Basic Rock Climbing

Pete Nuij

This article was written by Pete
Nuij during his studies at UBC and is an excellent reference for beginner
and intermediate level climbers.
All about the

Difficulty ratings in rock climbing are based on the
Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which uses a two number system to
differentiate between the difficulties of different climbs. The first number
assigned to a route defines the technical level of the climb.  All
technical rock climbs using ropes and other protective equipment are
designated the number 5 so this number is standard to all climbs that I am
concerned with.  The second number of the two determines the overall
difficulty of the route itself.  Essentially this is the only number
that really matters. Following the second number a letter between a and d
appears further subdividing and fine tuning the overall difficulty rating
assigned to a climb.  Therefore a climb with a grade of 5.11a is more
difficult than a climb with a grade of 5.10c and so on.


Climbing Physiology 101

sport has specific requirements that athletes must attempt to meet. Those
who meet the requirements of their specific sport often (but not always)
enjoy success while those athletes lacking in certain areas never perform at
their peak.  The forearm flexors, lattisimus dorsi, rhomboids, levator
scapulae and the medial, lateral and anterior deltoids provide the majority
of contractile force while on a climb.  Climbing performance is most
often limited by the forearm flexors which are small compared to the other
muscles involved and are subject to high levels of lactic acid during
performance.  Since climbing is largely an anaerobic activity, the
forearm flexors must have an incredibly large tolerance for the build-up of
lactic acid.  It is not uncommon for a climber to develop an arm ‘pump’
one third of the way up a climb and have to fight to avoid getting ‘pumped
out’ and falling before the end of the route.  Lower body strength is
not of major concern to climbers as the majority of high-end rock climbs are
quite steep and almost entirely dependent on upper body strength.
Anyone with adequate leg strength to perform daily activities is at no
disadvantage as a climber.  On the other side of the coin, excessive
lower body strength can actually be an indirect detriment to climbing
performance as strength is often accompanied by size which increases overall
body weight therefore decreasing the strength to weight ratio that is so
important to climbers. Muscles of the abdomen, including rectus abdominis
and the internal and external obliques are very important in climbing
performance.  As routes become harder they often become steeper with
overhangs of 45
not uncommon.  It is key when climbing such steep routes that the feet
not come off the wall to avoid excessively weighting the arms and promoting
premature fatigue of the upper body musculature.  Strong abdominal
muscles lead to what is known as good ‘body tension’ and allows the legs to
maintain contact with the wall and decrease the load on the upper body.


Differences Between Indoor and Outdoor Climbing


While there are definite similarities
and advantages to climbing both indoors and outdoors the two disciplines are
in fact quite different in what they demand of the climber. Indoor climbing
requires a more sustained level of effort and a level of overall fitness
that would make all but the most well conditioned outdoor climbers look like
the Pillsbury Doughboy.  Outdoor routes have sections of difficult
climbing dispersed among numerous features and easier terrain that allow
climbers to recover if not fully at least partially.  Indoor routes on
the other hand are created especially for competitions to be consistently
difficult but not overwhelmingly so, thereby demanding that the climber have
excellent technique, power endurance and local endurance.  Due to the
inconsistent nature of outdoor routes, overall strength and power play a
more significant role in linking sections between rests than do power
endurance or local endurance.  Another significant
difference between indoor and outdoor climbing is the goal of the climber
upon leaving the ground.

Indoor competitive climbing focuses on
what is known as on sighting, which means whichever climber gets highest on
their first and only attempt on a route wins.  This type of climbing
requires the climber to have excellent power endurance and local endurance
in order to pause at various locations on route in order to figure out
sequences.  On sight climbing requires that climbers spend long periods
of time on route climbing slowly but surely to avoid making mistakes.
While on sight climbing can occur on outdoor routes, the majority of
climbers spend their time on outdoor routes performing what is called
redpointing.  Redpointing refers to the climber getting to the top of a
route without falling regardless of how many attempts it takes.
Redpoint climbing allows the climber to rehearse moves and train for
specific routes which allows redpointed routes to be more difficult
absolutely than on sighted routes.

While redpoint climbing does require
low levels of power endurance and local endurance to be successful, the
majority of a redpoint climbers needs are met by strength and power as often
a route has been attempted so many times that the climber can literally
sprint from rest to rest, disposing of crux moves in a matter of seconds on
the way to a rest that allows full recovery.




Climbing as a sport is incredibly demanding of its
athletes.  In order to climb at a high level one must possess strength,
power, power endurance, local endurance, technique, flexibility and core
strength all at a moderate to high levels.  While it is possible to
succeed on some rock climbs with a deficiency in one or more of these areas,
in order to truly climb at your peak level all of these components must be
maximized (See figure 1).  Overall climbing performance can be thought
of as the summation of individual attributes and therefore a sub maximal
performance capability of one or more attributes leads to sub maximal
overall performance (See Figure 2).



Figure 1


column on the left represents a well rounded climber. While none of the
performance variables are high the overall climbing performance is greater
than the climber on the left whose strength and technique are relatively
strong at the expense of the other performance variables.

Figure 2


Overall climbing performance can be

thought of as the summation of performance variables.






Strength can be defined as the ability to exert force.
When we talk about how strong a muscle is we are speaking of how much force
that particular muscle can produce.  Strength is a very important
component of climbing in that strength allows for the slow contraction of a
muscle or muscles allowing a climber to move up a route smoothly and
efficiently. Strength is essential on technically demanding routes or routes
with difficult to hang onto holds as the amount of force the hands and
fingers can produce determines whether you fall or make it to the top of the
route.  On routes such as these powerfully moving from hold to hold in
a dynamic fashion would be an endeavour with a very low percentage chance of
success. A climber with a high level of strength in the same situation would
be able to exert maximum force on the holds and lock them off down low to
statically reach for the next hold. Strength allows the climber a high
percentage chance at success as strength allows the climber to remain in
control for the duration of a climb.  Although the concept of strength
and its role in high level climbing seem somewhat obvious, many climbers
(including myself) have neglected to specifically train for strength and
have experienced reduced overall climbing performance as a result.




Baechle defines power as “the amount of work performed per unit of time”
which is expressed by the formula:
Power = Work/Time


plays a large role in high level rock climbing as many of the more difficult
routes have powerful crux sequences guarding their anchors.  Raw power,
as it applies to climbing, is used in short duration (4-10 move) sequences
at near maximal (90-95%) effort lasting between 10 and 30 seconds.
Often on routes such as these, summation of forces from numerous muscles
acting across numerous joints is necessary to move from one hold to another.
Power in this situation is responsible for the application of strength in a
short burst of movement.  In this way strength and power are closely
linked. Another aspect of climbing dependant on power has been mislabelled
‘contact strength’ by many in the climbing community.  “Contact
strength is the ability to exert high force on contact with a hold; it is
measured by how long it takes after initiating a contraction to develop
maximal strength”.  Dynamic moves to poor holds require power to both
get to the hold and hang on once you get there making power a key component
to high level rock climbing. 




Power Endurance


Endurance is the term used to describe near maximal (60-85%) efforts of
intensity carried out for a period of time significantly longer than those
requiring strictly power.  Power endurance routes consist of a series
of moves that would feel difficult but not horribly so, if done
individually, linked together into a 10 –30 move route.  Often power
endurance routes lack any type of recovery positions, forcing the body and
especially the forearms to become very lactic acid tolerant in order to
achieve success.  Unlike outdoor routes which have numerous rest
positions due to the inconsistent nature of the rock, indoor competition
climbing requires a high level of power endurance to be successful.
The primary reasons for this are that indoor routes tend to maintain one
level of overhang for a longer period of time and those who set the routes
for competitions make sure that all parts of a route are consistently
difficult in order to make success dependant on good overall fitness rather
than a one or two move crux dependant strictly on power or strength.



Local endurance refers to the body’s
ability to perform sub maximal (50-60%) workloads for extended periods of
time (>3 min).  In climbing terms this would relate to routes between
30 and 80 moves long that have no individually powerful moves at the
climber’s limit but the combination of easier moves and their cumulative
tiring effects are the crux of the route.  General endurance is also an
important component in rest and recovery while climbing.  Even when a
climber is in a resting position on a route, their muscles are undergoing
sub- maximal contraction in order to hold onto the wall.  By training
local endurance a climber can use less energy on easier sections of routes
and recover while climbing. Local endurance also plays a role in preventing
lactic acid from entering the muscles and once it’s there clearing it,
allowing the body to return to a homeostatic state.  By training the
local endurance component the body is able to perform higher absolute
workloads aerobically, preventing the accumulation of lactic acid.




High-level climbers depend on
flexibility for maximum performance. Good flexibility allows a climber to
depend less on strength and power and allows him or her to use technique to
move from hold to hold efficiently and smoothly.  Almost every move
that a climber does from stemming to cross overs to knee drops require a
certain base level of flexibility to perform.  Once a particular move
or technique is learned the climber can use their flexibility to allow that
move to be applied to numerous situations.  Therefore the more flexible
a climber is the more movement choices they have per move.  In addition
to increasing performance, flexibility is also key to injury prevention for
climbers.  Because climbing is a sport that uses numerous twists and
turns to achieve peculiar body positions, good flexibility can decrease the
likelihood of injury from overexertion or movement outside a joints range of

Core Strength

strength is important to stabilize the body while climbing any type of route
regardless of grade.  Every move that a climber makes depends on core
strength in order to be successful.  As routes get more difficult and
more overhanging, solid core strength or ‘body tension’ become even more
important in keeping the feet of the climber on the wall, thereby decreasing
the workload on the arms and increasing the chance of success.  Core
strength can be thought of as being on the bottom of the strength pyramid
with the other strength related components of maximum performance dependant
on it.  Since the broadness of the base determines the height of the
peak that it can support, having a solid core strength base is very
important in developing maximum strength and power as well as maximizing
overall peak climbing ability.




It is
simply amazing how fluid and effortless a climber with good technique can
make even the most difficult route appear. To a 5.10a climber a 5.12a may
look easy when watching a 5.13a climber performing it flawlessly with
inspiring technique.  However when that same 5.10a climber attempts to
climb a route that is above their level they often come up short for a
number of technique related reasons.  In order to do difficult climbs
you must possess high-level technique; there is no substitute.  Each
type of climbing whether it be endurance, strength or power oriented has
it’s own technical toolbox the contents of which a climber must use and
understand to enjoy success.  Often climbers become one dimensional in
administering their technique and find themselves excelling on one type of
terrain and flailing on others.  A 5.12a-overhanging climber who
suffers horribly on 5.9 slabs is an excellent example of such an individual.
It is for this reason that technique more than any other aspect of climbing
is responsible for creating well-rounded climbers.



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