Recently, at Dude’s Throne in Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Colorado, I was gunning for my first 5.13, a power-endurance route called Buster Brown (5.13a). At the crux bulge, I grabbed a weird pocket-undercling and set up for a lunge. As sunset lit the orange-patinaed granite, I moved into the dyno, giving off a robust scream. Its echo skittered around the valley, still Dopplering long after I’d blown the move. From the alpine lake below—out of sight in the pines—some fishermen laughed. Then one of them yelled up, “What’s your safe word?”
Benefits of Screaming
I’m no pro climber, but I’ve been told I scream at an elite level. This probably has to do with my early training in martial arts, in which I learned to harness the explosive power of the kiai (more later). In my 20 years of climbing, I’ve learned that my screaming—in addition to being fortissimo—actually has helped me send. Screaming works in three overlapping ways.
The benefits of screaming in sports have been well documented. In an often-cited 2014 study, “Effect of Vocalization on Static Handgrip Force Output,” researchers at Drexel University had test subjects squeeze a “handgrip dynamometer,” and observed that grip strength increased by 25 percent when accompanied by a scream. The researchers then extrapolated other potential athletic benefits—increased output in other muscle groups, heightened focus, psychological intimidation of opponents—which is why a variety of grunts and squeals has begun to echo around tennis courts, basketball arenas, and boxing rings worldwide. But even though the study wasn’t designed to assess climbing, the grip-strength bump these researchers identified is reason enough to get vocal.
A good belly-scream—originating deep in the diaphragm, where opera singers and yogis breathe from—engages the lower abdominals and the muscles around the rib cage, which helps keep your core tight. On cruxes, a tightened core keeps us closer to the wall, enables more-precise movement, and maintains body tension for optimal use of marginal holds. Conversely, a tight-throated squeak, in which just the upper part of the chest constricts, will not make the core-magic happen.
The Drexel study also suggests that screaming may increase physical output by engaging the sympathetic nervous system: Screaming subconsciously triggers the fight-or-flight response, the adrenaline from which not only ramps up our grip strength but also heightens our focus. As the famed vocalist Chris Sharma once said, “You have to get totally animalistic .… When you’re doing a hard move, there is this excess energy you have to let out. Air explodes out of you”—tapping into our well of wildness.
Screaming and the Martial Arts
Many climbers scream only as an unconscious by-product of trying hard, but a premeditated scream, deliberately deployed at just the right moment, is a far more powerful tool. As a teenager, I worked my way up to a second-degree black belt in Shotokan-style karate. Particularly useful when I transitioned to climbing was the kiai,
the exclamation that a martial artist makes while executing a strike—it’s a way to gather energy at a crucial moment in a sequence of moves, a sonic punctuation mark to express the totality of your focus.
The kiai also translates perfectly into a climbing context: The crux of a route isn’t just the move that requires the most raw power; it’s also the moment that demands the highest degree of precision, body-awareness, and focus. A scream here, imbued with kiai-like intention, can propel you toward a fleeting instant of perfection. The yell can even become choreographed; hence we see Adam Ondra, in his visualization routines for his 5.15d Silence, practicing the accompanying sounds with the sequences. “It is very important to yell in the right places,” Ondra was quoted as saying in Outside. “When I yell, I am giving it everything I have. In the easier sections, I must give only the minimum necessary.” (See sidebar on aiki for more.)
Skills and Drills
These drills will help you develop the three key elements of a successful power scream: the inhalation of breath, the exhalation of sound, and the direction of focus.
Drill No. 1: Inhalation
Step one is to get a feel for diaphragmatic breathing, aka “belly breathing.” To practice:
- Lie on your back, either in bed or on a flat surface, resting one hand on your sternum and the other hand on your lower belly.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, such that your stomach pushes out against your belly hand but your sternum hand doesn’t rise.
- Engage your stomach muscles, feeling your belly hand drop as the diaphragm expels air through your mouth. (Again, your sternum hand shouldn’t move.)
- Set a timer for 5–10 minutes, and practice daily until this mode of breathing feels natural.
Drill No. 2: Exhalation
Once you’ve mastered belly breathing, you’ll make sure your vocal sound originates from your belly—not your throat.
- To get the feel for exhaling from the diaphragm, place a hand on your belly (as in the previous exercise) and pretend to cough; that kick down low in your stomach is where your power scream should originate.
- Let a breath drop into your belly and make a loud fake-laugh with the sound Ha-Ha-Ha, once again using your belly hand to feel the diaphragm contracting. The throat should remain relaxed, almost entirely uninvolved in creating the sound.
- Repeat with the sounds He-He-He, Ho-Ho-Ho, and then Hi- Hi-Hi for a minimum of 30 seconds each. (If this gets as tiring as sit-ups, you’re doing it right.) Repeat the cycle 2–3 times daily, as a stand-alone exercise or warm-up before climbing.
Drill No. 3: Direction
The last, and most important, step is to learn to direct your scream’s energy—you’ll visualize where you’re sending that air, and the intention behind it.
- Find a difficult move on a route or boulder problem—ideally a full-extension deadpoint. Ultimately, you’ll want to try this exercise on three or four different problems.
- Attempt the move several times, each time mentally directing your exhalation (or even a light vocalization) toward a different limb.
- Pay attention to the results: What happens when you focus on the hand that’s deadpointing? How about the hand that’s remaining in place? A foot that remains on a foothold, a foot that’s flagging? What happens when you scream into your hips, your shoulders? What happens when you focus/exhale/vocalize toward the holds themselves?
Once you’ve gotten a feel for screaming on isolated moves, you can apply it to your project: Figure out which of your limbs/holds is the best mental target for your power scream, and remember to include the vocalization any time you’re visualizing beta.
The complementary energy of Aiki
Kiai has an equally important twin-concept, aiki. If the kiai is a manifestation of your outward-focused energy, then the aiki is its inverse: an expression of harmony with your opponent’s energy that will help dissipate your own muscular tension. There’s value in recognizing that the power-scream is only half the equation—if you can’t also manifest aiki, with your power scream leaving you unable to relax back into the flow, you may in fact be better off climbing in silence. As Dave MacLeod puts it in “The Sharma Scream” entry in his Online Climbing Coach series, “The great skill of climbing is to be able to switch from moment to moment between screaming to get maximum power on a very powerful but technically basic move, and calm focus the next instant to perfectly aim for a tiny foot- or handhold.” I’d suggest that the key to these transitions, whether powering up or powering down, is the breath: Pausing for a single, deliberate inhalation and exhalation after a crux helps dissipate the tension, and prepares you for calmer, aiki-informed climbing ahead.
Pro Climber Mix-n-Match
Match the climber to their power scream:
A. Adam Ondra
B. Margo Hayes
C. Kevin Jorgeson
D. Chris Sharma
E. Alex Puccio
F. Pamela Shanti-Pack
G. Daniel Woods
Answers: A=5, B=6, C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=7
Brian Laidlaw is an author-songwriter, PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Denver, and lives part-time in Boulder.