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How to Build Symmetry with the System Board

Coach Justen Sjong explains the basics of this powerful training tool.

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Nina Williams system board
Tory Powers

A system board—a bouldering wall with an adjustable angle and holds mirrored across its left and right halves—might seem like a testing ground for powerful moves. Climbers typically use them two different ways: as a sort of “hangboard” in which you keep your feet on, working different sizes and styles of holds; and as a bouldering wall in which you contrive problems up one half of the wall then mirror them on the other. Justen Sjong, professional climbing coach and instructor for Climbing’s Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond online course, says that, beyond simply using the wall as a training tool to “get trashed,” you can also use it to build “a deeper level of awareness.” Here, he explains how to approach this training tool when using it to create boulder problems to train on.

Why should you use a system board?

With its variety of holds and angles, the system board lets climbers of different abilities find their training sweet spot. If you want to refine movement, and understand and improve imbalances in your technique, the system board is your friend.

What’s it good for?

“It’s not high-intensity training,” says Sjong. “But it’s highly mentally engaging.” Although you can use the system board for powerful workouts, Sjong thinks that—especially for those just getting started—it’s most beneficial at lower intensities. Climbers are usually stronger on one side of their body, and using a system wall, with its symmetric design, can help reveal and address these imbalances.

Putting it to use

Start off with a basic, easy sequence, about five moves. Then, build up the intensity: Switch out a positive hold for one less so, or make the angle steeper, or otherwise tweak the moves to the point where you start failing. Then, back off a little—until your success rate is 80 percent or higher.

Now, try the sequence twice on one side, twice on the other. After the first try, reflect on what just happened: your body position and how you felt the movement from your toes up through your fingertips. Make any adjustments needed, and try again. Then, when working the other side, reflect on how it differs from the side you trained first. If you already know which is your strong side, start with that to feel what you’re doing right. “It’s about learning; it’s not just about, OK I’m going to bang out eight reps,” says Sjong.

Sjong explains: You may struggle more on one side of the wall for a number of reasons. If you’re more comfortable going right, for example, you won’t need to think about your hand as much and can focus on your toes and hips instead. But when you go left, more attention goes to your hand, and less to the rest of the body—leading to a lag in performance. System board training allows you to identify what you’re doing right on your strong side, and apply this lesson to the opposite side. You can fix an imbalance by taking the move you’re struggling to mirror, adjusting it so it’s within reach, then gradually increasing the difficulty until both sides are even.

“If you want to be a successful soccer player, you have to learn how to kick the ball well with both legs,” says Sjong. The system board helps us develop the climber equivalent of this symmetry.

Are you a 5.11/5.12 climber looking to break into the upper grades? Take Justen Sjong’s Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond online course and you’ll see tangible gains in your climbing in only nine weeks.