Tips to Get Better at Rock Climbing

Focus on technique, not strength, and you'll climb high
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Rock climbing is a physical, mental and technical sport. The good news for enthusiasts who don’t like to work out is that they don’t have to and can still be good at climbing. “Having food technique definitely matters more,” David Rowland, owner of Philadelphia Rock Gyms and instructor for over 27 years, says. “Anyone who can climb a bunch of stairs can [rock] climb,” he added.

Good fitness level is, of course, helpful but good climbing technique will get you much further and higher. Learning to coordinate lower and upper body as well as staying aware of how much effort you need to put in each step until you reach your goal is hard, but it has to become instinctive.

“Climbing is so highly technical,” Rowland adds, “You really have to just climb and keep climbing until you get better.”

Practice

“The cool thing about climbing is that it’s a very self-paced sport,” he says. The body is well suited for it and it’s just a matter of getting used to. Practice climbing well and focus on strategy instead of time or speed. The strength will come eventually. Climbing routes and walls have different levels. Don’t skip one before you’re ready because you’re risking injuries.

Footwork

Don’t hurry; use your eyes and pick out your foot placements before you move. As Rowland says, rock climbing is a multi-discipline sport. “It’s physical and intellectual because there is a lot of problem solving.”

You don’t want to be going back and forth with the steps. Once you place your foot, don’t move it. The more time you waste adjusting, the more you load your arms. Never take your eyes off your feet until you’ve locked them in the hold.

Do a few traversing drills in the gym. You’ll basically be forced to think differently when moving your feet.

Back-step

The back-step is very specific and helpful indoors, Rowland says, not so much outside. Where you place your feet affects the direction in which you’ll be climbing. Mastering the back-step can make you more efficient.

You stand on the outside edge of your left (right) foot and rotate your lower body so that your left (right) hip is against the wall. Rotate your foot about 45-60 degrees. “That will give you more leverage, you can pull the hold lower and reach further,” Rowland says. Don’t climb a wall as if it were a ladder.

Focus on the legs

“New climbers often make the mistake of presuming that climbing is mostly upper body,” Rowland says. “But most of the power comes from the legs.”

As routes get steeper, the upper body gets more involved, but the lower body still does the bulk of the work, he adds. Climbers focus on their arms as opposed to their legs and get tired too fast. Push with the legs before you pull with the arms.  

Feet

“You don’t need to use both feet to move upward,” Rowland says. “Move the hips directly over one foot of the other to balance yourself efficiently,” he adds. Many climbers worry about stability and get both feet on the foothold. But then they can’t reach the next hole, he adds.

Keep your weight over your feet. One way of doing this is by bringing your hips a bit closer to the wall. This is help you pull your body up.

Rhythm

There is a lot of talk about how you’re supposed to properly pace yourself and move as you climb. Bur Rowland says that there really is no rhythm in the sport. “As you become more experienced, you develop your own rhythm,” he adds.

Every route is different and there are new ways of approaching it, which means new rhythm. If climbing is music, then new routes are like jazz. “You’re improvising your way into a route in the best way at the time.”

Rest

“This is the second most common mistake I see new climbers make,” Rowland says. “You’re supposed to hang one arm straight above the head, shake the other and switch.” However, people tend to keep their arms bent because they feel less like they’re going to fall. This is a mistake. “The problem is that the arms are then considerably weaker and you get really tired really fast,” he adds.

More readings: 

The Best Places to Go Rock Climbing in the World

Skills All Rock Climbers Should Master

The World's 11 Most Difficult Mountain Climbs

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