the joy of strength training


May 12th, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Rock climbing technique

alex puccio on maze of death v12 
Alex Puccio on A Maze of Death v12 from Bishop Bouldering

Many people are turning to indoor climbing for fitness. They may, or may not have ambitions to climb regularly on rock but the indoor climbing environment is a fun adjunct to a gym routine.

Rock climbing however is quite technique dependent. I meet a lot of women who say “oh I couldn’t do rock climbing, I’ve got no upper body strength”. There are two answers to that: 1) rock climbing is a great way to build upper body strength, and 2) there are many techniques you can use to overcome deficiencies in upper body strength.

Top UK climber Dave McLeod comments that when he coaches beginners

“always the most dramatic image for students is when someone who is obviously very much weaker than the rest (often a female climber in a group of strong young guys) makes climbing steep ground look effortless through applying momentum and lower body muscle groups.”

This article deals with these issues. It is written from a female perspective but applies to anyone who lacks a bit of climbing strength.

Female climbers

Lynn Hill, Lisa Rands and Lucy Creamer are some of the female pioneers in climbing and they have demonstrated that women can climb just as hard and high as men. Lisa Rands in particular, known for steep highball boulder problems, has always been marketed as climbing problems ‘for guys’. Which is nonsense of course; there aren’t little labels next to routes say ‘for guys’ or ‘for girls’. Men and women climb the same routes. But not always in the same way.

If you refuse to be intimidated right from the beginning by routes that require a lot of strength you will learn how to climb them. The top teenage girls today are climbing steep, hard stuff because no-one’s told them they are not supposed to! Insanely talented British junior Kitty Wallace climbed F8a in Kalymnos (high overhanging limestone) at just 14 years old.

But what about the ‘ordinary’ climber? Well, a rising tide lifts all boats and the fact that the standard of women’s climbing is rising all the time lifts the rest of us as well. Climbing is a predominantly mental game and you have to believe that you can make the moves.

Sometimes though, it is hard to get started. You see your male fellow beginners managing to haul themselves up routes that you can’t even start and it is easy to get discouraged. Strength can be built but it takes time – the strength will come if you climb regularly. In the meantime, there are plenty of techniques and tricks you can utilise to compensate for deficiencies in strength.

Use your legs and feet

A very common issue among beginner and even intermediate climbers is forgetting to use your legs and feet properly. For women this is especially important as we tend to have much stronger legs than arms.

Having your bodyweight over your feet and using your legs to push upwards is a very solid, strong position. It is usually more efficient than reaching up at full stretch with your arms and pulling yourself up. In situations where men might just reach up and pull, women can often complete the move using techniques such as these below.



Laybacking is leaning back with straight arms off an edge or corner while keeping the feet high. This takes some of the pull off the arms and allows you to exploit the strength of your legs

Laybacking is most often utilized to climb a crack or an arête, where there is a long edge to lay back off. However I have also used the technique just as a way to get my feet up to a decent foothold, in situations where someone with better strength or longer limbs has been able to reach up and pull.

Here is Lynn Hill laybacking a flake. Note the straight arms and how high her feet are. Both of these techniques make the movements easier and less strenuous.

Laybacking can seem scary at first but it is a very solid position. The trick is to keep your feet high. When the feet are low there is more downward pressure and your feet are more likely to slip.

Heel hook

The heel hook (and toe hook) is brilliant and makes many a steep route or problem suddenly do-able. It takes a bit of practice to learn how to pull with the heel or toe but is worth it. This is when flexibility – where women often have an advantage over men – can really come in useful; the higher you can get your foot, the more it can help you to pull up.

heel hook

In this picture the climber is using a heel hook to take the weight off her left arm. She can then use the heel and the strength of her leg to pull upwards, rather than trying to pull off her arms on tiny holds.

The heel hook can be used to get a bit of a rest or take the weight off while you place gear or clip. Heel hooks are also useful when you are trying to reach a hold, perhaps off to the side. Hooking a heel or a toe can provide a secure counter balance while you reach out with the opposite arm to grab the elusive hold.

Heel hooks are often used to top out a boulder problem (climb onto the top of the boulder). If you’ve managed to get your hands on top of the boulder but you can’t find any footholds for your feet to step up, throw a heel over the top of the boulder and use it to help pull you up.

This can be tricky at first. I have had trouble with this in the past (I am a bit of a wuss when it comes to topping out) but it is less to do with strength and more to do with technique – learning how to use the heel in the most effective way and learning how much you can pull on it.

I find that getting used to the position itself is half the battle. Topping out, especially on a slopey top, can make you feel vulnerable and having three limbs out of four above your head is an unusual position to be in! But it is worth the effort – the extra pulling power of the foot together with the fact that you have less bodyweight hanging below you means that pure strength is less of an issue.

Rock over

The rock over is a great technique for slabs or easy-angled routes. You are essentially hauling your body over so it is directly above the foot that you are rocking onto. The movement is sideways not upwards. Once you have rocked over, you can then use leg strength to push up into a standing position.

rockover start position rockover finish position
Rocking over onto a foothold

In these pictures you can see that I start (left hand picture) in a laybacking position with my left foot on a foothold. I haul myself sideways not upwards until my bodyweight is over my left foot (right hand picture). I am now completely solid on that left foot and can stand up to reach the top of the boulder. I could even take my hands off the wall and I wouldn’t fall.

Again, the rock over can be used where others might simply pull up. If you can get your foot up and onto a reasonably good foothold, you can rock over with confidence and when you stand up you will be much higher than when you started. The important thing with the rock over is not to try to stand up until your bodyweight is right over the foot that is pushing. If your bodyweight is not far over enough you will probably fall.

Keep your feet on

Strong climbers often climb with barely any footwork at all, swinging around and pulling up impressively. Don’t let this put you off – you don’t have to climb like that. It is almost always better to keep your feet on the rock or wall.

Modern climbing shoes have amazing grip and you can use pressure to ‘hold’ yourself via your feet and take a little bit of pressure off the arms. You also want to keep your bodyweight as close to the wall as possible. This will make you less likely to swing off and will also increase your reach.


The key to keeping your body close to the wall is your hips. Keep your hips in and the rest will follow. A very common problem with beginners is allowing your hips to hang away from the wall. This puts more pressure on your arms, moves your centre of gravity out into space and generally results in a sudden failure of grip followed by a fall.

Turning your hips into the wall also gives you extra reach with the arm closest to the wall. In the picture below, Alex Johnson is turned right into the wall for maximum reach. She is actually utilising a technique called the ‘drop knee’ or ‘egyptian’ which is a more advanced technique than some of those described here but is essential for steep rock.

alex johnson
Alex Johnson from Bishop Bouldering

If you look at her left foot and knee, you will see that instead of her knee and her foot facing outwards, she has actually pivoted her foot around so that the toe is pointing inwards and the knee is also dropped inwards. This gives her an extra foot or two of reach on the left side and also provides a reasonable foothold through the pressure being exerted outwards. You really have to do it yourself to understand just how useful this move is!

Climber on Triple sec
Here is another, simpler example of turning your hips into the wall.  This climber isn’t doing any fancy pivoting, he is just climbing turned to the side, rather than facing the crag. This gives him a bit of extra reach and his centre of gravity is nice and close to the rock.

It is easy to complain about lack of reach but in fact there are not many routes that are completely ‘out of reach’ for all but the lankiest of climbers. Yes, smaller climbers may sometimes have to work harder or be more cunning but most reach issues can be conquered. Watch a good climber with a similar reach to see what techniques they use.

More tips

Try to keep your arms straight as much as possible – it is much less tiring. If you need to pause, whether to clip or rest, hang off a straight arm.

A good cue to remember, especially when climbing outdoors on real rock is: if you can’t move your hands, move your feet.


Although a great deal of noise is made about strength in climbing, the biggest advantage is technique. Steve McClure, one of the UK’s most successful sport climbers, points out that he is not the strongest climber by a long way but he succeeds because he works out the best position for his body to be in:

“You can climb in two different ways: you can be super-powerful and burl your way up it or you can be super-technical and find the perfect body position to make every move as easy as possible….I haven’t got the build or the time to get super-strong so I’ll try and use my head if possible”

Treat climbing not as a competition in strength but as problems to be worked out (that’s why boulder problems are so called after all!) and you are much more likely to succeed.

Further reading

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  • 1

    What I love about bouldering is the relative lack of equipment as well as its independence. Palm trees, stone walls near the café, and what-have-you they’re all potential “walls” to traverse at whatever height you wish. Good free times.

    Your rockover looks too easy for you. Myself? I’d have fallen onto the tire shavings – on me back.

    ultrafknbd on May 12th, 2009
  • 2

    Completely agree about the ease and delight of bouldering. Going for a trad climb is great but there’s a sense of mission about it.

    I am lucky to live near quite a few decent boulder sites so I rarely need to improvise, but a friend of mine has put up a few problems on the toilet block down at the local beach!

    gubernatrix on May 13th, 2009
  • 3

    Great post, Gubes!
    Never climbed outdoors,only a few times indoors on rock walls, but it was a ton of fun and really tough on the legs.
    Thanks for all the technique descriptions! Much appreciated!!!

    Fred on May 14th, 2009
  • 4

    Two additional aspects to climbing.

    1: Positive attitude/mental strength is king, and can be built.
    2: Take care of your joints, tendons and ligaments! Dont overstretch and pull hard. Be careful with crimps. These thing will come back and haunt you 10-20 years later if you dont think about it. Climbing shoes will ruin your toes if you wear them super-tight.

    Take care of your body and keep the fun in it, otherwise you might end up living just five hundred meters from a three pitch crag with loads of routes which you never visit becouse you burnt out 🙂

    Rolfe on May 14th, 2009
  • 5

    […] Rock climbing technique – weight training, strength, fitness … Many people are turning to indoor climbing for fitness. They may, or may not have ambitions to climb regularly on rock but the indoor climbing environment is a fun adjunct. […]

  • 6

    Thanks 🙂 Just want I needed!

    I’m short so I can’t reach some of the holds 🙁 Sometimes, I swing in my current position and use that momentum to jump/reach for that hold. It’s quite fun 🙂

    What’s so bad about crimping that would affect you 10-20years down the track?

    n00b to climbing on September 29th, 2009
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