Category Archives: Move of the Month

Move of the Month 15: The Heel Hook (Improve Your Climbing!)

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I used to not use heel hooks much beyond just setting my heel on a hold to take some weight off of my arms and hands.

The more steep rock I’ve climbed, the more this has changed.

Using heel hooks to rest is an awesome technique, for sure. It can provide your upper body with a much-needed respite. To do this, you simply place your heel on a hold when you’re resting and shaking out your arms and hands. If it alleviates the strain on your upper body more, it’s probably a good choice for resting. This is usually a fairly passive heel hook, meaning your leg muscles won’t be working hard in the heel hook. Of course, there has to be a solid hold available to heel hook to make this work for you!

There are times when a resting heel hook will be extremely stressful on your leg(s), though. This can happen if you’re wrapping a heel around a corner and digging into the rock (compressing) with that heel to get weight off your hands and arms and upper body. It can also happen more often on steep rock than vertical terrain – that the rest position is stressful on the legs, whether you’re heel hooking or not.

Using heel hooks to help advance your progress up the rock adds another dimension to this move – and it’s a great example of how having strong legs can help your climbing.

If you’re sitting and reading this, extend your leg out rest your heel on the floor. Now, press into that heel and notice how all the muscles on the back of your leg engage. Drag your heel along the floor toward you and feel the muscles you use to do this motion. Those are the muscles that you’ll engage to help leverage active heel hooks to your advantage, whether you’re actually pulling your way up higher on the rock with that leg motion, or holding the heel hook in one spot so that you can advance your hands up to higher holds.

I didn’t really get how to use my legs aggressively in heel hooks when I started my journey into the realm of steeper climbing. As I learned how to do this – how to really engage and pull with my legs – it has helped me enormously. I’ve concurrently worked to strengthen the muscles involved in this motion, not just to be better at it but also, to help me avoid injuring my leg muscles.

Climbers sometimes get hurt by trying to use active heel hooks and not having the leg strength for them. This can lead to hamstrings strains and tears, among other muscle issues. To help prevent this type of issue, strengthen the legs outside of climbing using movements that mimic this motion. Hamstrings curls are a great choice. You can start with Ball Leg Curls and switch to doing one leg at a time when two legs gets easy. As you advance, move into hamstrings curls. Note that deadlifts work hamstrings, too.

Move of the Month 14: Dynamic Movement and Momentum

Using dynamic movement to swing out to hit a hold on this steep boulder problem.

Using dynamic movement to swing out to hit a hold on this steep boulder problem.

I used to hate dynos.

I liked the feeling of static control in my climbing – letting go of the rock was not something that was fun for me, and I just didn’t get the delight some other climbers took in leaping for the next hold, feet flying.

Now, I’d say that I like dynos, though I’m certainly not very good at them and probably never will be. That is okay – the fact that I actually enjoy them suffices.

Learning to utilize dynamic movement and momentum to your advantage in climbing can help you make moves easier, even if dynoing or moving dynamically seems harder to you right now. Taking the time to try to train yourself in this area might make a huge difference in your climbing ability. Rather than try to pick your way through an energy-sapping, strength-draining sequence using a whole bunch of moves and holds that other climbers bypass, what if you could just do the bigger move and be done with it?

That realization exactly is what pushed me into working to improve my ability to move dynamically (hint: getting stronger throughout my whole body via strength training helped me here, too; a few years back I also actually just worked on jumping straight up in the air off one foot and both feet for a few months to get myself used to jumping again, since it wasn’t something I did much of anymore). The result is that now, I always try to make the “standard dynamic beta” work for me (in other words, what I see most climbers do for a certain move or sequence), rather than try desperately to find a way through without using dynamic movement/momentum.

One of the best ways to visualize how to use momentum in climbing is to picture how kids swing across monkey bars – each time they want to move a hand forward, they’ll swing the body backward to generate momentum, and then use this momentum to propel the leading hand forward to the next bar. In climbing, though the movements tend to be more complex, the general concept is the same. If you’re moving dynamically toward a hold, it’s often smartest and most efficient to swing your body weight down and away from the hold you’re wishing to get to, generating propulsion toward the hold as your body swings in the exact opposite direction from the hold you’re headed toward.

Even more complex for many of us to learn, but just as effective, is linking a series of movements together with momentum, instead of stopping each climbing move before starting the next. Think about how uncoordinated and jerky a gymnast’s floor routine or a prima ballerina’s solo performance would appear if she did not link the movements and use the momentum from each previous movement to help propel the next movement. Similarly in climbing, it’s often more efficient and less sapping to harness the momentum generated from the previous move to drive you into the next move, and the next move, and the next move – until you hit a resting point, or a place where you do need to stop and set up for a specific move that doesn’t benefit from being driven by momentum from previous moves.

For specific dynos, one of the biggest things that helped me and still helps me to this day is to remember to push with my feet (and obviously my legs) – to remind myself that my legs are the coiled springs of energy that are driving me to the next holds, leaping off of the take-off holds with enough force to get my hand or hands to the target hold. Taking the attention away from my upper body and learning to really use my legs to drive this movement may seem obvious, but consciously reminding myself to do this over and over again definitely assisted me in learning to dyno more effectively.

For linked momentum-type movements, I have found that learning to be more relaxed through my body and letting the swings carry me just as I did as a little girl on the monkey bars – channeling that same sense of fluid movement – helped me get more comfortable with being less static. Note that being less static doesn’t necessary mean less in control – you can be very controlled with dynos and momentum, both. They’re not necessarily sloppy climbing techniques at all, though they certainly can be if you don’t use them with precision.

The sooner you can embrace dynamic movement and momentum as options in your sport climbing and bouldering repertoire, the better. Developing a higher level of comfort with this type of movement opens up a world of awesome climbing and bouldering moves that will otherwise remain partially or even totally unavailable.

Move of the Month 13: Resting on Routes, Part II – Managing Your Time

It's a total buttshot, yes, but here I am resting with body weight sunk down, chalking/shaking my left hand as I work to slow my breathing and heart rate.

It’s a total buttshot, yes, but here I am resting with body weight sunk down, chalking/shaking my left hand as I work to slow my breathing and heart rate.

Climber A steps off the ground in a hurry. He continues to speedily move up the rock without the slightest pause. Soon, he hits a point of no return, pumped and powered down. He falls off 20 moves into the route with an audible expulsion of breath.

Climber B pulls onto the rock very slowly. She pauses two moves into the climb to shake out. She makes two more moves. She pauses to shake out again, resting on handholds. She continues to climb like this, taking 10 times as long to reach the 20-move mark as climber A. She also falls, after shaking out for a while, about 20 moves into the route. She is not out of breath but is too powered down and pumped to continue.

You’ve probably observed both of these scenarios in your climbing experience. Possibly one of them resonates with you, reflecting your tendency when you climb.

Neither of these scenarios reflects an ideal climbing pace. Both Climber A and Climber B have not found the sweet spot for effectively resting while climbing.

Time management for resting on routes involves the following:

Where You Rest

The best rests will allow you to relax with straight arms on great handholds with awesome footholds directly under you. You can sink down and straighten your arms. You don’t need to shift your body position in the best resting spots. You can simply drop off one hand at a time, shaking it out behind your back or above your head, or alternating between the two. This is somewhat similar to jogging in place to recover from a sprint. Read more about this in the first MOM article on resting.

Of course, such perfect resting spots will not always be available. Work with what the route presents, always striving to find the most relaxed places to rest. Sometimes you’ll have to shift your body position for each arm to get a better shake out. Sometimes the footholds will be less than ideal. You may even find that you are resting with bent arms in certain situations. So long as you are truly getting something back, this can still work to your advantage.

If you’re Climber B, resting everywhere you can, work to wean yourself from taking rests you don’t really need. Build up comfort with doing more moves in a row. Rest when you actually have fatigue built up rather than wherever you can rest. This goes hand-in-hand with picking up your pace in climbing. I’ll discuss pacing in more detail in next month’s Move of the Month article.

If you’re Climber A, sprinting to failure, watch where most other climbers rest on the sequence in question. Then, try to rest there yourself, calming your breathing and bringing your heart rate down. Even if you get pumped there to start, with training, you will find yourself able to climb more effectively by incorporating rests into your climbing toolbox.

How Often You Rest

More endurance-oriented climbers like myself tend to climb more like Climber B. We cling to any holds we can hang on to, trying to make them into a rest rather than moving up.

Meanwhile, Climber A is sprinting, trying to outrace the pump.

A happy medium somewhere in between these two extremes usually yields better results. For me, choosing my rests wisely and spacing them out actually works better instead of preemptively resting on every hold possible. For Climber A, learning to slow things down will likely help in the long-term, though resting at all may seem pumpier at first.

In other words, Climber B will ultimately benefit from speeding things up a bit, while Climber A will benefit from slowing them down.

Training for the Rests (If Necessary)

“Resting just makes me more pumped!” argues Climber A, trying to explain the reason for the sprinting-to-failure approach. This indicates a need to train resting. Just like all other athletic skills, resting effectively is trainable. It’s simple, too. You just get on holds that you want to rest on, and you shake out there. You may need to play around with your body positioning to maximize the rest. Over time, you can usually transform rests that don’t feel restful into true rests where you get something back.

Climber B may have to train for certain rests, too. I certainly have had to train for too many rests to count. This experience helps me know that even if a needed rest on a route doesn’t feel particularly restful at first, I can train it.

How Long You Spend Resting

Climber A and Climber B may never meet in the middle on this point. Knowing how long to rest for the best benefits in your climbing will be highly individual. One climber may be literally able to “get it all back” spending 5 minutes shaking out. A different climber may find that after 15 or 30 seconds at a particular rest, he or she has to keep climbing, as the rest is no longer restful.

I use my heart rate and breathing as my first measure. I wait for them to slow down before proceeding on the climb, so long as the rest feels restful. Of course, using the feedback from your arms and hands and the rest of your body is part of resting, too. If you are getting more pumped from resting at what everyone else thinks is a good resting spot, you almost assuredly need to train your resting more!

For hard redpoint projects without awesome rests, I almost always have to train the rests as well as the moves. I experiment with lengthening and shortening the rests, seeing how this changes my performance on the next sequence of moves to the next rest. I usually settle in after a few tries on what feels like the best breath count for each rest. I count my breaths as I shake out at the rest. Then I move on from the rest into the next section of the route. The breath count can range from 10 to 500 breaths. It really depends on the quality of the rest!

One thing I’ve noticed is that as I’ve built strength and worked hard on climbing faster between rests, I don’t usually rest for as long as I used to on holds. I haven’t had a 500-count rest in a long time. These days, my rests tend to fall in the 10- to 100-breath range. Most often, they’re at about 30 to 50 breaths. How long I stay depends both on how taxing the rest is and on what’s coming up on the route.

Summing It Up

Choose your rests wisely, don’t be afraid to spend time training your rests, and learn how to use feedback from your body to effectively determine when it’s time to leave the rest and continue climbing. No matter who you are and what your climbing style is, focusing on time management when resting can make a huge difference in your climbing.