Open Handed

Alice coaching me on how to climb using the open hand technique.
Alice coaching me on how to climb using the open hand technique.

Injuries have forced me to examine how I climb and to start thinking about how to change my climbing technique so that I reduce the chance of injury. It was a knee injury that originally got me thinking, but recently problems with my hands have jolted me into really looking at the grips I use. I’ve realised that I rely too much on crimping and that I need to use an open-hand grip more if I want to be minimise hand injuries. However, I’ve been struggling to get this grip right and it was only a coaching session a few weeks ago that helped me understand that using an open-hand grip is about much more than what you do with your hands.

It was reading Dave MacLeod’s excellent book Make or Break that made me question whether I crimp too much and ask how I could change my climbing style so that I use an open-hand grip more often. MacLeod made a strong argument for the open-hand grip –

“Finger pulley injuries are the most common climbing related injury, and occur during crimping. In a crimped grip, the pulleys must absorb huge forces to hold the flexor tendons tight against the bones of the fingers. It is actually amazing they don’t injure more easily given what they are subjected to in hard rock climbing. Using an openhanded grip allows the pulleys to be unloaded…openhanding is stronger than crimping on many (but not all) holds. It is often less strenuous and you get injured a lot less.”
MacLeod, D. (2015) Make or Break; Don’t Let Climbing Injuries Dictate Your Success, Roy Bridge: Rare Breed Productions, p.37.

Injury prevention readingSwitching to using an open-hand grip sounds fairly straightforward as, in simple terms, it involves keeping your fingers as straight as possible when gripping a hold –

“The fingers should only flex at the joint nearest your fingertip…while the middle joint will be only slightly flexed or completely open depending on your finger lengths relative to each other.”
Ibid, p.38.

After reading this I looked properly for the first time at how I was gripping. I recognised that I default to crimping on everything except completely sloping holds. Once I realised this, I tried to use an open-hand grip as much as I could, but my brain seemed to be hard-wired to crimp. I repeatedly caught myself failing to use an open-hand grip during problems and had to make a deliberate effort to use an open-hand grip whenever I grasped a hold. Climbing this way felt alien and more likely to lead to my hand slipping off. It was these difficulties, and my concern that I was just as injury prone as ever, that prompted me to book another session with Alice Turner.

Sort of like that...although, with practice, my open hand grip should get better and be more natural.
Sort of like that…although, with practice, my open hand grip should get better and be more natural.

Alice is a mountain instructor and former physiotherapist who had given me a very useful coaching session earlier in the year on how to climb so that I reduced the chance of injuring my knee again. Now I asked if she could coach me on how to climb in a way that reduces the chance of causing trauma to my hands.

Alice helpfully and patiently took me through the fundamentals of the open-hand grip before offering tips and suggestions as I tried to use it bouldering.

Her coaching enabled me to grasp that my mistake had been focusing so much on how I was using my hands that I didn’t think about my body position and feet. Alice showed me that using an open-hand grip requires the body to sink down, the feet to be lower on the rock or wall and the arms to be more extended. She explained that this is because the body needs to be in a position than enables the optimum direction of pull on the handhold. In an open-hand grip the palm needs to be close to the rock or wall, with the fingers main point of contact on the hold being around the first finger joint. As I practiced and Alice gave me pointers, I came to understand what Alice was talking about. It is really much easier to do an open-hand grip if the body is lower in relation to the hands and close to the rock or wall.  In particular, it enables you to drag away from the hold and so get a stronger grip.

Alice demonstrating how to climb using the open hand grip.
Alice demonstrating how to climb using the open hand grip.

Putting this new understanding to use was challenging because I found it so far away from my usual climbing style. Normally I would work my feet up high before pushing from my legs and then going for the next set of handholds. I’d usually try for an economy of movement and big step-ups. The style of climbing that Alice was showing me required moving the feet around a lot in order to find the perfect point for hanging off the hold. It also involved more controlled steps and smaller step-ups that were chosen with a need to maintain a good grip with the hands. I had to really concentrate to do this. I also found myself climbing far below my normal level and with forearms that ached from using different muscles than I would use when crimping. Yet it felt brilliant to have finally grasped how to use an open-hand grip.

I finished the coaching session with Alice understanding how I need to change my climbing style to reduce the risk of injury. It means building a better climbing technique from the ground up by challenging myself to climb as I should and carefully, thoughtfully applying this to every move I make. It’s going to take a while, but I know that it will be worth it in the end.

Further information

There’s a useful thread on one of the forums on UKClimbing in which climbers discuss their experiences using an open-hand grip and offer thoughts on how to do it.

It’s also worth reading an interesting post by the blogger and author Peter Beal on different climbing grips and transitioning between them when doing problems.

Lastly, Alice suggested that if I wanted to see how a professional climber does open-hand climbing, then I should watch the video Patience featuring Lynn Hill.


11 thoughts on “Open Handed

  • Thank you for this it was a very interesting read and as I come back from a pulley rupture I have also considered how I use holds. I’ve also noticed how much pump I have as I climb into 6b+ / 6c, does the open hand reduce this stress too?

    • Really sorry about the pulley rupture. That’s tough. I hope the recovery is quick.

      My experience so far has been that climbing using open-hand grips is more tiring than just crimping. I’ve also found that I’m climbing at a much lower grade when I climb with an open-hand grip. However, these things are probably happening because my muscles aren’t used to the open-hand grip yet and my climbing technique for use with open-hand grips is poor. My plan is to take a long-term approach in which I work on my technique and through this build up my strength. This will probably mean that I will have to accept that I’ll be getting pumped more and more quickly for a while until my technique and muscles improve.

      My guess is that if you used an open-hand grip more you would be reducing the stress (and possible trauma) on your hands, but that you would find it even more tiring than your usual climbing style until your strength built up.

      I hope that helps.

      Best wishes,

  • Funny – I (wrongly) climb like that ALL the time – which is why I can’t get above 5+ indoors as then I’d need to crimp on the smaller handholds and don’t seem to be able to. I don’t seem to be able to use the muscles in my fingers at the same time as using those in my arms.

    • I’ve found coaching on my technique has really helped me understand how to improve my climbing and I’d certainly recommend it as a way of getting better. It’s amazing how changing what you do with the your legs and body position affects how much effort you put in to using your hands and arms.

      Best wishes,

      • They sort of tried to alter my climbing style all the way through my beginner’s course but I couldn’t seem to climb the way they suggested. I pretty much lumber up like a tank. I suppose I can’t expect to be much better than that starting as late as I did as I’m getting much less supple and have a few joints wearing out now. Shame I didn’t start sooner!

        • Maybe, but it could be that a different coach would be able to suggest different ways of changing your climbing. That’s not to say that there was anything wrong with the teacher or coach that you had, but sometimes it seems that we respond better to some teaching styles over others. Of course, tanks can get up some pretty steep terrain without any coaching.

  • I have a strong close-hand crimp (massively imbalanced to the rest of my strength) that has saved my arse a lot. I could never open hand crimp until after having my baby! Once Id had my baby I had to rely a lot on momentum and throwing for things because my core was pretty nackered (from all that pushing and stuff lol). This meant that instead of moving to a hold statically and getting a good locked off grip on any hold, I was throwing and locking the ends of the middle two or three fingers on a hold at my furthest reach. This developed my open handed contact strength as well as my pocket/mono strength (once my worst holds now my faves).

    • I suppose that anything that forces you to climb differently can massively change your climbing style in the long term. It’s great that you now have the skill and strength to do both strong crimping and strong open-hand. That’s something I’m aiming for, but my route to getting there is obviously going to be a lot different.

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