We’ve all been there, slapping repeatedly for the same hold, each time finding ourselves slumped on the rope or the pads and telling ourselves we’re too weak! You’ve checked and re-checked your foot sequence and body position and inspected the hold to see if there’s a better part but no joy and maybe it’s time to quit. You make one more try and suddenly, as if by magic, the hold somehow feels OK and you’re pulling through with a big grin on your face. Maybe you suddenly got stronger or more likely, you simply changed your gripping method.
Who would think that there could be four different ways to perform the simple task of gripping an edge, but that’s climbing for you. Let’s take a look at each one, from the perspective of technique, and with a brief focus on supportive training.
The half crimp is the grip with the broadest range of applications in climbing, yet many are uncertain exactly how to perform it. The index, middle and ring fingers are bent at 90 degrees and the pinky will be straight, simply because it’s shorter. The thumb either rests next to the index finger or nestles into the side of the hold, if possible. The half-crimp can be used for the vast majority of edges, whether flat, sloping or in-cut, and it is also used when pinching. Sometimes on very small micro-edges, a full-crimp may provide better traction or on larger edges an open/drag grip may provide a more restful alternative, but generally speaking, the half crimp is the way to go. Most climbers would be well-advised to give the half-crimp a high level of priority in their training (meaning that you’ll use it the most on the hangboard and when climbing). It’s worth noting that the half-crimp is often demonised for causing injury, whereas, in fact, it is one of the safest grips for general training. It has its own built-in shut-off switch, meaning that it usually fails and opens-out before placing harmful loads on the tendons.
Chisel (aka: open crimp)
An important variation on the half-crimp is the chisel, where the index finger is kept straight and used more passively. Climbers will debate the respective advantages of the chisel and the true half-crimp forever, but the reality is that you’ll prefer the one that you practice most. Finger length and the nuances of the hold may also affect things degree and it’s good to experiment to see which grip works best for you on certain holds. Most climbers default to the chisel when campusing and performing deadhang repeaters, as these exercises usually feel considerably tougher with the index bent. So why not simply use the chisel all the time? While it may matter less whether you bend your index when endurance training, when making hard moves, if you are able to keep your index bent then you may be able to gain superior traction on a broader range of edges and especially at steeper wall angles. A key training goal is to try to maintain a strict half-crimp as you build up through the grades when warming up, with the acceptance that, for most climbers, the index will start to straighten once they hit harder grades. Clearly hangboarding plays a crucial supportive role, as there is less incentive to cheat. When the objective of sending a problem is removed you can simply focus on training with good form and using the required gripping technique.
Going back to the previous century, the full-crimp was the grip that old-timers used for virtually every type of hold, including slopers! This grip involves fully bending and closing the fingers and hyper-extending (bending back) the first finger joints whilst locking the thumb over the index finger nail. So why is it less popular today? The answer is that the word spread about the risks of intensive and repetitive full-crimping. Many climbers have been injured from over-using the full-crimp and were forced to re-train themselves to rely more on the half-crimp and open grips. Additionally, holds at gyms have evolved and we now encounter a broader range of shapes and sizes, most of which don’t really work with a full-crimp. In a bygone era, micro-edges dominated at gyms whereas now, they’re virtually extinct and have been usurped by giant slopers. The majority of new climbers don’t see the point in full-crimping, and many ask whether they should bother to use this grip seeing as the half-crimp feels stronger and more comfortable. To counter this, you don’t have to look far on YouTube to see an elite climber full-crimping (aka: boning) a waifer-thin edge on a hard boulder project. Many (but not all) top climbers find that for the tiniest edges on very steep walls, the full-crimp can offer more traction. A caveat here is finger length. If your fingers are generally long or different in length then the full-crimp is likely to feel weird and unstable. To make sense of this, if you have never practiced the full-crimp and the half-crimp works well for you, then it’s unlikely that you’re missing out significantly. However, it may be worth drip-feeding the full-crimp into your training to see if you experience benefits. Tread carefully with the full-crimp and do small amounts at sub-maximal load levels on the hangboard and avoid pushing to this grip to failure when bouldering.
Open (aka: drag) Grip
The open or drag grip is the default for pockets, yet it is also possible and beneficial to drag on edges, especially on slightly easier terrain in order to conserve energy. You’ll need to take your little finger off and hook the first joints of the index, middle and ring fingers over the hold. The drag is a more passive grip than the half-crimp, relying more on friction and tension in the main tendons and less on the supportive pulleys. The catch is that on really hard moves it won’t provide as much traction or stability on edges as the full or half-crimp. Junior climbers are prone to over-using the 3-finger drag on edges because they feel weak at half-crimping and hence a key coaching tip is to encourage them to use their little finger and maintain a half-crimp.
A final variation is the open crimp (also known as the bird-beak). This is essentially a hybdid of the half-crimp and open grip where the fingers are held just very-slightly bent at an angle of approximately 160 degrees. We could go into detail but this is getting geeky now, so let’s leave it there!
A change is as good as a rest and thus, a classic energy saving trick for long endurance-based routes is to switch between the full-crimp, half-crimp and drag grips. This takes some experimentation, so practice first on easy routes before trying it on something hard. The same principle can also be applied when rehabilitating a finger injury. For example, if you’ve hurt a pulley when crimping then it may still be possible to climb using an open/drag grip on easy and mid-level terrain.
A common oversight when climbing on rock is to find the edge but miss the accompanying thumb-catch. These are small in-cut depressions or protruding nubbins that work in conjunction with the edge to increase the amount of purchase. They may differ from pinches because you actually pull (or crimp’ with the thumb, as opposed to pinching. With large in-cut holds it may be possible to lock your thumb over the top of the edge in order to reduce load on the fingers and lower the pump. Ignore or under-estimate these techniques and you will be missing out!
In conclusion, it’s important to keep an open mind when it comes to the way we grip the handholds. Sometimes, the most subtle change may only give you an extra one or two percent, but that may be all you need to send!