Primary Technical Issues: B) Bent Arms
“I have no upper body strength,” is a common excuse given in climbing clinics for a person’s relative lack of climbing ability. And as you well know, I’m a firm supporter of developing more climbing-relevant strength! However, the idea that some folks seem to have that they lack the upper-body strength required for the given terrain is often erroneous – what they do lack is the technical skills to effectively utilize the upper-body strength (and fitness) that they currently have to their greatest advantage, which leads them to underperforming.
Many beginner climbers try to hold onto the wall for dear life (as I mentioned in the previous entry on footwork), keeping their arms bent nearly constantly, never lowering themselves down so that they hang skeletally with straight arms and dropping their center of gravity so that their feet take more of the weight. They have less of an understanding of how to maneuver their bodies so that they don’t have to climb like they’re moving up a ladder all of the time. They also over-grip/regrip (topic of next entry), don’t relax and establish a solid breathing pattern/rhythm (topic of a previous Improve Your Climbing entry), and don’t take rests while en route to shake out on holds, letting the arms/hands recover and regroup. They tend to “choke up” on holds, as if being closer to the wall will help them stay on for longer…though overhanging terrain tends to be quite unforgiving with this tendency.
If you’re reading this, my guess is that you may know this already – that solid climbing technique generally involves keeping your arms as straight and relaxed as possible throughout a climbing route. The more you bend your arms, the more you drain one of your key weapons for those harder sequences where powerful, bent-arm movements are required. Though experienced climbers usually “know” this, it’s not uncommon to see them not taking the full advantage of rests (i.e. not hanging in the most efficient, deep skeletal hang possible to shake out). There’s also usually some technical inefficiency involved in just plowing through sections with a more straight-on, bent-armed technique, especially if the end result is lacking in the arm department for powerful moves later on, power that’s been dumped for no good reason earlier in the route instead of being conserved for when it’s needed.
Whether you’re a burly gal with power to burn or a guy with no upper-body strength to speak of, taking time to cultivate solid technical skills like this that allow you to maximize the strength you currently possess is a smart choice. This technique will allow you to climb harder than you might expect, both now and in the future. Even if you’ve been climbing for some time and you think you’re good about this, it can be helpful to double-check with yourself when you’re warming up; see if it’s your normal M.O. to seek out straight arms as much as possible and to avoid straight-on, bent-armed, power-sapping movements when other, less-powerful options are available.
Most climbers, no matter how strong they get, will still routinely employ this technique to maximize their upper-body strength, always trying to “save up” power and strength and finding those straight-armed rests when needed, knowing how to use these effectively. This technique goes hand-in-hand with the following two entries – on grip and on body orientation.
This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!