“Get good and then get strong”
Read Macadam shares some of his favorite tips to make you a stronger climber.
Fact: climbing is skill based. Without being able to use our strength effectively, our potential is limited.
Just as a musician must practice the scales, starting slowly, mastering the subtle finger movements and building their dexterity in order play complex phrasing, we climbers must practice our fundamental skills: body positioning, footwork, grip, commitment, sequence reading and being able to just breathe.
When we practice skills we are creating habits, traces of memory impressions left by the experience. I like to think of these as deposits in our bank of skills. In order to be able to quickly negotiate hard sequences of moves as we encounter them it is a very important to have a large bank of very good habits to draw from.
How can we fill our skill bank?
Two words: climb more.
Climbing is naturally the best practice for climbing. But we do not just want to climb more; we want to climb smart, because what would be the use of filling your bank with bad habits?
Here are five simple strategies to help you fill your bank with good habits.
Get yourself some high performance shoes and practice your footwork.
New climbers: resist the urge to start off with a basic pair of loose fitting shoes and then progress into a high-end shoe as your climbing improves. Your shoes are the only piece of climbing equipment that will directly impact your performance, so why should you compromise?
A properly fitted pair of high performance shoes will give you more precision, more power and more edging ability. Choose the shoe that fits you best. Your shoes should be snug and free of dead-space so that your toes curl slightly giving you the most power at the end of your big toe.
If your shoes are too loose the tension created between your curled toes and heel will be insufficient, making the shoes slip easily on bad footholds.
Do not go so tight that you are constantly distracted by pain! Performance does not have to be cripplingly painful.
The Power Zone
Performance climbing shoes have been designed so that zone at the end of the toe box is the power point of your shoe. It is from this point that you can pivot and generate upward momentum. If you find that you place your foot on the wall midway down your foot, at the zone outside of your pinky toe, or near the ball of your foot, you are practicing bad footwork.
Practice your footwork on easy routes or by traversing across the wall without making a sound with your feet – no thuds, kicks or scratches.
You will notice that to climb silently you must watch what you are doing to place your feet precisely. This is the lesson; it forces you to slow down, relax and breathe. As you progress, try to do this exercise on the worst possible footholds for maximum benefit.
Learn how to perform a back-step and step through.
The back-step allows you to reach further than in the square, frog, position and climb with straighter arms, which means you are more efficient on the wall.
In this example I am back stepping off of my left foot with my right hand engaged and reaching up with my left hand. My right foot is flagging against the wall for balance (image 1).
After I have reached the next hold with my left hand I will step through allowing my left foot to pivot as I rotate my body to face in the opposite direction by stepping my right foot across and in front of my body (image 2).
Once I have stepped through, I will allow my left foot to flag out in front of me for balance (image 3). Repeat as you progress across the wall.
Practice your back step and step through technique with the silent feet drill from point number 1.
Know when to rest and when to stop
Adequate rest is critical to allowing you to practice climbing well. Emphasis on ‘well’. When we become really tired our technique becomes lax and our climbing becomes sloppy. Sloppy climbing fills our bank with bad habits and exposes us to potential injury so, if you start to get too tired, yet want to climb longer, take your level down a notch so you can focus on climbing well.
If you are done climbing for the day, but want to finish off your energy, then finish by doing pure strength based workout such as weights, push-ups, pull-ups or otherwise.
Listen to your body. A typical rest time for a boulderer is up to three minutes between a solid attempt. Of course, required rest will be much longer on roped routes.
Practice going for it and conquer your fear of falling.
What use will all of this good technique be if you are paralyzed by fear?
Each time you get scared and call for tension you are practicing giving up, engraining the habit of surrendering to your fear.
Practice taking lead falls until you can let go with ease. Start small, clipping and falling at the same height as the bolt and progress until you are comfortable to lunge dynamically for a hold even high above the last bolt.
Work on your weaknesses.
Are slopers your nemesis? Try climbing on routes with slopey grips for a few weeks. Are overhangs killing you? Do the back step drill on the steepest wall you can find.
If you climb to your comfort zone you are limiting yourself to a narrow style of climbing. The thing about earning skills is that we need to practice what we are NOT good at in order to improve. Go out and climb routes of many different styles to deepen your skill bank.
Practice vs. Fitness:
Regardless of your ability, the thing about creating and storing these memory traces is that you cannot build them by climbing at your limit. At our maximum exertion we use only the most deeply founded skills we have already banked in order to hang on, so there is no chance to learn new ones.
Take it down a level when you practice these basics and, better yet, get in the habit of incorporating all of these drills into your warm-up routine so that you start each climbing sessions on the right foot.