Learning to Climb Smarter

Alice coaching me on how to climb in a more fluid way.
Alice coaching me on how to climb in a more fluid way.

My main priority in my return to rock climbing is to build up my strength and develop my climbing technique in a way that reduces the chance of injuring myself again.  To do this I need to reassess how I climb.   My hope is that if I do this now, I can stop slipping back into any bad habits as well as stop new bad habits developing.  I decided that the best way to do this was to get an expert to assess my climbing and coach me on what to do to improve it.  So, I booked a climbing injury prevention session with Alice Turner, a qualified mountain instructor (MIA) and physiotherapist.  What I learned has really got me thinking about how I can climb in a smarter way by changing some of the fundamentals of how I move.

The session started by Alice and I talking about my experiences of climbing, my injury, my recovery after the operation and about what I’m now trying to do.  Alice followed this by looked at how I move and how my knees are behaving (they’re mostly misbehaving at the moment).  She then showed me a few exercises that I can do to engage and strengthen the muscles that control my posture and so the stability of my knees.

Alice showing me exercises in the garden of the climbing wall.
Alice showing me exercises in the garden of the climbing wall.

Next it was on to the climbing wall, where Alice talked me through how I can change my technique to make my climbing more fluid and reduce the chance of injury. There were three key things that I learned.

The first thing was the need to really engage my “rear wheel drive.” In a way, I knew this already.   Probably the most common piece of advice given to someone beginning climbing is to use your legs to climb and not drag yourself up the face with your arms. However, it was only with Alice’s coaching that I realized how often I don’t fully climb with my legs. I often just stand on and put weight on my legs, but I don’t continuously, actively push with them. This means that my default climbing style has been to not weight my feet sufficiently to avoid a foot slipping off. Actively pushing all the time with my legs does feel more secure, although it’s also pretty tiring.

The next thing Alice and I worked on during the session was to place my feet on the outside edge of holds. Normally I try to put my feet as much on the holds as possible and so often have the sides of my feet completely against the face. By moving my feet further out on holds I learned that I could get the space to pivot feet on holds as I shifted my weight or direction during the climb. This avoided forcibly twisting my knees and improved my balance by moving me further away from the rock. This was a complete revelation to me.

Alice demonstrating footwork.
Alice demonstrating footwork.

It was also a revelation to be told to move my hips in fluid motions as a means of making my moves more dynamic and so involving less effort. I used to think that I was pretty good at shifting my weight when I climbed. I can now see that while what I did worked in a way, it was a bit stop-start and so involved more energy.

The session with Alice has got me to think differently about my climbing and to try ways of moving that I would not have done otherwise.  It made me realize that I have been set in a particular way of climbing and that there are fundamental changes I can make to my climbing technique to make me a better climber. The challenge I have now is that these ways of moving are not intuitive to me and I have to concentrate on every move to put them into practice. Alice’s coaching has helped me to reassess my climbing and given me a new direction to take. What I’ve learned is a good foundation for my efforts to climb smarter and to climb in a way that is less prone to injury.

UPDATE: 19 December 2015 – I’ve recently had another very useful session with Alice that looked at how to change my climbing technique so as to reduce the chance of injuring my hands.

6 thoughts on “Learning to Climb Smarter

  • That sounds a good course. Mind you, many people have tried to offer me advice about how to climb better while they’re belaying me (I tend to lumber up the wall without swinging around and use my arms too much) and I haven’t managed to change to what they suggest. I just don’t seem to be able to get up the wall if I change my technique. Good that she told you more efficient ways of climbing and any course on how to avoid injury has to be worth a try. I’ll look out for one of those on our climbing wall.

    I think one of the reasons I reach really high and use my hands a lot is because I can reach a very long way with them as I’m very long. It just seems easier to me to take advantage of that fact so I automatically do it.

    • It was a great course.

      Advice from a belayer can be useful, but I think that a session with a coach can potentially offer a lot more. A good coach should be able to assess how you climb and know how to teach you how to change what you do. I’d certainly recommend giving it a go.

      I’m also fairly tall, so I understand the temptation to reach for the higher holds. It’s great to have the advantage, although I do sometimes have to check myself when I do it as it’s an easy way to skip something hard and so not focus on technique (plus, it can annoy anyone I’m climbing with who is shorter than me).

      Best wishes,


      • Reaching very high is definitely a way of escaping some of the difficulties. I was at the climbing wall last night and was sounding them out about such a course but they don’t have one like that at present. They thought it was a great idea though so hopefully they’ll get one 🙂

        • It’s a shame that they don’t have something similar, but climbing walls do seem switched on now to the benefits of linking up with coaches and so something might well get set up.

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