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Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Technique continued (Part 11)

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Part 1:

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If I had to pick out the No. 1 technical issue that I observe most often when teaching climbing clinics, I would choose footwork, hands down. Thankfully, it’s also one of the more easily corrected technical problems, at least on a basic level.

One of the biggest reasons why so many climbers struggle with inefficient and sloppy footwork actually has to do with a tactical decision: choice of footwear and more importantly, fit of footwear. Beyond selecting a well-made brand of climbing shoes (like Scarpa, ahem, shameless sponsor plug moment), you’ll want to try on all the shoes in the line to find the ones that fit your feet the best. Ideally, climbing shoes should fit your bare foot like a glove, with as little dead space as possible. Your climbing shoes should fit tightly enough that you shouldn’t be able to walk to the crags in them, and you should want to take them off in between pitches while you belay or rest…but not so tight that your feet go numb or are in agony/distracting while you climb.

Now, I know there are still some climbers out there, and some very good ones at that, who wear board-stiff climbing shoes with socks. That’s fine, and it works for them. But again, as I pointed out already – if most of the best in a sport (and I’m talking sport climbing and bouldering here, not all-day traditional or alpine climbs) make a particular tactical or technical decision more often than not, there’s probably a pretty good reason for it. Tightly fitting (but not excruciatingly painful) climbing shoes with little dead space can increase your precision in foot placements, improving your sensitivity and ability to confidently use even the most unlikely of tiny edges and smears as holds. You can moderate your body weight with more efficiency, lessening the likelihood of feet “popping,” which is almost always a pilot error in imprecisely placing the foot or over or under-weighting the foothold.

Beyond these basics, you can explore the whole beautiful range of shoes available out there, each of which promises different performance parameters depending on its construction. I won’t go into great detail about this, but I will say that one’s choice of shoes can really make a big difference in a person’s ability to climb or not climb a route, especially when that route is near their true physical limits. Picking the right shoes for the job is a smart tactical decision (and yes, tactics is the topic of the next series, but there’s some inevitable overlap in these two areas); it will help you develop solid footwork, a basic climbing technique that should be addressed from day one (remember, it’s harder to unlearn poor techniques than to learn techniques properly right from the start).

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I could honestly write an entire book about footwork, but I’m going to distill it here to keep it simple and give you an idea of what to work on if footwork is an issue for you (again, ask your partners if you’re not sure – they probably can tell you right away). Five basic footwork primers:

Primary Technical Issues: B) Bent Arms

  1. Balls vs. toes. The balls of your feet should almost never be the part of your foot that drives your movement. Using the ball of your foot to push off a hold of is relatively sloppy and imprecise, offering way less maneuverability than your inside and outside edges (the area of your shoe on the inside of your big toe, going around it, and on the outside of the rest of your toes). You can rest on big footholds on the balls of your feet, if need be, and drop your heels (to help counter shaking-leg syndrome especially). But for precision movement and placement, aim to connect the inside or outside edge of your toes with the intended foothold, driving your entire motion from that powerful and precise placement all the way through your leg(s), your core, and into your upper body.
  2. Quiet feet. Try to make no noise with your feet when you climb. Virtually noiseless foot placements are the mark of solid footwork. Each placement should be deliberate and precise and efficient, so that no energy is wasted. Loud, clunky footwork shouts out that you’re not paying attention to your feet and that you’re not using them to your best advantage. Sure, every once in a while a good climber’s feet will make noise (often when completing a dynamic movement and getting the feet back on the wall), but this is an exception to the norm. Again, there’s a reason for these standards of efficiency – keeping the footwork quiet is a more efficient approach to climbing movement than having a pair of sloppy, slapping feet clunking all over the place behind a climber like a bunch of cans tied to the back of a “Just Married” car.
  3. Watch your foot connect with the intended hold (as C. is doing in the accompanying photo). It’s very common to get tunnel-vision, to get overly focused on the terrain that’s closer to your brain – your handholds. Look down at least as often (or more often) than you look up. Train your brain to recall handholds and other features that might become future footholds as they pass by your upper body. Climbers often look away at the last second, failing to watch the foot connect with the intended foothold and therefore placing it sloppily or imprecisely, wasting efficiency of movement by doing so.
  4. Keeping your weight in your feet instead of holding on for dear life with your arms and upper body was a concept that quickly became a revelation for me in climbing – I still remember, more than two decades later, the remarkable comprehension that surged through me the first day that I really understood what the other climbers were talking about when they said, “Keep your weight in your feet!” If you don’t feel like you’re relaxing and taking the weight in your lower body and really trusting your feet, then you likely have this issue right now, too. Practice lowering your body weight while on good handholds so that your arms are straight. Let your weight sink into your feet. Practicing this on good handholds on a bouldering wall near to the ground with only smears for your feet is a great way to build up the trust and understand of how much weight you can and should be able to put in your feet before they pop off the wall.
  5. Work on being comfortable the whole range of footholds. Don’t get addicted or fixated on only using footholds of one type, size, angle or position. Establish comfort with using footholds in every way possible, whether they’re tiny edges you’re high-stepping to, smeary back-steps, precision pockets you have to front point, or side-pulls that you drop-knee on. Don’t forget heel hooks and toe hooks and bicycles, either. If you have no idea what some or all of the above are, make a list and start learning. The only way to get comfortable will all sizes, styles, angles and positions of footholds is to get accustomed to using all of them with precision – developing an instinctive understanding of which foothold makes the most sense when and why for you, and how to take it and use it efficiently. Again: repetition, repetition, repetition.


Part 2:

“I have no upper body strength,” is a common excuse given in climbing clinics for a person’s relative lack of climbing ability. And as you well know, I’m a firm supporter of developing more climbing-relevant strength! However, the idea that some folks seem to have that they lack the upper-body strength required for the given terrain is often erroneous – what they do lack is the technical skills to effectively utilize the upper-body strength (and fitness) that they currently have to their greatest advantage, which leads them to underperforming.

Many beginner climbers try to hold onto the wall for dear life (as I mentioned in the previous entry on footwork), keeping their arms bent nearly constantly, never lowering themselves down so that they hang skeletally with straight arms and dropping their center of gravity so that their feet take more of the weight. They have less of an understanding of how to maneuver their bodies so that they don’t have to climb like they’re moving up a ladder all of the time. They also over-grip/regrip (topic of next entry), don’t relax and establish a solid breathing pattern/rhythm (topic of a previous Improve Your Climbing entry), and don’t take rests while en route to shake out on holds, letting the arms/hands recover and regroup. They tend to “choke up” on holds, as if being closer to the wall will help them stay on for longer…though overhanging terrain tends to be quite unforgiving with this tendency.

If you’re reading this, my guess is that you may know this already – that solid climbing technique generally involves keeping your arms as straight and relaxed as possible throughout a climbing route. The more you bend your arms, the more you drain one of your key weapons for those harder sequences where powerful, bent-arm movements are required. Though experienced climbers usually “know” this, it’s not uncommon to see them not taking the full advantage of rests (i.e. not hanging in the most efficient, deep skeletal hang possible to shake out). There’s also usually some technical inefficiency involved in just plowing through sections with a more straight-on, bent-armed technique, especially if the end result is lacking in the arm department for powerful moves later on, power that’s been dumped for no good reason earlier in the route instead of being conserved for when it’s needed.

Whether you’re a burly gal with power to burn or a guy with no upper-body strength to speak of, taking time to cultivate solid technical skills like this that allow you to maximize the strength you currently possess is a smart choice. This technique will allow you to climb harder than you might expect, both now and in the future. Even if you’ve been climbing for some time and you think you’re good about this, it can be helpful to double-check with yourself when you’re warming up; see if it’s your normal M.O. to seek out straight arms as much as possible and to avoid straight-on, bent-armed, power-sapping movements when other, less-powerful options are available.

Most climbers, no matter how strong they get, will still routinely employ this technique to maximize their upper-body strength, always trying to “save up” power and strength and finding those straight-armed rests when needed, knowing how to use these effectively. This technique goes hand-in-hand with the following two entries – on grip and on body orientation.

Part 3:

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Primary Technical Issues: C) Grip

When I first started climbing, I crimped everything, all the time. This, as it turns out, tends not to be the friendliest of climbing grips to use – I’m sure my multiple finger injuries throughout my first decade of climbing can be largely attributed to my overzealous crimping tendency. I also, of course, hated slopers and pinches, because I couldn’t crimp those and I didn’t have the strength to push my open hands into slopers (wrist and upper-body strength tend to count for more than finger strength for most slopers), nor did I possess the thumb/open-fingered strength for non-wrapping pinches. In other words, if my fingers and thumbs weren’t rolled up/bent, my grip wasn’t very strong.

As with all poorly-learned techniques, I had to unlearn this one – and it was a challenge, but it happened, as I consciously made an effort to stop crimping and start open-handing every hold I encountered, including “crimps,” unless I needed that extra power of the crimp to make a move happen. These days, I can honestly say that I rarely crimp anymore. Interestingly enough, I also stopped injuring my fingers regularly when I stopped crimping so much. And, with more strength and practice, I now like slopers and pinches; instead of feeling my heart sink when someone describes a route with slopers and pinches, I feel excited and can’t wait to check it out.

Point of all of this is that learning how to take holds with a relaxed grip is a technique that should be cultivated early on, just like not keeping your arms bent all of the time. You want to learn to hold the holds with as little force as possible, relaxing your grip as much as you can to avoid premature fatigue. You can easily practice this when warming up, checking in to see if you are overgripping holds, or putting more force/effort into hanging on than you actually need to. It may feel harder at first, especially if, like I did, you’ve trained yourself to feel strong only when you’re in a crimped position. Stick with it, though – it’s better to correct and curtail injuries and to open up the world of open-handed climbing instead of being stuck with seeking the most improbable of crimps where everyone else just uses a big, obvious sloper.

As you practice this, try to observe what happens with the following (lower) hand when you reach up and establish on a much higher hold with the other hand. Generally speaking, the higher hand usually has a more straight-armed position than the lower one. Thus, the weight taken by the leading arm and hand should be far greater, while the weight in the lower hand (often with a bent arm) should instantly release to far less force as soon as you’re established on the higher hold with the other hand.

It’s also smart to try to avoid frenetic regripping of holds – you take the hold in hand, and if you took it wrong or poorly (unless it’s a rest), you let yourself regrip once, or maybe twice, and then try to move off of it. Regripping a hold five or ten times instead of trying to move off of it and get to something better is usually a waste of energy and can lead to failure (falling) when you might have had the strength left to continue, if you could just mentally accept the poor nature of the hold and go from there, trying the move.

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While you’re resting on a route, if you know or have an idea of what types of grips the route is going to require coming up, it’s good to try to rest and relax the hands and fingers in a different grip position, if at all possible. I call this “cycling grips;” it means that you might ham-hock (think hooking from the side) a hold if you know you’re going to be pulling out and down on the next few holds, or you might take a big sloper if you know you’re going to crimp, and vice versa. Or you might just change the grip around a little bit every time you switch hands, if you don’t know what’s coming up or the next section involves a bunch of different hand positions; basically you want to use the rest strategically to recover your hands/fingers (and forearms/rest of the body, too!) in the most effective manner for the climbing yet to come on the route.

Finally – how you grip the hold often dictates how you move off of the hold. Being able to read the right position (angle and hand position) on each hold is a more challenging technique than many of the more basic techniques to learn, since it involves reading moves ahead on a route and sorting out probable hand order and potential foot placements. Practicing by reading a route from the ground (a mental tactic) can help you start learning this. Try to look at the holds you can see from the ground and pick out what hand you think will go to each hold, based on the way the hold looks and is oriented in relation to the other holds (for hands and feet).

As you climb, keep this preview in mind, but be willing to change it should holds not be what you thought they would (i.e. better or worse), or if new holds you couldn’t see come into the picture, for example. Also, cultivate “finger knowledge,” or the comprehension when you first touch a hold of how to properly orient your fingers and hand on the hold for it to be most effective – a positioning decision that will also dictate and/or be dictated by your body positioning in relation to the hold (topic of the next entry).

Part 4:

Primary Technical Issues: D) Body positioning.

This is the last technical issue that I’ll discuss in this 10-part technique series. Like many of the topics, I could write a book on this, but I’m sticking to the basic concept here. A common error that climbers tend to make from the start is not turning the body, or staying square to the wall as if they’re climbing a ladder rather than using the holds in the most effective and efficient manner (which includes hand positioning and foot placement choices, of course). While there are times when a square body position is indeed the best technical choice for a given climbing move, if you move this way the majority of the time, chances are that your technique is underdeveloped in this department.

Essentially, you want to not be attached to staying square to the wall, but rather, to learn how to maneuver your body around and up the wall with as little power/strength depletion as possible. This often involves turning the body from side to side and keeping the arms straight or relatively straight (as straight as possible) throughout a climb. Practice this when you’re warming up, on jugs, especially on overhanging terrain. Swivel on your footholds, turn your shoulders and hips into the wall to extend your reach instead of pulling straight down while you’re square to the wall. Practicing this type of movement also can teach you about having one foot off of the wall for balance, as well as the effectiveness of flagging (a more advanced technique).

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Technically efficient body positioning relies quite heavily upon the other techniques discussed in the previous entries in this series – precision footwork (including quiet feet, watching the feet connect with footholds, being comfortable with the entire spectrum of potential footholds, and also, learning how to intuitively select the ideal foothold that will result in the most efficient movement or resting position – which isn’t always the biggest one available); bending the arms as little as possible and seeking straight-armed positions in rests (your body positioning should help you accomplish this straight-armed position as often as you can); and grip (knowing how to use the holds effectively to drain the hands, arms and body as little as possible, which includes relaxing on the holds, orienting the hand in the most effective way to move off the hold, releasing the force on the lower hand once the leading hand is established, and not regripping).

Part 5:

I’ve only just scratched the surface in this series on climbing technique. I consider climbing technique to be an area in which endless learning is possible, no matter how long a person has climbed or how technically proficient they may already be. Keeping this in mind and keeping an open mind about learning and refining your climbing technique includes being able to listen to and process feedback from other climbers, both from observing how they execute movements and from direct (solicited or unsolicited) commentary that you may receive about your own technique. Instead of getting offended if someone says something is “off” about your technical execution, evaluate their feedback dispassionately, deciding whether or not what they have told you has any merit. If you’re not sure, ask a few other people about it.

If you have a technical issue that needs correction or refinement or integration into your climbing, make it a priority to correct, refine or learn that technique. With frequent repetition, you can make this a part of your climbing game relatively quickly (the exact amount of time depends on how much repetition, how fast you learn, the complexity of the technique, and whether you have the strength to execute it properly, of course).

I’ve learned so much about technical aspects of climbing from watching other climbers and from direct feedback, both. Early on, I remember a climber watching me on a traverse in a gym, and telling me that all I needed to do was focus more consciously on tightening and engaging my core muscles to succeed; they were totally right, and I was delighted and grateful for the pointer. Ditto for the person who observed that I always tried to keep both my feet on the wall all the time (which led to an excited explosion of learning how to choose foot positions due to finding the right balance for my body instead of using the obvious footholds). More recently, in learning how to climb severely steep climbs, I’m stoked to be finding greater comfort with all sorts of techniques that I didn’t really understand or use well/often before – techniques like heel hooks (love ‘em!); knee bars (learning to like them); bicycles, toe hooks, and so forth.

Being open to both feedback and direct observation, and then having the patience to figure out why and how other climbers use the techniques you’re not as adept at or just learning for the first time can yield tremendous results, even if you never get stronger than you are right now. And that leads me right into the next series on climbing tactics, or how you can strategize for success by stacking everything you have available to you right now in your favor.

~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador

Learn more about Alli

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