By Rachel Speer
Imagine this: you’re climbing on an overhang, gather up your strength and lob for the next hold that puts you in just a bit of a stretched position. You successfully grab the hold, but before you can even begin to move on, your hips sag away from the wall and you find yourself laying on the pads staring up at the holds you were on just a moment ago. What happened?
You lost tension.
Creating, maintaining, and controlling your body tension as you climb is a learned skill. You don’t want to be clenched down all the time, or you wouldn’t be able to make big stretches. You don’t want to be relaxed all the time, or you’d never get anywhere. Learning when to tense and when to relax takes practice and putting yourself in weird positions to learn exactly what to tense and when and how. Learning when to apply tension and when to turn it off is key… but the first step is learning HOW to apply tension.
What follows are a few drills that I’ve both developed and outright pirated from other amazing movement coaches over the years, that all help develop that sense of when and how to tense and relax, how to feel in your body what needs to tense to keep you on the wall.
Find a stable position in vertical or slightly overhanging terrain, with decent hands and solid feet. Take the left hand off the wall for 2-3 seconds and maintain the position of the rest of your body, then put the left hand back on and repeat with the right hand, then with left foot, then right foot. Notice in your body what you have to do to stay in place. Then move up and find another stable position and do it again. Advance it by going to more overhanging terrain, worse holds, or offset positions. Maintain core tension. Can advance further to hovering two limbs if you want the added challenge.
A progression of the Limb Release drill. This time, when you lift a limb, press it as HARD as you can into the wall for 2-3s before moving on to the other limbs. If another hold blows, you are trying hard enough… good job.
Another progression of the same drill, this time you’re moving on a route instead of pausing at comfortable stances. Push your left big toe hard into the wall like you're pushing a button, notice the extra tension in hips and glutes. Move the right hand from here. Repeat with right foot and left hand, all the way up the wall.
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On a spray wall (or better, system wall) choose two decent hand holds that you are comfortable free hanging from for a full minute yet still make you work. Your hands won't be moving. Walk your feet around the wall, aiming for feet far away, crossing through with big steps, and really rough holds to use. Maximize tension throughout the movements. Move your feet ten to fifteen times, or you can also time yourself for 45-60 seconds. Take a little rest between sets, I’d recommend 3-5 minutes, and do 3-4 sets. Obviously, the more overhung the wall, the harder this is going to be, so choose your difficulty accordingly. Start easier and make it harder as you gain confidence, skill, and strength.
On a spray wall (or better, system wall) choose two nasty footholds. Your feet won't be moving. Walk your hands around the wall, aiming for hands far away, crossing through with big moves, and difficult body positions. Maximize tension on your feet throughout the movements and keep your hips in close to the wall, try not to hang hard on bent arms all the time but use your stronger back and legs to create tension. Use decent hand holds, we aren't training finger strength here, but body tension. This one is exactly the same as the Pinned Hands drill as far as sets and rest and progressing the difficulty.
Before and After Hovers-
Choose a semi-hard boulder in slightly to very overhanging terrain. Avoid choosing one with dynamic moves. You'll climb it twice. First run, at the end of each move freeze for 2-3 seconds before grabbing the next hold, hovering your hand just above the hold. Second run, at the beginning of each move let go of the wall and freeze for 2-3 seconds before moving for the next hold. Notice what you have to tense to maintain an awkward position like that.
This one is a lot of fun to do with a group, it turns into a game and a challenge. Traversing a spray wall, one partner holds a limbo stick against the wall. Climb under the stick without falling or dabbing. Move it lower each pass, and take turns to make sure you rest enough between attempts.
Any wall angle, they all present unique challenges. Climb your chosen route/problem with only one leg, rest a few minutes, and repeat on the other side. Swapping off with a partner is a good way to make sure you rest long enough. Despite having to swing when you cut your one foot loose, try to climb as close to statically as possible for this tension-specific variation of the drill, not adjusting hand placements and precisely placing feet on each hold rather than desperately lunging or using momentum.
While footwork drills are chill enough on your energy levels to allow you to work them in during a warmup, these drills are particularly grueling on the body, and I would dedicate whole sessions or parts of sessions to this type of training. These are great additions to specific strength phases of a training program, but vary the skills practiced and don’t try to do all of them in one session, because you’ll fatigue yourself to the point of starting to ingrain bad habits. I’d do two, maybe three per session. As a movement coach my recommendation is to practice these until they feel natural, and then move on to a different drill, coming back to them every so often to refresh your mind/body connection.
The best time to do skill-heavy work is when you’re fresh but warmed up. Start with these early in your session. Once you have them ingrained and have them dialed, doing them later in your session when you’re already fatigued is alright, but never learn a NEW skill when you’re tired.
One of the fun things about tension is how absurdly specific it is to the projects you have and your body type. What works for one person might not work for another person even on the same route, so you have to practice for yourself.
ABOUT RACHEL SPEER
Rachel discovered rock climbing 16 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!