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Climbing in the Steeps? It’s Not All About Getting Stronger

When the wall kicks back past vertical, the pump clock starts ticking. It’s all about getting to the chains before that alarm goes off.

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As you’re eying the next clip only a few feet away, your swollen forearms throb even harder at the thought of just one more move. You take a deep breath, dig your toe in a little deeper, drive your body up, and grab the next hold with a feeling of pure elation—only to experience a moment of stillness, a feeling of defeat, and the rush of air as the wall rapidly fades into the distance.

Welcome to steep sport climbing. When the wall kicks back past vertical, the pump clock starts ticking and it’s all about getting to the chains before that alarm goes off. Steeps and overhangs require determination, focus, technique, and creative thinking. Below, we’ve dissected the most important skills to develop.

Sasha DiGiulian getting clever with her rests in Kalymnos, Greece. (Photo: Alex Grymanis / Red Bull Content Pool)

Rest trumps Strength: Learning to rest is the key to sending. Good roof climbers have strength and endurance, yes, but what they’re best at is managing and fighting off pump. They know how to reach a rest and then use it to recover strength and restart the pump clock. Practice resting as much as you practice climbing.

1-2-3: Think about moving through roofs in a 1-2-3 pattern: 1. Grab the holds with arms straight (don’t over-grip) and upper body centered underneath. 2. Reposition your feet so they’re in the optimal spot to drive you to the next hold. 3. Move with confidence to the next hold. Repeat over and over until you’re clipping the chains.

Utilize clipping stances: This might involve climbing into a certain position, clipping, then downclimbing to a good rest so you can breathe easier and focus on the upcoming sequence. Alternatively, you might need to include a few extra moves in a sequence to clip from a larger hold, avoiding clipping off a smaller hold that would get you more pumped.

Get Fit for Steep Sport Routes in Four Weeks

Your core is your best asset: Think about squeezing your abs and pushing your hips into the wall (a mental mantra helps: stay tight, stay tight, stay tight) to keep your butt from sagging, which will put more weight on your arms. Having hips close to the wall means more toeing-in power and more driving force from the large muscle groups in the legs.

Weird is good: Drop-knees, heel hooks, toe hooks, heel-toe cams, kneebars, and bicycles are your best friends because they take weight off your arms. Find and use them as often as possible. See our Climbing Dictionary for explanations of each.

Move your feet, not your arms: Keep your arms as straight and still as possible while your feet fluidly and precisely contact every foothold necessary to get your body in a position that makes the next move efficient. This means using the power from your legs, not your arms. Also, consider moving your feet around to get into a position that makes the handholds better (e.g., changing a sidepull into an undercling).

Sasha DiGiulian in Kalymnos, Greece (Photo: Alex Grymanis / Red Bull Content Pool)

Overcoming Overhangs with Sasha DiGiulian

Height: I find my small stature can be better on steep climbs because my torso and limbs aren’t as long, which can require more strength to keep under control. Regardless, being dynamic is important, so train for power and big moves.

Falling and Fear: Taking whippers in caves is fun! You’re falling into air, with no threat of hitting ledges below or cheese-grating down a slab. Embrace it!

Pushing Through: When I’m pumped and need to force myself to keep going, I focus on breathing. A slow and even breath will lower your heart rate and distract you. I convince myself that I’m not tired and that the next good hold or next clip is the anchor. Push for that one extra move, and you’ll improve quickly because you’ll be constantly maximizing your engine.

Hanging Upside Down: Reading routes and staying calm can be difficult. Look at the climb beforehand and make a plan for each section. Find the good rests and climb from rest to rest. Get to a rest and look up at the next section. While resting, keep arms straight, shoulders relaxed, and heels down to toe in. Just breathe.

Technique: Apply a lot of pressure to every foothold, especially bad ones. Use the tip of your shoe, with the hold under your powerful big toe. Heel hooks, toe hooks, and bicycling are crucial. For your hands, center your upper body directly beneath the hold. Upper body and legs should be in line with your hips; shift left and right by driving with your hips. Squeeze your abs and engage your core to stay tight.

This article originally appeared in Climbing in 2014