Oh no! Here we go again! You styled the lower section but as you enter the crux, the pump kicks in, and you tense up, start shaking, and pour your last dregs of gas down the drain.
How do top climbers stay so relaxed, be so precise and controlled in their movements, right up to the point where they fall? The ultimate contradiction of climbing technique is that mentally, we must try our hardest, while at the same time, physically relax as much as possible.
For most climbers, harnessing this ability is a lifelong quest. It’s also a joy.
Matt Fultz, one of the best boulderers in the world, recently told rockandice.com: “The great thing about rock climbing is it’s such a skill sport. There are all kinds of little things you can learn. Like for me, one thing is getting better at staying relaxed.”
A great way to learn to relax is through some simple drills you can mostly do during warm-ups.
We cannot realistically expect to climb well on difficult terrain unless we can climb perfectly on easy ground first. Trust me, this is surprisingly difficult! Most climbers simply don’t concentrate on easy ground and are careless and sloppy with their form. Yet if you only focus when the climbing gets tough, you are starting too late, whether on a single climb or during an overall climbing session.
Whether indoors or on rock, perform a pulse raiser and mobility exercises, and move on to your warm-ups.
Treat warm-ups with the same respect as your projects, and pay more attention to technique overall. Warm-ups provide the best opportunity to improve movement because you feel mentally and physically fresh, and the climbing is doable and allows the headspace for experimentation.
Focus on the key generic components of movement, which apply to all climbing situations, as opposed to using specific techniques such as drop knees or rockovers or individual holds such as crimps or smears.
Here’s a sample list.
1. Use accurate footwork.
Aim to make it silent with no toe-dragging or readjustment. See how much detail you can build in, and follow strict rules, such as not being allowed to touch the wall above the foothold, nor even use the tiniest double touch. Keep your eye on your foot until it’s in position. Aim for absolute perfection, as if you’re being judged for style and execution. Stick with this drill until you feel you’re close to doing it well (which may take anything between one or two sessions and six months), and only then should you add further drills. It helps to use video or have a partner give you feedback, although to a large extent, once the method is on your radar, you will know if you’re scuffing or banging your feet.
2. Relax your grip.
So many climbers build in a huge safety margin when it comes to gripping, especially when they are pumped and scared. Simply try to grip with as little force as possible, and tease this precept to where you are one percent away from falling. Try to favor passive open-handed grips rather than crimping, and drag your pads over the profile of holds so as to rely on friction. The key when you add this drill is to maintain the quality of your footwork. Keep everything going.
3. Use straight arms.
Move as far as possible with straight, relaxed arms but engaged shoulders. You can usually facilitate the position by either stepping through, standing on your outside edge and twisting in, or rotating into a drop knee. Or, when climbing square to the wall with parallel hips, try to sink down, bend your legs and turn your knees out. Avoid sagging onto your joints. Instead gently squeeze with your upper back muscles (rhomboids, teres major and lats), and consciously hold the shoulders down.
4. Aim for smooth, fluid movements.
Try to avoid stopping between each move and climbing point-to-point. Instead, link each move together like a dance routine or a martial artist’s kata. Go slowly but smoothly. This will place massive demands on your route-reading ability, as you’ll need to read the next move while executing the current one.
5. Increase pace.
One of the reasons we can climb harder when redpointing is that we move more quickly than in onsight climbing. We all tend to take longer than necessary when reading the moves, so put yourself under more pressure to make quick decisions, and aim to speed your climbing up five to 15 percent, but without sacrificing form. Clearly, there is a tipping point, so if you start fluffing moves, scuffing your feet, or tensing up, you’ve overdone it.
6. Pay attention to deep, regular breathing.
Climbers tend to hold their breath on hard sections and then gasp to get air back at the rests. Entire books have been written on breathing technique, but the point here is to keep it simple. Remember to breathe deeply and regularly!
When you are attempting to combine more than two or three drills, it helps to repeat them in your head on a loop; for example, “Precise feet, relaxed grip, straight arms, fluid moves. Pace, breathe, repeat.” You can switch commands around.
Aim for three or four stints of one to three minutes of climbing with approximately two to three minutes’ rest in between. Avoid single boulder problems, as they hamper your ability to get into your flow. Instead, do very easy routes or circuits or find an easy, vertical part of the bouldering wall and simply “rainbow” (use any color and climb at random), or go up and down very easy pre-set boulder problems. Keep the grade exactly the same for all these climbs or increase it very slightly, but try not to be tempted to scale up too soon, or you won’t be able to perform the drills correctly. The goal at this stage is for zero pump.
During the first few months of your new training program aim to consolidate on routes that are easy for you, with no concern for testing yourself on harder terrain. However, once you’ve really created a solid base for movement, see if you can hold the same form on mid-grade climbs during the main part of your training session and, ultimately, on climbs that are at your limit. You’ll know if you’ve rushed the process, as you will simply feel things unraveling, your form degenerating, possibly even to the point when you are unable to maintain basic Step 1 footwork.
Further Benefits of Movement Drills
Most climbers are programmed to believe that hard pulling is what makes them improve, and we are prone to rushing our warm-up so we can move on to hard climbing. However, movement drills in our warm-up may well become the part of the session providing the most benefits. The challenge is changing our rituals and putting our egos to the side.
Over the years of coaching, I’ve noticed that the climbers who are most resistant to the idea of movement drills are often the ones who need them most. If you think these exercises are too trivial, you are missing the point. They represent vast potential for learning and refinement. The deeper you search when performing them, the more you will find and the more body aware you will become.
Improved Mental Performance
Movement drills provide a superb way to dial into the optimum mental state for climbing. Most climbers neglect the concept of a mental warm-up, yet if we recall the times when we climbed at our best, we were in that ideal relaxed, single-minded, focused state. We don’t just flick a switch to turn it on; it takes time to banish the day’s stresses and get out of multi-tasking mode. While meditation is of great benefit, many climbers may not have the inclination or feel they have the time, whereas movement drills will help you attune. Most powerful of all, they provide you with a tangible and practical tool for coping with high-pressure situations. In other words, the next time you get pumped and scared, instead of banging your feet up the holds, tensing your grip, locking off and holding your breath, you may find that you pause, climb in accordance with the drills, and find the situation isn’t so bad after all.
Many climbers feel they don’t really know how to improve their technique, but if you practice movement drills in your warm-ups, you will have a means of taking control and steering things in the right direction. The drills help you avoid injury (by taking more time and care in your warm-ups and generally climbing with a more relaxed style) and stay calm and focused. The more frequently you practice the drills, the more powerful the effect, and there’s no reason not to do them every session. No one even needs to know you’re doing them!
Neil Gresham offers personalized training plans at neilgresham.com.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 260 (November 2019).