Developing Optimal Hand Technique


Tinen Carlson climbing with style at Vertical Endeavors, St. Paul, MN. Shawn Brünner photo.

In a sport where anxiety and fear often rule, it’s understandable that many climbers hang on for dear life with their hands. This tendency manifests itself with overgripping of the handholds and unnecessary muscling of moves with the arms.

The end result is rapid fatigue, pumped forearms, and an eventual need to hang on the rope in order to rest and recover. No doubt, every climber has lived this storyline.

You can avoid this outcome by practicing–and making habit–the fundamentals of proper hand and arm use. These critical skills include gripping each handhold with the minimum force required, using the arms mainly for balance and to enhance foot leverage, and letting the feet run the show (and push in unison when possible).

Begin by making each hand contact a conscious process. Whereas many climbers just grab a hold with little thought and continue with the process of climbing, you must make each hand placement a thoughtful act. First, consider where’s the best place to grab the hold? It’s not always on the top of the hold, and it often relates to the location of your last foot placement. Now as you grab the hold, focus on using a “light touch” that yields “soft forearms.” Sure, certain holds will demand that you bear down hard on them, but most do not. Your goal must be to try to use each hold with a light touch, and then increase the gripping force only as much as is required for the move at hand. This process of minimally gripping each handhold only takes a split second, but it’s a master skill the separates the best from the rest. Commit to making this skill habit through deliberate use and practice.

Beyond gripping the rock, you need to decide just how much you need to pull down on a given handhold and how this force can be used to maximize leverage on footholds. As discussed earlier, it is imperative that you push with your feet and let the leg muscles carry the load. Think of your arms as points of contact that simply prevent you from falling backwards off the wall. For example, in climbing a ladder your feet do all the work while the arms mainly provide balance. While rock climbing is far more complex, hold this model in your mind as your technical target. Of course, when the wall tips overhanging you need to apply some different hand skills–a subject to be covered in next month’s Training Center update!

Copyright © 2004 Eric J. Horst. All Rights Reserved.