Primary Technical Issues: C) Grip
When I first started climbing, I crimped everything, all the time. This, as it turns out, tends not to be the friendliest of climbing grips to use – I’m sure my multiple finger injuries throughout my first decade of climbing can be largely attributed to my overzealous crimping tendency. I also, of course, hated slopers and pinches, because I couldn’t crimp those and I didn’t have the strength to push my open hands into slopers (wrist and upper-body strength tend to count for more than finger strength for most slopers), nor did I possess the thumb/open-fingered strength for non-wrapping pinches. In other words, if my fingers and thumbs weren’t rolled up/bent, my grip wasn’t very strong.
As with all poorly-learned techniques, I had to unlearn this one – and it was a challenge, but it happened, as I consciously made an effort to stop crimping and start open-handing every hold I encountered, including “crimps,” unless I needed that extra power of the crimp to make a move happen. These days, I can honestly say that I rarely crimp anymore. Interestingly enough, I also stopped injuring my fingers regularly when I stopped crimping so much. And, with more strength and practice, I now like slopers and pinches; instead of feeling my heart sink when someone describes a route with slopers and pinches, I feel excited and can’t wait to check it out.
Point of all of this is that learning how to take holds with a relaxed grip is a technique that should be cultivated early on, just like not keeping your arms bent all of the time. You want to learn to hold the holds with as little force as possible, relaxing your grip as much as you can to avoid premature fatigue. You can easily practice this when warming up, checking in to see if you are overgripping holds, or putting more force/effort into hanging on than you actually need to. It may feel harder at first, especially if, like I did, you’ve trained yourself to feel strong only when you’re in a crimped position. Stick with it, though – it’s better to correct and curtail injuries and to open up the world of open-handed climbing instead of being stuck with seeking the most improbable of crimps where everyone else just uses a big, obvious sloper.
As you practice this, try to observe what happens with the following (lower) hand when you reach up and establish on a much higher hold with the other hand. Generally speaking, the higher hand usually has a more straight-armed position than the lower one. Thus, the weight taken by the leading arm and hand should be far greater, while the weight in the lower hand (often with a bent arm) should instantly release to far less force as soon as you’re established on the higher hold with the other hand.
It’s also smart to try to avoid frenetic regripping of holds – you take the hold in hand, and if you took it wrong or poorly (unless it’s a rest), you let yourself regrip once, or maybe twice, and then try to move off of it. Regripping a hold five or ten times instead of trying to move off of it and get to something better is usually a waste of energy and can lead to failure (falling) when you might have had the strength left to continue, if you could just mentally accept the poor nature of the hold and go from there, trying the move.
While you’re resting on a route, if you know or have an idea of what types of grips the route is going to require coming up, it’s good to try to rest and relax the hands and fingers in a different grip position, if at all possible. I call this “cycling grips;” it means that you might ham-hock (think hooking from the side) a hold if you know you’re going to be pulling out and down on the next few holds, or you might take a big sloper if you know you’re going to crimp, and vice versa. Or you might just change the grip around a little bit every time you switch hands, if you don’t know what’s coming up or the next section involves a bunch of different hand positions; basically you want to use the rest strategically to recover your hands/fingers (and forearms/rest of the body, too!) in the most effective manner for the climbing yet to come on the route.
Finally – how you grip the hold often dictates how you move off of the hold. Being able to read the right position (angle and hand position) on each hold is a more challenging technique than many of the more basic techniques to learn, since it involves reading moves ahead on a route and sorting out probable hand order and potential foot placements. Practicing by reading a route from the ground (a mental tactic) can help you start learning this. Try to look at the holds you can see from the ground and pick out what hand you think will go to each hold, based on the way the hold looks and is oriented in relation to the other holds (for hands and feet).
As you climb, keep this preview in mind, but be willing to change it should holds not be what you thought they would (i.e. better or worse), or if new holds you couldn’t see come into the picture, for example. Also, cultivate “finger knowledge,” or the comprehension when you first touch a hold of how to properly orient your fingers and hand on the hold for it to be most effective – a positioning decision that will also dictate and/or be dictated by your body positioning in relation to the hold (topic of the next entry).
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!