Don’t Get Strong, Get Good: Tips for Better Free Climbing
Rock climbing is equal parts mental, physical, and technical.
Yet most climbers only focus on the physical. All winter long climbers thrash themselves in the gym, thinking that bouldering, routes, 4x4s and campusing will deliver the sends of their dreams come spring. Of course, all of that stuff helps and climbers who train will see big improvements in fitness. Yet why is it that so many climbers, having trained all winter, still find themselves climbing the same grade outdoors as they were last year?
The truth is, for most climbers, especially those of the beginner and intermediate variety, good climbing technique will get them much further than a strong back and a vise grip.
It’s easier to get stronger than it is to get better. Anyone can go to the gym and rip off a bunch of reps or climb a bunch of boulder problems and feel as though they have accomplished something. Training with the goal of improving technique is more cerebral, requiring a certain degree of mindfulness about what you’re doing. This is because good technique is all about ingraining movements, coordinating the upper and lower body, and maintaining awareness of how much effort you’re expending to the point that it becomes second nature. Great climbers aren’t thinking about what they need to do—they just do the exact right thing. That’s the art of free climbing.
Proper technique honed over many hours of practice is more enduring than one’s momentary form (strength and fitness). Improvements in technique are much harder to measure than V-grades and 5.whatever. It’s therefore very difficult to know how to approach the gym with the goal of becoming a better free climber. Here are a few tips that you may find useful:
We try to perform our best every single time we enter the gym or a crag, whether that means throwing ourselves at the hardest problem or route we think we can do, or just going to failure. Instead, start thinking of your indoor climbing sessions as opportunities to practice. You don’t have to try the hardest thing you’ve ever tried every single time!
Part of practicing means doing something you’re bad at, or that you need to work on. Let yourself flail on that “easy” slab if you’re not good at slabs. You’ll learn more from that than from laddering up the steep, hard crimper problem that you have wired. Make the focus on climbing well. The strength will eventually come. And when it does, you’ll be able to actually apply it effectively to your climbing because you’ve spent those 10,000 hours learning how to be good.
Don’t climb sloppily
Climbers doing 4x4s end up flailing on the third and fourth problem of the set. Seeing this always makes me cringe. Their footwork has gone to shit. They stop moving with control. They invariably look like they’re just one thrutchy move away from a shoulder injury. Worst of all, they’re ingraining bad technique into their muscle memory. You may be able to get away with climbing something sloppily in the gym, but not outdoors. How often do you see climbers finally get through the crux of their projects only to fall on the “easy” part at the top of the route? Up there is where technique, more so than strength, saves your ass.
Bottom line: Don’t practice sloppy climbing. If you’re tired, take a break, take the level way down, and always place the focus on returning to climbing something well, if not perfectly.
Challenge your feet
Problems in the gym typically get harder as the handholds become worse and farther apart, while usually the foot jibs remain pretty good. But if you have the ability to help set some problems wherever you climb indoors, I recommend setting decent hand holds and setting the worst, most polished, difficult-to-stand-on footholds you can find. You want them to be bad, but not so bad that you just force a campus move. You want the focus to be on using your feet properly—the first and most important step in becoming good. As a double benefit, nothing will get you stronger than climbing steep problems with bad footholds.
Master the back-step
One of the most useful maneuvers in a climber’s bag of tricks is the back-step, where you stand on the outside edge of your right foot and rotate your lower body so that your right hip is against the wall (or vice versa). Most people climb straight on, with their hands and feet set as if they were climbing up a ladder. If you watch great climbers, they are rarely squared up like this; one hip or the other is always twisted toward the wall, with a foot back-stepping. Also, teach yourself how to get into back-steps quicker. Instead of matching feet, just make a big, quick cross across your body and start back-stepping right away.
Push with the legs first, pull with the arms second
You’ve undoubtedly heard the advice, “Keep your arms straight!” But, of course, if your arms were straight the whole time, you wouldn’t be able to flex them to pull yourself upward. When you’re hanging on holds, yes, it’s a good idea to keep your arms straight. But the second part of this advice that’s left out is how to begin initiating every upward movement.
Typically beginners will initiate the move with their arms: pulling themselves up, locking off like on a pull-up bar, with their feet way low. Instead, always initiate your upward movement with your legs. Keep your arms straight and lever yourself upward by pressing with your feet. Partway through the movement, you’ll have to flex your arms, but try to do so only after you’ve initiated the upward movement with the legs—even if it’s just a little bit. Teach yourself what this feels like by climbing easy (5.6) routes in the gym. Hang from straight arms and try to drive yourself upward as far as you can by moving yourself upward using only your leg press muscles.
Wear better shoes
Beginners typically choose loose-fitting, comfortable shoes. But no matter what grade you climb, I recommend you get a high-end pair of shoes that are snug (not tight!). Higher end shoes give you much more precision, and force you to do a better job of allowing you to use all parts of your foot. Climbing shoes are the one and only piece of gear that can actually make a difference in your climbing! Get the best-fitting pair of high-end shoes you can find.
Develop your own style
Something that often gets lost when “experts” try to teach beginners how to climb is that there is no such thing as just one way to climb a route or problem. There are no hard and fast rules. For some climbers, the best solution to a problem will be to climb with really high feet and lots of heel hooks. Others may find it works better for them to keep their feet low and center of gravity into the wall. Out of those two opposing styles come not only entirely different sets of beta, but also the art, the dance, that is free climbing. This is where climbing becomes not just a sport but a matter of self-expression and style. Cherish this.
Try to climb a problem two or three different ways. See what works for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Perhaps it’s easiest to just jump! Ultimately, the best style is the one that gets you to the top most efficiently.
Avoid finger injuries
Have you ever noticed that climbers typically blow a tendon within their first three years of climbing? Beginner climbers tend to race through the grades relying on rapid strength gains, not technique, which creates a false sense of ability that encourages them to get on crimpier routes before their tendons are ready for that load.
The musculature may be there, but the tendon strength to withstand the stress of hanging from small holds builds up over a long time—in my observations, it’s three years or more, though everyone is different. Avoid finger injuries by using the open-hand grip indoors whenever you can. Also, STOP crimping before your fingers feel sore! Restraint can often mean the difference between injury and improvement.
Build a base
Dani Andrada, one of the best climbers in the world, was rumored to have redpointed fifty 5.13b’s before he even considered getting on a 5.13c. While those grades are admittedly elite, the lesson still applies—take the time needed to master the easier grades before moving on. Did you redpoint fifty 5.11d’s before even trying a 5.12a?
Set the goal to be good
Many beginner and intermediate climbers have approached me wanting to know how to get strong, but I’ve never heard anyone ask how to get good. The two are undoubtedly related. But instead of jumping on the hardest route or boulder problem you think you can do, focus on making perfect ascents of easier routes and problems. Try to be good before you try to be strong. How perfectly can you climb something?
After all, that, not grades, is what it’s all about.