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Climbing is a complex and nuanced activity that requires a dancer’s creativity. Yet the precision of the sport favors an engineer’s mind. In the gym age, with its hangboards and strength training devices, climbers seem to have drifted away from a focus on movement, towards the measurable metrics of finger strength and pulling power. Whilst these aspects have their place, the combination of creativity and precision that make movement efficiency define a climber’s performance.
Growing up in the Mourne Mountains of Ireland, my obsession with climbing and training quickly led me to Sheffield, the epicenter of climbing in Northern England. The local gritstone rock of Stanage, Curbar, and Burbage requires technical proficiency and the unrelenting balance of subtle, refined movement. In contrast, the limestone of the area, at Raven Tor demands unimaginable strength and effective force transfer from the fingers and shoulders to the torso and legs. This relationship between strength and movement efficiency became the focus of my attention. Over the years, I applied the lessons I learned to all types of terrain, leading to ascents of V13 boulders, 5.13+ trad routes, and big wall free climbs in Yosemite, Alaska, and Greenland.
In 2006, I moved to the US, eventually settling in Bishop, California where I work as an AMGA-certified rock guide and as a coach for Vertical Ascents, helping climbers and mountain athletes reach their training and performance goals through a model of movement efficiency.
Movement efficiency, which climbers often define as technique, is both art and skill. It’s the ability to understand and manipulate body position, to maintain balance, and execute intentional movement, all while expending a minimal amount of energy. It is what Tai Chi master Chungliang Al Huang describes well in his book about athletic performance, Thinking Body, Dancing Mind.
Climbers develop the intrinsically linked aspects of strength, skill, and movement efficiency through practice and training. This climbing-specific strength is more nuanced than simply the ability to complete a deadlift or pull-up. It involves controlling the body through almost limitless positions, from high stepping and stemming to heel hooking and fully-spanned reaches. Often many of these positions occur simultaneously. With intentional practice, a climber can train their body to become stronger in these complex positions. They can effectively transfer force better, and using creative skill, move into the most efficient position to solve the climb. The increase in strength, within a broad range of motion expands the ability to solve a move or sequence.
Perfect movement efficiency is impossible, which means there is room for unlimited improvement!
In the past decade, Alex Honnold has been at the pinnacle of big wall free climbing, completing enormous link-ups of multiple El Capitan routes in a day. Interestingly, many top sport climbers and boulders have stronger fingers, pull strength, and body tension than Honnold. So how does Honnold survive the physical stress of the great volumes of climbing and hiking better than everyone else?
In running, cardiovascular fitness and, arguably more importantly, neuromuscular efficiency determine pace. Runner’s become faster by simply running more. Their bodies gradually become more and more efficient with every stride. This concept can be transferred to climbing. The more you climb, the more efficient you become. As a beginner, each move needs to be solved. With practice, moves require less and less consideration. Like running, the climber can switch off their brain and simply move.
So how does Honnold handle all that climbing? He has adapted his climber’s stride. Every step he takes and every move he makes exude efficiency. By scrambling and climbing, getting in a high volume of high quality practice, he’s developed a virtuous circle of progression. Using Honnold as an example, consider the ways you can improve your movement efficiency.
Leading With Your Feet
“There must be something up there,” the climber will say, groping blank rock for a hold. When insecure, scared, or tired, climbers often lose focus on their balance and the crucial skill of standing up on footholds.
Leading with your feet, the idea that each move begins and ends in a stable position with your center of gravity over a foot, demands practice. It requires focusing on transitioning into the end-position of the move, a point of stability, while standing up on a foot hold.
Climbing with no hands or simply only using holds for balance and not for upward progress helps refine the ability to lead with the feet. Connect the shoe with the next foothold, shift your balance, and move as deep as you can towards the stable end-position. When you reach the endpoint, then stand up.
Develop a slab circuit at your local climbing area. Whether at the gym or on the rock, repeat these problems multiple times a session to find more balance, better body control, and greater movement efficiency. Each day, during your warmup, try to climb the circuit with increased flow and less physical effort.
The practice of leading with your feet develops precise footwork, strong hips and legs, and kinesthetic awareness. It will help the insecure, scared, or tired climber relax and act wisely on difficult top outs, between spaced bolts, or above marginal gear. This is the beginning of developing greater movement efficiency in rock climbing.
Finding the End Position
I tried to release my left hand to grab the top hold on Pope’s Prow (V6). I could feel my torso arc backwards, away from the rock. I couldn’t quite find the stable end-position. I solved the balancing act by taking my left foot off the arête, hanging it in space, and using it as a rudder. This prevented an uncontrollable swing. I had found the perfect end-position and could slowly release the left hand to confidently grab the top hold.
When trying to solve a move, let your body think. Consider your body’s position in space. Every move has an optimum start and end position. Each of these positions should be in-balance and efficient. Often a move will require you to control a swing, even if it’s just a small one. You’re in position, you commit to the hand move and before you know it, you’re off! Minimizing these swings requires effective body control to find the stable end-position of the move.
As you consider the move, ask yourself, “Did I maneuver my body as deep into the end position as possible?” Look for creative solutions, an extended arm or a deeper flag, allowing your torso to sag slightly further to control the release. Slightly reducing the swing by moving deeper towards the stable end position will help you efficiently complete the move.
The End of a Dynamic Move
Latching the brick at the top of the classic highball Saigon Direct (V8/9) requires a large move where using some momentum can be advantageous. Finding the end position of a jump or dynamic move requires a bit more focus. Things happen fast and pre-visualization can really help.
Dynamic moves, though slightly more complicated, follow the same principles of finding balance and efficiency as static moves. Every move, dynamic or static, has an optimum body position or end-point that will maximize your likelihood of completing the move. With a dynamic move, there’s a balance between generating enough momentum to reach the hold and using too much power, forcing an uncontrollable swing. You have to place your body right in the sweet spot.
Take a step back and visualize the ideal end position of the move. How will your arm be bent? Where will your foot be in space? Where should your torso be placed? Now, picture how the movement will feel. Imagine the tension through your slightly bent arm as you catch the hold. Imagine your shoulder engage and your core controlling the slight arc, as your feet stop in space, exactly where you anticipated.
Before you leave the ground and then again right before you commit to the move, visualize this end position and feeling. Then confidently move your body into that end-position using your mental map.
Practicing moving into this end point will help with completing committing moves and intimidating jumps.
Creativity is key!
Green Wall Center (V6) exemplifies Buttermilk’s climbing with the perfect green veneered patina crimps. Climbers solve the problem through three main methods, a gaston, a crimp, or a tight compression. No matter which method is chosen, the climber reaches to a right hand sidepull, but without finding the best end position this technical move will be difficult. It requires letting the mind dance.
The best climbers have a rich imagination and they strive to develop an ever-evolving repertoire of intricate solutions to solve moves. They can work a gaston, a crimp, or a tight compression to move into a strong end position. Becoming creative and seeing these options can be practiced and enhanced.
Watch other climbers and copy their ideas. Check out how the local crusher at your gym swings through a sequence or a how a World Cup finalist on YouTube uses toe hooks. When trying to solve the next move on your project, step out of your comfort zone. Try something new, like using momentum to move through a sequence or try a toe-hook around the arête. Look for other options and be willing to try something that may exploit a weakness. The most efficient position might not be your strongest position.
Remember that there is no such thing as poor form or a bad position. When you try a new move, something that’s out of your comfort zone, it may feel stressful and intimidating, especially in the shoulders or hips. That’s OK! Instead of fearing the position, use it. This is how we get stronger. If a particular move feels stressful, control the dose. Maybe in the first session you only try the new move three times. Go home, allow the body to recover and then next session try the move four times. This gentle progression allows you to get stronger and stronger in the new position. Before long, this previously weak position is now a strong position. Over time and with intentional creative practice you develop more strength through an ever-expanding range of motion. The end result? You guessed it—greater movement efficiency.