A guide for beginner and intermediate climbers on how to improve your climbing and take it to the next level
So you’ve been to the climbing gym a few times – dragged along by your ever-so-sporty and coordinated friend. And actually, you kinda like it and feel like you could get good at this. But your arms are too weak right now and you can only manage a half hour of climbing before your grip strength goes out the window? Fret not! Most beginner climbers go through the same things. You’ll find some simple advice in this article on how to improve your climbing, helping you get more climbs, more progression and more fun out of your climbing sessions.
How to improve your climbing
The below pointers are things that I wish someone had told me when I started out climbing. And even now, having climbed somewhat sporadically and at varying levels over the last 10 years, they are things that I come back to time and time again. They are great reminders of how to do the basics well again. Of how not to get stuck into ruts and how to pull yourself out of bad habits.
So whether you are totally new to this vertical world or if you’ve been at it for so long that the dirt beneath your nails is permanently chalk coloured, you’ll find something useful to get you on (or back on) track.
1) Improve your climbing by just climbing!
Well the first and most obvious thing to do is to just climb. Climb lots. The more you climb the better. Climb with really good people where possible and watch how they tackle problems. Listen to their advice and learn from their mistakes as well as their triumphs. But also climb with those who are not as good as you.
Climb lots of easy climbs really well. This will lengthen your climbing sessions by not getting pumped out (fatigued arms) and will give you the energy to implement some new moves and techniques.
Tip: Don’t get tempted into spending hours strength training. Further down the line this will have its merits, but you don’t need to be strong to be good. Sure it helps when you start pushing the grades but you will gain much more by practicing good technique and, just climbing.
2) Stand up and use your legs!
It’s one of the first things we are told as novice climbers… use your legs! It’s also one of the first things we fail to do properly.
Most newbies will instinctively reach up with their arms and expect to have the strength and endurance to defy gravity without a second thought for what their legs can offer to the effort. This poses two problems, amongst others. Firstly, if you are totally outstretched from foot to finger, there is no scope for moving anywhere, least of all up! Secondly, if you do manage to somehow make a move, the smaller, weaker muscles in the body will fatigue quickly and be unable to tackle the next move.
So, bend your legs, step up and push with those big strong muscles using your arms to pull on the holds only after your have your legs have initiated the upward movement.
Tip: Get on an easy slab climb and practise making the ascent with your legs, only using your hands for balance and not for helping your upward movement.
3) Get good at standing on bad footholds
Now that you’ve invited your legs to the party, it’s time to put some trust in those dancing feet. A great way to gain this trust is to choose bad footholds.
Traversing (climbing sideways instead of upwards) is a useful style of climbing to help you practise this. Most indoor gyms will have a traverse wall which not only helps you get your climbing muscles warmed up, but is also really useful to make you think about your foot placement.
As you become more confident, start to further limit yourself on where you put your feet. You’ll be amazed at how little your feet need to stand on to give support for the legs to push off and you’ll begin to realise that the seemingly bad footholds are actually just good enough.
Tip: Down climb. This forces you to use your feet even more and will make you look at your options before taking them. It’s also an effective way of training your endurance on the rock.
4) Get your body close to the wall
Keeping your body close to the wall is an important way to conserve energy when climbing and will set you up for your next move. Letting your body fall away from the wall will lower your centre of gravity, placing more weight on your arms and making upwards movement much more challenging. It may seem like a lot of effort to start with but as muscle memory starts to kick in, it will become second nature.
Once again, having good feet will help with this (see 5) Learn to backstep) and it is important to avoid climbing the wall like a ladder with both hips and belly to the wall, as this will put further and unnecessary weight through the arms.
Tip: Keep an eye on your knees! If they are pointing straight towards the wall then it is likely there will be too much space between your body and the wall. So if you find yourself with grazed knees after each climbing session then practice turning the knees in or out to draw the body closer to the wall.
5) Learn to backstep
The backstep is when you stand on a foothold so that the outside of your foot is closest to the wall instead of the inside of your foot. The outside of your hip on the same leg will also be next to the wall and you will no longer be squared up as if to ascend your ladder.
Often, your other foot may become redundant but it can be put to good use by placing it on the wall for balance or leverage so that you can rotate the body into this new position.
The main reasons for its use are to put the body close to the wall and into a straight arm position. This will conserve precious energy and also put seemingly far off holds into reach. It may seem counterintuitive to start with and it’s not something that will suit every type of climb. But with some practice and experimentation your climbing will become more fluid with less effort and your upper body will thank you for it!
Tip: Get on an easy route and challenge yourself to use this method for every move – so you will only ever have an outside hip twisted towards the wall. You will start to learn when and when not to use the backstep and it will soon become a subconscious addition to your climbing move repertoire.
6) Improve your climbing by gaining control of your body and mind
No-one likes the irrational panic that has the tendency to crawl it’s way under your skin at the most inconvenient points of an already tense and challenging climb. So having a few tricks up your sleeve for such times could be the difference between taking an unnecessary fall or finally cruising your way to the top of your latest project.
Don’t forget to breath. As silly as it sounds, it happens all too often when climbers find themselves pushed to the limits of their mental and physical boundaries. If you are guilty of this then get your climbing partner to remind you to breath during tense times. Then try to keep your awareness on your breath for the rest of the climb keeping it as even and controlled as possible.
It’s all about balance. Improving your balance goes hand in hand with making lasting improvements in your climbing. Practise traversing using solid footholds and putting as little weight as possible on your hands. Many climbers also play around on slacklines to help with their balance.
Keep it smooth. Whether you are using slow, static moves on a balancy, crimpy climb or fast dynamic moves to conquer an overhang, moving with smoothness is key. Energy will be conserved and you will feel as though you have more time to choose your hand and foot placement with accuracy and control.
Tip: Do a climber specific yoga routine as your warm up. You can practice all of the above to help you gain control of both your mind and body as well as improving your flexibility and strength.
7) Keep your climbing varied
Training something we are already good at is an all too easy habit to get into. Why would you want to do something you’re not good at when there are alternative and more enjoyable options available? Climbing is no exception.
We all have types of climbing that we lean toward. Climbs that suit our height or areas of physical strength. Ones with tiny holds that require good grip strength and lots of controlled balance. Or ones with big cavernous holds and chunky overhangs suited to good upper body strength. And we’ll climb them over and over until we feel like an excellent climber.
It is only when we are pushed onto something a little different that we realise that we’ve pigeon-holed ourselves into only being good at one thing.
So make sure you keep it varied and challenge yourself to conquer different climbs. Try another type of climbing or climb at alternative venues. And seek out different rock types. The more rounded a climber you become, the better equipped you will be to take on whatever comes your way. You’ll also get to explore some great places and who knows where that might lead.
Tip: Get competitive with your climbing partners – challenge each other to only use certain holds or to climb with one hand. And remember – the more variety the better!
8) Invest in some good shoes
If you’ve just started climbing and envisage it featuring in your life then spending some time getting the right shoes is well worth it. It doesn’t matter that you are only a rookie – the precision and quality of high-end shoes will enable you to use all parts of your foot and you will gain significant benefits from this right from the word go.
Tip: Hire shoes for your first few trips to the climbing gym and try different styles and sizes if they are available. When you come to buy your own pair, make sure you try standing on footholds putting all your weight on different parts of each foot. Their fit should be snug but not tight or uncomfortable.
The following climbing shoes are ideal for beginner to intermediate climbers who need a good balance of comfort and performance:
- Scarpa Vapor V A great all-round flat shoe for boulderers and climbers alike, and a good option before embracing the harder and less comfortable super high-end performance shoes. Scarpa shoes tend to be slightly on the wide side, so if you are narrow-footed, these might not be for you.
La Sportiva Miura The slightly downturned toe of the Miura has been found on the feet of some of the worlds top climbers over the years. However, the unparalleled comfort levels, for such a high performing shoe, makes them an excellent choice for those looking to hit all types of climbing hard.
Evolv Pontas 2 One of the most comfortable high-end shoes out there. Designed by Chris Sharma himself, the Pontas 2 climbing shoe is also highly versatile and offers above-average performance for its mid-level price. A good option if you favour steep and burly sport climbing.
Mad Rock Flash 2.0 An excellent value climbing shoe for both beginner and experienced climbers on a budget. The Flash 2.0 are the first climbing shoes to feature a Sock Gel Heel, designed to minimise contact with the floor should you take a fall. Brilliantly comfortable and highly wearable with a good degree of durability.
Once you start to improve your climbing you’ll also start to really enjoy the many benefits of climbing too. The mental and physical health benefits, but also the social benefits.
Climb on happy climbers!