Move of the Month 4: The Open-Hand Grip (Improve Your Climbing Series)

Move of the Month is back, hopefully with more consistency this time around!

This month’s move is the open-handed grip position. Though I started out my climbing life attempting (somewhat successfully) to crimp every hold I grabbed for dear life, I’ve long since come to believe is the most desirable way to grasp and use the majority of handholds, “crimpers” included – unless you need the extra strength of the crimp to help you hang on and/or pull you through. If you’re confused about the difference between open-handing and crimping a hold, take a look at the photos below for clarification.

In this photo I'm open-handing with both hands.

In this photo I’m open-handing with both hands.

In this photo, my left hand is open-handing, while my right hand is crimping.

In this photo, my left hand is open-handing, while my right hand is crimping.

I don’t want to get into too many nerdy details here (or in any Move of the Month entries) about the whys of the open-handed position being preferable, so I’ll keep it short and to the point, sharing my top three reasons why I prefer open-handing holds as my default way of taking holds rather than crimping, and why I recommend training to a high level of comfort with open-handing holds.

First, open-handing holds tends to have less injury potential than crimping due to the less stressful  way an open-handed grip loads your fingers. As your fingers are already extended in an open-handed grip, this reduces the risk of a sudden and potentially damaging impact (e.g. the dreaded tendon or pulley “pop”) should your crimp-grip unintentionally open up (a major cause of climbing finger injuries).

That same less power-sapping, less stressful grip also helps you preserve that finger strength for if and when you need it for crimping, usually making for a slower drain of your strength, power, power endurance, and endurance than you would experience were you to crimp every single hold all the way up a route (and also reducing the risk of explosive, unintentional opening from crimp to open hand).

Finally, I find that keeping an open-handed grip gives me more potential directions of movement that I have off of any given hold than when I lock it down into a crimp grip. I feel more relaxed and able to almost swing off of my much more relaxed grip – the relative relaxation of my hand extends through my arm and shoulder, and I can usually more easily change my angle and trajectory of movement for my entire body than I can if and when I lock a hold down into a powerful crimp. To fully open hand any given handhold, I actually have to drop my relatively short pinky entirely off of the hold in question, but I still find the leverage better in many cases.

Here I am open-handing a small hold with my pinky off -- my most commonly used grip on small holds these days.

Here I am open-handing a small hold with my pinky off — my most commonly used grip on small holds these days.

I still crimp when I need to -- here crimping hard with the left hand while open-handing with the right.

I still crimp when I need to — here crimping with the left hand while open-handing with the right.

This is not to say that crimping doesn’t have its place. I believe that you should be able to crimp when needed, of course – when the strength generated by your bent fingers gives you the extra purchase and power needed to get you through the move. You should most definitely train your fingers to be strong in a crimped position as well as to be strong at open handing – and ideally, to be strong at changing in a controlled way from an open-hand to a crimped grip, and from a crimped grip to an open-handed one.

Crimping a hold instead of open-handing it can make the difference between doing and not doing a move for me sometimes, for sure. I just only pull out that weapon when necessary these days – and it only took about six tendon pulley injuries over the course of my first few years of climbing for me to stop crimping so much (slow learner, but I do learn eventually).

If you want more details about this week’s topic, check out Improve Your Sport Climbing (12): Technique, Part 8 (EASY-HARD): Primary Technical Issues: C) Grip.

This multipart series of 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. This information and advice is based on my 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You 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!

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