Fundamentals of Technique 1

The essence of climbing is a dance up the wall using the four points of contact as your dance steps. Since each climb possesses a novel configuration of hand- and foot-holds, your challenge is to unlock the perfect sequence of moves and leverage your points of contact into this dynamic dance.

In executing any physical skill–whether it’s shooting a basketball or simply running–there are fundamental techniques that represent optimal use of body position, leverage, and physical energy. While the specific techniques may be hard to observe with an untrained eye, just about any novice can spot an athlete steeped in the fundamentals: Her movements are smooth, crisp, and confident, and her demeanor reveals a poise and ease of execution, despite inherent difficulties of the situation. The bottom line: Fundamentally sound movement affords perfect economy and looks “easy.”

In climbing, achieving perfect economy of movement is the Holy Grail that few individuals ever realize. You can become the exception, however, by means of a constant focus on climbing in accordance to the fundamentals of this sport. Please recognize that becoming a well-skilled climber is a conscious decision that takes a plan and disciplined long-term follow-through.

Let’s consider the two basic modi operandi of climbers at a gym. Most individuals tie into the rope and just climb. They move in ways that feel easiest based on their experience. However, beginners’ lack of experience will often lead them down a road of clumsy movement and poor technique that can solidify into bad habits.

The more effective, but less common second mode is to climb with the intention of doing each move and every route in accordance with the fundamentals. It’s this attention to detail that imparts technically sound skills and leads to rapid gains in ability. These results are indeed remarkable, and they are achieved only by an individual who is uncommonly effective in his practice and training. Okay, it’s time to learn the first of five fundamentals for effective climbing.

technique-11. Precise Foot Placements That Carry Your Weight

Given that your legs are stronger than your arms, the first fundamental of climbing is that the legs should do the majority of the work. The exceptions to this rule are overhanging routes, which demand greater use of the arms and advanced techniques–you will learn six additional fundamentals for climbing difficult overhanging routes in future articles.

The process of effectively using your feet begins with spotting the footholds and positioning your feet on the best part of each hold. Directing your foot placement demands attention to detail beyond that given to hand placements. Whereas handholds are easy to inspect, the greater eye-to-foot distance commonly leads to less-than-ideal foot placements. Furthermore, your feet don’t provide the same degree of feel as the hands, making the quality of each foot placement more difficult to assess. For these reasons, developing good footwork isn’t something that just happens-it’s an attribute you make happen via constant foot focus and practice.

Upon spotting a foothold and positioning your foot for optimal purchase, you want to shift some body weight over the hold before standing up on it. It’s this downward pressure that helps the shoe rubber stick to it, so not properly weighting a hold often leads to the foot slipping off the hold. Of course, the location of your other three points of contact will dictate a unique balance point and weighting for every new foothold. In many cases you will be able to advance both feet so they can push in unison. However, it’s more intuitive to climb with one foot pushing at a time (as in climbing a ladder), so you’ll need to make a conscious effort to develop this important foot skill.

The final aspect of fundamentally sound footwork is proper alignment of your center of gravity directly over a foothold. Balance, stability, and application of force are optimized when your center of gravity is positioned directly over your feet, forming a line perpendicular to level ground. On a less-than-vertical wall or slab, this requires a hip position out from the wall and over the foothold. On a near-vertical climbing surface, you simply need to keep your body position straight and over the feet as much as possible. When the climbing wall overhangs, it becomes impossible to position your weight over your feet, so new fundamentals take over. Next month we’ll examine two more fundamentals of climbing technique.

Copyright 2007 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.