Bending one’s arms repeatedly – like you would when climbing a ladder – might strike a nonclimber or a beginner climber as the most logical and straightforward, and therefore most efficient and effective, way to ascend any given rock climb. However, unlike climbing a ladder, the diversity of angles and holds in climbing often lends you an option that tends to be more efficient – that of keeping your arms mostly or relatively straight while you ascend.
You do this by organizing the rest of your body to allow for this straighter-armed positioning as much as possible. Both bending your legs (while straightening your arms) and rotating your body from side to side enable you to conserve more of that precious upper body strength contained in the relatively smaller muscles of your arms for those moves when you might really need it.
In fact, one of the general rules of climbing that is good for beginners to start with is to try to bend your arms as little as possible while you’re climbing, whether you’re moving or resting (see Straight-Arming Your Rests for more on this).
One of the most efficient and effective ways to keep your arms straighter involves lowering your body weight down so that your arms are straight and your knees are bent, rather than the opposite of straight legs and bent arms – a position commonly used by beginners. With your body weight lowered down, you can maneuver your feet into position for the next move while your arms are straight, working to execute that move as efficiently as you can – maybe by backstepping and turning your body to help keep your arms straighter as you move up.
Of course, all rules are made to be broken (right?), so there will be situations (and many of them!) where it is most certainly warranted to bend your arms – and sometimes a lot or repetitively for move after move – whether you’re locking off a hold, bending an arm (slowly or explosively or somewhere in between) through a range of motion to get to the next hold, or some variation of these movements. In other words, forcing this issue by trying to climb with stick-straight, rigid arms would yield inefficient climbing movements, for sure. But it’s better to be aware of the idea that repetitively bending your arms and climbing a route like it’s a ladder usually leads to fatigue and failure far faster than a less arm-strength-dependent execution of climbing movements.
For most climbers, trying to bend the arms as little as possible during climbing moves and especially when resting tends to yield a less-fatiguing and more successful climbing experience and performance. Start working on this by:
- Consciously trying to bend your arms as little as possible while you’re climbing a warm-up route that is easy for you and that includes lots of handhold and foothold options;
- Experimenting with lowering your body weight by bending your legs, especially when you’re looking ahead at different options for your next move;
- Swiveling or repositioning your feet on the holds (or onto different holds) to help encourage straighter arms both as you rest and as you move;
- Turning your hips and torso from side to side to allow you to move up without bending your arms very much;
- Observing stronger, more experienced climbers climbing in this way to help guide you in your exploration of this key point of efficient climbing movement; and
- Asking a knowledgeable partner or coach for feedback when observing your climbing to help you discern places where you might be able to employ this skill more effectively.
And finally – again – don’t be afraid to bend your arms when it is the most efficient way for you to execute a move.
Know that sometimes this depends on a climber’s personal strengths and weaknesses. This means that one climber might find it more efficient in a certain situation to just move quickly by putting a foot on a hold and then bending both arms powerfully to execute a move, while another climber might find it easier in this situation to spend the time setting up a more straight-armed version of the move involving several more foot movements and a repositioning of the body to enable a more straight-armed execution. Neither climber is necessarily doing the move less efficiently or effectively for his or her body – though they might both do well to at least check out the other climber’s way to see if it’s more efficient for them, too.
Up Next: Climbing & Training Myths & Misconceptions 3: Cross-Training
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!