Neil Gresham

British all-rounder, Neil Gresham, has been a La Sportiva athlete for 18 years. He was one of the early pioneers of performance coaching for climbing and has climbed 8c+, E10 trad and WI7. He writes regular training articles in Rock & Ice magazine and runs a personalised training programme service

If you’ve recently become hooked on climbing then no doubt you will be keen to improve. There are so many areas of performance: strength, endurance, technique and tactics - it can be hard to know where to start or how to use our time most productively. A key point for beginners is not to become focused on training too soon. No doubt you will have seen strong climbers powering their way up overhangs and this can easily give the false impression that strength training provides the answer. However, a premature focus on training can cause all sorts of problems later down the line. Climbing places a lot of strain on small, vulnerable muscles and tendons, and most who push too-hard-too-soon, will be knocked back by injury. Additionally, if you get strong too quickly then the subtleties of technique may elude you. The weaker climber will be forced to use their feet and look for the most efficient solutions, whereas the stronger climber always attempts to use their arms to power through.

Technique is the driving force of climbing performance. It is thanks to the magic powers of technique that skilful women frequently out-perform stronger men and so many climbers achieve personal bests in their later years. Yet it is training that is in fashion. We are bombarded with information on training, whilst receiving very little guidance on technique. The result is that most climbers tend to just ‘go climbing’ and hope that their technique will improve itself. Yet with this approach there is every chance that bad habits will become more deeply engrained. The answer is to resist the temptation to jump in at the deep-end with training and to consciously steer your technique using the following list as a guide.

“Don't Just Stick To One Thing!”

Maximum variety

Don’t just stick to one thing. Try to experience as many different moves, wall-angles, holds and climbing styles as possible, and get out on rock whenever you can.

Plan your route

If you just ‘get on and climb’, then you are more likely to make mistakes. First, identify the holds, then plan your hand sequence, by miming: ‘left-right-left-right’ with your hands. If you’re really new to climbing then don’t attempt to plan the foot-sequence, as you may confuse yourself, but it is worth identifying key footholds, such as small ‘screw-ons’, which are too poor to use with your hands. Remember, your plan is a guide only, so don’t lock in too rigidly in case you have to change things as you climb.

Easy is best

Beginners should emphasize easy climbing in the early stages, as it is impossible to learn new skills when the difficulty is too high. Additionally, this will help you to build ‘base strength’ and allow your muscles and tendon to adapt gradually. Once you’ve practiced extensively and have achieved reasonable consistency on easier climbs, you can then attempt to ‘stress-proof’ your technique on harder terrain.

Analyze your mistakes

If you made an error or felt that you climbed badly then re-climb routes and boulder problems to try to make corrections. Watch others, share ‘beta’ (info about the moves), but beware copying those with poor technique, and if possible, film yourself or see a coach for some objective feedback.

Do movement drills

Style and efficiency are intrinsically related. It’s all about what goes on in your head while you climb, so on your warm-up climbs, focus on placing your feet quietly, accurately, and without re-adjustment. Breathe deeply, relax your grip, keep your arms as straight and try to move fluidly.

Get the right shoes

Footwork is a key aspect of climbing technique and it’s vital to select shoes that fit well and are right for your level. Don’t be tempted to copy the pros and go for aggressive down-turned shoes, as these will feel weird and uncomfortable and your toes won’t be strong enough to use them correctly. Equally, don’t over-size your shoes or go for something too basic, as you may develop bad habits and struggle to advance your footwork.

“Remember, you have the rest of your life to train and get strong, so be patient in the first few years and focus on learning the true artistry of climbing.”

Neil Gresham climbing Burnt Crag - Lake District