How to Improve and Get Better at Rock Climbing: Essential Do’s and Don’t

The first time I went rock climbing, I had been cornered by a cougar in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. The canyon we had happened to be in was steep walled and filled with basalt cliffs. My only option of escape was to climb the cliffs. It turns out, climbing can be an essential survival skill in certain situations, and I decided that I wanted to get better at it.

How to get better at rock climbing: Like many skills, getting better at climbing only happens with practice and the use of proper technique. Once you learn the fundamentals, the only way to improve at a skill is to do it over and over. Climbing is a highly physical activity, so mental and physical conditioning is a must.

After my encounter with that cougar, I took it upon myself to research and learn the fundamentals of rock climbing. Even in environments without cliffs or rocks available, there are always ways to practice and get better, with or without a gym. It is especially important to avoid bad habits in a sport where your life is literally in your hands.

The Fundamentals of Rock Climbing

Whether or not you are a beginner or an advanced rock climber, it is always good practice to touch base with the fundamentals. This is the same in language, music, art, dance, and many other skills that require such a degree of skill and practice. Maintaining strong fundamentals means maintaining a strong foundation, and in a sport with only four points of contact, fundamentals are crucial.

The general rule of thumb for mastering a skill is that it takes 10,000 hours to master one, just one. It takes about 500 repetitions to make a habit, and about a 1,000 to make a habit muscles memory. If you aren’t under the watchful eye of a teacher, tutor, coach, master, or sensei, then it is very easy to develop a bad habit. Bad habits or movements are hard to break, especially if it is part of a chain of movements.

Bad habits and improper form when training can lead to injuries or worse. This is why is it important to revisit the fundamentals and touch ground, so to speak. It will help reinforce proper technique and safety habits, and hopefully, if a climber is developing a bad habit it will help identify and rectify it.

That is why revisiting the fundamentals is crucial, for the advanced and the beginners alike. Someone who is quite practiced may rediscover something they may have missed in the past and help them elevate their game. It’s a lot like returning home for a taste of mom’s home cooking.

Terms of Rock Climbing

First, every skillset comes with terminology; this is known as colloquial language. It allows you to define specific knowledge pertaining to a certain subject, and to relay that information to others involved in that skill or activity. It’s hard to talk about something unless you know how to talk about it.

Communication is key in all things.

Rock Climbing is a surprisingly technical sport, with many terms describing the sport in its entirety. When I say entirety, I mean it is almost like its own language. Kind of like studying Anatomy and Physiology, there is an anatomy to the climb, and there is practically a term or phrase for the equipment or how equipment is connected in different ways.

I could make a list for you to peruse. However, I’m going to defer to the experts on this over at Recreational Equipment, Inc. They have already put together an extensive and throughout rock climbing glossary.

R.E.I’s Rock-Climbing Glossary

When climbing, communication is incredibly important.

Strength Training for Rock Climbing

This area of training is integral to the field of rock climbing, though not as important at technique. Many muscles are utilized in the sport of climbing that simply don’t see much use in the modern world, for instance, your fingers. Even a person like myself, who is no stranger to working with hammers or placing bricks, still experiences rapid fatigue in the fingers when it comes to climbing for a lengthy amount of time.

Climbers should approach strength training with the same respect as they approach the rock. It is a constant part of being a climber, especially when training to be what most of the world considers an elite-level athlete. The sport of rock climbing is more similar to wrestling and gymnastics that to other endurance sports.

When strength training for rock climbing, the goal is not to build strength through mass but to maximize the amount of strength produced with minimal mass. Think of it as a high power-to-weight ratio, like a super sport motorcycle beating a Ferrari on the track. On the rock, you don’t want to be carrying all that extra weight around as it will cause you to fatigue a lot faster.

Endurance is also a very important aspect of rock climbing; without endurance, you probably won’t get very far up the route of a climb. So, keeping your mass low, your strength at its highest potential for maximum strength, and your endurance high, is the goal of strength training for rock climbing.

Using workouts that focus on combination movements is best for training for rock climbing. Kettlebells are an excellent type of weight for supplemental weight training. If you are starting out in climbing and have access to a gym, then start climbing every week, this is a great way to get your baseline strength up to par in climbing.

Once you are capable of conquering short climbs, then it is time to really start getting into supplemental weight training to increase strength endurance, and balance. This will enable you to really elevate your climbing game when out on the rock.

If you are new to training, strength, or otherwise, you need to keep an eye out on your form. What I mean by this is that when exercising, or climbing, the action taken by the body is to provide the most efficiency and power through the move. So, practicing in front of a mirror slowly is not bad practice.

Remember what I said about repetitions forming a habit; this is where you can easily create a bad habit that gets hidden in your movements until someone later points it out. Then you will have to unlearn a habit, which is tedious and hard to break.

Also, overtraining is a good way to get zero gains and injure yourself. So, take it easy, eat well, get rest, and leave plenty of time between training for the body to recover. Most importantly, listen to your body. It is smarter than you know.

Mental Hardening

As with any sport, the head game is a big part of rock climbing. Having self confidence and the ability to think clearly with sweat and the sun in your eyes while being blown about by strong gusts of wind are crucial. It’s hard to stop climbing when there is only one way down, which is getting to the top.

Confidence will often determine success or failure before even beginning the route. The power of negativity should never be underestimated. The fear of failure often will manifest failure, and being negative is a great way to not only damage your own confidence but the confidence of those around you.

One of the most amazing attributes of climbers is their immense mental toughness. Failure is part of the sport. Falling, and going back at a route 1,200 feet into the air with the same amount of confidence before falling is one of the trademarks of a seasoned climber.

Over the years, many climbers have had to overcome their lack of self confidence by developing rituals, techniques, and learning mental activities to keep their drive and confidence high.

Overconfidence, though, can be just as limiting as self-doubt, and potentially much more dangerous. For instance, with a belay system a climber can rappel down the rock face. There is a supposed to be a knot in the rope to ensure that a climber does not rappel of their rope. An overconfident climber may forget to add this knot, as would someone who was distracted.

The head game of a climber is an incredibly important part of the climber’s skillset. The psychological fortitude and focus of a person are also a muscle. The mind can be exercised just as much as the body. Fear, lack of focus, fatigue, and negativity are all things that can dramatically affect a climber’s performance, and they exist solely in the mind.

Working on Your Head Game

One of the biggest fears and causes of a lack of confidence is a fear of falling. Even experienced climbers still retain some fear of falling. Ironically enough, the way to develop confidence with falling is to fall. Practice falling in a gym or on a rock will help a climber gain trust in their belay equipment, giving them the confidence to approach a route without fear.

Some key points when working on your head game:

  • Avoid thinking negative thoughts. Negative thoughts have a very real physical effect. This can cause you to lose focus, get jittery, overanalyze your grip.
  • Keeping a cool head is a key skill when climbing. It is an exhaustive sport and being able to disassociate from frustration and fatigue is a key skill to acquire.

Another way to help manage confidence before a climb is to make a pre-climb ritual. By ritual, I mean coming up with a checklist, pre-climb warm-ups, mentally preparing for your route. Anything that really helps put your mind at ease. In psychology, it is known that superstition helps to relieve stress, so eating your favorite food, calling a loved one, wearing your favorite pair of climbing socks, may just be the mental edge you need to have a successful climb.

Something else that will help you gain confidence when anticipating a particularly difficult climb is remembering past experiences of climbing successes. The reinforcement of these positive thoughts will keep your spirits high and keep your performance good.

There is no substitute for solid training. When you have trained hard and have practiced each handhold and foot placement, then you have every right to feel confident tackling a rock route. Just remember that even elite climbers fall and have had issues with confidence.

If you are new to the sport of rock climbing and looking to get out on a rock for your first time, one of the best things you can do is go with an experienced climber. This is a great way to save hours of trial and error learning when getting your start.

Working on Rock Climbing Techniques

While strength is a major part of rock climbing, technique is a much larger part f the sport. Without exercising proper technique, a climber will find themselves quickly gassed and unable to tackle more difficult climbs. Proper technique allows a climber to reserve their strength and endurance, squeezing every ounce of performance out of their bodies.

Technique is one of those things that is always worked on. Even the pros still continue to work on their technique well after they reach godlike status.

There are a few key things:

  • A mistake most climbers make when getting their start is climbing with their hands and arms. While it may seem a little counterintuitive, you actually are climbing with your legs while you use your hands for balance and to hold position. Keeping your weight over your feet reduces the strain felt by the rest of your body.
  • Another common mistake made when climbing is to keep your arms outstretched as much as possible. This will keep your arms from being overused while climbing and prevent you from getting gassed too early into the climb.
  • Having a high degree of situational awareness will help keep you moving forward. If you find yourself in a spot that you are having difficulty in, many people will look for a new handhold. What you should do is look for a new foothold since your stability is from the legs.

Learning How to Use Grips Effectively

Hand grips are the backbone of rock climbing. Due to the variance of rock faces that there are, there are different grips that have to be utilized to climb the face of a rock. There is no real substation for improving hand grip than training.

Once you have learned the basic hand grips and how to apply them effectively, the best thing you can do is get outside. Bouldering is the climbing or short routes, or quite literally boulders. These small routes are perfect to practice your hand grips.

Despite being short routes, you will come across all different degrees of grades while bouldering. Another benefit of bouldering is that you can do this in an afternoon with some climbing shoes and a fall pad.

To show just how effective bouldering is to practice and develop hand strength Kevin Jorgeson, a well-known climber for his feats in bouldering, was able to climb The Dawn Wall with Tommy Caldwell. The Dawn Wall is one of the hardest climbs in the world, and at the time Kevin had little to no big wall experience.

The documentary The Dawn Wall manages to capture this feat of human endurance shared between these two men. If you happen to have 2 hours to spare, I really would suggest giving it a watch. It is a great story of how Tommy Caldwell decided to tackle something most people thought was virtually impossible, and how he overcame many obstacles and setbacks to overcome the challenge.

How to Train Grips Without a Gym

With the popularity of rock climbing on the rise, rock climbing gyms are popping up all over the country. Still, many people who are interested in the sport are in areas where they don’t have access to a gym or even to rocks that can be climbed. Either due to lack of available rocks or simply accessibility.

Most people can get to a good spot with a little bit of a road trip, so for those who are dedicated to the undertaking rock climbing as a sport there are many ways a person can train at home. This can often be a more efficient use of time and resources than going specifically to a gym to train.

Many elite level climbers have even gone so far as to build a gym in their own home. For most people, however, this level of investment and dedication isn’t necessary unless you find yourself addicted to climbing.

There are a few different pieces of equipment a person can use at home in order to train their hands to have a grip of steel:

  • Grippers are a great piece of equipment that a person can use in order to increase their hand grip. They come in several different resistance levels, so a person can work on their hand strength once they’ve plateaued on one device.
  • A fingerboard is a piece of equipment that is designed for people who don’t have easy access to a rock wall or rock. These boards have a series of different handholds built into them and are made to differing degrees of difficulty. Fingerboards are one of the best ways for a person to get the most out of their time when training at home.

What not to do when grip training:

  • Don’t train to the point of muscle failure in your hands. This can quickly lead to injury.
  • The hand develops strength very quickly, so a key thing about grip training is not overtraining. You need to give your hands time to recover and heal in order for strength to grow.
  • Always be sure to warm-up before any kind of exercise, this will significantly reduce the chances of injury.

Essential Health Tips

All athletes use their bodies to accomplish amazing feats of strength, endurance, and skill. A big part of being an athlete is learning how to use your body and how to take care of it. At the base of everything somatic, is nutrition. Nutrition is absolutely key to performance, recovery, and healing.

The Nutrition of Rock Climbing

There is a lot of discourse in the field of nutrition in general, with fad diets popping up weekly it seems. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies over time and actually can do worse for your body than good. So, when it comes to rock climbing or sports, a good rule of thumb is to avoid processed foods for the most part.

Before beginning a climb, it is very important to prime your body before undertaking.

The Priming Stage

This stage includes:

  • Hydrating: Improper hydration will lead to increased muscle fatigue and decreased muscle performance.
  • Carbs: The consumption of carbohydrates will increase the amount of glucose available in your blood stream. When the muscles deplete the glycogen stored in them, glycogen being the energy stores of the muscles, they can draw from the blood-glucose levels to supplement and maintain strength.
  • Protein: Eating some protein is also essential in the priming stage of the climbing diet, as it helps to reduce the fatigue signals that the brain will create, and aids in rehydration.

The Fueling Stage

During the climb, the body is rapidly expending energy, so a crucial part of a climber’s nutrition during the climb is consuming energy rich foods and maintain hydration. Damage to the muscles occurs during the climb which can lead to a sense of fatigue.

  • While climbing, it is important to drink water, eat something high in carbohydrates and a mild amount of protein about every 30 minutes or so. This will ensure that your energy levels stay high and you are able to mentally focus on the climb instead of physical discomfort.

The Recovery Stage

The first 45 minutes post exercise, or any workout for that matter, is an important part of that recovery period. There is a heightened metabolic stage that is responsible for replenishing energy stores and muscle synthesis. Having adequate nutrition during this window of opportunity will ensure restored energy levels and an increase in strength for the next climb.

  • The ideal ratio for recovery is a carbohydrate to protein ratio of 4/1. This will restore energy lost and boost muscle recovery much better than a traditional all protein energy drink.

The Etiquette of Rock Climbing

I don’t know how you feel about it, but personally, when I go out to eat or to a potluck, sharing dinner with a person who never learned how to chew their food with their food closed gets under my skin like nothing else. Etiquette is important.

Just like with fine dining, proper etiquette is key to the enjoyment of many experiences. Being outdoors is no exception, even on a rock. There are a few unspoken rules in rock climbing that should be observed in order to maximize the enjoyment of the experience.

  • Follow the general rule of Pack it in, Pack it out. Trash is not, and never has been attractive. It is especially displeasing when you must wade through it on approach to the route.
  • Being as how climbing is becoming increasingly popular, some popular climbing spots can get a little crowded. Sometimes you may have to share a route with another team or two and may end up crowding each other. If you are a faster climber, it is generally acceptable to pass them on the rock.
  • Cleaning the Rock is a large part of the climber’s etiquette. Any equipment that you place on the rock should be removed. This is the same as just leaving trash from food and drink at the bottom of the climb.
  • Respect the Rules of the local authorities. Many climbing locations are on state and local land and need to be followed. Remember that at the end of the day, they are the entities that allow climbing. They can also shut down climbing if they feel the need to.
  • Respect the Locals who have more than likely climbed in this area for much longer than you have had time to even think about it. The local population will generally know where the best routes to take are, generally, are filled with information to share. You never know, if they take a liking to you, they may even show you a few secrets of the area.
  • If you have a dog, keep it on a leash. It’s generally pretty annoying to have to shoo a dog off from your campsite every 30 seconds, not being able to enjoy your lunch or dinner because you have to deal with a beggar. Or, stepping in scat. Not cool, bro.
  • Rock climbing isn’t a party, at least not for everyone. Many people, like myself, go out to nature for an escape and to enjoy what nature itself has to offer, and not to party like a wildman. I don’t mind a good party, but let’s keep the music down a just enjoy what we have out in nature. Plus, it is never enjoyable to have some random drunk stumble into camp late at night.

There is no short cut to get better at rock climbing. The more you do it, and the more you practice proper technique, the better you will get at it.

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