by Andrew Caraballo, PCC, NSCA-CPT
These days, a simple Google search will bring up every climbing skill drill imaginable, but there lacks a framework for progressing those skills over time. In this article, we’ll discuss three major overarching climbing skills that will build on each other. These are balance, precision, and execution. Some famous examples of these skills used in action: Tommy Caldwell using balance to carry him through the dime sized edges on the crux traverse of the Dawn Wall. Adam Ondra using precision when linking the crux boulder problems for efficiency on Silence. Alex Megos using execution when running out the last 30 feet of 8a + climbing after the crux on Bibliography.
Within each skill discussion, I’ve listed drills that will progress from beginner to advanced. Climbing is a skill sport, and practice should be an essential part of your routine.
Finding balance requires you to be aware of your center of gravity (COG). Your COG is the heaviest part of your body- the torso. To climb efficiently and effectively, you need to know where your COG is in relation to your feet and hands on the wall, and where you want to go. Often, COG can be used to your advantage depending on the positioning required to make the next move. It’s important to not make hard and fast rules about where your COG should be. It will constantly change depending on the directionality of pull and holds available to you.
For example, on slab and vertical terrain, COG should be positioned close to the wall and ideally over the “driving foot” (the foot being used to propel the climber into the next position on the wall). Doing so creates the advantages of putting more of your bodyweight into your feet and off of your hands leading to more efficient climbing.
Ultimately, where you want to go is where you should put your COG. If the next move is to a side-pull up and to the right, begin with moving your COG in that direction by shifting your hips and torso and pulling with your toes as you reach for the hold. This makes the entire move more efficient, because you’re using your entire body rather than just pulling. Putting your center of COG where you want may require your hips be square with the wall, or it may require you to twist your hips in, to sink down low below your hands, or any other multitude of positions- which is the art and beauty in movement for climbing.
As an example of balance and use of COG, this first image of CS athlete Sonia was taken right before she fell off the problem. The next move is left to the crescent hold above. Her COG is out of line with the next hold pulling her away from where she wants to go, and she’s not able to effectively press and stand with either foot.
This next image of the same athlete was taken right before she sent the problem. You can see that her COG is more inline with the crescent shaped left. She was able to put her COG where she wanted by dropping her right foot down and using it as counterbalance (back-flag). Now she’s able to effectively use her left foot to push and stand into the next hold.
You can work your strength, power, and endurance until you’re blue in the face, but it’ll be all for naught if you’re out of balance.
Simple Triangle Drill
This drill incorporates the very basics of finding balance on the wall. Ideally, this drill would be practiced while traversing on vertical terrain with lots of holds to choose from. Think of creating a triangle with your body, with the top of the triangle being your hand on a hold directly above your head, and the bottom of the triangle being both feet positioned foothold slightly wider than hips. Next, create an upside down triangle, with a foot placed directly below and center and two hands holding above wider than shoulders. Move between these two positions at different points on the wall. Focus on the transitions between the two triangles, and this is where you’ll start to find good climbing movement.
The beauty of the drill is in its simplicity. The entire goal is to put as much weight into your feet and out of your hands as possible. Doing so will force you to find ideal climbing positions. To put more weight into your feet, position your torso (center of gravity) over your driving foot (the foot propelling you where you want to go). Experiment with how close you can get your torso to the wall and how balanced you can be over each foothold. Start with big feet and big hands, and progressively reduce hold sizes.
For this drill, pick three boulders that are onsight -2 or -3 (i.e. if you regularly onsight V4, you’ll want to choose V1 or V2), with different wall anges and hold types. First, climb the boulder problem only with your hips square to the wall. Next, climb the same problem only with backstepping (outer hips towards the wall). You may climb the entire problem with either the right or left outer hip, or switch back and forth. Compare and contrast the two styles. Ask yourself: Did one make you feel out of balance compared to the other? Did you learn anything new by forcing one style of movement? Did the movement styles take you out of your comfort zone?
Precision builds on the skill of balance. Now that you’re in balance, less energy is being devoted to staying on the wall, and thus more energy can be devoted to making informed decisions on the next moves to make. Here, quieting the mind and gaining an awareness of the surroundings becomes pivotal to success, such as the feel of the grains of rock on the fingers and the feel of rubber biting into footholds. The visual subtleties of the route above, and even the sounds emanating from movement on the wall are now available to you.
How can a climber be precise? The simple answer is hitting pre-planned targets with hands and feet. However, being precise is simple enough when all the holds are within reach and reasonable to use, but what about in situations where the holds are too far, small, slopey, or awkward to use?
Micro-adjustments kill efficiency. Many small errors in hand or foot placement added up over an entire route can mean the difference between sending and not, thus precision is a fundamental skill for rock climbers. Precision requires other fundamental skills, including, body tension, dynamic movement, and execution (we’ll go into more detail about execution in the last section). It also requires familiarity, which involves repeating routes or boulders multiple times to learn the intricacies of where to grab holds and where to step.
Body tension allows you to keep a sense of balance when in “loaded positions.” A “loaded position” can be thought of as any position where you would slingshot off the wall if any point of contact is lost. This is the challenge of being precise in many climbing situations. With use of body tension however, you can free a hand or foot and accurately place it into the next position.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, dynamic movement allows you to make moves out of the normal range. Here, precision becomes especially tricky. The only way to be truly precise with dynamic movements is with luck, practice, and trial and error.
The drills listed below will be ordered from beginner to advanced. These drills can be incorporated into your gym session either before or after your main climbing workout, or as a pursuit in of itself.
Another drill where it’s great to have a partner to keep you honest. It’s natural as we climb, to feel around the best places of a hold to grab and where we feel most sure of our feet. These are called micro adjustments. Too many of these can lead to inefficient climbing. This drill completely cuts off micro-adjustments. Start with warm-up level boulders or routes and move your way up to onsight level. Make each move with your hands and feet without any adjustments. The second you make an adjustment, you must come down and face the consequences- set of 10 pushups perhaps- dollar to your partner. This forces you to plan and route-read more, and to use body tension or dynamic movement to hit your hold exactly. It also forces you to get used to moving off of holds even when it doesn’t feel exactly right.
Pick a few boulders or routes 2-3 grades below onsight level. First climb the route by hovering your hand over each hold for 1-2 seconds before placing it. Climb the same boulder, but hover with each foot placement. This is a great drill for practicing precision, because it forces you to use body tension for each movement.
An advanced version of the hover drill. The goal is to climb dynamically, and stop yourself and hover your hand a few seconds just above the hold. Doing so, allows you to create tension right when you need it, so that you can be accurate while climbing dynamically.
Steve recently had us CS coaches compare and contrast a 12a climber and a 14a climber on the same route “Twinkie 5.12a.” I recommend checking these for yourself. Here’s the link to the videos [12a climber ] [14a climber ]. What are the biggest differences you see between the two climbers?
The Webster’s Dictionary definition for the word execution is “the carrying out or putting into effect a plan, order, or course of action.” As mentioned earlier, when you’re in balance, less attention is focused on actually staying on the wall, so you can make an effective plan. When you’ve determined the moves you need to make, you need to move with precision. Actually executing the moves and following through with the plan can be the most challenging aspect of any near limit level climbing experience. Failure to execute can stem from the mere lack of strength and skill, but more often than not, it’s mental fortitude.
Did you actually try? I mean really try? This is what separates the pros from the rest of us. They try hard 100% of time. As simple as it sounds, this is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed. Ask yourself honestly: When I’m at the gym or crag, how often am I actually trying hard? How often do I really go for it?
Often one of the great limiters to execution and trying hard is fear- fear of falling and fear of the unknown. However, regularly pushing to the edge of your comfort zone is where you’ll learn the most. It’s where you’ll create the mental pathways that will bring progress to your climbing. Getting comfortable with falling is the first step and should be a regular part of your practice. Many gyms offer falling clinics for lead climbing and bouldering. After you feel that you’ve mastered bouldering or lead falls, start to push into the unknown.
After a thorough warm up, choose a few onsight to onsight +1, + 2 routes or problems. Repeat the route or problem 2-3 times and perfect the movement. Take time to reflect between each attempt. This would be a good opportunity to have a friend watch you climb and give you feedback. Better yet, film yourself and carefully review how you move. See where you can make improvements. Choose climbs that you find particularly difficult, and that are your anti-style. Attack your weaknesses.
After warming up, choose a few onsight +1, +2 level climbs that you’ve never done before, and give yourself just 3 attempts to send. This is a great drill for practicing execution because of self imposed pressure. The limited attempts force you to make the most out of rests, route-read, and gather as much information with each attempt.
Limit bouldering isn’t usually thought of as a skill drill, but it allows you to practice the most difficult limiting moves available to you. Even route climbers can benefit from limit bouldering. For this drill, you’re going to choose problems that are onsight + 3 and above. The goal is to work hard moves not to send. If you’ve sent the problem within a few tries, the problem isn’t hard enough. Once the problem has been chosen, break it into sections and work the parts where seeing progress. The “7-try rule” is a good indicator of whether it’s time to move on. Give yourself 7 tries on the limit move. If you’ve made progress by the 7th try, keep trying. If not, move on. It’s important to periodically switch up the wall angles, styles, and hold types. Rest until recovered between attempts. And stop when you feel about 85% spent.
We’ve just gone through a comprehensive framework for building skills for rock climbing. Practice needs to be a regular part of your routine. As a final recommendation, the ability to execute difficult climbing moves comes from loads of practice and time on the wall. So, you’ve reached your goal of climbing 5.12a? Get really good at climbing 5.12a. Repeat your favorite routes over and over. Better yet, attack your weaknesses- find your anti-style climbs and repeat them over and over as well. The more you do it, the better you’ll get – guaranteed.