This article originally appeared in our print magazine in 2019.
Climbing is a complex activity. There are few other athletic pursuits in which you can find individuals with wildly different strengths and weaknesses all achieving the same results. A quintessential example would be climbers who’ve sent 5.13a, a benchmark grade at which you begin to enter elite territory. I know 5.13a climbers who can barely do a few pull-ups and others who can do several one-arm pull-ups. Others I know have never trained a day in their lives and crush off the couch, while their peers might train for multiple seasons to achieve the same goal. Furthermore, I know some with a paralyzing fear of heights—and so, while they might be strong enough to send harder, are held back by their mental game—and others who, while perhaps physically weaker, seemingly have no fear and scamper easily through long runouts.
This diversity of weaknesses and strengths does not just appear at 5.13a, of course, but applies to climbers of all levels, pointing to the fact that an untold number of variables account for climbing ability.
I find this revelation to be incredibly encouraging, because it means that no matter who you are, there will always be some unique way to achieve your goals. It also means that no matter how strong or dialed you might be in one facet of climbing, there is almost always some other area of weakness where you can improve. For example, if you’ve spent a season working hard but still feel stagnant, perhaps a fresh focus on strategy or attention to detail with technique could be your key to moving your climbing forward.
Here are four key ways to lean into your weaknesses to become a better climber.
1. Beta Memory
Effectively remembering and recalling beta cuts down dramatically on the number of tries it takes to do your project. In climbing, we are aiming to remove as much hesitation as we can, and when you waste time and energy searching for a foothold or fumbling at a clipping stance, you’re decreasing your chances of success. A climber with very solid beta memory can recite every single foot- and handhold on an 80-foot route after just one burn. The good news is, if you can’t do this now, it’s a skill you can work to improve.
One of the best exercises to improve beta memory is to visualize your route or boulder problem as often as you can—especially on rest days. It may also help to take video or voice memos of your route’s beta if you find you’re having trouble visualizing the route from memory alone.
Another great exercise is to have a friend point out a 20- to 30-move traverse at the gym or your local bouldering area. You then try to climb it without having your friend repeat the beta, only calling out for help once or twice if you forget the sequence. If you’re training alone, try this by intentionally not using the lights on the Moon, Kilter, or Tension board—look up the problem on the app, then climb it from memory alone.
2. Try Hard
Seems like a simple one, but the character trait of grit is getting tougher to come by. I have seen many seemingly “underqualified” climbers do next-level things simply by giving it their absolute-freaking-best, and similarly I have seen elite-level climbers let go way too early because everything wasn’t going exactly as planned—because they weren’t climbing perfectly. The bottom line is that climbing your best and pushing yourself are sometimes uncomfortable. If you are the type who tends to stop when the going gets tough or maybe skip that last burn of the day because it feels inconvenient, you have a lot to gain here.
Setting goals every day on rock is the first step to overcoming the tendency to give up. The goal doesn’t always have to be sending but should involve striving for progress on your project, even if that progress is small. Think about your goal the night before and visualize what it might take to make that little step forward, then set the intention before you pull onto the stone of doing everything it takes to achieve that goal. This may mean getting up earlier to have extra time at the crag or pushing yourself to give it another try even when you feel tired. Also, importantly, share the goal with your partner. This will help you feel accountable and make it easier for them to encourage you.
Another way to increase your try-hard is to always “fall with upward momentum.” This is an old piece of advice from my friend Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou. Get in the habit of always pushing upward, no matter how tired or defeated you feel. Ideally, we never let go—instead, we at least try to jump for the next hold even when sticking it feels hopeless. This is important both mentally and physically, because it trains us to go out fighting. Also, that little jump toward the next hold puts you one tiny step closer to grabbing it—and who knows, you may stick it and surprise yourself with a send!
3. No Taking
Many people will hate this advice, and for some of us it’s probably not realistic. However, I feel it is integral to progress. Unless something catastrophic has happened or could happen, you should never, ever, yell “Take!” on a redpoint attempt. Never.
Like I mentioned before, progressing in climbing requires the removal of hesitation. Just knowing that taking is an option will add some amount of pause, even if on a subconscious level. Furthermore, those moments when we desperately hang on, turn our heads, yell “Take!”, and wait for our partner to reel in slack are moments and bits of energy that might have gotten us a move or two higher.
Try this exercise, ideally with a partner who also wants to live by the “No Take” rule: Make a pact that after a certain point in your redpoint process, you are not allowed to take. Remove taking from your list of options, add in the previous advice of always falling with upward momentum, and all of a sudden you’ll find yourself squarely in the try-hard/sending zone.
4. Commit to “Hard” Routes
The rock has an incredible way of ferreting out our weaknesses. My last piece of advice and likely the most valuable is this one: If a route feels especially hard for you, commit yourself to doing it.
We have all had the experience of trying a route (maybe even as our warm-up) and then getting baffled or totally shut down on a grade that should be “easy” for us. It could be that you missed something or that conditions were off, but sometimes we just run into a route that has a move or a style that totally crushes us. See this as an opportunity! The rock is our ultimate sensei.
Make a point to climb stuff that doesn’t come easily at least 25 percent of the time. There is an endless number of climbing styles, rock, and hold types; you cannot be good at everything all the time. Take notice when something feels super hard. It might be time you worked on this style, whatever it happens to be. Of course, feel free to go for the hardest routes that are right up your alley, but also make sure to get invested in something that really tests you. Not only will this help you improve as a climber—turning a weakness into a strength—but you may even find a new favorite style.
The Interconnected Nature of Our Strengths and Weaknesses
As I’ve alluded to above, our strengths and weaknesses as climbers are connected in both obvious and hidden ways. If you take the time to recite and study your route’s beta in-between climbing days it’s very likely that you’ll have an easier time trying hard when it comes time. And if you are honestly giving it your all every time you go out, and every time you tie in, this can have an immensely positive effect on your strength development as well.
At some point down the road, one common weakness nearly all of us come up against is strength, especially finger strength. Holds are likely to get smaller and more difficult to control as you improve your climbing and start trying harder and harder routes. If you feel like you have all the other elements of your climbing on lock-down but it’s mainly your fingers holding you back, or perhaps you’ve just been curious about finger strength training in general, check out my new course 6 Weeks to Stronger Fingers. It will give you the finger-strength boost you need in order to push yourself to the next level.
There’s no question that strength promotes confidence in other realms of our climbing, but remember that no matter how many long days you spend in the gym, if you’re not trying hard on the rock or can’t remember your beta, then sending will elude you! It’s about bringing all of the elements together, including former weaknesses that now might be strengths.