Note--I wrote this for a climbing movement course I  was teaching to climbing instructors, but it works well for anyone. 

Climbing Movement Theory

The Big Concept: Climbing is a movement sport, not a strength sport. The best climbers are good at climbing; strength matters far less than the combination of the climber’s motion skills, attitude and mind. The best way to become a better climber is develop better movement; strength will develop specifically for climbing movement as fast as it is needed. Most climbs are combinations of movements; the better the climber is at those movements, the better he or she will climb the route. Strength is not even secondary, it’s about last on the list of needed skills. My goal is to teach the MOVES outlined below as best I can to students.

Example: In 1992 I became convinced that good climbers were strong climbers, hence I needed to be strong. After spending months in the weight room I could do a one-arm pull up with 25 pounds in the other hand and many other stunts that definitely made me very strong. My climbing improved perhaps a letter grade or two, which was positive. I then went to France, where I won several pull-up contests, often by miles. Some of these climbers were pathetic, barely able to do ten pull-ups, and these were the best in the world! Then I noticed that I was getting my ass kicked in the competitions, finishing low in the field despite being stronger than most anyone there. At the crags the French were climbing much harder routes onsight than I was capable of climbing with a lot of falls. Something was not right. One night in a bar a top euro climber was expounding on why the French were so good: "We have the best rock in the world. We climb more than anyone else. And we have the best wine." In one sentence he restructured my entire world view of climbing: To become a better climber you simply must climb more. A week later I watched Francois LeGrande onsight a route harder than anything I had ever climbed. Francois had never touched a weight, but god could he move. I resolved to learn how to move. After six months of doing nothing but climbing and studying climbing movement, I onsighted a route harder than anything I’d ever redpointed. So forget weights, strength, supplements, learn how to move and your body will develop the strength necessary for the movements.

I. Movement Basics:

Every climbing move starts from one body position and flows to the next  A climber must be in a balanced body position to start a movement, and a climber must be balanced at the end of a movement or fall off. Balance isn’t static, like standing on a beam, but dynamic, like riding a bicycle, a balancing act between the forces you can exert and gravity. A tough route may require a "movement" that is four or five hand and foot moves long. However, there is still a start and an end point to the movement. The following is my progression for teaching climbing movement.

First, your body has four hands, which are all capable of pushing and pulling to various degrees. Watch some monkeys climbing to see this; they are all 5.20 climbers from birth. We’ve gone downhill from an evolutionary climbing perspective from them, but we can learn some things by what they do. If you’re going to move a foot/hand, it has to be "free" to do so, meaning that’s it is ready to be unweighted. This doesn’t mean your weight has to be equally spread out like the old "three points of contact" concept, but that your hand/foot has to be in a position to move. This means putting the CORE of your body in a balanced position between your hand and your feet. Not a direct line or directly over your feet, but a position that you can comfortably hold.

Drill: Get everyone on the wall. Ask them to take their right hands off, then left, then left foot, then right, coaching them on how to get into balance to do so. This teaches people to position their bodies for the moves; explaining this "lecture form" is near impossible. Most people will only learn the complex moves of climbing through doing so; explanation is usually wasted until the holds are in hand.

Holds usually have several different ways to grab them; the trick is to quickly recognize which method a hold requires: Sidepulls, underclings, straight-on edges/pockets. Explain and demonstrate each one of these holds so the class has a common vocabulary when you’re working with them.

For feet, holds are used as "smears" and "edges" or a combination of both. The inside edge of the shoe is the inside edge, same for the outside edge, just like skis. Bulbous holds, small or large, require smearing with the appropriate side of the foot. Holds with a sharp edge require the user to concentrate their weight onto the side of their climbing shoes. MAKE SURE EVERYONE WATCHES THEIR FOOT ACTUALLY PRECISELY CONTACT THE HOLD, RATHER THAN SLAPPING IT ABOVE THE HOLD AND SLIDING IT DOWN THE WALL TO THE HOLD. Watch your foot contact the hold like you watch a ball until you contact it." Most novices fall off because their feet blow. Explain how to keep your feet "Quiet" on a hold, move you ankles instead of your foot.

Drill: Get everyone on the wall, go through inside edge, outside edge, smear.

II. Intermediate-Level Movement: Do the Twist

Upward progress on a route depends on driving the moves with your legs as much as possible, using your arms as little as possible. Even on very steep terrain, your arms will only carry you for a move or two. Top climbers don’t have big arms, but they are flexible and adapt their bodies quickly to the terrain. The steeper the terrain gets, the more your feet became hands instead of just pegs to stand on. On very steep terrain you will be pulling with your feet to stay on the wall, and then pushing with them to move horizontally. Think like a spider walking across an overhang… Most climbers fail on steep terrain because they can’t effectively keep their feet on rather than because they lack arm strength…


Drill: Have students climb across the wall with straight arms, out a cave on big holds with straight arms, twisting their bodies back and forth rather than pulling with their arms. Trunk rotation is "bad" in skiing, but it rules in climbing.

Concept: Your body is a series of levers with muscles to move them. The trunk of your body is where all the levers attach, and where the majority of your weight resides. Most climbing movements are done most efficiently as twists and swings, like a metronome, with your weight moving back and forth from hold to hold depending on where your trunk is. Your weight has to be balanced between whatever contact you have with the rock and the evil force of gravity.


Reaches: Reaching for the next hold is obviously a big part of climbing; if you’re going up then you’re reaching. Reaches begin on the starting holds and finish, surprise, on the finish hold or holds. There are basically four kinds of reaches:

  1. Straight up reach with the holds in a line. Grab the starting hold with one hand, put the opposite foot outside edge on the wall, twist your body and go up. This is a basic Outside Edge Reach. A really big outside edge reach on a steep wall is is called a "drop-knee" reach, same basic concept.
  2. Drill: Set several of these problems up.

  3. Straight up reach with the foot hold off to the side. Same as above, but use your foot to "flag" off to the side for balance.
  4. Drill: Set several of these problems up.,

  5. Sideways reach with the foot hold in line with the starting hold. Same as a straight up reach, only flag.
  6. Drill: Set these problems up.

  7. Sideways reach with the foot hold out toward the finishing hold, also called a "rock-on" reach. This is where the climber’s foot becomes a hand, most difficult of all four reaches to teach. "Rock-on" reaches also start teaching climbers to pull their weight around with their feet as well as their hands.


Drill: Set a problem with a large foothold that can basically only be done with a rock-on. Careful of people’s knees.

Reaches start and end at holds, but the "initiation" for a reach should begin with both hands on holds, flow upward or sideways, and then end by repositioning the climber’s body on the finishing holds for balance. If a climber lets go of the hold with the hand they are reaching with before developing some momentum, then the move is much harder. Flow, it’s all about flow…


III. Advanced Movement. Get DYNAMIC!

Lunges should be a potent weapon in any climber’s grab bag of tricks, both to save energy and for when there is no other solution to a problem, a kind of "Blast Everything on the Screen" button. Dynamic moves initiate with a "Spring" body position and end in a "Catch." The body position in the "Spring" determines the body position in the "Catch." If a climber starts out with a a poor Spring position then the game’s over before even arriving anywhere near the catch. Some people call this, "Leading with your feet," or "planning the strike," it all means starting so that you end up with enough support to hang on.


Drill: On a vertical wall with big holds, send everyone across it just using their right hands, then switch and go back the other way with the other hand. Not too long, maybe five metres, but with lots of big holds. This is always fun. This also helps people starting thinking about movement like chess: I start with this move, which ends at the beginning of the next move, which holds do I need for my hands, for feet, why?


Drill: After everyone has "mastered" the above drill, set two horizontal lines of hold across the wall about 50cm apart. Send everyone across this line of holds, but this time make them double-dyno between the lower and upper line of holds on each move, can’t use the same holds with the same hands twice. Explain double dyno.

Bigger dynoes: All dynamic movement follows a "C" pattern in the air. Most climbers dyno incorrectly, starting with their weight in close to the wall, followed by an aggressive pull upward, which sends them flying AWAY from the hold at the end of the dyno Here’s the E-Z way to dyno:

  1. Start with your feet relatively close to your hands, maybe a meter apart, with your arms straight. Your legs should be coiled, ready to SPRING. Your body is fairly close to the wall, curled.
  2. Push aggressively with your feet, letting your arms act as levers, but NOT pulling until they are perpendicular to the wall. At this point your body is fairly far away from the wall.
  3. As your arms pass horizontal, pull some with your arms, directing your momentum up and IN to the hold. Think of throwing the holds down past your body rather than pulling to the catch hold.
  4. Grab the hold, focusing on getting your feet back on and back into a stable body position. If the dyno is too big to get at first, pick a spot only halfway to it and just touch that spot, then cut that distance in half, then in half again, slowly developing the body patterns to reach the hold. Get psyched to do bigger dynoes…

Most people blow number two above, pulling too early with their arms, which results in their weight flying OUT away from the hold rather than in and toward it. The big concept here is to move your weight, the pendulum, away from the hold, then swing it back toward the hold, powering the motion with your legs and fine-tuning direction with your arms. You don’t catch the finish hold at the "deadpoint" of the motion, but reach out and grab it with one or both hands as it comes toward you, pulling your body back onto the wall.


Drill: On a vertical wall, set a relatively easy "double’ Dyno, with a longer one above that and an even longer one way up the wall.


Drill: Also set a horizontal dyno, a diagonal dyno, small-edge dynoes, dynoes with good feet, bad feet, etc.


OK, enough already, have fun climbing.