While climbing is, by nature, a challenging sport, there are several common—and easily fixable—errors that can keep you from achieving your best potential.
Rock climbing has boomed in popularity over the last 5 years or so. With this onslaught of new climbers, it’s been easier to observe the most common mistakes that beginners tend to make that inhibits their ability to progress in this sport. This is a list of those most frequent climbing mistakes and how best to avoid them.
1. T-Rex arms
New climbers often choke up on holds when they climb—this is often referred to as T-Rex arms—probably because bending at the elbow keeps them closer to the wall so they feel safer. This drains your energy and directs a lot of blood to the forearms, which tightens them up and makes it harder to grip onto things. We call this being “pumped” and it’s not a good thing when climbing (unlike how bodybuilders often take supplements to get pumped on purpose). A better approach is to keep your arms long and relatively straight, twisting your body while pivoting on your toes to reach to the next hold rather than just bending at the elbows.
Over-gripping is just as it sounds: clenching onto a hold with your hands harder than necessary. It’s important to know how much or how little you actually need to grip a hold to avoid getting pumped and to exert less energy per square inch of climbing. Less energy expended per square inch = longer climbs. A relaxed hand helps you keep your arms straight as well, making it easier to avoid the above mentioned T-Rex arms. To learn some simple ways to manage the pump, see the article, “5 Ways to Beat the Pump”.
The best way to understand how much energy to put into your grip is to practice on the wall, low to the ground, holding hard onto different types of climbing holds and slowly loosening your grasp until you fall off of the wall. Soon, you will understand how it’s supposed to feel and it will become second nature . . . at least until you’re scared . . . or tired . . . or hungry.
3. Slippery feet
If I had a nickel for every time I saw a new climber cut feet—that’s when your feet come off of the wall—unnecessarily, I’d have a whole lot of nickels. This is often a result of not looking where you’re putting your feet. It can also be due to a weak core or, possibly, terrible/old shoes.
There are easy fixes for each:
Watch your step. First, look where you place your toes. There can be lots of sides or textures to the foot chip/climbing hold that you’re placing your feet on. Find the spot on the hold that looks most secure and test it out by weighting down on your toes to see if it’s going to pop.
Hold directionality—or the positioning of the hold—is a somewhat advanced, but crucial aspect of climbing to take note of when placing your feet on a hold. For example, a hold may have flat edges like this: “/” (best side is sloping to the left) or “\” (best side is sloping to the right) or “–“ (flat) but could also be “n” (rounded). The direction of the hold will give you insight into optimal foot placement. A good rule of thumb is to always assess first, then place.
Strengthen your core. Second, if the reason your feet are popping off holds is because of a weak core (this makes overhang and cave/roof problems in particular more of a struggle), then strengthen your core; easy peasy. Elbow planks, hanging knee lifts and other similar exercises can help. If you’d like a bit more guidance on how to build a stronger core, you can take the core clinic at Mira Mesa or Mission Valley.
Consider your shoes. Finally, if it’s just that your shoes are super old or just terrible, it’s still likely that you’re not assessing before placing your feet, or the weak core thing . . . but go ahead and buy new shoes.
4. Outstretched reaching
Sometimes it’s like new climbers forget that they have feet altogether. If you’re on your tippy toes because you can’t quite reach the next hold, it’s most probable that you need to bring up your feet; the higher your feet can go without your hips falling too far away from the wall, the higher your hands can go. If you can’t find a hold for your toes, you may need to smear your feet. This is when you place the ball of your foot and your toes flat onto the wall itself and not on a specific hold. But, of course, it could also be that you just didn’t see a hold because it’s hidden around the corner or underneath a bigger hold that isn’t part of your climb; visual awareness is very important for climbers because you can’t solve a puzzle if you don’t have all of the pieces. In order to move forward without becoming outstretched, you must always set your feet first before moving with your hands. To keep it simple: look, assess, place, then move.
So, there you go; these are the solutions to the most common climbing mistakes. I hope this little “do this, not that” read will help anyone new to climbing—or someone who is struggling to make progress—gain a better understanding of how body movement on the wall works so they can improve climbing efficiency.