Climbing Improvement: 7 Tips to Move Your Climbing in the Right Direction

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How best to climb like Dave?

What’s the best way to improve? I’m often asked this question by those new to climbing, and the answer can sometimes elicit a look of puzzlement due to its simplicity and lack of sexy exercises. It’s sometimes surprising to learn that you can climb well without ever suffering on climbing specific workout equipment. Here are a few tips for getting your improvement program moving in the right direction.

Tip #1: You’ve got to spend time on the wall practicing the right things. It’s impossible to improve without putting in the time climbing, but it can be unproductive if you practice the wrong things or in the wrong way. Remember that your subconscious will place into motor learning any movement that is repetitively performed. So if you practice poor movement that is what you’ll retain and use.

Tip #2: Practice good movement instead of attempting to build strength. This topic was explored in an earlier blog so we won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that as a newer climber the root of your climbing performance issues is not a lack of strength but rather the inability to move well.

Tip #3: Find a good movement program with experienced instructors. This is trickier. How can you know if the movement programs offered at your local gym are first-class? Look for a progression from using your feet well to turning to more advanced topics. Make sure there is plenty of practice time built into the program and that the instructors are at least good climbers (5.12) themselves.

Tip #4: In the beginning spend the majority of your time learning to place and use your feet. We can’t overemphasize this skill. It is foundational in climbing movement and without it you’re left pawing at the wall trying to gain any kind of purchase. Put in the time practicing the silent foot exercise until you can quickly locate and efficiently use the footholds presented.

Tip #5: Learn to turn. Although sometimes thought of as an advanced movement skill, we believe turning should be learned early in a climber’s career. The ability to turn a hip into the wall can greatly improve your leverage and increase your reach. After learning to use your feet, turning is the next skill to acquire. Use the line and flag exercise until you can ascend an easy wall without hesitating.

Tip #6: Build strength through bouldering. The best way to improve your strength is not to do sets of pull ups or follow a weight lifting regimen, but rather to boulder. Bouldering allows you to repeatedly work difficult moves thereby improving not only muscle strength but the refined movement skills required as well. Climbing requires strength to be applied within the context of precise movement, and strength developed without movement skill is wasted.

Tip #7: Build endurance through routes. There’s a theme here – can you catch it? Yep, the best way to improve your climbing is to climb. Gain endurance through long continuous climbing sessions or doing laps on routes.

I read a study years ago conducted by the Nautilus Corporation, the folks who make Nautilus weight lifting equipment. They wanted to test whether cross training was a useful activity for improving performance so they had runners train by bicycling and bicyclists train by running, two similar aerobic endurance sports. The conclusion was that although some improvement was noted for the cross trained athletes, those in the control groups that stuck with their respective sports improved far more. Now if cross training in similar sports is relatively unproductive, I think we can safely say that doing pull-ups or lifting weights will not help you improve as much as simply climbing.

These and many other exercises along with the background theory and practical applications can be found in The Self Coached Climber.

3 Responses to “Climbing Improvement: 7 Tips to Move Your Climbing in the Right Direction”

  1. Melvin PurdieNo Gravatar says:

    An fascinating concept this. I’m 1 of those men and women whom tend to wait for things to mature prior to taking action but in this case I’m mindful that inaction leads to only failures so I will heed your comments and begin to do anything about it.

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