Move of the Month 5: Initiating Movement (Improve Your Climbing Series)

MI1By request, this month’s move involves how to start climbing moves, or movement initiation. I’ll keep the discussion fairly basic, meaning that there will almost certainly be climbing moves that will not fit the general guidelines I give here.

This is an area of climbing that, with time and work, should become subconscious for the majority, if not all, climbing moves during their actual execution. What this means is that eventually, you will likely not be “thinking” the movements while they’re happening, but rather, moving too quickly and fluidly to accompany the movements with verbal commands from your brain.

But, like all novel skills involving complex movements of the body, it can be helpful to try to break down into words and concepts what you want to ultimately happen without the need for these words and concepts to direct your physical actions – much like how you once learned how to tie your shoes, but now can do it without thinking through each step.

To do this, you’ll start by drawing awareness to specific areas of the body involved in this process, working to comprehend how to most effectively engage each area involved for the desired outcome. Next, you’ll slowly execute the movements (or parts of the movements) with attention to specific aspects of the whole. Finally, you’ll start to piece together all of the areas involved in climbing movement initiation into an integrated whole, allowing you to transition from move to move with coordination, strength, balance, agility, flexibility, and proprioception.

As you go through this process, you’ll also improve your ability to read routes, both from the ground and while on the climb. Repetitive exposure to similar situations will help to build your route-reading skills. As you learn to quickly assess the terrain in front of you, you will more and more often respond in kind with a fitting solution and less hesitation or verbal thought.

Step 1: Focus on your feet. This goes back to the topic of “Eyes on Your Feet,”  which I covered in Move of the Month 1. Too often, beginner climbers become overly focused on their hands and arms, neglecting conscious placement of their feet. Here, though, we’re concerned not only just with looking and placing your feet on footholds but also, choosing the footholds that will help you most effectively initiate movement to the next target handhold. Knowing which foot placements to choose for the most efficient and effective movement to the next handhold takes repetition (i.e. learning to “read the route” while you’re climbing it), as does knowing which way to orient your foot (i.e. edge of big toe, outside edge of little toe – the backstep! , straight on, heel hook, toe hook, smear, front point, etc.). Oftentimes beginners tend to try to step on holds with the balls of their feet to maximize surface area – but this makes you lose leverage, mobility, strength, and power. Probably the most commonly used efficient foot position comfortable for beginners to start working with is to use the edge of the big toe, close to the tip of the toe.

Step 2: Try to consciously think about initiating most, if not all, climbing movements from your feet and legs, rather than your arms. This is counterintuitive for many beginner climbers. Most climbing movements will be made more efficiently if you think about starting your motion toward the next handhold from your feet, driving yourself toward the hold you’re headed to by pressing with your feet and your (bigger, stronger) legs, engaging the core muscles to stabilize and extend your upward motion, and allowing that motion to carry on through your shoulders and your arms.

In reality, all of the above happens almost simultaneously, as the well-trained climber moves the body as a whole rather than in parts, engaging all of the muscles needed for each movement, but ideally using only the exact amount of effort from each muscle group for successful completion of movement. This is actually why we can develop better coordination for any move or set of moves via repetition, even in a single session of attempts – because our bodies learn quickly how to stop using muscles or parts of muscles not needed for the motion, delivering more efficient execution each time we try – until we get too tired.

Using the upper body as little as possible and the lower body as much as possible to drive climbing movements is a good rule of thumb – because it’s almost always fatigue in the fingers, forearms, and/or upper body that causes physical (though not necessarily technical/tactical) failure on any given climb. (I’ll talk in more detail about what your arms/hands should be doing most of the time while you climb in the next couple Move of the Month entries). Learning to execute every climbing move without overusing any part of your body (i.e. overgripping, overpowering, not using your feet/legs when you could or as much as you could to drive the movement, etc.) – even when you’re trying hard – is a key to smooth, efficient and effective climbing movements.

Step 3: (More Advanced): Once you have the basics down of how to efficiently and effectively choose the right footholds to initiate coordinated climbing movements that involve moving your body as a whole rather than in parts, you can start to work on refining your timing (moving more quickly and efficiently from move to move) by adding momentum into your climbing. Momentum involves not needing to statically control every climbing move you make, instead drawing upon the energy created by your body in motion to carry you into the next move and the next move, without a pause or break between movements (except when needed/warranted). Think about how you would most efficiently swing across monkey bars for a visual of momentum in action – the backward, then forward swing of your legs helps propel your upper body forward with less strength than you’d need to move from bar to bar with your legs hanging straight down and not engaged in the movement. This same concept applies in climbing – you can take advantage of the
momentum generated from move to move, or from swinging down and away from your target hold, and then harness it to propel you through moves that you don’t have the raw, static strength to do without the help of momentum backing you up.

Up Next Week: Climbing & Training Myths & Misconceptions 2: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness Myths (IYC Series)

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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