Did you know that beginner boulderers have a huge advantage over a well seasoned climber? Do you know why?
It’s because the beginner has a clean slate! A seasoned climber can have bad habits ingrained into their climbing technique. It’s not easy to break these habits that we’ve programmed into muscle memory. For all the beginners out there, we’re here to help you program good habits into your climbing technique.
I truly believe that rock climbing is mainly a sport of technique. Yes, you’re going to need physical strength for some of the crazy bouldering problems out there. But primarily focusing on your technique is going to pay better dividends in the future. Some holds are going to be so bad, that it won’t matter how strong your fingers are. You’ll need to align your hips and have the correct position to grab the hold. If all you focus on is hangboarding, your strength won’t be able to always cover up your technique weakness.
Bouldering is unique because it’s a combination of so many forces. Some problems can have powerful moves that are reminiscent of gymnastics or parkour. Other problems may just be a mental puzzle that you happen to be solving with your body. Problems may combine all of these into one and have ultra-precise and delicate movements. One nose sniffle could send your butt back down to the crash pad!
Here are some bouldering and general rock climbing techniques to keep in mind as you progress through your career.
Climbing Technique for Beginners
This is one of the most common pieces of advice that’s thrown around in rock climbing. I remember trying to boulder for the first time and the crowd yelling at me, “remember to have straight arms!” I was very confused, how on earth can I climb when I keep my arms stiff as uncooked spaghetti?
What do we exactly mean when we say we want to have straight arms when we’re climbing. Should I have been climbing like a zombie all these years?
The best way to demonstrate this is to experience it. If you have a pull-up bar near you bring that out. If not, you can use some weights lying around the house or wait until you’re at the climbing gym next time.
We’re going to take two separate measurements now. Attempt to hang on the bar (or keep the weight at your sides), with your arms straight. Do this for one minute. Then repeat this but with your elbows bent at a 45-degree angle.
Which one was easier?
The reason that hanging with straight arms is easier is that we’re utilizing our skeleton and not engaging our muscles. When hanging at a 45-degree angle, we’re engaging many different muscles to help us stay hanging.
So how does this apply to climbing?
Two different ways. The first is that we can rest more efficiently when we aren’t bending our arms. Resting in the middle of a route is a skill that you need to practice and will improve the more you climb. The first step to taking those rests is knowing how to rest efficiently. And like when we were hanging on the pull-up bar, we want to use straight arms and engage less of our muscles.
The second way we can utilize our straight arms is when we are twisting our lower body to move our hands. We can move our feet to new holds and utilize good climbing technique to move efficiently up the wall.
Commitment! You might not have been expecting to be reading about commitment in an article about climbing technique. But there’s a good reason why we’re going to talk about it.
Dynamic climbing technique will force your body into swinging through the holds like your George of the Jungle. Swinging from hold to hold is a powerful way to climb. Chris Sharma was one of the first climbers to popularize this type of movement. If it works for Sharma it should work for us right!
Some routes will incorporate a deadpoint, which is a climbing move where you’re using controlled movement and grabbing the hold at the apex of your movement. Whenever you deadpoint or dyno (short for dynamic movement) you will need to commit so you can reach the good part of a hold.
Committing will also help you once you start lead climbing as well. While climbing sport, you will be clipping into quickdraws as you make your way up the wall. Route developers will generally put the bolts near good holds or rest positions.
Sometimes, it’ll be tempting to attempt to clip in when you aren’t as high above the route. I do this a lot, I’ll be scared of taking a bigger fall and will try to clip in high above my waist. Doing this could actually reduce my personal safety, the belayer will need to pay out more slack so I can clip and I’ll be clipping from a precarious position.
However, if I committed and climbed a bit higher, chances are I will find a better position for myself to clip from.
Visualization and positive self talk are powerful mental tools you need to incorporate into your climbing. At the beginning of your climbing career, climbing can be an incredibly frustrating sport. Not only will you have trouble with climbing past your physical limit, but also your mental limit as well.
In the end, your frustration is a good thing. It means you are challenging yourself and you are growing. This is a lesson you don’t need just for climbing, but for life as well. Challenge yourself and you will grow. Don’t get bogged down by frustration and remember that the challenge will pay off somehow one day.
If you’re interested in learning more about lessons in climbing that can be applied to the rest of your life, check out The Rock Warriors Way by Arno Ilgner.
Now when I say visualization, I mean imagining how you are about to climb through a boulder problem.
Have you watched a climbing competition and seen the competitors moving their hands in what looks like air karate? This is the competitors visualizing the problems they’re about to attempt.
When you’re bouldering next time, I want you to do air karate.
I want you to sit in front of the next route you’re about to climb and I want you to sit there for five minutes and mime out in the air all of the handholds. I want you to look at each hold, visualize how you’re going to grab it, and then grab it in the air. Mime out in the air what you think you’ll need to do to send the route. If the route looks like there’s a gaston, I want you to crank out a gaston in the air.
Once you’ve rehearsed your hands, I want you to imagine what you’re going to do with your feet. Are you going to need to rock a few toe hooks? What about heel hooking to help you keep close to the wall? I want you to manipulate your hips to mimic the position you’ll need to be in to send the route.
Thinking about your body position is like doing yoga on the climbing wall. It doesn’t come as any surprise that yoga is very popular in the climbing world. Yoga is great practicing for twisting and contorting your body while focusing on maintaining a steady breath.
Good technique means that you are putting your body in the correct positions to solve the problem.
One way to think about this is that the bouldering problem is a puzzle and your body is a piece that needs to fit into the puzzle. Envision a ladder, it’s a symmetrical puzzle. And to fit into this puzzle you’ll need to keep your body like a symmetrical puzzle piece. This could look something like keeping two feet on each run and reaching one arm up, step up and repeat.
On your next boulder problem, think about how to fit your body into the problem.
What’s the best way to heel hook?
Go check out your climbing shoes, chances are they will have rubber running over the back of the heel. Do you know why that’s for?
It’s there to help us grip on to holds with our heels! Heel hooks are crucial as you progress into harder bouldering. You can use your heel on a foot hold to help you progress higher up a climb or to help you stay on the wall on an overhung climb.
The heel hook transforms your leg from only pushing, like when we step off a hold, to allow us to pull as well. Having your leg as a third arm is incredibly advantageous to help rest or to move up to the next hand hold. Throwing a heel can transform the beta from a huge dyno to a graceful move using static technique.
How to heel hook:
- Identify the correct placement for the heel. Usually, we’ll heel hook on big holds that have a lot of surface area for our heel to come in contact with.
- Keep your hips and body close to the wall. Point your toes and pull your heel hard into the hold.
- Begin to move up, but remain actively pulling with your heel.
- As you release the heel hook, maintain a tight core to mitigate any gigantic swing that may result from releasing our body tension.
What is a toe hook?
The toe hook is common on overhanging climbs. just like its good friend the heel, we can use toe hooks on foot holds to create body tension while we’re climbing. You’ll find yourself using toe hooks on long roof climbs, where you need a third hand to stay horizontal.
My hamstrings are always sore the day after a good session of toe hooking. We’re using our hamstrings to pull on the wall to keep our hips close. Our toes are just the point of contact between our body and the wall.
Many climbing shoe brands are starting to include rubber over the toe to give you extra grip while toe hooking. Keep this in mind the next time you’re looking for a pair of bouldering shoes.
How to toe hook:
- Identify any foot holds that could be used for the hook. Usually, they will be on overhanging routes.
- Keep your core tight and flex those upper body muscles. A lot of toe hooks will be found on roofs so pull hard here.
- Place your toe on the hold, sometimes you can find a lip where your toe will naturally rest. Bonus points if you can find that.
- Activate your hamstrings and keep your hips close to the wall. With the toes engaged, you should be able to reach the next hold using static movement.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I improve my rock climbing skills?
Take a look at the techniques we listed above. Visualization is an underrated tool to have in your climbing arsenal. In school, did you ever have to write an outline before writing a paper for one of your classes? It’s painfully annoying, but it helps! That’s what visualization can do for you too. Look at the route you’re about to climb and look at the hand movement, the foot holds, and the positioning you might need to be in. Rehearsing will help prepare you for when you’re actually on the climb and you can move efficiently.
Change up the style of climbing you’re doing too! Getting outside on real rock will introduce you to a whole new variety of rock types and holds. Touching new types of rock will teach you new ways to use holds to your advantage.
What are the 3 types of rock climbing?
The three types are bouldering, sport climbing, and traditional climbing. Sport and trad climbing are similar because they are both forms of lead climbing. But the takeway is that when climbing sport, there will bolts already drilled into the wall that you will clip into. In traditional climbing, you will bring your own gear (cams, nuts, and hexes) up the wall and place these into the wall for your protection.
There is a fourth style of climbing that is gaining popularity thanks to the Olympics! And that is Speed Climbing! In speed climbing, the climbers are climbing the same set route as fast as they possibly can. Climbers will practice this speed climb over and over and etch it into their muscle memory.
How often should I rock climb as a beginner?
It’s tempting to climb every day as a beginner, but don’t do that! As a beginner, I’d recommend climbing two to three times per week. The worst thing you can do as a beginner is to injure yourself. Going rock climbing three days in a row isn’t worth the increase of risk in personal injury. Yes, you’ll get to go climbing an extra day, but you’re risking a possible multi-month rest due to injury. Don’t climb too many days in a row and take your rest!
Is a 5.10 climb hard?
Climbing grades are subjective and they can differ greatly from indoor climbing gyms and especially when you venture into outdoor climbing. The short answer is, yes 5.10 is hard. A 5.10 climb is when you start to get tested on climbing technique and the climbs may be more physical. A 5.10 climb is when you start to get towards the more difficult climbs. Remember that the grades are subjective, for some people a 5.10 climb is their warmup climb. But for others, the 5.10 climb can be a month-long project. I’ve been on both sides of this coin, that’s just how the game goes!
What exercises help bouldering?
Bouldering, hangboarding, and cardio! In my opinion, the best way to improve at bouldering is more bouldering. So go start climbing!
We can watch videos and read about climbing technique all day long, but without practicing on the wall we’ll never make the connection between our mind and our muscle. Hangboarding is an excellent tool for building finger strength and it can be done safely by using weights to offset your body weight. When you’re just first starting off hangboarding, use weights to remove 50-60% of your body weight. I like to combo hangboarding with exercises that will build my upper body strength as well.
Cardio is crucial to your overall fitness. I enjoy mountain biking for my cardio because I get to head outdoors and have fun while working on my fitness. But for days when I can’t mountain bike, I’ll pop on some podcasts and rock the elliptical.
Advanced climbers will also use the moonboard to help them train as well. In my experience, I’ve seen more injuries happen from the moonboard than from hanging or day-to-day bouldering. The moonboard will help you get strong quickly, but you need to rest appropriately and avoid climbing if your body begins to feel tired.
What is basic foot technique?
Basic foot technique incorporates a few different things in rock climbing. And it can differ whether you’re slab climbing or crack climbing. The principle remains the same though. Keep your weight on your feet and on your big toes. Next time you’re climbing, look at each foothold you stand on and see if you’re standing on it with your big toe. Putting the weight on our big toe helps us if we need to foot match because there’s less surface area from our climbing shoes taking up space on the hold. It also means that we can pivot on our toes if we need to use a drop knee or a different technique.
Is bouldering harder than rock climbing?
Bouldering will have shorter and more challenging climbs than traditional rock climbs will. Usually, a boulder problem will be just the crux of a climb. A crux in climbing is the hardest part of the climb. Bouldering can have powerful gymnastic like moves on difficult routes. While roped climbing, the crux of the climb can feel like a boulder problem. The main difference is that when roped climbing, you have to rely on your endurance to get you to the boulder problem, since it could be 45 feet up the wall. Bouldering problems are generally 10- 20 feet.
Thanks for reading! When you’re on the bouldering wall next, I want you to stay hyper-aware of maintaining good climbing technique and good body position. Practice your air karate before climbing the route and see if that helps you send!