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Why You’re Not “Too Short” For That Climb

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At 5’6” (and a half, though that last half inch is debatable), I’m shorter than the average American male, at 5’9”. And I’m not growing—at least up—any time soon.

The rock, of course, doesn’t give a shit how tall you are, though over my 30-plus years climbing I have encountered moves and routes where being taller helps, especially in the gym. It’s often not so much a pure wingspan/reach issue as it is one of not being able to maneuver into position to push off my feet. In other words, I can’t get into my box, where my limbs have the spring, mobility, and tension to propel me upward; I’m too extended or bollixed up to do anything.

Still, there are small things you can do to help, to gain every key last millimeter.

1. Wear stiffer shoes

Soft shoes are fun on steeps, boulders, and at the gym, but because they deform on holds, they encourage a footwork style in which your heel drops low and/or you need very strong calves to stand tall and extend. Wearing a stiff pair of new shoes, ideally with a crisp, close-to-full-thickness sole, helps here by doing much of that work for you—think of them as tiny platform shoes that, when you activate your calf and drive through your big toe, turbocharge your foot to boost your reach.

Standing as high as I can on a jib-edge in the soft Scarpa Furia S; here, much of the work of extending off the foothold falls to my calf muscle and I can only go so high.

Standing high in a much stiffer shoe from Scarpa, the Boostic, a technical face and edging boot with a robust midsole (and, here, a new sole) that lets me stand taller off the same foothold.

2. Work the highstep

I’m often accused (by taller partners) of climbing short—that is, I’ll get balled up over a wicked highstep and then extend with the same arm. The disadvantage, they argue, is that this requires more lockoff power/strength than just keeping my feet low and extending, but I’m not entirely sure. I don’t just slap my foot high, grunt over it, and hope for the best; instead I’ll tick-tack my feet up on micro-footholds such that by the time I’m engaged in the highstep, my hips are already high—thus less weight on the hands. This, of course, means more time clinging to poor handholds to set up, but with a stiff, precise pair of shoes (see No. 1) to dig into those micro-feet, you stack the odds in your favor.

3. Don’t hog the hold

On deep/incut sidepulls and underclings, it’s easy to fall into the trap of hogging the hold—going all the way with your hand because that provides the best purchase. However, when it comes time to move off the hold, you’ve now effectively limited your reach. A better bet, when you need the extension, is to readjust your hand to the lip/exterior portion of the grip—as far out as you can while still maintaining meaningful purchase.

Using an incut sidepull with my entire hand. It’s fine to initially grab a hold this way to set up for the next sequence, but be prepared to readjust.

The same hold, but now my hand is out on the lip, giving me the farthest possible extension.

4. Slimp-to-crimp

On long, poppy moves or when redlining, you may not catch the next hold—especially a crimper—in the ideal, strongest, fully engaged position, but this is actually OK. I find that I’ll often catch holds at extension with just three fingers on—my pinky and thumb are waving in the air. On certain holds, or if you’re a straight-up beast, this may actually be a viable position, but I’ll still often take the time to readjust. In this sequence of events, I deadpoint to the hold, kick my feet back on or bring them higher, then—with my hips now up—reset my hand into the full-crimp position before executing the next move.

What my hand looks like when I catch a hold—often a crimp—via a deadpoint or jump, or at full extension.
Maneuvering the same hold into the stronger, full-crimp position.

5. Do yoga

No, yoga won’t lengthen your bones, but it does help create length in your limbs by breaking up fascia (connective tissue) in the body, as well as strengthening and lengthening the muscles. Think about it—a chronically overused, bound-up climber arm is not going to straighten as far as one that’s been “ironed out” through the conscious stretching and activation of a dedicated yoga practice. Some poses I’ve found especially helpful for conditioning/straightening the arms and shoulders include:

  • Child’s Pose
  • Thread-the-Needle
  • Warrior II Pose
  • Triangle Pose
  • Upward Salute
  • Staff Pose
  • Downward-Facing Dog Pose
  • Handstand (against a wall)