(last edited Feb 5th, 2021)
Alright, so you’ve been climbing a few times or a few months and you have picked the right shoes for you and gear that you need. So, what now? How should you go about this new sport you are getting into? Here are the Top 10 Rock Climbing Tips to get you towards your rock climbing goals.
1. Keep your arms straight
When starting climbing, most people tend to start pulling with the hands before pushing with their feet. This is quite natural. One of the reasons is bad foot technique, which leads to not trusting your feet. But have you ever thought about how exhausted your arms feel after climbing a boulder problem? Most likely you have done a pull-up on every single move of the route. Sound familiar?
To save energy and put it to use when you need it, try climbing with straight arms. Push with the feet, pull with the arms, but after grabbing the hold, relax your arms and let them straighten out. This little trick can save huge amounts of energy on the wall. Have you ever watched a document about monkeys on National Geographic or Animal Planet? Notice how they are always swinging around with straight arms? Try to be that monkey. Mimic them and save energy.
One of the more popular pieces of advice to beginners is to stay close to the wall. This is good advice to a climber who stays only on the vertical walls. But as soon as you hit the overhanging walls or want to shake out on a route, relax your arms and let your butt stick out. It is much more important to find your center of gravity for that shake (shaking your hands while on a route can reduce the pump) than trying to stay close to the wall at all times.
2. Foot technique aka Silent feet
This is probably one of the most important tips for rock climbing to beginners, so pay attention! Climbing is not about the hands, it’s about the feet. You, as a climber, have these two chunks of lean muscle located on the lower part of your body, that can
effortlessly push you up on the wall. But only if you are paying attention and using them properly. Sloppy feet are of no use on a climbing wall. Pay attention to what your feet are doing, how you are placing them on the holds, and how do they feel on the footholds.
The simple solution to this is to watch your feet. I’ll say this again because it’s that important. Look at your feet. Place them as carefully on footholds as you can. And on the part of the foothold, you want to use. Try placing them on the footholds as silently as you can. And when you push up with the foot, try to concentrate on how it feels and what’s happening under your rock climbing shoe. This may seem hard at the beginning, but after some practice, it comes automatically and becomes part of how you climb. This in my opinion is one of the best paths to mastering great foot technique in rock climbing. Look at your feet!
3. Hook like you mean it!
I’m continuing a bit with this foot technique thing. Hooking with your feel might feel awkward at first and probably look a bit funny, but it’s one of the best foot techniques out there. When throwing a hook on an appropriate place, it can take a significant amount of weight off your hands and let you save energy to where you need it. Sometimes hooking is the only way to progress up a route.
Hooking may look easy and straight forward, and it really is. But you need to practice it. You need to learn how to apply pressure to the hook properly so that it stays on and actually helps you navigate through the route or boulder problem.
Keep in mind that hooking is not always done with the heel. Sometimes the top of your foot works better (toehook). Practice it enough to start feeling comfortable hooking. Only then you will start to find out the true power of the hook. (This sounds like some Jedi Knight stuff or something. Bear with me.)
4. Warming up
Warming up your body for rock climbing is really important. It reduces the risk of injury significantly and readies your body for the physical efforts you are about to put it through. Warming up also helps your body to get going and you will perform better on the wall.
It is important to warm up especially the parts of your body that endure the biggest amounts of stress during rock climbing. Especially the fingers, shoulders, and arms are prone to injuries in rock climbing. Warm-up properly and you’ll feel better on the wall too. Avoiding injuries is one of the best ways to keep you motivated and climbing for years to come. Steady progress is the key to success in rock climbing. Make warming up a natural part of your climbing.
5. The core
A strong core in rock climbing is a must. All the movement starts from the core. Every leg raise and every hand movement and mantle starts from the core. All the climbers who want to start climbing at an advanced level, need to start thinking actively about the core.
Don’t get startled though. This doesn’t necessarily mean thousands and thousands of crunches or hours of planking. Planking and specialized core exercises are great for core strength but most of the work you can do while climbing (having fun!).
Bouldering is great for getting a strong core. Bouldering on over-hung problems while keeping your feet on the wall is a great way to get a strong core, arms, and shoulders. But keeping the feet on footholds is the thing here.
Actively achieving this is hard. And hard on the core. You’ll likely get tired fairly fast. But results come fast if keeping it up. Give it a go. There are thousands of articles on the web on core strengthening but this simple habit will probably get you most of the way as a beginner.
6. Use all the different grip types
When starting climbing it is easy to get caught up in employing only the techniques that you feel strong in. For example, if you feel strong with your fingers in the crimp position (most climbers feel strong crimping), it is common that you start to favor it over all the other hand placements.
There are four basic grip types in climbing are:
1. open hand
2. half crimp
3. full crimp
To become a diverse climber you need to practice all of the mentioned grip types. The longer you shy away from certain grip types, the more awkward they will start to feel. There comes a time when you are not going to be able to crimp a hold and need to use the open hand, e.g. when grabbing slopers.
Some grip types are also easier on the fingers and tendons than others. It is studied that (Reference 1 and Reference 2) the full crimp position is the most likely hand position to get injured in. It is not recommended to do e.g. fingerboarding in the full crimp position. The full crimp can be very strenuous to the fingers if a sudden shift of pressure appears (e.g. a slip of a foot or slip of some fingers from the fingerboard). In the worst case, you might rupture a pulley. Pulley injuries are quite common in climbing. Depending on how severe the rupture is, it can take up to 12 months or more to recover from a pulley injury.
The open hand position is probably the most challenging grip type, but the safest on the pulleys and tendons. The position of the hand is natural and the strain to tendons is minimal comparing to the other grip types. For me e.g. this is my weakest hand position. And I know I’m not alone with this. Most climbers tend to think this is their weakest grip.
Simply saying the more curled up your fingers are, the stronger the position but the more strenuous on the fingers. Try not to favor one grip type over another, but use what feels natural. Even though you might not feel strong on that certain type. Like I said before, climbing is not a 100m hurdle, it’s more like running a marathon (or two). Progress comes slowly at times. But keep it up and you’ll get there. What feels awkward now, will probably feel completely different in say, after a year of rock climbing.
7. Muscle develops quicker than tendons
This rock climbing tip of the top 10 rock climbing tips continues with the safety aspect of training. The tendons in your fingers are the small little elastic things taking all of the stress when pulling hard on a rock climbing hold. The muscles in your fingers and arms are determining how much pressure the tendons are put under. In the beginning it is
fairly safe to climb and pull on the holds. Your muscles are not yet used to the sport. But at some point, if you keep it up, you start to get stronger and stronger. You can pull harder and harder.
Your muscles are getting stronger faster than the tendons. Think about it. If the hold is too small or you are pulling too hard, your muscle will give up and you’ll let go of the hold in fatigue. But at some point, if climbing too hard too fast, your muscle will be able to bear more stress than your tendons. In the worst-case scenario, your tendons can say `pop´.
This is most common when starting to climb at a young age when the muscle growth is rapid. Always listen to your body and take rest days accordingly. If you feel pain in your fingers or arm, stop climbing. Most times your body will let you know beforehand that something bad is about to happen.
When starting climbing, don’t try to hit the gym every day. Climb two to three times a week at most. Let your body get used to the new stress you’re putting it through. Rest when feeling tired, climb when you feel you can perform well on the wall. Remember that the pros who climb 5 to 7 times a week, and some two sessions a day, have been doing it for many years. You are just starting out.
8. Climb with positive and motivated people (preferably better climbers than you currently are)
This tip isn’t a must but sure helps to speed up the ”learning to climb” -process. By surrounding yourself with positive and motivated people helps you stay positive and motivated on learning the ropes, so to say. Climbing can be hard and difficult. The learning curve is fairly steep the first couple of months but after that, it will most likely plateau. Staying motivated during that plateau can be difficult for some. Climbing and training with positive people help a great deal.
Fellow climbers will cheer you on when you have doubt in your abilities. They can literally cheer you up a route you would have otherwise given up on. And climbing is more fun with other people. And what is climbing all about if not fun?
In addition, if the people you climb with are positive AND better climbers than you currently are, you’re in luck. You can learn a great deal about climbing by just watching other climbers. Good climbing technique is easier to adapt if you see it in action.
If I’m climbing with stronger and better climbers, I have noticed that I try harder. And trying hard is one of the key factors to become a better climber. It’s not about trying hard once or twice a session. It’s about trying hard all the time. That’s what makes a difference in the long run.
9. Don’t be afraid to fail i.e. Work on your weaknesses
Learning to climb is mostly about leaving your comfort zone. Once you learn some new skill, it is super easy to want to think you’re good at something and keep doing the thing you’re good at. It’s nice being good at something. Why would you want to stop feeling good about yourself?
Learning to climb, in my opinion, is all about leaving your comfort zone and trying to learn all the things you’re not good at. Some climbers can progress really fast on certain techniques and neglect most of the rest. It’s really easy getting caught on doing things you are already good at.
If you can crimp like a beast, climb slopers. If you feel comfortable on vertical walls, try climbing overhanging problems. I think it is more valuable to be a well-rounded climber than a specialist in some specific climbs. If you only concentrate on certain types of climbing, think about all the great routes or problems you are passing on. Also, your route reading skills can become pretty narrow if only concentrating on, say, crimping.
10. Climb outside!
For me, this is probably the most important of the top 10 rock climbing tips. For a lot of people climbing in a climbing gym represents the end of the line, the best that is out there. In reality, it is just the tip of an iceberg. Climbing outside is almost like an entirely different sport.
When climbing in a gym, all the holds are marked by a certain color or tape and you can see all the footholds from the ground. Climbing outside is a whole lot different. Sometimes you need to find all the different small footholds and shifts in body position to unlock the puzzle in order to get to the top. Climbing outdoors can be more technical than indoor climbing as well.
In my opinion, you get stronger when climbing indoors and your technique improves better when climbing outdoors. I like climbing in a gym because there are so many routes in a fairly small space. Indoor climbing is very efficient. But I get my motivation to climb indoors from my outdoor projects. If I could decide, I’d climb outside all the time. But when it’s winter or raining, the gym is a good option.
Real rock climbing brings so many aspects to climbing. There’s the technical part, the excitement when climbing high from the ground, the satisfaction when unlocking a puzzle outdoors and being outdoors instead of indoors in a confined space to just name a few. Also, the rock itself can change from crag to crag. Climbing on sandstone can require a totally different skill set than climbing on granite. Climbing outside is much more diverse. Check this article if wondering about the gear needed to climb outdoors.
Also, outdoor climbing is where the whole climbing thing has begun. Mother nature has done all the route setting a while ago. All you need to do is find the holds. In gyms, the routes are changed all the time. But outside if you are not able to do a certain route or boulder problem, you can always try it again next year. It has been there for thousands of years, so it’s not likely to be going anywhere. And for me and a lot of other climbers, climbing outside is the time I’m having the most fun!
If you have any questions or if I missed something, please comment below or send me an email. I’ll be happy to help if I can. Now go outside and have fun! Because rock climbing is awesome, it really is.