About three years into my life as a climber, I was talking to a photographer friend, Dave Benyak, who at the time was shooting all the best climbing imagery in our home state of New Mexico. “Watching you guys through my lens, trying to climb hard,” he said, “I noticed something you all do.”
“What’s that?” I asked. Still relatively new to the sport, I had yet to analyze what worked for me and what didn’t, mainly because my limited experience on rock gave me few reference points. I would just go out and try; sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. I rarely knew why.
“You all—John [Duran], Jean [Delataillade], Adam [Read], and Lee [Sheftel]—never just grab a hold just once,” Dave said, listing a handful of us trying to redpoint sport climbs at the welded-tuff areas of Cochiti Mesa and the Enchanted Tower. “You get it and readjust your grip until you’re ready for the next move.” Hmmm, I thought. Interesting. The next time I went bouldering on the sharp granite blobs of U-Mound, in the Sandia Foothills above Albuquerque, I consciously paused at each move and looked at my fingers, and sure enough, Dave was right. I’d get a hold, then, bouncing gently on my feet to bring my hips close to the rock, would set and reset my fingers until I had the hold perfectly before I moved on. It was a completely unconscious action, but surely it had some purpose.
Defining the “Reset”
What I realized, as I studied myself climbing, was that I’d integrated these on-the-fly micro-adjustments as a way of optimizing grip and body position for the next move, like a sprinter refining her stance on the starting blocks. While resetting took a little extra time, the power and precision I gained on the next move was usually worth it. There is an optimal way to use each hold—the initial way you contact and grab a grip isn’t always the best—and by taking the time to settle my fingers in the strongest position, I was finding that sweet spot.
As I’ve played with this concept more over the years, I’ve also realized the principle applies to your feet. Each foothold has an optimal spot for your big toe and angle of engagement (ankle and leg articulation) that make the next move easier, same as with your hands. It can pay to reset your feet as well.
How to Bounce and Reset
Here are the basic movement principles:
- Crank for the next hold in the standard climbing motion; there will be a moment of initial contact with the hold in which your fingers first engage it.
- As you contact the hold, settle your weight onto it and drop your hips low, bringing them parallel with the rock.
- Now drive down through your big toes to create a “bouncing” motion that kips your hips into the wall; as you do so, at the top of each bounce you’ll experience a momentary “weightless” moment—the “deadpoint.”
- Exploit that deadpoint to readjust and optimize your grip on the target hold. To consider: Do you need to move from a three-finger drag to a full crimp? Is the index finger exactly where it needs to be—and what about the other digits? What are you doing or could you do with your thumb to strengthen your grip?
- You can also use this deadpoint moment to reset your other limbs—to perfect the grip on your lower, following hand, and/or to reset your feet if they aren’t placed perfectly. Or, once your hands have been optimized, you can take the time to reset your feet in a separate, conscious motion, looking down and scrutinizing the footholds.
- Reset as many times as you need to before moving into the next move. Typically, for me, it’s one to three bounces; any more than that and I get tired. Note that there is a school of thought that you should climb as quickly as possible, especially on bouldery moves or bouldering walls, and not waste time and energy resetting your fingers and toes. But in my experience, climbing is rarely so black-and-white. You should do what each move and your climbing style demand, and stay flexible in your thinking.
Putting It All Together
I like to nerd out on climbing movement—at this point, at age 50, it’s easier to make technical versus physical gains—and so have been playing with the reset concept more lately. One nuance I just recently realized, while trying a very thin, beta-intensive project in the Flatirons, Colorado, that is basically roped bouldering, was that you can, at the top of your bounce, reset all of your engaged limbs simultaneously. In other words, you can pull up and in, and in the momentary, “weightless” micro-second at the top of your bounce, subtly reset your fingers and toes all at once, often by feel (you won’t have time to scan each limb visually). It can be a disconcerting technique at first—you feel like a cat clawing at the draperies, trying to stay attached—but it does work, especially when the holds are so poor you have very little time to reset on them individually.
Some Bouncing Homework
Watch this Eric Karlsson Bouldering video below, of the professional climber Nina Williams on the Automator (V13) in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. In the slowed-down footage from 1:07 to 1:22, she bounces on each of the two moves she executes, first resetting her right hand on a sprague-crimp she deadpoints to, then doing a very visible bounce-and-reset when she lands the next hold, just above it, with her left hand. The slo-mo footage really makes what she’s doing stand out. Watch the rest of the video too, and you can see Nina bouncing-and-resetting on her send burns as well, with the video at full speed. Though the movement is ingrained and unconscious, it’s a key part of her momentum and her sequencing.
Now go practice yourself at the gym. I’d try:
• 1–2 minutes of bouncing-and-resetting on jugs, while warming up
• 1–2 minutes on medium-sized holds, with some foot resets.
• 1–2 minutes on small holds, with some foot resets.
• 1–2 minutes on a project-grade route or problem, or on a spray wall, with some foot resets.
Do this for a few sessions over a couple of weeks, and the movement patterns will start to lodge in your muscle memory; they’ll become as natural as putting on rock shoes before you climb. Then, as you climb outside or on routes at your limit, check back in and self-assess. Are you bouncing now? Should you be doing it more? Less? Are you seeing any performance gains in your climbing? Ask your friends to watch and/or film you too, which is another great way to critique your technique. Keep coming back to the drills until you see improvement and the reset becomes as unconscious as breathing.
Matt Samet is the editor of Climbing. He has been climbing since the 1980s and living in the Boulder, Colorado, area since 1991.