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Adam Ondra Tried Ballet. Why You Should Too

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Prior to competing in the Olympics, Adam Ondra took a ballet class. “Climbing is a very complex sport,” he said. “On the road to Tokyo, I need to widen my range of skills. … Bouldering, lead climbing, and even speed climbing—it’s about focus. It’s about flexibility. It’s abouts agility. It’s about elegance, because elegance means efficiency. It’s about precision of the movement. In this episode, we’ll focus on a very specific training method.”

Ondra should really learn to point his toes. Although the episode is somewhat comical, he was on to something. Trying different forms of movement will spruce up your training routine and help you climb better.

When I started climbing freshman year of college, it began as a side hobby—a way for me to socialize and meet new people. At the time, I had been dancing 14 years—trained in classical ballet, pointe, tap, and broadway jazz—and had recently signed a contract with a professional dance company in Boulder. I continued teaching and dancing professionally for nine years, and all the while my passion for climbing grew. 

When I first picked up climbing, I knew I had advantages over the other beginner climbers that I was learning to climb with. While my finger and forearm strength didn’t match those of seasoned climbers, I was able to progress through different problems relying mostly on balance, flexibility, ankle and core strength, and overall body movement awareness. 

Author Emily Ipsen danced professionally in Boulder, Colorado.

During one of my first experiences bouldering outside, I was with four other people who had been climbing for years. We were working on a tricky problem that required a powerful move to a sloper. Without luck, my friends kept trying to dyno to the hold. After a few attempts, I noticed a small right toe that was near hip-level. Using my flexibility, I got the high right foot and delicately stood up, trusting my ankle to keep my foot attached to the wall. Once I stood up, my left leg released from the wall and I balanced over my right foot. Pressing through my toes, I reached the hold. My friends were stunned. Here I was, a complete beginner, slowly working my way through their problem.

Now, a “retired” dancer, I still climb and continue to rely upon the techniques I used for years as a dancer. 

For any climber, benefits from cross-training with ballet are multi-faceted. Ballet dance can greatly:

  • Develop your ability to balance upon tiny ledges and holds
  • Improve flexibility in your legs and hips, allowing for more creative movement on the wall
  • Strengthen calibration muscles in your core and ankles, to help keep your hips in towards the wall and your feet tightly glued to foot holds
  • Promote intuitive breathe work that supports muscle oxygenation and provides a greater sense of overall body awareness

Incorporating ballet into your workouts might just make all the difference. Below, more on the benefits, and how to get started.

Better Balance

We have all had that frustrating feeling when we are climbing on something delicate and find it impossible to stick to the next hold because our body is simply off-kilter. Through dance training, you can harness the ability to oppose that challenging force called gravity, and then stay balanced.

It’s no secret that ballerinas have supernatural balancing abilities. All ballet exercises and routines require the ability to stay upright and stable, even those done at the barre. (That barre is only there for slight assistance, not full-body support!) Every movement in ballet takes into consideration center of gravity, engagement of the core, and structural alignment to maintain balance. The brain is also working diligently to recalibrate each muscle and limb to maintain the position.

Olympic climber Tomoa Narasaki is perhaps best known for his coordination and dynamic power on the wall. His sense of balance makes that skillset possible. Watch closely, and you’ll notice, although not as flashy, his slab climbing technique is just as good as his ability to land a run-and-jump. 

Improve your balance like a dancer: A common dance exercise is called an élévé, where you rise up onto the balls of your feet with straight legs. This can be done on both legs, or a single leg at a time to practice balance. For an extra challenge, rise up in élévé and then close your eyes!

Two legs too easy? You can try balancing on one while raising the other. (Photo: Getty Images)

Flexibility

In just about any discipline of dance, flexibility is integral to achieving those long, beautiful lines. Most of the movements in ballet are stretching movements with extensions of the legs, arms, torso, and back. From start to finish, standard ballet classes will help the athlete increase flexibility and build strength through a range of motion. 

In climbing, mobility can up your creativity and fluidness on the wall. Margo Hayes is the perfect example of someone who uses her flexibility to her advantage, with the execution of perfect splits on the wall to help her reach nearly impossible foot holds. Mobility can also help climbers keep their hips open and closer to the wall, helping with both balance and power. Simple habits of stretching before and after training may also help to reduce the risk of injury during training.  

Increase your flexibility like a dancer: Stand with feet wider than hip-width distance apart, toes facing outward, place your hands on your knees and bend your legs as much as you can while pressing your knees outwards. This is a fantastic hip-opening stretch. To increase the benefit, gently drop one shoulder forward and then the other, to accentuate a gentle spinal twist. 

Go up on your toes to enhance the twist or to simply strengthen your ankles (see below). (Photo: Getty Images)

Ankle and Core Strength

Have you ever watched the Titanic and cringed during the scene where Rose elevates up onto her tippie toes? It’s truly incredible the amount of foot and ankle strength that ballet dancers acquire, whether or not they go all the way up onto their toes. Every exercise requires strong ankles for balance, transitionary steps, as well as big jumps and leaps. 

Seeing as ballet is a body-weight type of activity (meaning that no additional equipment is used to supplement strength training), dancers must fully engage their core throughout practice. Those slow movements in ballet are not as easy as they look; they take extreme physical strength. Simply balancing is a full core workout, through activating the abdominal muscles, back, glutes, and legs. 

On the wall, ankle stability and core strength can truly help a climber maintain tension and  precision, even as fatigue sets in. Jain Kim comes to mind, as a top climber who consistently keeps her feet on and maintains core activation. She’s five feet tall, and yet rarely needs to jump or cut feet. Her core and angle strength have helped her become one of the world’s most decorated competition climbers, second only to Janja Garnbret. 

Increase ankle strength like a dancer: In a seated position with legs fully extended out in front of you, wrap a theraband around the balls of your feet. Then–from a flexed foot position–gently press into the ball of your foot to then finally point your toes. Reverse slowly, then back to a fully flexed position.

Where to begin?

You can always explore beginner dance classes at a studio near you. Most studios will offer adult classes for beginners. 

If the thought of dancing in front of someone else for the first time is completely frightening, try a virtual class. YouTube is an excellent resource for free dance classes of any style or level. The Ballet Coach is a terrific channel to get started and learn the basics. For about $15 per month, MasterClass with Misty Copeland offers incredible classes to build your technique and expand your movement. There are also some great programs offered on Instagram. ecoGROOVES is an environmentally conscientious organization that offers live-streaming dance and fitness classes. 10% of all class earnings are donated to different environmental organizations. This is a great way to take live classes from the comfort of your own home, while still feeling a sense of community. 

Whether you dive right into a local dance studio or take online classes, dance training and ballet technique is an excellent way to take your skills as a climber to the next level, and is a fun way to branch out of your traditional workout routine.