Elizabeth

8th Dec 2015

Question:

I am 19 years old and just started climbing about two months ago. I am already addicted and climbing several times a week at indoor walls (mostly bouldering) but I find my progress frustratingly slow. Do you have any tips for people just starting out in climbing for how to improve technique and strength quickly and safely, and/or for how to get the most out of a session at an indoor climbing wall?

Answer:

This is a great question! It is obvious that climbing has grabbed you and you are eager to improve; it doesn’t matter where you are on the climbing experience spectrum, this never changes!
Firstly, I think it may help you if I point out a few things that somebody very new to climbing may not have picked up on.

1. Bouldering is a very intense form of climbing (think sprinting rather than a marathon) and making improvements can seem difficult. When climbing routes, the difficulty is generally spread out over a longer section, whereas with bouldering the difficulty is generally very short, sometimes just one move!
So improving in bouldering can be a slow process because the difference between success and failure is a very fine line. It can hinge on missing a small edge every time for two weeks and then, snatch, you catch the hold with your fingertips and do the problem.
2. Following on from this, means that improving on routes can seem easier because you get more ‘mileage’ done and it comes down to a pump in the forearms; rather than with bouldering it’s about being strong enough to string a few hard moves together.
3. Unfortunately, climbing isn’t a sport you can ‘cheat’. Your improvements are directly proportional to the amount of time and effort you put in. So if you have only just started, it is fair to say improving will take time. You will make some quick gains too initially but as we all do, you will hit some plateaus. These can seem tough to overcome but the stage you are at, I doubt you have reached a plateau yet.


So, finding out where your strengths and weaknesses lie is important. Having a good analytical brain is useful to help work out why you can’t do certain moves. Also, getting people to watch you and give you feedback is helpful too.
At this early stage, technique is an important part of climbing to focus on. So watch better people to try and figure out what is different about how they climb, compared to you. How and where do they place their feet, do they rely on strength, or is something more subtle going on?
Flexibility is another important component to help your climbing improve. This can be practiced along side your climbing, it will also aid recovery and help to maintain a supple body that won’t break as easily.
‘Training’ is obviously an important part of being a good climber but if your body isn’t used to this kind of physical activity, then ‘just’ going to the wall a few times a week will be absolutely sufficient to make good improvements for the first year or so. If you try to do too much too quickly, you risk injury and damage to tendons and ligaments. These take longer to adapt than muscles and is a process you can’t speed up.
But saying that, if you have managed to identify some obvious weaknesses, then a session or two in the gym with weights can be very beneficial. Especially for us girls, who don’t sprout muscles when we go through puberty, so need to work a bit harder to gain strength.
Unless you are dead set on just being a ‘boulderer’, another useful tool to improving your climbing is to mix things up. Try and do route sessions as well. This will work different muscles and energy systems and help you to become a more rounded climber. It can also help to identify where your weaknesses truly lie.

Lastly, how to make the most of your wall session. This is actually a pretty complicated question which I am not skilled enough to answer in a couple of sentences here. But what I will say is you have to be clever with your time and go into each session with a clear goal. I don’t necessarily mean a particular boulder problem although this can be a good goal but a more general aim. What are you trying to achieve? IE. Do you want to work on power, power endurance or endurance? For power, you work on problems with very hard moves and have good rests in between goes. The more towards endurance you go, the longer the session and the more climbing you do. Trying to minimise rests, apart from actually resting on a problem or route. This is called shaking out and promotes recovery whilst climbing; a very important skill.
So going to the wall with a clear goal will mean you utilise time effectively and don’t spend the session aimlessly wandering about wondering what to do, chatting and drinking cups of tea. All fun things but if you want to improve, having focus will help to achieve your goals.

So to round up; don’t expect too much too soon. You will be improving at every session but the grading and nature of bouldering can sometimes belie what improvements you are actually making.
Set goals to check on improvement. But be careful to make sure they are realistic and not too far out of reach for the stage you are at.
To become more rounded; work on your weaknesses, work on flexibility and stretch after climbing to help avoid injury.

Have fun with it!