn’t mean you can’t learn and make gains. But it’s good to be aware that for some people, technical adaptations in the physical realm are far easier to attain than others.
- Physical Base. Another often overlooked but core element of technical development for sport climbers and boulderers alike is the physical strength/conditioning of the person in question, particularly as it relates to climbing-specific movements. My favorite athletic training book, Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, by Tudor O. Bompa and G. Gregory Haff, drives this point home over and over again: Technical proficiency at a given sport can only happen if the athlete in question possesses adequate physical strength to perform the technique(s) in question correctly and efficiently: “An inadequately developed physical base will limit the athlete’s ability to learn technical aspects of the sport. This scenario strengthens the argument that physical training is the foundation of all training factors.”
“Because muscular strength affects technical proficiency, the coach should determine whether the athlete has sufficient strength to undertake the technical elements required by the sport.” (from “Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training“, by Tudor O. Bompa and G. Gregory Haff)
Don’t worry; I’m not going to go off on another huge strength-training tangent here. I’m limiting the strength talk to one entry in this series, as I’ve already said too many times to count that building climbing-specific strength through means external to rock climbing (a targeted resistance-training program) can yield incredible results on the rock, given enough time for such a program to manifest the desired results (as a part of a well-constructed yearly program of training/climbing, ideally undertaken for many years). The key takeaway point here is one that I’ve experienced repeatedly myself through my past few years of training to effect changes in my own body – that being stronger can both open up new techniques and allow for the refinement and perfection of techniques you already know as well.
This makes sense, since climbing technique is about efficiency of movement – minimizing any waste of energy in order to maximize performance. The stronger and fitter a person is in climbing-relevant areas (i.e. power and high-intensity exercise endurance), the more control he or she potentially has over the entire body in every movement. The coordination of each individual movement therefore should be easier, as should the repetitive demand of coordinating and executing a complex series of movements like those involved in climbing for lengthy sequences while battling accumulating fatigue.
Even more irritating to some folks is the fact that the stronger climber may not even need to execute each movement with near-perfect technique, though it’s true that he or she would likely attain an even higher level of climbing if he/she worked to refine their technique and reduce energy wastage even further. But as it stands, he or she can “get away” with more sloppy movements and still succeed on a climb that a not-as-strong but more technically proficient climber cannot climb, or can only climb with the most perfect technical execution of each movement possible.
In other words, strength trumps technique. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Amazing technique is an awesome thing to have, for sure – but being stronger in climbing-relevant ways (including a high fitness level for high-intensity exercise endurance) wins in the performance department, if all other things are equal – and even sometimes, as in the above example, if the stronger climber has poorer technique than the weaker.
Despite the previous entry’s stress on the value of improving your climbing-relevant strength in order to improve your technique and your overall ability, both, the value of developing the best technique you can at your current level of physical prowess shouldn’t be underrated or overlooked. Perfecting your technique – your efficiency of movement – will allow you to make the most of the strength and fitness you possess right now. The less energy you waste in each movement you make, the harder you’ll be able to climb.
And, while building up enough more strength to see a significant change in your climbing ability takes time and dedication, improving technical flaws can often take much less time in the big picture. Of course, like all things training, how much this will help you improve at climbing depends on how much time you’ve put into technical work already. But if you put in the time to learn and develop solid technique, you’ll find that as you get stronger or if you get stronger that integrating and utilizing new techniques will likely come easier for you. It’s easier to cultivate an efficient technique from the start rather than to unlearn a sloppy technique once it’s ingrained. And a body/being trained to integrate new techniques with an open mind will find this learning process much easier down the road, too.
Keep in mind throughout your technical development process that individual differences in technical choices (and tactical choices, too – the topic of the next blog series after this one) sometimes stem from one person’s “better” technique, sure, but other times, these different technical decisions about how to perform a climbing move don’t reflect a “better” or “worse” (i.e. a more efficient or less efficient) technical solution – they reflect differences in each climber’s current physical strengths and weaknesses as well as his or her unmovable physical parameters, such as height, wingspan, and even muscle composition.
An example of this that happens frequently is that one climber will choose to do a big move bypassing four smaller holds, while another may choose to tick-tack up those four holds instead of doing the big move. For the first climber, perhaps small holds are a weakness and big-muscle powerful pulling is a strength; for the latter climber, the opposite may be true. In this situation, each climber has likely chosen the most efficient technique for him/her, given their current strengths and weaknesses. Neither one is right or wrong; they’re choosing what works best for them.
That being said, it’s worth being open to always trying another climber’s technical method if it looks solid and smooth every time they execute it; maybe you’ll have your eyes opened up to a new technique or another approach that you haven’t considered before. Keep a soft and open mind about technical solutions to climbing moves and sequences. Don’t be attached to using others’ beta or the approved beta, but don’t be opposed to it, either. It’s good to be flexible and to experiment with different technical approaches – and if you do strength train and you do get stronger, to be prepared to modify and adjust your technical repertoire accordingly as you learn to apply your newly developed strengths.
Last thought for today’s entry – though you will almost certainly develop individual twists and variations on standard climbing techniques based on your own strengths and weaknesses, there are certain basic technical aspects for promoting efficiency of movement that will hold true for all or virtually all sport climbers. If you feel an argument rising in yourself against a certain technical parameter that you’ve been instructed to work on by a partner, coach or trainer, I suggest that you observe at least 10 climbers
who are clearly better at climbing than yourself, looking for how they themselves employ (or don’t employ) this technical element.
If the majority of these climbers perform this technique as you’ve been instructed, it’s almost a sure bet that this is, in fact, a technically sound and efficient choice for you as well, even if it feels awkward and cumbersome and draining right now. Your best bet is to analyze why this might be so (i.e., are you actually not physically capable of performing this technique properly – and if so, why not? What needs work? Or are you resistant because it feels uncomfortable and difficult right now, not like second nature or because you have to unlearn a previously ingrained but less-efficient technique?), and then to work on rectifying the situation so that you, too, can take advantage of this clearly more efficient approach to climbing.
Learning any new technique for any sport follows the same basic process, and learning climbing techniques is no different. The key to mastering a technical element is repetition of the element until it becomes second nature – until you no longer have to perform it consciously. At that point, you’ll be able to draw upon the technique without having to think about it anymore; it becomes a fluid part of your climbing movement repertoire that you will automatically employ when it’s the best technical choice to make on a route. Generally speaking, the more complex a technique is – the more coordination and physical strength it requires – the more repetitions it will take to achieve mastery.
But let’s say you break down a specific technique – let’s take dynos, for example – and you understand intellectually how to perform this movement, but you simply cannot seem to achieve mastery through repetition, no matter how hard you try and how much you break down the constituent parts of the movement. A likely culprit for the failure to mastery is lacking the physical strength at some point during the technical execution of the movement – but you’ll first want to make sure you aren’t missing or overlooking any component of the technical execution before you go straight to strength training. In this scenario, having a partner or trainer take a look at your motion to make sure that you’re not missing anything in terms of technical comprehension is a good first step.
Asking that person or several trusted observers to help you identify the area(s) of weakness that might be holding you back from achieving technical proficiency is a good next step. It’s worth asking more than one other person, and getting a solid consensus from a number of trusted sources, as sometimes, what looks like it might be the primary culprit in your repetitive failure on mastering a technical element might be masking another, even more important or just as important key player in helping you make progress in this area. Dynamic moves, for example, rely not only on upper-body strength and power-generating ability, but also often on explosive power generated through the legs, plus the ability to maintain core tension through both the front and back of the body, not to mention the hand/finger strength required to latch target holds; dynamic moves of course also require tremendous coordination and timing, but those can be pretty much impossible to develop should the basic strengths required to execute a dynamic move be lacking.
Regardless of the technique(s) you’re trying to master, it’s a good idea to choose one or two new techniques (or techniques that need work) to focus on in each workout, instead of trying to learn a bunch of new techniques at the same time. This can quickly get overwhelming and lead to a total devolution of your technique as a whole. So – select a one or two technical areas that need work (get recommendations from friends, coaches, and/or trainers if you can’t identify these on your own), and make these the focus of your technical training until they become second nature. Warm-ups offer the perfect terrain for you to practice employing the technique du jour consciously; climbing at a slower pace on easier terrain and making sure you employ the technique correctly as often as possible will help teach your being how and when to find and effectively use the technique in question.
As you get more comfortable with the technique, you’ll find yourself drawing upon it more and more, even on more difficult terrain. Throughout your workout or climbing day, try to stay true to your intention for the day in terms of technical effort – so if you suddenly become aware that you’re climbing with bent arms on a hard route and you meant to keep them straight as much as possible, for example, attempt to correct this as you climb by seeking those straight-armed positions.
Of course, it’s to be expected that you’ll at times have some panicked moments that can easily lead to technical devolution; I call these reverting to “default mode.” In other words, most climbers (unless they’re total beginners) have a technique or two that they developed initially, for better or for worse – something that worked in troubled situations almost right out of the gate for them, even if it’s no longer the smartest way to handle most sketchy situations.
For some people, it’s to dyno wildly for the next hold whenever the pump goggles go on; for others, it’s to high step to the highest hold possible, regardless of the consequences…and so forth. However, part of developing better technique is learning to discern when these ingrained solutions are and are not the most appropriate solution for the given circumstance – to stay in control of the body enough and to broaden the technical repertoire enough so that you have many options at your disposal in high-stress, do-or-die situations instead of just one or two go-to solutions from your beginner days.
Remember that it’s always harder to unlearn a less-efficient technique than it is to learn a technique correctly and efficiently from the get-go. Once your body has movement patterns ingrained, unlearning those automatic processes takes dedication and fortitude, especially because sometimes, the “right” way of doing something (more technically efficient) may actually feel harder or “wrong” at first. In this situation, it’s worth asking a couple of questions – again, through observation, you can look to see if the majority of strong climbers utilize the technique in question – if so, you can soundly assume that this technical approach is most likely more efficient than yours.
However, you may find that due to your own strengths and weaknesses that your slightly or even radically different technical approach to certain moves right now – and possibly always – is more technically efficient for your body. In other words, some folks will almost always prefer a higher foot to a lower one, regardless of what most people do (for example). We often refer to these individual variations in technical execution (along with tactical choices and resultant climbing terrain preferences) as a person’s “climbing style.” (Perhaps they would be better termed a person’s “climbing strength”?)
Such individuation of technical and tactical maneuvers generally becomes more evident in the slight differences in each climber’s execution of more complex, advanced techniques (not so much the basics outlined in the next few entries, which are more accepted as standards of technical efficiency for most climbers). So the easier the terrain for the climber in question, the more likely he or she is to follow a sort of standard technical protocol for climbing the route – but on a harder route, all of an individual’s strengths need to work together, and this can often lead to technical and tactical choices that showcase those strengths and help to overcome weaknesses.
~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey