By Rachel Speer
When I first started climbing, I learned quickly how to balance my body on the wall, I got stronger, and I rocketed through the grades, improving rapidly. For a few years I coasted on the easy gains until I came upon my first plateau, at the upper end of the 5.11 range. I thought for sure I just needed to get stronger, so I sought training plans and got really into improving my base strength and endurance. I did get stronger. I also developed some nasty overuse injuries and learned way more about keeping balance between push and pull muscle groups. Critically, though, I didn’t really improve in my climbing despite all the work I was putting into it. I was still stuck on hard 5.11s. I shifted gears. Maybe I was scared, or not committing enough to the hard moves on my projects. I took some classes geared toward dealing with fear on the wall, both fear of falling and fear of failing. That helped a little, nothing wrong with that. But sadly, also not much improvement in getting me over that 5.12 wall that I kept running up against. I got frustrated at my lack of improvement and hired a coach.
My very first day working with my coach, in an in-person setting, I immediately started talking about how much training I’d been doing and how I had periodized my work and what cross-training I was doing and etc,etc,etc. He nodded politely and let me talk myself out, then asked me to climb a v0 boulder problem. I didn’t get off that v0 for the whole session, and I learned more about movement in that session than in my previous many many years of climbing put together, and within a couple months, I had crossed into 5.12 terrain and pushed through the plateau that had held me back for so long.
Climbers often think of their finger strength and conditioning as being the most important aspect to focus on. Finger strength is important. Overall strength is important, absolutely. But I say that a solid base of movement technique is far more valuable to a climber than how many pull-ups they can do or how much weight they can hang on a tiny edge.
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Understanding and building your skill set is an important facet of climbing that can often be overlooked. Getting into a training program to build strength or power, some people forget that this is a skill based sport. We should be spending dedicated time moving on the wall and continuing to build our skill set. At the bare minimum, time spent on the wall moving should be twice as much as time spent off the wall lifting weights or other non-specific exercises. And of the time spent on the wall, I firmly believe that a solid chunk of it should be spent dedicated to practicing moving well.
How do you do that? Drills. Forcing specific movements in specific areas of weakness, drilling the patterns into your brain until it becomes second nature. There are very general skill drills for new climbers who know next to nothing, and very specific skill drills for the extremely movement savvy and experienced climber. Everyone who spends time on the wall can benefit from dedicated and specific practice. Real mindful dedicated practice. Getting past your ego that says the Silent Feet and One Touch drills are beneath you now, and putting in the work to maintain good movement habits. Dedicated practice is really the best way to build an effective skill set. Once you have it, it's hard to lose and very easy to maintain by climbing mindfully.
Over the next few articles, I’ll describe several drills in each of the following facets of climbing movement: footwork, body positioning, body tension, max strength and static movement, power and momentum, and mental work like effective route-reading and dealing with fear and anxiety.
Today, I’d like to talk about Polar Drills. Those opposing skill sets that fit best in specific circumstances. These are some of the best teaching drills to start new climbers on. This way they learn first-hand what works best on certain wall angles, how to position themselves optimally for their height, and when best to use balance and static strength or power and momentum. The best part about these drills is that they’re really two in one, as you’ll climb each route or boulder problem twice in two completely opposite styles.
Some climbers like to stretch out on the wall, reaching as high as they can for the next hold by standing on their tiptoes. Other climbers like to stay as scrunchy as they can, with their knees poking them in the face while reaching for the hold close to their elbows. I realize these are extreme examples but they’re not far from the truth. You’ve seen it at your local gym or crag, admit it. Establishing a mix of these is best, so we’re going to climb our next boulder or route exactly like this. First lap up, climb as stretched out as you can, keeping that full body tension as necessary to connect your outstretched fingers and toes. Second lap up, climb as crunched up as you can, keeping the knees close to the body. Note the differences. Change the wall angle and style. Do it again.
Sloth Monkey / Kontrast
This drill was introduced in Gimme Kraft and is extremely popular and excellent for learning efficient movement of a variety of terrains. Choose a boulder problem, or a route if you’d rather, that is fairly easy to you, to learn the drill initially. Climb it once, embracing your inner sloth. Climb slowly, statically, keeping the movement continuous if possible, placing your feet precisely and moving through with as much control as you can muster. Then take a break for a bit and climb it again. When you go again, embrace your inner monkey. Climb as quickly as possible, making lunges, cutting feet, jumping, letting out the occasional whoop to help you get into the spirit of things. Then take note of what worked better on that particular problem or route. Take a rest, and move on to a different wall angle or style. Do it again.
Traversing is a skill few develop unless they particularly like it. Most climbers only traverse when they really have to, and then find that it doesn’t come as naturally as going straight up. So here, we’re traversing. Find a spot on the wall that you can go at least 15-20 feet without having to drop down, the longer the better for dialing in movement especially if this kind of training is new to you. First lap, you are not allowed to cross the midline of your body with your hands or feet. You can match on a hold if there is no other option. Go both directions on your traverse. Then rest, and go again, but this time you absolutely have to cross the midline of your body any chance you get, with both hands and feet. Again, go both directions. Note the differences. Find another wall angle. Do it again.
Polar skill drills are ones I like to dedicate whole climbing sessions to, especially the submaximal skill building bouldering sessions that pepper everyone’s training plans. The middle zone, that isn’t too easy to call recovery level (where I like to put footwork drills) and isn’t too hard to call limit level. Choosing to do these drills while you try to climb at your onsight level for a whole session will make a difference in how you read routes moving forward, and teach you the best options for different scenarios. I will generally do 2-3 problems per drill, and remember that you climb each problem twice with these, so the mileage can add up quickly. If your time is limited, just choose one or two of the drills that focus on areas you know you need to work on. For example, I know that I tend to scrunch up and climb statically. I am comfortable with my knees pretty much in my face and moving slow and balanced. I don’t default to dynamic movements or stretching out, so I would target the High Low and Sloth Monkey drills, to get me moving in a way I wouldn’t normally, and help me build that skill set.
Practice, dedicated practice, even if it makes you look ridiculous, is the best way to improve in a skill-based sport like climbing. Being strong means nothing if you can’t move well. Of course there’s a base level of strength required to do some things, I’m not arguing that. But how many 5.13 climbers do you know who can’t hang half as much on their harness on a 20mm edge as an overly muscled climber who struggles on 5.10? It's all about how you move, and how you practice, even on easy terrain… especially on easy terrain, where you can devote more brain power and focus to moving exceptionally well, to even further cement the best habits into your climbing.
ABOUT RACHEL SPEER
Rachel discovered rock climbing 14 years ago. She immediately fell in love with the sport and the way it pushed her both physically and mentally. Since that time, Rachel’s climbing career has taken her all over the country with experience in everything from multi-pitch trad climbing in Arizona – to the wondrous sport climbing at Shelf Road in Colorado – to endurance climbing in the annual 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell in Arkansas (24HHH). She is currently pursuing the NASM personal trainer and AMGA Single Pitch Instructor certifications.
After struggling early on with plateaus and overuse injuries early in her own climbing career, Rachel began researching solutions and discovered the many benefits of climbing specific training. An intensive regimen of self-study, research, and coursework on the subject allowed Rachel to begin rehabilitating her injuries and pushing past her plateaus. Seeing other climbers also struggling with similar issues, Rachel realized that she could help them too and this developed into a passion for assisting others with maintaining balance in the body while pushing ever higher for gains in strength and technique. Rachel put her passion into practice, opening a business in her local area to build training plans and offer coaching services to local athletes. In this position, she helped multiple clients of various ability levels to safely build strength and reach new heights in their climbing.
As Rachel’s coaching career developed, she realized that her passion for climbing training aligns directly with Climb Strong’s mission, energy, and approach for helping climbers improve performance while avoiding injury. Working now with Climb Strong as a coach Rachel is excited to continue pursuing her passion to help climbers progress through individualized training. Her favorite thing in the world is seeing people get stronger and crush their projects!