6 Rock Climbing Performance Tips

Improve your climbing movement skills

Shirtless mountain-climber climbing
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When you’re rock climbing, you’re defying not only the laws of gravity but also redefining your possibilities and overcoming your limitations. Climbing is all about movement in a different kind of terrain than what we find in our normal lives—the vertical world.

While indoor gym climbing is a great place to start, to learn basic movement techniques, and to get stronger, it is not rock climbing—it is training for the real thing. If you start climbing in an indoor gym, use these six tips to make a smooth transition to climbing outside.

Look, Think, Then Move

Climbing is not just physical, but also mental. Before you begin climbing, study the rock surface and the cliff face. Look for handholds and footholds. Look for places to rest. Look for chalk marks or foot scuff marks on footholds that other climbers have used. Visualize your route and pick out the best and most efficient line to the anchors. Then move up the rock. Try not to waste effort and energy. Try to follow your route. If you get off-route or find that the way you chose just doesn’t work, then find another path. Stay calm and centered and solve the problem.

Don’t Hug the Rock

One of the basic mistakes that beginners make is to hug the rock. It’s great to love rock, but you don’t have to get that close. When you lean into the rock surface, or what climbers call “hugging” the rock, it takes the weight off your feet and makes you feel out of balance. Climbing is all about being in balance, so keep your body perpendicular or roughly 90 degrees to the earth’s surface. Keep your hips centered over your feet for more stability. Every hand or foot movement you make should keep you in balance.

Stand on Your Feet

While upper-body strength is important, especially on vertical and overhanging routes, climbing is more about balance and finding equilibrium. To be a good climber doesn’t require muscling up cliffs using biceps, abdominals, and shoulder strength, but requires using your legs and feet. A lot of the power needed to climb is in your legs, which push you up the rock. Your legs, particularly your quadriceps, are extremely powerful. As you climb, concentrate on pushing with your legs on footholds and pulling with your arms and hands. Use your upper body to help you find balance. Practice pushing with legs and pulling with arms and finding harmony in their opposition.

Use Basic Foot Positions

Besides using your legs, you have to use your feet. Practice and use the three basic foot positions—toeing, edging, and smearing. Toeing is exactly that—using the toe of your shoe to stand on a foothold. Edging is using the inner and outer edges of the shoe to stand on footholds, using sharp flakes or ripples. Smearing is placing as much of the foot and shoe rubber on the rock, as in slab climbing, and relying on friction to keep the foot in place. Smearing uses both the toes and balls of your feet to support the weight. Use both your outdoor and indoor climbing sessions to practice the three-foot positions.

Hands Keep You On

While your legs push and propel, your arms and hands pull on various kinds of handholds. Use your hands to your advantage with lots of different grips, including crimps and open-hand grips. As you climb, continually assess the rock surface to find the best handholds. Look for both horizontal and vertical edges, big holds or jugs, edges that you can lay back against or climb in opposition, and cracks where you can jam or wedge your fingers and hands for support. Remember that there are almost no perfect handholds. Make do with what you find. Grab and grip the hold and move upward. Don’t over-grip or hang on too tightly. You will use valuable strength, weaken, and fall off. Grab the holds with a loose hand.

Flow With the Rock

Climbing is about flow and movement. Don’t climb in a jerky manner. Instead, strive for gracefulness and equilibrium. Climbing is not a series of isolated movements but instead like a vertical dance with one movement leading to the next one. Some moves are hard because the holds are small, while others are easier with big holds. Climb fluidly and try to stay in motion. Don’t stand around on holds and over-think the route. Reach and grab, step up and push. Stay relaxed and breathe as you climb. If you have to shift your weight to keep in balance, make sure that you transition the change smoothly. When you reach a big foothold or handhold, stop and rest. Shake out your hands and arms to increase blood flow. Study the route above and figure where you’ll rest next. Let your climbing movements ebb and flow. Be one with the rock.