So, you’re psyched on climbing! You’ve bought your gear, you’ve learned “the ropes” and now you’re hoping to make the most of your new interest. There’s a lot of information out there and a lot of rabbit holes to go down regarding training and the best ways to improve at climbing. It can be overwhelming to sort through.
As someone who has spent many hours thinking, trying, and grinding in hopes of getting better at the sport of climbing, let me see if I can help get you on the right path. Let’s start with one of the most important aspects of climbing: movement.
The most important concept I hope to impress on you is that climbing is a skill-based sport before it is a strength-based sport. This simple idea should create a lens for the way you focus your energy on your newfound passion for climbing.
To put it simply, climbing as much as possible is the best way to get better at climbing, at least to start. Even many years down the road, when more focused training becomes increasingly valuable to you, it should be viewed as a means to support climbing improvement. Getting stronger and climbing better only works if we have the necessary climbing skills to effectively apply training gains.
To improve at a skill we need to practice that skill. However, it is also important to remind ourselves that it’s not just practice that makes perfect––it’s perfect practice. My basic philosophy about the best way to improve (especially in the early part of our climbing life) is to view some of our time climbing as performance and some as practice. When we do practice or train we want to do so in a thoughtful, intelligent way. Once we build a solid foundation of skills and techniques we can then move across the rock as efficiently as possible.
I believe good movement has much to do with being fluid. This all starts in our lower body, where we connect to the wall with deliberate placement of our feet. We generate power from our legs, hips, and core, then transfer that power up through the trunk to our shoulders, then to our arms, hands, and fingers. Everything works together to maintain our connection to the wall.
We need to be able to create tension throughout our whole body, release that tension to effectively move from one position to the next, then remake that tension in order to stay on the wall. I must emphasize that each person is different, and through practice everyone will find his/her own style of movement.
I’ve found that the best way to practice climbing movement is to spend time on gym terrain that is far below your current ability level. You can focus your energy on what you’re actually doing with your body instead of just trying to get to the top without falling.
In fact, when we are doing skill practice what we really want is to let go of the top as the goal. Instead try this: pick something you want to work on––let’s take the backstep as an example. Find a problem where you can practice backstepping that is well within your ability. The problem doesn’t have to require a backstep, it just needs to provide an opportunity for you to practice this technique. Climb the problem. Rest for a couple minutes and sit and analyze your climbing. How could you improve? Did you feel completely balanced in the backstep position? Were you able to keep your arms straight throughout the movement? Try to find at least one way to improve upon your last ascent and climb the problem again.
Repeat this process for a total of 3-4 ascents before moving on to the next problem. Try 2-3 different problems during your backstepping session. If you have more time, move on and do some open climbing. If that’s all you have time to fit in, walk way with confidence that you had a productive session and worked deliberately on improving your climbing. You likely got a pretty good workout in, too.
Check out a few other techniques you can practice during your gym sessions below:
Note: Practice sessions like this can be highly effective on a bouldering wall or systems wall. You don’t need a partner, you can easily identify good practice sequences from the ground, and you can use other holds to get to moves you want to try. By not climbing 50 feet up in the air first, you are taking the fatigue component out of the session. This lets you focus on quality of movement.
Now that you have a basic framework for practice, where do you start? Picking a skill to work on can be a daunting task in itself. Whether or not you’re a beginner, I would encourage you to start with the basics.
Make the first couple sessions about learning to use your lower body from the tips of your toes through your thighs, hips, glutes and lower core. Effective use of your lower body is foundational for efficient climbing movement. A great way to practice lower body control is to try to keep your arms completely straight while you climb––this forces you to shift your legs and hips in order to make your way up the wall. A couple practice sessions with a lower body focus would be great for every beginner climber and plenty of advanced climbers, too.
Next, spend a couple sessions on the way your upper body is moving. This doesn’t mean disregarding your lower body or trying to campus your way through boulder problems––it means focusing on proper low-impact movement. Climb with a focus on shoulder engagement, arm angle, the position of your chest in relation to the wall, and the activation of your mid to upper core and your posterior chain. Keep your shoulders out of uncomfortable positions (as shoulder injuries are some of the most common in the sport), and try to bend your elbows as little as possible to promote core balance. If you focus on keeping your center of gravity close to the wall you should notice how much work your core is doing as a result, which promotes strength and balance.
A final intro session could be focused primarily on grip position. Climb and analyze how you are holding the holds, which positions feel strong and which don’t. What are your wrists, elbows, and shoulder joints doing in connection with your grip? Ideally your grip should be in the “open-hand” position, comfortable and relaxed, and not painful or tweaky. If you notice that you tend to place yourself in positions that are painful, it’s time to find a better way.
Starting with focused sessions on your upper body, lower body, and grip will help you identify multiple areas in which you could improve your climbing movement. Remember, finding something you’re not good at is not a negative thing, it’s an opportunity to improve and something to focus on during a later practice session.
Note: If you can, recruit a friend to shoot video of you climbing. Actually seeing how you move can really help, and how it looks might be a lot different than how it feels.
To be a well rounded climber, I encourage you to work on every aspect of climbing, not just what you’re good at. For example, learn how to move slow and static when a difficult move requires that kind of strength and precision. Conversely, become comfortable moving dynamically so that you can utilize explosive power and take advantage of your ability to create upward momentum. Try to be light on your feet and technically proficient, but also routed and sturdy.
There is so much to work on with movement, and analysis can be challenging. When analyzing your movement use someone else as a frame of reference, whether it be a friend, a pro climber, or a random person in the gym. What is it that they do well? What could you do to move more like them? Don’t be afraid to compliment their skill and ask for advice.
Working with a coach is also a very effective way to get some more specific direction on how to improve on your highest priorities, from both a skill-based and strength-based perspective. If you’re looking for high-level online coaching courses, check out Justin Sjong’s Climbing Sensei website or the excellent Lattice Training programs.
I would encourage you to choose a focus for every climbing session if you are looking to get the most out of it. Focusing on skills and movement practice will only enrich your climbing life and help you improve. Cycling between different goals is a great way to keep things from getting stale, to keep improving your skills, and build strength. Just make sure the focus for at least one session is to have fun!!
If you are interested in more specific information about basic training principles, read the last article I wrote for FrictionLabs, “Fundamentals of Training with FrictionLabs Pro Dan Mirsky” or check out the video about my training and conditioning below:
Cover photo courtesy of Matt Pincus. @mpincus87