1 February 2010
Since the explosion of bouldering, especially indoors, many climbers ask these days about how they should improve their body tension. However, the discussion is often limited because of a basic problem in actually defining what this performance quality is, and this leads climbers on the wrong path for training it.
Climbers frequently refer to body tension as a strength component. Most would agree on the objective - to be able to keep the feet on the holds more and to apply more force through the feet. The problem comes when you see this purely as down to body strength, which it’s not.
Body tension is the product largely of technique, but also of strength through the body. Some important (and trainable) parts of it are:
Climbing rhythm. That is not getting too extended with both arms high before moving the feet.
Aggression in the lower body. Many climbers are far too passive with the lower body, and aren’t using the strength they already have.
Placement of the foot - The big toe must be in a position to apply the strength, and it’s often not possible because the toes are not engaged and the heel is dropped low.
Turning of the trunk - Helps bring the tensioned hip close to the wall during a stretch and be more ‘over’ the foothold.
Momentum use. Momentum is essential to apply body tension from awkward positions where it’s hard to apply foot force. For example throwing the hips into a plane in which the foot can apply force during execution of a move.
You could go to a gym and train body strength for a decade and it would make little difference to your body tension in climbing if the above factors are not working for you already. The flip side is that many climbers have enough strength already to get a lot more body tension just by working on the technical elements.
How to go about this? Boulder voraciously on steep ground with limited footholds, in the presence of climbers who can show you the techniques involved in applying body tension. You’ll know you are making progress with the technique when you feel calves, hamstrings and core stabilisers in your trunk complaining from effort from single moves in steep bouldering. And if you’ve got this far, you’ll be training strength in these areas in a far more efficient way than you would achieve in a gym or elsewhere.
All that said, those who do some other whole body work such as Yoga or other activities that break up the imbalances that climbing demands on the body will be protective from injury by maintaining posture and strength across joints.