The first thing you will probably think about when someone is described as, “a good technical climber” is that they have great footwork. It is true that a major component of technique training is good use of the feet. Your arms keep you on the wall and for the most part your feet move you around. However, there are many other components that feed into, and allow the use of good footwork.
The importance of technique
How many times have you climbed a problem and exclaimed “well, that’s not how it should look, but I did it!”, or something to that effect. Predictably at that point someone unassuming comes along and glides up the same thing without any feet cutting loose, and with seemingly effortless grace. This is what ‘good’ technique allows you to do; climb much harder problems than your level of fitness/strength should allow.
Improved technique conserves grip and general upper body energy while increasing the efficiency of movement. Good foot placement, body movement and sequence structuring takes weight off your arms and maximises the degree of movement you can generate via your whole body. This allows you to do, not only harder moves, but also more of them.
So what are these magical components, I hear you ask:
- Placement of your feet on holds to push/pull/hold your body in the right direction is one of the most important skills to master. Recognising what options are available to you in this respect can be easier said than done outdoors. Slight adjustments can make big differences in body position and centre of gravity. One of the less obvious things to take into account is how your feet can adjust mid-move to help you change position and/or engage more body tension. The extent to which your feet interact with the wall, but not necessarily on any holds, is also largely underestimated. Subtle smearing and contact helps maintain balance and engage your core. I have, as you may know, talked about footwork before, so check out my previous post for more information.
- This is an important cog in the wheel, for climbing in control and with fluidity. ‘Knowing’ (having a sixth sense) where your centre of gravity is and needs to be to move in a certain way optimises you decision making, widens the scope of moves you can actually perform and improves your efficiency of movement. Using your limbs to provide counterbalances and moving your centre of gravity effectively over your feet, allows you to perform movements while minimising the use of your arms. This all interlinks with hip and core control.
- Linked to balance and foot placement, your hip movement can either propel you up the wall or hinder your progress. Your hip position largely governs your centre of gravity and how you can use momentum. Having your hips in a position over your feet and close to the wall takes weight off your arms. Twisting of your core and hips can propel you upwards using your legs and not your arms, in situations where pure power and pulling is impossible.
- Can you get your foot where it needs to be? Can you twist as much as you need? Can you get into that small space? A good level of flexibility speaks for itself, although is not normally a limiting factor unless you’re quite inflexible.
- Actually putting your hand or foot in the exact position you intended it to go can be easier said than done. A good level or hand-eye coordination allows you to move with precision and speed. You can also do two/three things at once for quick hand/foot changes mid-move.
- An awareness of things around you, both consciously and unconsciously (in the mind’s eye), is essential for preventing slips and using what is around you effectively.
- An often unconsidered factor, which can make all the difference on longer routes or hard cruxes. Some people power scream a lot to make sure they are breathing!
A lot of practice and thinking goes into sending harder routes. You only see the finish products most of the time!
Phases of learning
- To actually learn something new and incorporate it into your repertoire, all the stages of learning have to take place. First to you to observe/be told/try something new. Then you need to process what’s actually going on; what muscles are engaging, how should your body move and how do your limbs need to be placed in order to do this. Once everything is figured out, repeating this movement and similar movements optimises your performance/ efficiency and completes the process.
Watch other people
- Watch others in any context possible. Copying someone on a move first hand is best as you can ask questions and analyse in detail what going on. But watching people on problems at any time, be it live or on TV is a great way of analysing movement, programming your motor memory and familiarising yourself with an arsenal of movement technique.
- Projecting moves on your own, until you unlock the secret and sequence which works for you, is one of the best ways of teaching yourself technique. This is partly why projecting is so important. All the time you are falling off and rethinking what to do, you are learning how your body moves and responds in certain scenarios. Once unlocked, certain moves and adjustments might become a common theme in your climbing.
Practice and Consolidation (play)
Once you have learned something new or picked up a new nuance of movement, how do you refine it?
- Consciously targeting/focusing on one particular aspect of climbing (i.e. drop knees, breathing or foot pressure) on easier routes builds up the unconscious neurological and muscular memory required to perform them on hard routes, where you don’t have time to think. This doesn’t mean you have to climb the same thing over and over again and get bored. However, it can be a good idea to try to repeat hard routes to refine your technique on them and repeat hard moves. How perfectly can you climb something? Refine things as much as possible.
- Repetition, repetition, repetition. This is slightly different to just focusing on particular aspects of your technique in normal climbing. This is refining and practising specific movements using certain exercises. There are countless options, so if you think you need to work on a weakness make up your own! Exercises may include:
- Slack lining
- Climbing on slabs using only your thumbs/ one-handed/ no handed
- Drawing/picking lots of diverse and small points on a wall to move/swap between using only 1 or 2 hand placements (be as precise as possible with no double-movements of the feet)
- Anything from juggling or dead pointing to specific small holds (mix the holds up otherwise you start working only muscle memory!)
- If you think you don’t have time to start performing lots of new drills, incorporate them into your warm up. Doing exercises and exaggerating movements while warming up builds in a lot more practice volume than most people realise. It therefore helps keep your techniques sharp and accurate.
- Doing moderately difficult climbs when you are tired can be a really good way of honing technique. Fatigued muscles force you to focus your mind on saving as much energy as possible through clean and efficient technique. This is a great way to get fit as well as building up a strong bank of muscle memory.
Know when to stop
- Practice can become counterproductive through sloppy/poor movement if you start to become too drained to perform. There is no more learning or consolidation going on if you’re doing it poorly. This is also the time you’re most likely to get injured, so it’s best to call it a day.
Extra Hints and Tips
- Work out what ankle positions are best for generating friction on different holds
- Stand on small things all the time
- Look at a foot hold till your foot is on it correctly
- Practice mental technique before climbs. Plant a scenario in your head where you are committed and try your hardest… get used to trying hard every time… this is fitness training as well!
- Practice switching techniques and angles mid-session; go from overhangs to slabs
- There are no rules in climbing – you might do something very differently to someone else
- Try to apply forethought and think in detail about the exact way you need to hold something
- Use good shoes and flexible trousers
At the end of the day you need to develop your own style and rhythm. Work on your weaknesses but also know what you do best and how you move best. Use this and your initiative to solve problems in your own way. Watch others and then put your own stamp on things.