Coach Ian Kosten busts myths and shares tried-and-true tips to help you overcome plateaus, avoid injury, and get more enjoyment out of your climbing sessions.
By Ryan Halvorson
Have you struggled lately with your climbing? Are you a beginner who isn’t sure where or how to make the most of your time in the gym? I sat down with Mesa Rim coach Ian Kosten to discuss some of the misconceptions people have about climbing, his tips for becoming a better climber, and more.
Here’s what he had to say.
Don’t Worry Too Much About Finger Strength
It’s logical to think that finger and grip strength is an end-all and therefore head to the training area with hangboard training plans in hand. That thought is especially common among newer climbers usually because they tend to experience excessive finger, hand, and forearm fatigue. But it’s not necessarily only because of weakness; it’s almost always due to technique.
The truth is, especially toward the beginning, finger-specific training programs aren’t necessary. And they might also put you at a risk of injury because typically at that point the tendons haven’t adapted well enough to handle the strain.
Initially, the best way to condition your fingers is simply to climb, learn techniques, and practice optimal body positions. Your fingers, hands, and forearms will naturally become stronger this way. Then, maybe after 6 months, you might look into a finger strengthening program. If you get to that point, it’s a good idea to get guidance from a qualified trainer or coach who can give you specific and individualized instruction.
. . . Or Upper-Body Strength
Another common misconception is that you need to possess significant upper-body strength to be able to climb well. It’s not wrong to think this because on the surface it looks like climbing is all about pulling.
However, climbing is actually mostly about pushing, footwork, leg strength, and hip drive. Lower-body muscles are larger and possess more strength and endurance than upper-body ones so the most successful climbers have learned to leverage their legs and hips in order to climb longer and stronger.
People who don’t have a lot of upper-body strength often experience faster progression than those with lots of upper-body muscle because they’re forced to learn technique and how to use their lower bodies to get up the wall. Those with lots of upper-body muscle who favor arms over legs usually burn out quickly because they treat a route as a series of pull-ups
. . . Or Grades
Don’t focus so much on the grades and instead emphasize the quality of your climbing. The thing about grades is that they can be highly subjective because some routes inherently favor those with certain abilities.
For example, a crimpy 2/3 might feel much tougher than a pinchy 2/3 for some, whereas the opposite is true for others. Some people thrive on balancy routes while others do better on problems that require powerful movements.
Also, everyone has different physical attributes that can impact how difficult a climb is; not everyone has the same ankle, hip, and shoulder mobility, for instance. The point is that grades can act as information to help you gauge a route’s difficulty—especially if you’re new to climbing—but they should not be used as the only indicator of your overall physical ability or progress.
However grades can helpful to guide your training plan each day. If your goal is a high-volume, endurance type of session then you can stick to lower grades that are challenging, but very much doable, so that you can get a lot of routes in. Or, if you plan to push your limits, then you might want to stick to problems that are at the higher range of your ability.
Instead of using grades as your sole indicator of progress or ability, it can also be helpful to look to other markers. Maybe you’ve noticed that your endurance has improved or you’ve gotten better at reading routes. Maybe you don’t struggle as much on those crimpy routes as you did when you first started climbing. Focusing on a multitude of progress points will keep your psyche and climbing enjoyment high.
Set an Intention
A lot of people hit the gym with a very basic idea—or no idea at all—of what they plan to do. That’s a great way to set yourself up for a lackluster session. You wouldn’t head to the fitness center without some sort idea of what you want to accomplish, so why would you do that when you climb?
The next time you go for a climb, put some thought into what you’d like to achieve while you’re there. Maybe you’ve got a climbing trip planned and you need to train on routes to prepare you for that. Perhaps you just want to get your sweat on and so you might aim for high volume. Or, maybe your only goal is to have fun or blow off some steam. Having an intention can guide your training session, give you more focus and purpose, and lead to a greater sense of accomplishment.
Do What You Love
Figure out why you started climbing and keep focused on that. It might be different than why other people climb and that’s ok. What will keep you interested in the sport is staying rooted in your purpose for doing it. And that purpose might evolve over time. So, it’s important to keep checking in with yourself about why you visit the gym or crag. Some people want to push their bodies to their limits. Others are looking for stress relief. Some like overhangs and others prefer slab. If you hate crimps, why torture yourself by climbing crimpy routes? Unless you’re training for something specific that requires it, there’s no reason to do something you don’t like to do. You’re more likely to keep climbing if you enjoy it, feel successful and are in complete control over your experience.