Editor’s note: about once or twice per month, we’ll republish an older piece of content that’s exceptionally well done and that we feel deserves some extra attention. This article was originally published October 8, 2015.
Have you ever found yourself thinking,
If only I were a stronger climber …
with the notion that by being instantly stronger you would climb harder and send your projects? If so, you are not alone.
Building strength takes a lot of time and an immediate stint on a hang board will not yield immediate results. What you really want is to perform stronger today. Therefore, what can we do that would help bring us closer to performing stronger without throwing in the towel and resorting to training? What if we shifted our focus away from pure strength and looked at how climbing smarter and more efficiently could yield big gains?
Most of us identify ‘stronger’ as a physical aspect to climbing like building muscles, improving finger strength, etc.
While being strong is an important aspect to climbing harder, it’s a misconception that it’s the only means. I believe there is more to climbing than simply brute strength.
Look at the top climbers and notice that while they are strong, they also bring a keen awareness of how to regulate their output on a climb with every move they make. Top climbers try to avoid using 100% of their strength because they know doing so brings them to failure quickly.
Energy exertion on a climb varies and learning to regulate that output can help you climb harder for longer.
There exists a range in which we operate in climbing that spans minimum energy spent to maximum energy spent. In any given climbing situation, the meter is constantly moving between the ranges—never settling until the climb is over.
Like fuel efficiency in cars, there is a sweet spot where you can get the most mileage for the least fuel output. If we climbed only things that kept us in the green with minimal effort, we wouldn’t be challenged. Similarly, if we climbed everything at our maximum effort, then we would be over-challenged and our capacity for that challenge would be exhausted rapidly. Essentially, this range would look like climbing moderate routes all day to falling on the same move on a very difficult boulder or route.
Climbing stronger is the ability to pull hard while also balancing the intensity of that output against the overall needed exertion to complete the climb.
10 tips to climb stronger
Consider this mantra from Yoga instructor, Baron Baptiste:
Be powerful, yet peaceful; strong, yet relaxed; don’t try hard, try easy.
This word used to frustrate me. I’d be stressing out on a climb and I’d hear this word float up to me. Perplexed by the notion to relax when I was clearly stressing and trying hard, took me some time to wrap my head around.
I finally came to understand that relaxing is the ability to calm down under stress or stay calm during stressful moves; it’s the ability to keep breathing or regulate your breathing to keep or get your heart rate under control.
Related: How to Breathe Properly: Breathing Techniques for Rock Climbing
Relaxing drops that meter from the red to yellow, and maybe even brings you back to green all while still on the route. Riding the stress or ignoring this critical skill will take you further into the red—draining your precious reserves and possibly leaving you hanging at the end of the rope.
These athletes are trying hard and regulating their energy output. Watch them make powerful moves then make micro adjustments to relax and throttle back to conserve energy to stay on the wall and make further progress:
2. Climb smart
Just because you can pull hard moves does not mean you should. Being smart about climbing means being willing to consider non-obvious solutions, explore alternatives and try easy. Further, simply doing what everyone else does, may not be what works best for you.
Watch as Megan Mascarenas uses her creativity to think outside the box in an attempt to climb this problem the easiest for her:
3. Regulate energy expenditure
This is the holy grail of relaxing. The ability to pull hard and then pull back immediately. Watch any top climber and you will see them try hard but you will also see them ease up in between every hard move.
Even a beast like Alex Puccio can control her output to give her enough energy to send this climb:
4. Loosen your grip
One of the best ways to regulate how much energy you are spending on a climb is to check your grip. If you are climbing with white knuckles, you might want to pause, take a breath and relax. Loosen that grip and get some blood flow back into your fingers, hands and forearms.
Over gripping is a sure-fire way to spend your fuel quickly. Pull hard, then ease back just enough to let the holds hold you.
5. Use mini-shakes
If you watch how the best climbers in the world climb, you will inevitably see them do something called a mini-shake. This technique is used to help move that lactic acid build up in the arms while climbing. This becomes especially important when there is no place to pause in the climb to get a real shake out.
See if you can spot some of these tips being used by Sasha DiGuilian on her first ascent in South Africa:
See if you can spot some of these tips being used by Adam Ondra in this video:
6. Work on skill development
As climbers, we are always testing ourselves against new and varied terrain. This means, there are a lot of climbing styles to be learned and applied. Don’t dismiss that there is room to grow. Spend time in the gym, try climbs that are outside of your preferred style, climb with a variety of different people and in different locations. Each of these are great ways to diversify your skill set. The more diverse your skill set, the more options you bring to a climb.
Sometimes it’s not about learning a new skill so much as refining an existing one. Go back to the basics like footwork, drop knees, flagging, etc. Take a class or do some technique work from one of the many training books out there. Think of skill development like an onion, no matter how long you have been climbing or how good you think you are, there are still layers to your skills that can be developed.
7. Learn to rest
Rest days, resting between climbs, and resting while climbing are each equally important skills to develop that will aid in feeling stronger when climbing.
I wish I could climb at my limit at will every day I was on the wall or at the gym, but this will not work. When your body operates at its limit, it reduces the reserves it has to give—your overall stamina is lowered.
Even throughout the course of a climbing day, that reserve can become significantly depleted and performance become dramatically impacted. The body simply needs time to build back these reserves. Recovery time is when your body, mind, and stamina rejuvenate. Therefore, resting is as necessary as training. If you want to climb your best, then you need to build rest into your climbing program.
Resting on the wall
The more relaxed you are on a climb, the more clearly you can think. If you are thinking clearly, you may suddenly become aware of resting options you hadn’t considered before.
Don’t overlook the obvious and be willing to try new things. Creativity can be key here. Simply because you have never rested on a particular type of hold or in a particular manner, doesn’t mean you can’t try and see if it will work. You might be surprised at how much a little more recovery on a climb can help.
As your stamina for resting improves, you may find that pausing initially feels taxing but recovery starts to come on slowly. Hold on with the least amount of effort, breathe and try to relax. Try to get your heart rate to slow down, but don’t linger too long. Sometimes hanging out too long backfires and resting becomes more work than its worth.
Resting In-between climbs
Finally, resting in-between climbs is a bit of a science. There is no hard-fast rule because there are many factors that can contribute or hinder recovery during this time.
Stamina will ultimately determine how much you have to give to another burn on a climb, but hydration, fueling with food, weather conditions, and allowing the right amount of rest between your next attempt are significant factors to consider.
For instance, if you red-lined on your last attempt, your recovery time will be significant and possibly impossible for that day. Understanding your personal dial for a climb will help you determine the type of recovery you need.
This fundamental part of existence is surprisingly overlooked for climbing. We have this idea that we need to be light and lean at the cost of eating. I’m not going to start a debate about eating and climbing—but I will say, if you want a full tank of gas you fill up your car, right? Why wouldn’t you do the same for climbing? Be sure you have enough fuel for the climbing you want to do.
Related: Nutrition Tips: Fueling for Optimal Climbing Performance
Water is a critical vehicle for moving waste out from the blood stream. This means that as you get pumped from climbing, all that lactic acid buildup needs to be flushed out. Water is a great way to do that.
Maintaining a high level of hydration helps with recovery in-between and after climbing. Be sure to have a balance of electrolytes like magnesium, sodium, and potassium, which prevents cramping of the muscles and makes your water work harder for you.
10. Have fun
Success is short-lived, but there is always a new challenge waiting. Whether it’s training to climb stronger or tapping into everything I have to climb the strongest I can today, it’s not the success or failure that matters. At the end of the day, I want to be having fun. To me, this is what climbing is about.
Audrey Sniezek has been climbing for over 23 years and has been a semi-professional climber since 2006. She has excelled at climbing while working a full-time, corporate software engineering job. She has competed in World Cups for bouldering and sport climbing, has had first ascents and multiple female first ascents around the world, bouldered outdoors up to V9, redpointed up to 5.14b and onsighted up to 5.13b.
She currently works part-time at Microsoft Corporation and spends the rest of her time climbing, training, or coaching.
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