Climbing Techniques: Compression Moves

Conquer compression climbing with this authoritative advice
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Conquer compression climbing with this authoritative advice

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of our print edition.

Compression Rock climbing Technique Bouldering

Photo: Julie Ellison

In the last few years, “compression” has become a buzzword in the climbing world, denoting a specialized style that involves squeezing, friction-dependent slapping, and chest-centric movements. Because this type of climbing involves more pushing muscles than pulling, many climbers struggle with the subtle strength required because the majority of their power comes from overdeveloped backs and biceps. Routes with big squeezes, similar to mantels or slabs, have a reputation for being sandbagged and esoteric, and you might find that a slopey V3 requires the same thoughtful approach and try hard as a steep V11. However, there are a few basic techniques that can refine and upgrade your compression skills. Combine that with a confident mental approach, and you’ll be hugging your way up the blankest features out there.

The Move

Make a Plan

Despite the straightforward appearance of many compression climbs, a closer survey often reveals a dearth of “real holds,” e.g., crimps, jugs, sidepulls, etc. Distances between the barely there holds can be large, and footholds can often be inconspicuous. Inspect the rock closely to figure out the distance of the spans, the exact placement of the smears, the ideal heel and toe hooks, and the location of any positive holds. One of the most important rules to follow is the typical three points of contact. With face and crack climbs, we often have to break this rule, but with compression, three points on is important because the holds themselves are usually crap. Making a foot move means you need both hands activated. Body tension and core strength (especially when your frame is stretched out) are essential, as well as open-hand forearm strength for the high number of slopers. 

Train

This can be really simple or seemingly impossible. You can unplug the refrigerator and carry it around your yard, or get a landscaping job placing boulders all day. As usual, the best way to train for this style is to immerse yourself in it. Repetition, exposure, experimentation, and experience will help you develop the awareness needed to execute efficient movement. System boards can be remarkably useful for their grid-like sets of identical holds. Set one up with a pile of slopers and pinches, try out different angles, and change up holds and the overall wall with a goal to mimic climbing a bare refrigerator block. Believe it or not, buildering can also be a useful diversion. The square-cut, holdless forms of smooth concrete can yield some fierce moves. Of course, nothing substitutes real rock when it comes to training the body to fight with delicacy and the mind to switch from fearsome to calm flow and back again. 

Perfect Technique

This type of climbing requires delicate dancing and other times a hammer-like power and strength. Mileage, experience, and the following simple points will help you know when to dance and when to hammer. The most common mistake is approaching the moves too directly, with the body too centered. This is a natural response to the appearance of the line, and occasionally it’s the only way to do it, but most of the time you’ll want to keep your weight and your engaged body on one side of the squeeze or the other. Try to keep moving back and forth over the centerline, shifting your weight from side to side to maximize the foot and hand holds, with as much coordination as you can muster. This will help create a more stable place from which to make each move upward. When used properly, this can also increase your span, another pivotal aspect of compression. 

Develop Your Mindset

From the moment you pull on, you will be fully engaged in a fight to the finish. Having this mentality is crucial for any hard climb you attempt, but it’s even more important for compression-centric lines, where one microsecond of hesitation or relaxation in your core can cause you to lose body tension and fall off. Often a squeeze line will afford none of the typical climbing luxuries, like a place to take a breath or shake out, and you’ll be wrapped up in a slap battle for the entirety of the route. You might be stretched out too far or too tensed up in that extension to breathe or relax the slightest bit. Your core is working hard, your forearms are melting down fast from the pumpy grips, and all your muscles and connective tissues are screaming at full reach, so you need a mental reservoir that’s set for intense battle mode. 

Fine-tune Body Position

Coordination is the most important part of compression climbing. Every part of your body must work together as fluidly and in sync as possible; each limb is invested in your overall strength and reach. Think of squeeze climbing like swimming: Each body part works together to keep you afloat. Arms and hands are squeezing, legs squeeze and then kick to get hips shifting in the direction of the move, everything reaches max effort at once to make a strong throw, hand lands accurately, and all at once everything must immediately squeeze as hard as possible again. Obviously each move is different, but if you can coordinate each foot, leg, parts of your core, and hands to work at full capacity together in unison, you’ll start to master the subtle nuances and start sending. 

Next Level

Timing is paramount, and a speedy inner dialogue should be asking questions like: Am I stable enough to move effectively? Have I positioned myself correctly so I can reach the next hand/foot placement? Is it time to gun for it? Making these tiny calls and executing them at the right time are key for progression; so much of success depends on that balance of exertion and harmony of movement. Lastly, pay close attention to your legs. Instead of just hugging in a dead hang from your arms with your little legs desperately scrabbling for purchase, use the biggest, most powerful muscles in your body by looking for good heel hooks, toe hooks, and hand-foot matches. You’ll cover much more ground in a more efficient way. For big reaches, think about switching a heel hook to a toe hook to gain inches on your span.

Body Type

Success with compression climbing can be dependent on body size. In the legendary forest of Fontainebleau, France, where problems of this style abound, developers even have an addendum to the grading scale: morpho, which is short for morphological and pertains to the structure of the climber and his or her individual features. Some of the most difficult compression problems I’ve done took a great period of time for me to figure out my own beta—I wasn’t tall enough to do the standard sequence, so I had to work out a series of tough alternative moves. Be prepared to watch and listen for beta from others, but always be ready to think outside the “what everybody else does on this one” box to find the right method for you.

Compression Progression

Being Short

This is the ultimate problem with compression climbing: morphology, aka body size and arm span (see Body Type). I’ve climbed up to V14, but sometimes you just can’t reach. Often I have to do many extra foot moves, which turns the slopers into time bombs when you have to hold on twice as long. Don’t take it too seriously—there will be impossible problems. A huge reach makes a huge difference. But remember that compression climbing is already a dead art form if you’re not doing it for the love of the features and the moves.

Injury

This type of climbing can put strain on areas that are used in a more straightforward way with other types of climbing, namely the shoulders, wrists, and elbows. Compression puts more impact on these joints, and it can be impact at odd angles. Make sure to listen to any tweaky body parts, rest, ice, administer ibuprofen, and use compression accordingly. The repetitive motion of slapping blank arêtes can wreak havoc on your sensitive and complex shoulder and wrist joints.

Conditions

Like any problem that has a lot of slopers or large, open-hand holds, conditions are crucial to sending. Wait for cool, crisp, dry days to maximize friction for both your hands and your feet. If you’re sliming off during any given session, save your strength for another day with better weather.

Common Mistakes

Not using your legs and not leaning to one side enough. Squeezing gets better and somewhat easier when you lean against it, similar to a layback. Most climbing is based on footwork, but compression is all about full legwork—from your toes to your butt. Get those stems involved as much as possible. This isn’t really a common mistake, but it’s the hardest part to master: shifting your state of mind from subtle and introspective to angry, crushing fierceness—and then turning it off again in one breath.

Chris Schulte has been a climber and prolific first ascensionist for 20 years. Seeking out refrigerators to hug has taken him from the Front Range of Colorado to Fontainebleau.