Ride the Wave: 5 Drills for Better Climbing Technique

Move from the toes up through the butt for better sending with these drills from pro coach Justen Sjong.
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Move from the toes up through the butt for better sending with these drills from pro coach Justen Sjong.
Nina Williams Rock Climbing technique Drills

Nina Williams demonstrates the sass in the ass drill (below) on a system board.

Feet pasted against the walls on the crux, twenty-fifth pitch of the Premuir Wall (VI 5.13d) on El Capitan, I crouched and coiled. In one movement, I pushed my butt upward, latching the edge that brought me a successful first ascent. Climbers rarely associate the largest set of muscles in the body with technique. But the posterior and hips, in sync with the core, play a major role in good movement. The best climbers move instinctually from the toes up through the butt. The rest of us, however, need to learn careful, conscious skills that become engrained over time.

The best way to practice the following skills and drills is while bouldering, indoors or outside, where you can get playful in a low-commitment setting. As you master these skills, you can then put them to use up on the cliffs.

Creating the perfect wave

“The wave” is the product of efficiently moving from hold to hold. A perfect wave ripples from your toes up through your backside, and from there along your core and torso to the fingertips—it’s about directing motion to the next movement. The wave begins in and is directed by your big toe, so let’s begin there by understanding this toe’s three primary actions:

Pushing

By connecting consciously with your big toes, feeling the pushing action, and weighting your feet, you’ll reduce the load on your quick-to-tire arms and shoulders. With time and practice, this action will become unconscious and you’ll see improvement. Start with easy grades and build up in difficulty. You don’t want to surpass the threshold at which your focus drifts to your upper body—when stressed, we tend to focus here because it provides a natural level of security on the wall.

Pulling

When we walk, we use our feet as platforms. But, in climbing, we also use our feet as hands, i.e., we pull. Climbers should have an elevated heel, which leads to a natural pulling action with the toe that then brings the butt around. Watch out for heel fluctuation or wavering—this uneven pressure can cause your foot to pop. Pulling can be envisioned as adding pressure to the hold: By lifting the heel, you weight the toe, securing your contact with the rock.

Swooping

If you adjust your heel position, your hips want to follow. By swooping your heel with authority—i.e., describing an arc in space with it—you’ll naturally move your hips from side to side, which generates playful, fluid movement. (Purely dynamic movement, meanwhile, comes from aggressive heel rotation.) One caveat: Don’t place too much toe on a hold, which makes it hard to swoop as your toe smushes against the wall.

Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond

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Push to pull with the big toe

Push your hips/butt away from the destination hold to generate the perfect trajectory.

Drill

Try a simple standing jump on the ground: To generate, you bend your knees and sag. Then you feel the motion and leap. The same principle applies on the wall: You push your body away from the hold to create the swing, and then feel the natural point (deadpoint) at which to arc back. To drill on the wall, pick a long move and repeat it until this motion feels natural. Focus on feeling the deadpoint so the swing has a fluid transition. Grin when good things happen; this is you expressing to your body, “Nice work!”

push to pull nina williams system board climbing technique drill

The push to pull drill.

  1. Right toe pushing
  2. Butt is pushed away
  3. Core is soft
  4. Left hand still pushing
  5. Right arm has a slight bend
  6. Core is tight

Sass in the Ass

Rotation of the heel puts sass in your ass—the hips are the center of your body, and by tossing them around in a controlled manner, you’ll climb with greater playfulness and efficiency.

Drill

Find a long extension move and put some sass into it. Repeat until it starts to feel natural. To begin, don’t let the front of your climbing shoe touch the wall, so your heel has room to swoop. If working with a precise toe placement, bend the elbows to create greater tension and control. This comes at the cost of a tighter breath, so pause to reset the breath. By connecting with your breath, the knee will bend; as it does so, feel the heel rotate and hips swing in unison. The emphasis should be on syncing up the heel and the hip, which reduces the load on your core and keeps you from peeling away from the center line of the body—when this happens, you typically overload the fingers and then fall.

Sass in the Ass Rock Climbing technique drill nina williams system board

The sass in the ass drill.

  1. Right toe pushing
  2. Butt is pushed away
  3. Core is soft
  4. Right heel rotates with knee to manage the hip
  5. Left hand still pushing
  6. Right arm has slight bend
  7. Core is tight

Drive of the legs/timing of the core

Often, we push with our legs at the right moment, but once we reach the target hold we relax the knee or quad, which creates hip fallout. If your hip falls out from your center line more than 4 to 8 inches, it can be hard to reel back in.

Drill

Keep your legs working even after you catch the hold. First, hover your hand over your target handhold for a millisecond and feel the quad working. Then, keep the quad working and grunt to encourage core engagement. And finally, play with timing your release—at some moment, your core and quad need to relax, an inflection point you can discern with practice.

Eye on the Ball 

Often, climbers will put energy into looking at the next hold. However, it’s better to focus on the hold while simultaneously feeling the toe manage your butt. 

Drill

Practice large extension moves and keep your eye on the next hold, but feel what the toes or—better yet—the whole lower body are doing. Now, pause to reflect: Face the wall and mimic what you just did, but drop your eyes to the floor so you can feel the move in your body, not your mind.

Heel-Hip Connection 

“Flicking” with one heel and keeping the other in a fixed location are crucial for body alignment. Flicking comes from the leg that pushes the body and comes off the foothold as a follow-through action to pushing. Where you keep the heel of the other (anchored) foot is also key, since your body weight will be coming onto it. For example, if you’re generating off a left sidepull, the left heel should flick while the right heel should pivot to the right and stay in place until you’re ready to bring the hips back into neutral.

Drill

Similar to the drill above, practice large extension moves with feeling and reflection.

Engage the Thumbs  

Thumbs are a major player in helping us stay centered. We do this two ways: by closing a crimp and by squeezing.

Imagine hitting a crimp, controlling it, then looking up to see the next hold looking miles away. With an open-handed grip, you can only lock off at your chest. But with the thumb curled over the index finger, you can pull it down to your waist—plus, closing the grip allows for more inward tug, which equals better butt management. Just do so judiciously—crimping all the time is hard on your fingers; with practice, you can learn when to turn it on and when not to.

You can likewise squeeze a hold to control the center—to manage your hips and butt and keep them from falling out. (Note: Your thumb won’t work well when you’re pumped, so aim to engage it consciously.)

Complete Weight Transfer

Novice climbers often neglect to transfer their weight completely. This naturally leads to a foot placement that is “good enough” but lacks precision—you can easily slip off if you let your foot “crash” down onto the foothold. So, place the toe with love and care, and make a complete weight transfer onto it. As a rule, the more you weight each foothold, the better it will feel.

Colorado-based Justen Sjong is a climber of 25 years, with 5.13+ big-wall free ascents and 5.14 sport climbs under his belt. He has been coaching climbers since 1994 through his Climbing Sensei coaching business.

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