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Free Climbing Tips: Why Get Stronger When You Can Get Better?


Being good at rock climbing is all about learning proper technique and then ingraining it so it becomes second nature. In the long run, technique will take you much further than a strong back and a vice grip. Yet most climbers are hyper-focused on trying to get stronger oftentimes at the expense of learning good tecehnique.

Emily Harrington, who has climbed multiple 5.14's in various stages of personal fitness, recognizes the superlative of proper technique. Emily has been climbing for 13 years, putting in well over the requisite 10,000 hours one supposedly needs to master any craft. As a result, she believes that no matter what shape she's in, she will always be able to climb at a baseline of 5.12a throughout life.

If you know how to move your body, you should be able to climb 5.12a, Emily says, no matter how strong' you are.

This may seem surprising to the climbers out there for whom 5.12a is a lifetime goal, yet the point is not that 5.12 is easy, but rather that proper technique honed over many hours of practice is more enduring than one's momentary form (strength and fitness). The problem is, it's easier to get stronger than it is to get better. Anyone can go to the gym and rip off a bunch of reps or climb a bunch of boulder problems and feel as though they have accomplished something. Training with the goal of improving technique is more cerebral, requiring a certain degree of consciousness about what you're doing. This is because good technique is all about ingraining movements, coordinating the upper and lower body and maintaining awareness of how much effort you're expending to the point that it becomes second nature. Great climbers aren't thinking about what they need to do -- they just do the exact right thing. This is the art of free climbing.

Improvements in one's technique are much less tangible -- harder to measure or gauge. Thus, it can be difficult to know how to approach the gym with the goal of becoming a better free climber. Here are a few tips that you may find useful:

First, be good: Many beginner and intermediate climbers have approached me wanting to know how to get strong, but I've never heard anyone ask how to get good. The two are undoubtedly related. But instead of jumping on the hardest route or boulder problem you think you can do, focus on making perfect ascents of easier routes and problems. Try to be good before you try to be strong. How perfectly can you climb something?

Bad feet: Problems in the gym typically get harder as the hand holds become worse and farther apart, while usually the foot jibs remain pretty good. But if you have the ability to help set some problems wherever you climb indoors, I recommend setting decent hand holds and the worst, most polished, difficult-to-stand-on footholds you can find. You want them to be bad, but not so bad that you just force a campus move. You want the focus to be on using your feet properly -- the first and most lastingly important step in becoming good. As a double benefit, nothing will get you stronger than climbing problems with bad feet.

Master the back-step: One of the most useful maneuvers in climbing is the back-step, where you stand on the outside edge of your right foot and rotate your lower body so that your right hip is against the wall (or vice versa). Most people climb straight on, with their hands and feet set as if they were climbing up a ladder. If you watch great climbers, they are rarely so squared up; one hip or another is always twisted toward the wall, with a foot back-stepping. Also, focus on getting into back-steps quicker. Many climbers put, say, their left foot on a hold, then match their right foot on the hold in the back-step position. Instead of messing around with matching feet, many times it's better to cross the right leg over and get into the back-step right away.

Stand Up: You've undoubtedly heard the advice, Keep your arms straight! But, of course, if your arms were straight the whole time, you wouldn't be able to flex them to pull yourself upward. When you're hanging on holds, indeed, it's a good idea to keep your arms straight. But the second part of this advice that's left out is how to begin initiating your upward movement. Typically, beginners will initiate the move with their arms: pulling themselves up, locking off like on a pull-up bar, with their feet way low. Instead, try to always initiate your upward movement with your legs. Keep your arms straight and lever yourself upward by pressing with your feet. Eventually, you'll have to flex your arms, but try to do so only after you've initiated the upward movement with the legs--even if it's just a little bit. Teach yourself what this feels like by climbing easy (5.6) routes in the gym. Hang from straight arms and try to drive yourself upward as far as you can by high-stepping your feet and using only your leg muscles to stand up on every hold.

Wear better shoes: Beginners typically choose loose-fitting comfortable shoes. But no matter what grade you climb, I recommend you get a high-end pair of shoes that are snug (not tight!). Higher end shoes give you much more precision, and do a better job of allowing you to use all parts of your foot. This is the one and only piece of gear that can actually make a difference in your climbing! Get the best fitting pair of high-end shoes you can find.

Develop your own style: Something that often gets lost when "experts" try to teach beginners how to climb/what to do is that there is no such thing as one perfect way to climb a route or problem. There are no hard and fast rules. For some climbers, the best solution to a problem will be to climb fast and very dynamically -- it's possible that this will be more efficient for them. Others may find it works better for them to climb at a slower pace, more statically and with greater control. This is where free climbing becomes an art of self-expression. Cherish this. For example, in his clinics, Dave Graham spends a lot of time helping people develop their own styles by having a group of people figure out two or three different beta sequences that work on a given problem. Try to climb a problem two or three different ways. See what works for you. Don't be afraid to experiment. Perhaps it's easiest to just dyno! Ultimately, the best style is the one that gets you to the top most efficiently.

Avoid finger injuries: Have you ever noticed that climbers typically blow a tendon within their first three years of climbing? Beginner climbers tend to race through the grades relying on rapid strength gains, not technique, which creates a false sense of ability that encourages them to get on hard, crimpy routes before their tendons are ready for them. While the musculature may be there, building up the tendon resilience to withstand the stress of hanging from small holds takes a long time -- sometimes three years or more. Avoid finger injuries by using the open-hand grip indoors whenever you can. Also, STOP crimping before your fingers feel sore! Admittedly, this is easier said than done.

Build a base: Dani Andrada, one of the best climbers in the world, was rumored to have redpointed 50 5.13b's before he even considered getting on a 5.13c. While those grades are admittedly elite, the lesson still applies: Take the time needed to master the easier grades before moving on. Did you redpoint 50 5.11d's before even trying a 5.12a?

Make climbing a practice: We try to perform our best every single time we enter the gym or a crag. Instead, start thinking of your climbing sessions as a practice. If you climb two or three times per week -- don't worry, the strength will come. But for right now, focus on mastering good technique.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your ideas for what works. Please share your own tips for improvement in our Forum.

Andrew Bisharat's book Sport Climbing: From Top Rope to Redpoint, Techniques for Climbing Success recently won the National Outdoor Book Award for Best Instructional.

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