3 Subtle Technique Tips for Advanced Climbers

Coach Justen Sjong shares three small changes that can make a big difference in your climbing.
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Nina Williams lead climbing

Faced with a performance plateau, climbers looking to push forward might default to just climbing more or building strength on the hangboard and weight bench. But the most common pitfalls for advanced climbers, notes coach Justen Sjong, are not strength-based but have more to do with movement and emotion. Working with athletes of all levels since 1994, he’s found a few areas of improvement common for climbers at the 5.11/5.12 level—and they don’t require adding more campus ladders to your routine. Here are three subtler tips:

Climb a Grade Harder

5.9 to 5.11: Professional climbing coach Justen "The Sensei" Sjong created this 9-week program designed especially for the 5.9 to 5.11 climber. Dedicate yourself to it, and you'll climb an entire grade harder. Learn more.

5.12 and Beyond: Get ready to climb 5.12 and beyond with pro coach Justen “the Sensei” Sjong and pro climber Nina Williams. To climb at your highest potential, you need a targeted plan with specific routines, and this 9-week training program will get you there. Learn more.

1. Eye contact

The problem

“A lot of people don’t look to see,” says Sjong. “They don’t actually see the details of that foot, see the texture, see where they are actually going to place their foot. They don’t follow through and feel when they place their toe.”

In this situation, climbers see a foothold, look away, and then stab their foot in its direction. This problem applies to haphazardly grasping at handholds too, in which climbers quickly go for a hold, hit it, and then shuffle their hands around until it feels decent. In hastily hucking for holds, climbers become nervous, and “negative emotions start to take over,” often to leading to a fall.

The solution

“Look for the hold, and then once you find it, actually see what it is,” says Sjong. “It takes about two to three seconds of seeing the hold to make note of any details.” Watch other climbers, and see how the length of time they look for holds affects their precision. When the climber learns to “see” the holds this way, their movement will become more confident and make them less prone to falling.

2. Emotional connection

The problem

“Yeah, you placed that toe, but I need to see that you actually love that toe,” Sjong says, describing a common dialogue with his clients. “Because that toe is going to be managing your hip, and if I don’t see that you care about how that toe is placed, it doesn’t really matter.”

In this situation, climbers are too concerned about where their hands are going next to pay attention to where they are on the wall. He argues that climbers need to feel an emotional connection with each foot placement, which in turn gives “love and attention” to their hip placement. “People don’t necessarily share those emotions authentically on the wall,” says Sjong.

The solution

Use each foothold with intent, and feel how you are using that hold. “When I belay, it's possible to tell if someone is feeling the action in their lower body,” says Sjong.

3. Body language

The problem

Climbers walk up to their project with hunched shoulders, a frantic or lost expression, and their trunk “bowed, expressing doubt.” To Sjong, this body language sets them up poorly from the start by failing to demonstrate an intent to complete the climb.

The solution

Take note of how you express yourself on the wall, says Sjong. If you’re climbing on a rope and catch yourself struggling and looking defeated, stop, hang on the rope, and adjust—“express what your preferred expression might be” for the next section.

Implementing these subtle practices can help climbers “naturally improve their climbing,” says Sjong. For his Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond course, he’s tailored his training based on common themes he sees with climbers at this level, and has a plan to help climbers not only break through to new grades, but also to “bring a deeper level of purpose” to their training.