First things first: If you are so strong already that you don’t need to have superior technical and tactical climbing skills, then this article isn’t for you. That being said, there’s really no reason for any climber who wants to improve or maximize their climbing game to not pay attention to easily worked areas like sport-relevant flexibility, among other non-strength dependent skills. By easily worked I don’t necessarily mean that gains are easy, but I do mean that working to improve sport-specific flexibility is one of the least taxing training protocols, so in my world it’s an absolute no-brainer to include flexibility exercises in a training plan. As always, all things are relative, meaning that the more this type of movement shuts you down, the more you’ll potentially gain by working on it.
Sure, being stronger is always desirable, especially if you’re already so strong that it doesn’t matter whether you can step your feet up to your waist or your hand. If you can already do one-arm pull-ups all day long and your finger tendons are made of steel and your forearms never get pumped, having sport-specific flexibility for high-stepping matters less. And yet still…I always find myself wondering when people argue this how much better they could climb with a more efficient usage of all that awesome strength. What if they were able to conserve more of that strength by moving more efficiently? One way of doing that involves improving high-step flexibility (and all areas of sport-specific flexibility, for that matter).
This is actually the area over the years where I’ve observed the most obvious and visible flexibility issue that stymies less-flexible climbers – as they go to try to high step, without good flexibility in this area, either their butt starts to fall away from the wall and ultimately pulls them off (not a very scientific explanation, but a good visual of the chain reaction that happens!), or they absolutely cannot even get their foot up to the desired foothold, and so are left with no choice but to do a pull-up if this is possible for them, or as is more often the case, to just be unable to do the move, or to have to come up with a much more convoluted and difficult sequence to get through a move. (Just FYI, other common climbing-related flexibility issues include hunchback posture leading to decreased reach, and not being able to stem to either execute moves or utilize rests, among others).
Developing improved flexibility requires consistent effort. As with all stretching, it’s recommended that you avoid doing static stretches (i.e. held, passive stretches) on cold muscles. Warm up well with dynamic movements (jumping jacks, mountain climbers, burpees, or light climbing), or save stretching for after a climbing workout or climbing day or another warming physical activity of your choice. To improve active flexibility for high steps, work on stepping your foot up high on a climbing wall, keeping the other foot on the ground, and having increasingly higher target footholds that you step up to as your flexibility improves. You can also do this on a countertop or other suitably high target surface at home (if your feet are dirty, remember to wipe down the countertop after – yuck!). Yoga classes can also help develop this type of active flexibility, particularly if they include a number of sun salutations, in which you step one foot forward between your hands repeatedly throughout a solid portion of the class.
One last consideration: Hand-in-hand with developing good high-step flexibility is also having enough leg strength (and overall strength) to engage and press up and out of a severe high step. So even if you are supremely flexible and able to high step, it’s also important to possess enough strength to effectively use this high-stepping ability. If you find yourself struggling to press yourself up and out of these types of positions, adding some one-legged squats, squats, and/or deadlifts to your training plan can help you mitigate this issue.