10 Tips on How to Improve Your Rock Climbing Ability
1. Climb More
The best thing you can do to get better at rock climbing is
to climb more. A lot of newbies I've introduced to rock climbing often feel they need to build up more strength before they can start rock climbing in earnest, but this is a mistake. If you're really serious about giving rock climbing a go,
then don't waste your time pumping iron at a regular gym to "build up your
strength" before you hit the rocks. The best way to get better at rock climbing is to climb. It is really as simple as that.
Pumping iron might be useful at a later stage but it won't do you much good at the start. I've seen plenty of buff guys coming into the rock climbing gym who can't climb to save their lives.
Personally, even if I wanted to get stronger, I would do it by climbing more, not swapping out my climbing sessions with regular weight training sessions. Why? Because weight training is symmetrical. When you do a lat pull down, you pull equally with both arms. You don't use your legs to help you and you certainly don't have to balance on tiny footholds while you're at it. Additionally, time spent at the regular gym is time you aren't spending climbing. Since you can only do so much weight training (your rock climbing sessions included) a week before you start to overstrain your muscles, you lose out on the opportunity to hone your other climbing skills - such as balance, finger strength, footwork, etc.
2. Practice Down Climbing
If you want to get better at climbing, then you have to
practice down climbing. Why? Down climbing helps you focus on the one
thing most climbers, especially newbie climbers, often forget - your feet. When you down climb, the first thing you
think about is: "Where am I going to put my foot?"
Many new climbers often underestimate just how much their legs can do for them when they climb. It has been said that you can tell the difference between a beginner skier and an experienced skier by listening to them complain about the parts of their bodies that ache after a day's worth of skiing. A beginner skier will complain that their arms ache the most, while an experienced skier will complain that their legs ache the most. Similarly, the first part of a newbie climber's body to give way in climbing is the arms and that is because they often forget about their legs. To reiterate the fact that many newbie climbers give little value to the power of their legs, you'll hear many of them offer this statement when citing how they plan to get better at climbing: "Let me build more strength in my arms first."
Why are your legs so important in climbing?
The more weight you transfer to your feet, the less mass you have to haul up with your arms - this is great especially if your upper body strength is poor.
The most common reason why a newbie fails to make it to the next hold is because they can't reach it or they are unable to get a good purchase on the hold because they are too low. Just moving your feet up a few centimeters can be the difference between making it to the next hold and falling off. The most common mistake a newbie makes is that they forget to move their feet up.
Personally, I believe that the greatest virtue of down climbing lies in the fact that it makes you think about your feet and it teaches you to focus on your footwork. So the next time you're climbing at the gym, try down-climbing a couple of routes. You should start with the routes that you normally "warm-up" on, that is, nothing too difficult.
3. Practice Traversing
If you're new to climbing, you're probably wondering what the heck is traversing? It is basically a horizontal movement across the wall as opposed to a vertical climb up the wall. It is normally done as a climbing warm up before you start climbing in earnest at the gym. Just start at one corner of the gym and keep traversing horizontally until you drop off.
When you first begin traversing, you may find yourself unable to stay on the wall for very long. Keep practicing until you can make your way around the gym easily or do laps across a short section. Try traversing with different holds and finding different rest positions instead of coming down when you need to take a break.
If you are traversing as a "warm up", then do so only until you feel your muscles warming up and stop well before the lactic acid builds up in your forearms (often called a "pump"). If you traverse until your arms are pumped, you won't be able to do much climbing, especially if you're new to the climbing scene.
What does traversing do for you?
It teaches you to use your feet and it helps you think of
different ways to move on the wall. You
can learn which moves are easier for you and you can work through a problem
close to the ground which allows you to tackle the problem without wasting
energy on the parts you can do easily.
If you find it too easy and you want something harder, try skipping
holds or use fingertips only - vary the exercise. As you get better at traversing, you can
graduate to "bouldering" which I will talk more about below.
Variety is the spice of life. It is also the key to getting better at whatever you do. Always try to climb something new and different - work on different routes, climb at different crags, go to different gyms. This helps you to improve a couple of things:
- your route-reading ability - how you look at a new route and figure out how to climb it.
- your repertoire of rock climbing moves - every new route will train your muscles in different ways. If you only climb the same routes over and over again, your body won't learn anything new. Eric Horst once wrote about a climber who would climb at the same crag every weekend. He got so good that he could dance pirouettes around every single route at that crag. Until one day when someone broke one of the holds on a route and suddenly, he couldn't climb that particular route any more. Don't fall into this trap.
Add variety to your training sessions. Try different styles of climbing. You can work any of the following suggestions into your training program:
- Climb using only one hand (the easier routes, of course); or only one leg.
- Practice traversing on a slab (a forward inclining wall, see picture to the right) using feet only - this is great for improving your balance and your footwork. The wall in the picture below is a good example of a slab, but obviously if you're only using feet, make sure it has bigger footholds.
- Climb using first touch - that means once you have placed your hand or foot, you can't shift the position, even if it is awkward. This helps you think about how you use a hold so that you optimise your moves and reduce the number of unnecessary moves.
- Boulder - do this with a group of friends and give each other boulder problems to work on. Bouldering is the act of climbing a section of a wall without a rope. A spotter (usually another climber) will "spot" you to make sure you don't injure yourself if you fall while bouldering. There are also crash mats for you to land on. Bouldering tends to involve a shorter, more powerful sequence of moves and this is guaranteed to help improve your footwork and your strength.
- Do laps - up climb and down climb on a route that you can complete but is still somewhat challenging. Obviously, don't pick one that you could climb in your sleep, make sure you feel like you are working out when you do laps. This helps to build your endurance.
5. Monkey See, Monkey Do
The benefit of climbing in a group is that you get to see how others climb. It gives you ideas for new moves that you can try when working out a problem on the wall. Sometimes another climber may have a better move that conserves more energy and it makes sense for you to copy that move than to stick to the move that you worked out yourself. Learn by watching other climbers because that old adage applies equally well for rock climbing as it does for any other situation in life - why reinvent the wheel when someone else has already done a pretty good job of it?
Just as they recommend starting a weightloss program with a friend - so you can help to motivate each other - climbing with a group can be pretty motivating. I remember a remark about bouldering made by a climber, "The thing about bouldering that I love is the energy surrounding it. You hear other climbers calling out words of encouragement and they really want the climber to succeed. It's a good feeling."
"Seeing is believing". Sometimes you need to see a route being climbed in order to believe it can be done. For instance, I was watching a group of climbers working on a bouldering problem at the gym. They kept taking turns to have a crack at the problem but no one could complete it. It got to the point where everyone was convinced the problem could not be done. That was, until one person succeeded in completing it. Shortly after, another climber completed it, and another, and another, until they had all completed it. It was as if the minds of the rest of the climbers had been opened to the possibility that the route was climbable when they witnessed its completion. Which brings me to a point about visualisation - but I'll talk about that later.
When you climb in a group, there will be climbers that are better than you and climbers who are weaker than you. Regardless of their climbing ability, you should watch them all climb because there are things you can learn from a weaker climber as well as a stronger climber. With a stronger climber, it's obvious what you can learn from watching them climb. Even if you aren't physically capable of making the moves just yet, your brain is always storing information for future use.
Weaker climbers remind us how best to conserve energy when climbing because a lot of the moves they use do not require as much strength purely because they don't have the physical capability of making powerful moves. At the peak of my climbing, I discovered that my new-found climbing strength had made me stupid. When I first starting climbing, my moves were more creative and clever because I wasn't strong enough to use brute force to get me up the wall. As I became stronger, I started to waste energy on powerful moves just because I could. Watching a weaker climber helps to bring you back to the basics.
6. Use "Tight Rope"
The rock climbing purists would probably shoot me down for writing this but I do believe that this really helps you to get better at climbing...
Every now and then, push your limits and try climbing some more challenging routes on top-rope, even if they appear to be physically out of your ability. I used to have an understanding with my climbing partner that with any new route I was working on, I had only three attempts to work out the crux on my own. If, by the third time, I was not making any headway or progress, my belayer would "help" me up by giving me a "tight rope". As for how much tight rope I would get, well, it really depended on how much I was struggling to get up the route. I have had instances where I made it to the top of the route through a combination of my own effort and the belayer's effort.
Now you may wonder what is the point of struggling up a route when it is clearly beyond your ability... The thing is, when you put your body through the motions (even if it is not completely on your own merit), it helps your body to learn the moves. The next time you try to climb the route, you may surprise yourself to discover that you struggle less (require less tight rope or even none) when trying to finish the route.
I noticed this when my friend egged me on to try a particularly nasty route in the gym with brown coloured holds. Knowing how tough it was, I was reluctant to give it a go. I only attempted to climb it because my friend wouldn't leave me alone until I tried it. Needless to say, I struggled. Huffed and puffed and got blown over by the route, I gratefully accepted whatever help my friend was giving me by giving me "tight rope". After a painful struggle, I made it to the top and vowed that I would never be so stupid as to try this route again. A couple of weeks later (or perhaps it was a month later), I tried the route again. To my surprise, I managed to get through it without cheating nearly as much as the first time. The third time I worked on the route, I managed to complete it on my own merit (although I had to hangdog a couple of times). The fourth time, I sent it. And this was a route I had already labelled in my mind as "too difficult" for me.
Please note that you should only do this in the climbing gym. Don't try this when climbing outdoors because your struggles can destroy the rock surface (especially if you're climbing limestone) which can be very annoying to the climbers who are physically capable of climbing the route.
Another thing you can do, which helps you psychologically, is to touch the next hold. Even if you need help to get there, just make sure you don't get lowered before you've touched the next hold.
7. Project Route
Always have a project route that you are working on. What's a project route? It is basically a route you are trying to red-point. It is usually a grade or two above the grade you are comfortably climbing. For instance, if you are comfortably climbing grade 6A, you should work on a challenging 6B or 6C route. The route should be sufficiently challenging but not completely out of your reach. That is, you want something with a crux that you cannot complete, although, with a little work, you should eventually be able to nail it. A route that you can get to the anchor, albeit you have to hangdog, is not a suitable project route - this is too easy.
What does a project route do for you? It helps you to refine your climbing skills and work on an area that you are weak at. In a weightloss program, it would be like focussing on a particular area of your body, like your abs, or your thighs. With your project route, it may be a particular crimp, or sloper, or pinch that you just can't hold, or it could be a short series of moves that is beyond your current physical ability. Given enough time, you should be able to work through it and red-point the route.
If you have been working on it solidly for a couple of weeks and you clearly aren't making any progress, drop the project and look for another. It may be that the route you have chosen is too difficult for your current climbing abilities. You can always return to this project again at a later date after you have clocked up more climbing hours.
The great thing about a project route like this is that it helps you "see" your improvements. When you are climbing every week, sometimes it can feel as if you aren't making any progress at all. It may feel that your climbing is not progressing and you don't seem to be able to improve no matter what you do. Don't worry, this is just temporary. Many climbers I have spoken to have experienced this at some point where they have been training hard but nothing they do seems to make them climb any better. They hit a plateau phase that seems to last forever until suddenly, they make a leap and start climbing beyond their perceived abilities.
When you feel that this has happened to you, go back to that project route you couldn't red-point and try it again. You will be surprised how much easier it suddenly seems. It was quite similar for me when I first attempted two 7A routes - "Pear" and "Stupid With Manners". When I went back after several months of additional climbing under my belt, it was suddenly possible for me to work both cruxes. Likewise, with "Chess", the first time I ever climbed it was on top-rope. I remember thinking how impossible the route was and I honestly never thought I would ever be able to complete the crux, but I eventually red-pointed it, too.
Project routes like these can bring an enormous satisfaction when you are finally able to climb them. Never rule out anything as impossible. Just give it a go and see how you go, but know when to quit and call it a day.
8. Strength Training
There are several ways to go about this but I'll share with you the two methods I used to get stronger. I've often heard of climbers talking about campus boards and hanging on their fingers for as long as they can but seriously, if you can't even do a chin-up, you can forget about these methods (at least until you can campus - where you can climb using your hands only, no feet) and try something that really works.
What can you do for strength training to improve your climbing if you aren't that strong to begin with?
- Climb overhangs (you don't have to go for anything extreme, even a mildly overhanging incline will do)
If you do any amount of climbing on a regular basis, you are bound to get stronger whether you want to or not. However, if you specifically want to get stronger, you should consider tackling an overhanging route as a project on a regular basis. My most notable strength increases came about after the Rockrats started climbing at a place called "Comic Wall". We spent a good few months climbing there every weekend and by the time I walked out of that place, I could climb all the 6B routes and below but one.
When I first started climbing, I hated bouldering. I avoided it like the plague because I was extremely weak at it. That and the fact that I couldn't climb without a rope because I was afraid of falling. Even when I got better, I could never tackle bouldering routes that went up too high on the wall because I didn't trust myself to fall onto the mats below.
I also found bouldering rather tedious because I wasn't strong enough to complete the problems given to me. At least when I climbed, I had the benefit of feeling some sort of success from reaching the anchor. I wasn't quite sure what mental benefit was derived from bouldering. And since I wasn't all that strong, most of my boulder problems involved large holds, like jugs. If you climb a lot, you'll realise that using jug holds too often is a great way to develop calluses, but in the interim, you'll have to endure the pain that comes with it.
There was an additional benefit from working the overhanging routes first. By the time we were done climbing at Comic Wall, I could finally boulder with some degree of success. Being able to boulder was encouraging and it made me feel more inclined to boulder again and that helped me to further develop my upper body strength.
9. Training Schedule
If you want to get good at anything, you've got to put in the hours. Well, the same goes with climbing. It's also a good idea to set up a training schedule that you can stick to. If you're anything like me, you'll discover that even a missed week of climbing can do some serious damage to your climbing ability, so it pays to hit the rock s as often as you possibly can.
At the peak of my climbing, I was climbing four days a week - two evenings indoor at the gym and two full days outdoors (Saturday and Sunday). Here's an example of one of my climbing schedules:
Tuesday evening - traversing warm-up, climb twenty routes in blocks of five (i.e. climb none-stop five routes in one go), boulder if time permits.</p>
Thursday evening - traversing warm-up, climb a few routes, work on project route, boulder if time permits.
Saturday - climb whatever I wanted as long as I completed 8 long routes (at least 20-30m long) before leaving the crag. This included working on my project route and climbing regular routes for the fun of it.
Sunday - work on leading and project route.
Follow your training schedule and adjust it as necessary to address your weaknesses. For instance, if you detect a weakness in your footwork, include some training time to tackle that problem.
The power of visualisation lies in the fact that the mind cannot differentiate a real memory from visual images that are made up. If you create enough visual images and store them as memories, you can fool your mind into believing that these are past memories, rather than created images.
If you still don't get me, don't worry, let me give you an example. I know I have a tendency to talk in circles sometimes. In the book called, "The Mind Gym", the author writes about a golfer who was stuck in a POW camp for many years. The only way he could survive the experience was to imagine himself playing golf. He would visualise the golf course right down to the breeze that blew through his hair. When he finally escaped from the POW camp, he played golf again only to discover that his handicap had improved despite the fact that he had not touched a golf club in years! His improvement was due to many years of playing golf in his mind.
When I was projecting "Pear" and "Chess", I used to visualise myself working the crux several times before I attempted it. The week before I nailed "Pear", I was visualising the crux sequence even while I was at work! So in my mind, instead of having climbed "Pear" the number of times I had done it physically, I had actually climbed the crux as many times as I had done it physically plus the number of times I completed it in my mind.
If you had been there when I was projecting "Pear", then you'd realise that I had actually climbed "Pear" a lot of times. In fact, I climbed it so many times in such a short span of time that I injured my right ring finger so that was another reason why visualisation really helped. Even if my fingers were injured, I could still climb in my head.
Another benefit of visualisation is that it reinforces to your mind and body that something is possible. Just like when you watch another person climbing a particularly difficult route, visualisation is like watching yourself climbing that difficult route.
In a nutshell, visualisation helps you:
- practice climbing a route in your head when you don't have the time to do it
- practice climbing a route in your head even though a part of your body has been injured
- reinforce your ability to climb a particular route
When I first started rock climbing, I thought 6A was impossible. Never had I imagined that I would ever be able to climb a 7A. If you practice these rock climbing tips, you will see improvement in your climbing ability and you will eventually be able to climb routes that you felt were "impossible".