Learn to Train: Improve Your Climbing Technique

Climb with grace
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Climb with grace

This is part five of our five-part series, Learn to Train: A Complete Guide to Climbing Training.

Nina Williams matches a pinch at the Front Climbing Gym in Salt Lake City. Photo: George Bruce Wilson

Nina Williams matches a pinch at the Front Climbing Gym in Salt Lake City. Photo: George Bruce Wilson

The Problem

Delicate or balance-intensive moves are difficult, or you have trouble figuring out beta quickly. 

The Solution

Fine-tune your technique by targeting certain moves on a system board. 

How It Works

As Eric Hörst, training expert and author says, “Climbing is first and foremost a skill sport—this will never change.” Practice is key. With enough repetitions, your brain stores those instructions in your muscle memory in little programs called motor engrams. These can work for or against you—if you ingrain bad habits, your climbing will reflect them. Learning and practicing the best ways to complete certain moves will build effective patterns that help you climb smoothly without thinking about it.

Your objective in training technique is to find new techniques to perfect and bad habits to fix. The more moves you practice and the more natural each one feels, the better you’ll climb. This is especially important if your goal is to onsight and flash routes, where muscle memory is very important. Practicing with a partner is a great way to work technique, as she can spot flaws that you don’t notice on the wall. Ask your frequent partners if they’ve noticed any problems in your technique. Additionally, try filming yourself climbing to see what your weaknesses might be.

Technique can be trained during any session, but it should be done when you’re fresh, on terrain that’s easy for you. After you feel confident in your ability to do a move on easy terrain, try it on progressively harder climbs. Eventually, you’ll be using those techniques on moves near your limit.

System Board

The system board is an ideal way to train repeated technical moves because the layout of mirrored holds—meaning the holds on each side of the board are identical—allows you to practice the same moves on both sides of your body. To start, focus on lockoffs, drop-knees, and flags. While you might be familiar with these moves, it’s always possible to improve your technique at steeper angles or with worse holds, and each time you pull on, you’ll gain a better understanding of the nuanced body positions required to do each move with the least amount of effort.

Your first two sets will be lockoffs. Grab a large hold that’s easy for you to hold with your right hand, and place the left foot on a small hold at waist height that’s small enough to require at least some body tension. Pull on and reach as high as possible with your left hand, without touching a hold. Pay attention to how moving your hips and right leg affects how high you can reach, and how easy the move feels. Repeat this motion another four times, resting in between if necessary. Take a few minutes of rest, then move to the other side of the board, which will work the other side of your body. Rest some more before following the same process with drop-knees and flags, pulling on and up to higher holds without touching them.

After a session or two of this, start using smaller holds to make it harder. This is to “stress-proof” the techniques, meaning you can perform the moves under pressure. If you’re working on a specific project, you can also dial in the crux moves by mimicking them on the system board.

Mix It Up

ARC Sets

Described in the Endurance section, these are a great way to practice technique because you’re on easy terrain. Decide which moves you need to practice, and find or create easy variations during your ARC set. Try several body positions for each move before deciding which one was best. Practice the best choice a few more times before moving on to another technique. Spend at least 10 to 15 minutes doing technique drills while climbing, but stop if you begin to feel sloppy or fatigued.

Lucky Draw

Write down at least 10 techniques or tricky hold types (drop-knees, flagging, gastons, sidepulls, heel hooks, etc.) on slips of paper and place them in a bag. Draw four. Create a problem using all four techniques and try it with your friends.

Climb Like a Pro

Pick a professional climber (or have a friend pick for you). Now climb a route in their style. Use big dynos like Chris Sharma, static movements like Lynn Hill, or lots of technical trickery like Dave Graham. Choose athletes whose styles are different from your own.

Beta Games

With a group of friends, one person climbs a problem. You now have to repeat it with their exact beta. Choose differing styles to add variety. 

To improve your climbing by learning the proper ways to train your weaknesses, check out the rest of our series Learn to Train: A Complete Guide to Climbing Training.