In February 2016, I snatched the rest jug on Ambrosia, a 50-foot V11 X highball on Grandpa Peabody at California’s Buttermilks. With 20 feet of air below, I collected myself, knowing that I’d climbed the physically hardest section but that both technical and mental challenges remained. To finish the climb, I needed to recruit three different but complementary skill sets: physical strength, technical movement, and mental awareness. I needed to be a well-rounded climber in order to reach the top safely. Here’s how to do so in your own climbing:
Up Your Strength
Being strong from head to toe is a key part of climbing well—in our full-body sport, there’s way more to strength than being able to do a lot of pull-ups, including addressing any areas of weakness. Let’s look at the different components of cultivating strength.
The fingers are your primary connection to the rock. To increase your ability to hold on, start hangboarding, working different grip positions, and limit bouldering—moves you can barely do.
A strong core will help you stay tight to the wall, creating a line of strength that keeps your hips into the wall and minimizes upper-body recruitment. I suggest deadlifting (great for core and legs) and suspended core workouts using TRX straps or a pullup bar. Focusing on overhanging terrain and roof climbing will increase core strength as well.
Strong legs will help you launch on hard dynos and keep steady on slabs. To build the necessary muscles, do box jumps, deadlifts, and weighted calf raises. Search for slab climbs with poor footholds and practice dynoing, pushing hard off your legs.
R & R
Finally, you need to commit just as much to rebuilding your body as to breaking it down. A few pointers:
- Always perform finger and campus exercises fresh, at the beginning of your session, for max power and to reduce injury.
- For limit bouldering and hard physical exercises like deadlifting, rest the day before. However, you can train power-endurance your second or third day on.
- Listen to your body to find the best climbing-to-rest-day ratio. Some people can climb three to four days in a row, while others go day on, day off or two days on, one day off. You want to be flexible, figuring out what feels good for your body, what works best with your schedule, and what you’re most likely to commit to.
Technical movement—the ability to move intuitively and well—requires significant practice. Building technique takes a concentrated effort over weeks, months, and years, but will pay off in the long run. A solid technical base results in efficient climbing that saves you energy during your training sessions and send burns.
Oftentimes, climbers focus solely on performance, but it’s just as important to focus on practice. Be intentional and think about how you can improve your skills. During your warmup and just after, get on climbs below your limit. Pick a single technique like smearing, stemming, drop-kneeing, gastoning, etc. and repeat it as many times as possible. This engrains the movement and will allow you to recall it on the fly. Instead of focusing solely on reaching the top, make improving the movement your goal.
The best way to improve is to climb on as many types of holds and terrain as possible, both outdoors and in. Climb on different parts of the gym’s walls, travel to different gyms, and check out new bouldering and climbing areas to diversify your library of moves. If you can’t travel, make sure to try new moves on the wall. Add as much variety to your climbing as possible.
Having a library of different abilities allows you to problem-solve more easily and quickly. Try the same climb in different styles: If you’re good at jumping, climb a problem statically; if you’re a static climber, try jumping. Work your weaknesses to improve your technique. When getting on a new problem, try it without beta first. This will teach you your own style and help you build confidence. Finally, spend time watching strong climbers in videos, at the gym, and at the boulders to increase your awareness of how to move well.
Work Your Mind
Mental awareness is the ability to know when to rest, when to try hard, when to climb in different styles, and how to alternately elevate and calm the mind for maximum performance.
While climbing, take measured breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth through easier sections and taking sharper, shorter breathes on the harder sections, pushing your breath audibly out from your chest. This allows you to apply physical cues to various sections, allowing you to conserve energy or rev it up as needed.
Regulate your emotions
When anxiety, negativity, and fear arise, ask yourself why they’re present: What exactly am I scared of? and What is the worst that can happen here? Once you have your answers and thus some understanding of the root cause of your fear, you can shift your mindset. For example, a fall on your project isn’t a failure if you learn from it. Head up instead with a “Let’s see what happens” or “Let’s see what I figure out” attitude and you’ll quickly see just how potent your thoughts are in regulating your level of arousal.
Before getting on the climb, imagine watching a video of yourself on the route, and then add a physical element by pantomiming using the full length of your body. Close your eyes and practice your breathing as you exaggerate the movements, throwing your arms and legs out, hitting each hold, and focusing on where your fingers will land.
Nina Williams, a pro climber and climbing coach based out of Boulder, Colorado, pushes herself and her clients to become well-rounded climbers. When she’s not climbing or coaching, she’s hanging out with her pet hedgehog, Frankie.
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