Body Tension: What is it anyway?

No Gravatar

I actually started this series of posts out of order by describing the joint actions and muscles at work in the front lever, an exercise often described as an excellent way of developing body tension. But I didn’t define what body tension is. We are looking for a functional definition, one that is descriptively and mechanically accurate and precise. So lets start our search for a definition by looking at what others have written on the topic.

“Body tension refers to this transfer of power through the torso where force derived from one hold enhances the use of another. On overhanging rock, for example, tension creating by pulling the lower body towards the rock with your feet improves the usability of handholds. By changing the direction of pull, the handholds feel more positive because your body weight is no longer hanging straight down from them. Just as rigidity keeps a bridge straight between points of contact with the ground, body tension maintained by your core muscles keeps your body from sagging, holding your central body mass towards the overhanging wall, suspended between points of contact. . . . Body tension requires using the lower body similarly to the way we use our arms and hands, and it demands strong core muscles to transfer forces between the lower and upper body. Think of your feet as tools for positioning your core in three-dimensional space to optimize your orientation for the moves you must make. (P. 38 Goddard and Newman, Performance Rock Climbing, 1993)

“There are two crucial aspects to body tension in climbing. The first is the strength element – with all the will in the world, if you don’t have strong core muscles then you won’t be able to keep yourself stable when things get steep. The next is the technique or ‘neuromuscular’ element, keeping your feet on small footholds requires a great deal of control and coordination on steep terrain. . .The main muscles required to keep the torso rigid when climbing on overhangs are the abominal muscles (rectus abdominis) and the lower back muscles (erector spinae). In an ideal world, these should create an equal force on either side of the spine by contracting statically (isometrically) in order to maintain posture. ” (Blog post by Neil Gresham 2009

“Using three points of contact, proper tension means keeping equal amounts of pressure on all three points of contact at all times. The most important aspect of body tension is the core of the body (abs) if the climber is on a steep wall and her abs are not strong enough, she will struggle to hold her legs/feet on the wall. With good body tension, the climber’s feet never lose contact with the wall.” (p. 74 Coaching Climbing, Michelle Hurni, 2003)

“In climbing vertical to overhanging rock, the core muscles of your torso play a key role in enabling your arms and legs to maximize leverage and transfer of torque from hand to foot and vice versa.” (p. 98 Training for Climbing, Eric Horst, 2003)

“The type of strength required in climbing is not necessarily sit-up strength or rather, the shortening of the abdominal muscles. Instead, it is the constant tension of the abdominal muscles under resistance.” (P. 32 Climbing Your Best, Heather Renolds Sagar, 2001)

I think that Goddard and Newman have the most nuance in that they describe using the feet to pull the body into a position that creates advantageous direction of force on the hand holds by pulling the Center of Gravity in towards the rock. Which I suspect other climbers might not think of as body tension. (While admitting the importance of what they say, I am not certain I would describe it as body tension myself.) Grisham gets points in that he is concerned not just with the anterior muscles of the trunk but also mentions the important posterior muscles, the Erector spinae; a group of six muscles on either side of the spine involved in trunk extension and lateral flexion.

But why is it that the trunk is so important to keeping the feet on? Michelle Hurni is most direct when she writes that “if a climber is on a steep wall and her abs are not strong enough she will struggle to hold her legs / feet on the wall.” But why? What is the mechanical relationship that would make the abs so important to keeping the feet on? Further, are core strength and body tension the same thing? Or are different authors attempting to describe related but different aspects of climbing movement?

On this last question I am not entirely sure. In some cases climbers seem to use the terms core strength and body tension interchangeably. Eric Horst writes in Conditioning for Climbing “Furthermore, the core muscles are what provide body tension when you’re trying to make a long reach or twisting body movement.” (p. 67).

In the end these definitions are fairly ambiguous, at times they use technical terms such as torque, and leverage, or point to specific muscles but what these things mean in context is, by and large, left unexplained.

In my next post I will begin to list what I think the mechanical and functional aspects of body tension are, but I am curious, about what other’s think. In a reply to the first post one reader mentioned the importance of distinguishing between open and closed kinetic chains. I agree with that completely and will address that issue directly. But what else? Do you think the trunk is the most important element of body tension? Do core strength and body tension describe the same thing?  What is most important about body tension to you?

8 Responses to “Body Tension: What is it anyway?”

  1. WesNo Gravatar says:

    Douglas good stuff.

    Here is what I think about body tension and how it relates to climbing. You asked.

    Sit ups make you better able to bend your body. When you are on a steep wall, gravity will pull your butt downward, bending your body with no effort on your part. If fact you have to fire the exact opposite muscles to keep your butt up toward the wall. Like a back extension not a sit up. Follow? Of course when you backstep and turn you are using the muscles in your sides to fight gravity and keep your mid section from sagging.

    In addition to the muscles in your “core” you have to fire the glutes to hold your legs straight and your calves to hold your foot pointed and all the other muscles that work in unison with them. Same for your upper torso and arms. Many, many muscles under tension, with small movements almost like an isometric exercise. Like a full body isometric exercise.

    For me this is the important part, while under full body tension you must be able to breathe. Sounds simple. But ever wonder why people hold there breath while climbing? I am pretty sure the biggest reason for that is the tension in the torso when executing difficult moves.

    I once was trying to work up to a planch. The preliminary exercises had you holding difficult positions for 60sec. I would be turning purple not breathing because every muscle in my torso was firing. Then I just got used to breathing while all my “core” muscles were turned to “11″ Shortly after I noticed a real improvement in my climbing. I think this was some of the reason. An example of this could be an uncomfortable position that required body tension to get a “rest” in, became easier to maintain, and thus a better rest.

    There are many other things about body tension that I have forgotten because I am old. So this will have to do for now.

    I need to get back out there and get some climbing in soon.

    Take care,


  2. JoshuaNo Gravatar says:

    Body tension should refer to “full body tension,” the core (rectus and transverse abdominus, erector spinae) is simply a link between the upper extremity and lower extremity. There are so many different muscular and fascial components that go into keeping points of contact when encountering steep terrain. The ability to create tension from toes to fingers requires many different kinetic and fascial trains/links to work in conjunction with each other.

    Having strong abs can not make up for a weak posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calves, erectors) which facilitates driving your toes into a foothold. I believe that core strength and body tension are two different things, but in order to have full body tension you must have a strong “core”. However, you could have strong abs, but may not be able to develop high levels of full body tension because other areas are lacking/weak.

    Hope that helps, looking forward to the coming posts.

  3. DouglasNo Gravatar says:

    Can I just say that the comments on this blog are often more thoughtful, and critically rigorous, than what other people are getting paid to write in the climbing mags. Thanks you guys. I will be drawing from both your comments in future posts.

  4. JFNo Gravatar says:

    I think you’ve identified a particularly nebulous part of climbing terminology. “Body tension” could probably be used to refer to almost any isometric contraction under load. Most of the examples and responses are referring to pure resistance climbing – that is, handholds pulling directly downward, feet pushing directly into footholds. But that is only one example of body tension.

    I climb a lot of compression problems. In these scenarios, the muscles contracted to maintain foot position are different, though I assume there is some overlap. It can’t simply be “I need to hold a back extension position to keep my feet on.” What about pulling over a bulge or a lip on poor holds? Then you’re moving tension both ways – lifting with the front chain to keep the legs up, but also presumably pulling through the rear chain to keep some of your weight on the footholds. Perhaps body tension could be more broadly defined as something like “the redirection of tension from one limb to another through the torso.” And even that isn’t accurate for edge cases. A campus move on a bad sloper still requires body tension, even if the tension is mainly in one limb.. but then you might be straying from tension and talking more about body positioning and dynamic tension. Setting the body up to be in a specific place as a move is completed but not necessarily through the whole move. I digress..

    You might be able to add granularity if you went into the major types of tension.. these seem like resistance, opposition, and compression to me. Or, much more likely, all of them in combination at one time or another through a given problem.

    This is what makes it so hard to scientifically reduce climbing – there’s an exponential curve at work. As the complexity of movement increases, the complexity of explaining it increases dramatically. All of this makes it that much more amazing that our bodies can make these type of movement decisions on the fly, intuitively..

  5. Douglas HunterNo Gravatar says:


    Good thoughts, and yea, I’d say you are right most people who write about BT seem to be thinking of just one type of position. At least that is what is implied by the training suggestions they offer.

    I am planning on trying to define specific types of tension, or at least describing common tension situations. I do think that BT is not just isometric, I identify situations with movement in the closed kinetic chain that I am willing to call BT. We will see if others accept the description as accurate.

  6. gNo Gravatar says:

    the line between CS and BT is so thin that the French have one word for both of them : “gainage”.

    “gainage”, really, could be translated as “the ability to keep a rigid body attitude” and is somehow the opposite of “being relaxed and barely hanging by your fingertips”.

    as the concept is actually quite broad, it is applied to a quite big array of movements:

    -any situation where the body’s inertia has to be stopped, controlled, redirected or prevented: eg a deadpoint requiring the climber to “stop” precisely in the arrival position, avoiding/controlling a swing, slowly untwisting after a crossover instead of taking a barn door, etc…

    -several situations involving a near-maximal spread between the climber’s points-of contact on the wall, some kind of overhang and bad handholds/footholds (mostly a sub-case of “preventing inertia”)

    interestingly the term is not used in “compression” situations…probably the perceived difference being that compression mainly involves one kinetic chain, while “gainage” involves two opposite kinetic chains contracting at the same time (as in your neil gresham’s citation)

  7. John KettleNo Gravatar says:

    I think a key component of efficient body tension is a stable core, specifically through strong pelvic and trunk stabilisers. I observe climbers creating body tension with other muscles to compensate for instabilities, eg using the external obliques muscles that have a ‘corset’ effect on the ribs, inhibiting breathing.

  8. Dave FlanaganNo Gravatar says:

    I would consider core strength a component of body tension, the other component being technique.

Leave a Reply