How to Master Coordination Climbing

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If you’ve followed competition bouldering in recent years, then you’ve seen all the bizarre contortions, jumping, wall runs, and other parkour-like gymnastics. These sequences, while they do require some strength, often come down to a combination of momentum and reaction time. Having competed in 15 World Cups and now as the Head Coach for the USA Climbing Adult National Team, I’ve experienced these moves firsthand and am now helping the US team practice them for Tokyo 2020. Believe it or not, they can help your climbing, too—both indoors and out.

History & Real-World Application

In the World Cup’s early days, finals rounds took four-plus-minutes, meaning if you were on the wall when your time ran out, you could continue climbing until you finished or fell. Stumped and close to the top, climbers would commit to wild, low-percentage moves out of now-or-never desperation. Seeing that these moves were crowd-pleasers, setters began building them into the World Cup repertoire, and hence this parkour-like style of “high-risk moves” took root—they emerged as a way to separate V14 climbers on V6 movements.

A big part of sticking these moves is committing—you just need to go for it. “This is sometimes hard,” says veteran World Cup competitor Sean McColl, “but you can’t be afraid to hit the wall and hurt yourself. You’ve got to commit to the jump.” On rock, taking this same approach has its benefits. In Yosemite, Leo Houlding made a few big strides then jumped off a boulder to start The Wizard (V7). Rainbow Rocket (V11) in Fontainebleau requires a dyno and then an additional foot step to launch the climber higher. And on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d), Kevin Jorgeson made a wild, eight-foot, sideways dyno move to solve pitch 16. Learning to climb in this style forces you to think creatively, reduce the number of moves you do, and become a faster, more dynamic, more committed climber.

Visualization

To begin, when you arrive at a coordination problem, examine the wall angle, style of holds, and spacing between the holds. Imagine your body on the wall before it’s there, how you’ll reach between the holds, and how you’ll create and then stop momentum using the holds. If you see a long move or a series of risky moves, determine whether your feet or your hands require greater focus, as this will determine when you rely on sight versus memory. For example, in a toe-hook-catch scenario, where you need to hit a hold and simultaneously catch a toe hook to check the swing, look at the toe-hook foothold, and then get a sense of where it is and will be as you move. Now look at the hand (eyesight), and again try to locate the foot (memory). In other cases, it will be the reverse: eyes for the feet and memory for your hand. The important thing is to plan ahead.

Make Momentum Work for You

Momentum goes a long way in climbing. Think of when you’re on a roof and your feet slip—that lower-body momentum pulls you right off. However, you can also make that same momentum work for you. By swinging your body, it’s possible to hit holds and keep moving.

Dynos

While dynoing, most people focus on pulling hard and then pushing, but the initial focus should be in your knees and ankles. So start the movement at your legs, pushing through your feet and then pulling with your arms and leading with your hips. As you gain height, push down even more through your feet and mantel to get that extra reach. Only when your legs hit full extension should your arm move toward the target hold.

Single-Handed Dynos

An important part of one-handed dynos is twisting your hips in the direction of your leading arm as you jump, which helps push your arm higher toward the target grip. As with all dynos, think about the extension of your arm when you hit the hold. A straight arm lengthens your body and increases the arc of the swing, while locking off or pulling up as soon as possible will help check the swing.

Double Dynos

Step 1: Push through your feet. Step 2: Lead slightly with one arm. Step 3: Catch the hold in a slight lockoff.

Step 1: Push through your feet. Step 2: Lead slightly with one arm. Step 3: Catch the hold in a slight lockoff.

A double dyno involves catching a hold, or two proximal holds, simultaneously with both hands. While more committing, it often involves more symmetry in the jump. One hand should lead a bit to the better hold, but the move should contain symmetry in the body.

Paddle Dynos

A paddle dyno involves segueing from an intermediate right into a dyno. It’s a useful technique when the intermediate hold isn’t good enough to stop on or pull with. When paddle-dynoing, hit the intermediate hold in a locked-off position—this will allow you to dyno more quickly to the final hold.

Swinging limbs

At times, your handholds will be so bad that you’re unable to crank for your target grip. In such cases, dynamic movement in your legs—aka a “pogo move”—is needed. To practice, grasp two holds and pick a third target hold. Swing your leading leg, and when your leg pendulums toward the hold, release your hand/s, jump, and rocket toward the target, leading with your hips and utilizing momentum.

You can apply the same concept to your arms to “extend” your reach. As you set up for a long move, bring your leading arm back as a counterweight and then swing it forward. Now lead with your chest, launching your arm toward the target. Simultaneously jumping or pogoing will increase your reach even further.

Skate moves

“You have to run across the volumes to that duel-tex”—just saying that will confuse most trad climbers and make even seasoned competitors a little nervous. But moving quickly across volumes teaches fast, precise footwork, how to use momentum to master slabs, and the importance of balance and foot-eye coordination. These sequences have taken on the nickname “skate moves” for their dynamic, freestyle-skating appearance, but they also have a lot in common with parkour.

To practice, start by running across a series of small boulders outside or skip across narrow targets low to the ground, such as parking blocks. Plan where your feet will go and use memory to hit the footholds. Keep the momentum fluid and move without stopping, as you would in the gym when “skating” between volumes. The next, and best, way to practice is to find big holds low to the ground on a low-angle wall. With a starting hold at head height, swing your leading leg to gain momentum, then land it on a hold, swapping feet and skipping across the holds sideways.

4 Focused Coordination Drills

While nothing beats practicing moves on established problems, these exercises can help you learn coordination moves faster.

Fast hands

Improve at coordination moves by increasing your hand speed. On a system wall, place your feet a bit wider than your hips. With bent knees, grab chest-height holds. Bounce both hands simultaneously to a set of jugs above, then return to the starting set. Now drop to a set of jugs below, then return to the starting holds to complete one rep. Use your hips to create a moment of weightlessness by shifting them away from the wall and then toward it as you move your hands. Look briefly at each target hold and then look between them, using peripheral vision and memory to land the holds. Aim for five reps in a row and three total sets, resting three minutes between sets.

Explosive legs

Plyometrics improve explosiveness and dynamic foot movement—box jumps are a great start. With feet shoulder-width apart, drop into a quarter squat, extend your hips, swing your arms, and push through your feet to land on the box. When you hit the box, land on the balls of your feet—quietly, like a cat. Do three sets of five jumps each, resting three minutes between sets. If that feels too easy, add ankle weights or jump on higher boxes. Aim to always stick the box—getting shinned is unpleasant.

Fast-twitch pullups

To build more fast-twitch muscle in your upper body, do three pull-ups as fast as you can without lowering into your elbows. Rest for three minutes and then repeat five times, for a total of 15 pullups. Fast-twitch muscle helps with the explosiveness needed for paddle dynos and quick arm movements. Progressively add weight every week to make these harder. 

Josh Larson, a Massachusetts native who started climbing at age 15, lives the climbing life, having worked as a route-setter, professional climber, and now as a coach for the US Climbing Team.