Using Proprioception to Climb Harder

Sean Counceller heading into the crux of The Force (13a), Red River Gorge, WV. Hörst photo.

Sean Counceller heading into the crux of The Force (13a), Red River Gorge, WV. Hörst photo.

Proprioception is subtle, yet vitally important,  physical awareness of your body’s “feel” and movement in space. No matter what you do physically, proprioceptive data from the sensory receptors in your muscles, tendons, joints, and inner ear is available for you to use to  determine your effectiveness and quality of movement. This vast amount of sensory feedback from the limbs and inner ear is processed unconsciously in doing simple tasks such as walking, cranking pull-ups, or dancing up an easy climb that requires little thought. More complex tasks, however, require conscious attention to proprioception—and it’s this awareness and the diligent use of this information that separate master climbers from the mass of climbers.

Awareness of specific aspects of proprioception, or what I call proprioceptive cues, varies on a continuum from extremely coarse and general on one end to exquisitely subtle and well-defined on the other. Beginning climbers initially possess a coarse, limited sense of internal feeling as they climb. For example, they may sense the basic quality of a foot placement, whether they are in balance, and, most obvious, how pumped they are getting. This most basic proprioception is important, but it represents just a tiny fraction of the broad bandwidth of proprioceptive cues that an elite climber can perceive and leverage. With more experience and a determination to grow your awareness of proprioceptive cues, you will be able to recognize a steady stream of valuable movement cues from your body’s internal sense organs.

Becoming an intermediate or advanced climber, therefore, will correlate to your deepening sense of proprioception in a wide variety of climbing situations. Each type of rock, cliff angle, type of climbing, body position, and family of moves provides unique proprioceptive feedback that you must learn to interpret in order to move with fluidity and high efficiency. Much of this proprioception (and the subsequent physical adjustments) occurs subconsciously when you are climbing submaximal sequences. Crux movements and many novel moves, however, demand full attention to proprioception, thus leaving little remaining cognitive focus for other purposes. Many falls off crux moves that you have rehearsed and seemingly wired—or off easier moves when on-sighting—are the result of poor attention to proprioceptive cues.

Ultimately, the more subtle the level of proprioception that you can perceive, the better you will be able to climb given your current skill level and physical abilities. If you want to climb the higher grades, then you must be serious about developing your awareness and use of proprioceptive cues.


TIP: When practicing a new skill or working a hard move on a boulder problem or project climb, it is highly instructive to ask yourself: How does it feel when I do it the right way (most efficiently) compared with when I do it the wrong way? Making this distinction empowers you to detect flawed execution and make corrective adjustments on the fly.