Bouldering brings an obsession with power. Big moves, big pulls, big grips and small holds each profess ludicrous finger strength and biceps forged in the fires of a disciplined training regime.
There have always been those that describe the importance of climbing technique, but what does it actually mean in terms of climbing? Is it footwork? Is it slab? Can board climbing even offer technical progression?
Technique is, in fact definable, in the terms of rock climbing. You have probably heard this definition before. Technique is often described as “efficient.” When we first start route climbing, for example, climbers learn that straight arms is “better technique” than remaining in a perpetual lock-off. In terms of efficiency, this is definitely the case. Of course straight arms is but a single technique that makes up the larger family of efficiency, and, there will be times when a straight arm is in fact not the most efficient technique to use in a given situation.
Today, we are going to explore what perfect technique might mean to the climber, outline a few misconceptions, and come to a conclusion about how you can improve your climbing technique in the gym, on the home wall, or at the crag.
What is Climbing Technique?
As described above, technique is best defined as efficiency. This does not necessarily mean that static beta is the best, and it does not mean that the best technique for any given climber is the same as another.
The reason that the best technique for a climber cannot be the same between climbers is simple, different strengths and weaknesses. This does not mean that a powerful climber should only climb powerfully. Instead, it means to take your strengths and weaknesses into account when approaching a climb. This is easily represented through finger strength.
If your fingers are made of steel, but your arms are weak, you will find greater efficiency in maintaining straight arms and open hips when you climb. This will allow you to put most of the weight on your hands and to use your hands as pivot points from which to generate. By comparison, a climber with weaker fingers but stronger arms might do a lot of jumping to holds, catching them in a locked-off position. If you catch a hold in a near-90-degree lock, the amount of swing your body will experience is than if you caught the hold with a more extended arm. As such, it will put less strain on your fingers as you have less of a swing to catch.
The problem with only climbing static is that it often turns climbs into a sort of fingerboard. This is nice in some ways. If your fingers are strong, moving static, pushing a portion of your weight through your feet, and keeping the hips into the wall creates a very consistent climbing style.
If your fingers are weak, however, they might be opening on the poor holds and you will be using much more energy to try and keep your hands closed than if you simply took the best holds on the climb, and generated hard through your feet to catch the more positive finish jug.
From these scenarios we learn two things. It is more consistent to move statically up a climb, but it requires less finger strength to move up a climb with momentum. So which is more efficient? Well, for your biceps, the static climb is more efficient. For your fingers, the dynamic style is more efficient. Which is better? Truly neither. The climber that refuses to move dynamically or refuses to move statically is effectively lobotomizing half of their climbing technical skill. This cannot be the solution.
So what is climbing with good technique? It is climbing efficiently. What is climbing efficiently? Utilizing the best techniques.
The Technical Aspects of Climbing
This one is what many people first think of when they consider climbing technique. This is fair as good footwork, on certain problems and routes, can change the difficulty substantially. These are the most efficient examples of footwork.
Toeing-in: This is the process of standing on a foot-hold with the toe of your shoe. It is a precise movement that requires abdominal strength to place the foot and lumbar (lower-back) strength to keep the foot. It is essential to become good at this technique before any other. Soft shoes make it easier to feel the hold, but harder to stand on it, while stiff shoes make it it easier to stand, but a more numb experience
Smear: This is the process of placing the sole of your shoe on a volume, or flat surface and pushing into the surface with your rubber. This is commonly seen in slab climbing. Classically, stiff shoes were considered the best for this, but, as soft shoes become more common, more people are enjoying their sticky rubber on slick, low-angle surfaces.
Edging: This is the process of standing on the outside (Pinky to middle toes) or the inside (edge the runs alongside your big toe) edges of your shoe. This becomes exceptionally useful on face climbs and slabs. It is a difficult technique to master because it is all in the hips but is effectively an exercise in balance one you figure it out. It is almost always better in stiff shoes, and is often more efficient than towing in, where it is useful, because it brings your hip closer to the wall.
Heel hook: This technique is the boulder destroyer, and the pump-saver. Learning to hook your heal behind features and then pull with your hamstring, or rock over into a perch (where you are sitting on your heel) is exceptionally useful and, where necessary, can drop the difficulty of a route or boulder problem significantly. Different heel hooks prefer different shoe stiffnesses, but in either case, the pointing of the toe away from the climber’s body, and the direction toward which they are pulling is essential for this technique.
Toe hook: This is the process of hooking your toes behind a hold. It is useful and requires time to master. It requires a lot of core strength, both abdominal and lumbar, and it definitely helps to have a sticky toe patch of rubber. There are variations on this technique, like the toe scum, but, like the heel hook, can work like another hand.
Heel-toe cam: This technique efficient. It is done by placing your heel in a positive hold, and then camming (kind of like jamming, toe presses against an opposite surface so that your foot cannot move) it against the rock above the foot. It is dangerous because some cams are so good that when you fall, they remain stuck in the rock and can damage your joints. With that said, many are fairly safe, and all can take a significant amount of weight off of your hands.
Toe-jam: Imagine a vertical crack. How do you stand in it? Tilt the inside-edge of your shoe so that it is pointing near-vertically and slide your now-vertically-narrow shoe into the crack. Now twist the inside edge down so that the outside edge rotates up. Both edges will bear into the sides of the crack. It makes for a very good foot hold unless the crack is super thin, in which case, this process becomes much more technical.
Knee-bar: This is one mega technique. Place your foot on a hold and press your knee into a hold that is the knee’s distance from your foot. Press up with your calf. If it is super bomb, you can get a now hands rest here.
The bicycle: this is the process of having one foot on top of the hold, while the other is underneath. You then squeeze both sides of the hold to create a clamp like grip.
Reverse-bicycle: This is the process of having one foot toe-in to a hold, let’s say a box, while your other foot toe hooks a hold higher up. The above foot pulls away from the lower foot, while the lower foot pushes away from the higher foot.
Static Body Position
After learning the many tools, of this non-exhaustive footwork guide, you will probably hear words floating around the gym like “back-flag” in regard to your body position. Your body position, while climbing static, can turn a difficult move into a consistent one.
Climbing Square: This is something you will either hear in your first weeks or not learn until you have been climbing for months. Climbing square surrounds itself around the “square” you could draw about your knees and elbows. Climbing square is difficult, but easy to train and is an effective way to removed subtlety of movement, though it is not particularly technical. It is not efficient, but easy to understand.
Flag: Flagging, in climbing, is a term used to open a hip and extend your leg out in a direction. For your right leg, you would extend your leg, with your hip open to the wall, to the right. Beginner’s will often flag without pressing into the wall with their inside edge, but this is a mistake. It is best to flag by creating opposition between your grounded foot, the one that is standing on a hold, and your flagging foot by pressing into the wall.
Back-flag: This is a climbing technique often used for balance. And is a great way to stand into a grip you would otherwise have to move directly to in the square position, or that a climber might have to switch feet to attain. The back flag is done by passing one leg behind the other in a crossing fashion. Ideally, the climber presses into the wall with this back flagged leg.
Inside-flag: This move is rarely forced, and rarely efficient, but every now and again, it is perfect. It is like the back-flag in the way that it crosses the climber’s legs, but unlike the back-flag, the inside flag steps through, or in front of, the standing leg to press on the wall opposite the legs. Position. The right leg would inside flag to the climber’s left.
Perching: This process is exceedingly useful in sport climbing, though sometimes useful in bouldering as well. It is the process by which the climber sits on their foot in a pistol-squat like position. This is often done on a heel or a toe.
Drop Knee: This process is defined by a twisting motion. the climb rotates their hips so that they are perpendicular to the wall, pulling in with the hand that is one the same side that they are turning. the, they rech up with their opposite hand for an extended, static reach. This brings the hips closer to the wall without keeping the hips open. This is the only time, except for the inside-flag, that hip openness should be compromised.
Dynamic Climbing Technique
This form of skill is often just put down to a climber having ridiculous amounts of power, but this is not the case. Dynamic climbing should be the use of momentum, both in ist generation and its dissipation.
Generating momentum is pretty easy to see. When a climber jumps and pulls at the same time, they are generating momentum. However, it is best seen as a result of very little pulling. Momentum should come from the hips. Harnessing momentum is what separates the good from the great. This is best thought of in this way: Imagine your project. Now imagine holding the crux position on your project. It is probably not too hard. Now imagine doing the crux move to the crux hold. Definitely seems much more difficult, right?
Theoretically, if you can hold the crux position, generating to the crux hold shouldn’t be that difficult. All it requires is for you to have effectively reached the “end of your swing” by the time you hit the hold. If you are “not moving” by the time you reach the hold, then holding the crux position should be as easy as pulling onto it from the ground.
If, however, you have to catch the hold, and you do in fact hit it with the momentum from your generation, you will have to resist gravity, your weight, and all of the additional weight of falling with gravity onto the hold. This requires significantly more strength than moving dynamically and is the common mistake of static-style climbers.
Revving the engine: This is the process by which the climber relaxes into the lowest position possible and pulls while standing to move upward, or laterally, quickly. It is like a big jump. This is the poorest example of momentum generation as it requires substantial pulling.
Moon-kick: this is the process of swinging the foot so that at the apex of it’s forward swing, the climber can pop off of the foot hold on which they are standing and leap into the air with the momentum of their foot. This takes practice, but is attainable if the climber does not get frustrated. It is helpful to try and think of your foot as a wip. Try and produce a level of “snap.”
Hip Generation: This is the process of gaining momentum simply by swing the hips side-to-side or over-top the centre of the position. This is to say, throw your hips, in the direction you want to go. The key with this is to lead with the hips. This type of movement should eventually be incorporated into almost every movement, static or dynamic.
The Pop: it is the process of pulling deep into a lock off, but instead of fully locking of the movement, you utilize the small amount of momentum of pulling into the lock and generating ever-so slightly with that momentum to “pop” to the next hold.
This presents in numerous ways:
The Zero-momentum Move: This is what is mentioned before. Generate from a hold to another but instead of landing heavily on that grip, instead, land without the weight of your momentum. Ideally you are catching the hold in perfect opposition, and equilibrium to gravity, relieving the stress on the fingers.
The Post-catch Flick: This is also called a scorpion kick and surely a great number of other things. This occurs in competition frequently. It occurs when the climber tries to kill their momentum by allowing it to whip through their body after a cut-loose move. The key here is to not resist the momentum. If you resist the swing or the “whip,” it will carry you off the wall. If you let it flow through your body, your centre of gravity will stay close to the wall.
Catching a lock-off: This is the process of catching a hold high in a lock off. By catching a hold in a locked-off position, your centre of gravity remains close to the wall and the amount of swing is substantially reduced.
With all of that said, what does it mean to climb efficiently? Well, aside from using the appropriate footwork when it is necessary, this is a given necessity of rock climbing, it means the constant use of both dynamic and static technique.
Too easily, in the technical conversation, are static and dynamic styles forgone in the pursuit of one or the other. This is not how to climb efficiently. Climbing efficiently is ultimately summed in keeping the hips open, bringing your groin toward the wall in all scenarios except drop-knees. It means constant movement, there should never be a moment where you allow your momentum to die unless you are specifically resting on route.
It means keeping the feet on, and your weight under you as much as possible, but, to that effect, it also means cutting loose when appropriate. It means that you should generate for that cut-loose move with your hips ,trying to keep your arms straight until you need to pull, and it means pulling into a lock off to help kill your momentum if you are unable to catch the hold in perfect equilibrium against gravity.
It means allowing the momentum to move through your body instead of becoming obsessed with resisting it. It means working on the aspects of our climbing technique that need work and spending the time, on routes beneath our limit, actively pursuing that form of understanding and self-awareness. It is incredibly complex, but it is the difference between the difficulty we each climb and the difficulty we could climb. Progression is easy through strength, but mastery is difficult for it requires technical skill.
Featured image of Emile Baril