6 February 2011

For skinny female climbers

Comparing general performance characteristics between male and female climbers is always interesting, especially when coaching in a group session. The common finding is that the guys can often at least throw for the holds, but fall trying to hold onto them. Meanwhile, the girls can hold on for ages but fall trying to move between the holds. 
The basic reason is that guys have much more muscle to throw their upper bodies around at extreme joint ranges. A lesser appreciated reason is that girls are often reluctant to climb by throwing for holds out of fear of falling, and so adopt a massively inefficient static style. Thankfully, the guys more than balance it out by forgetting to use their feet and still can’t climb a vaguely technical problem despite all that muscle and grunt.
The winner is the guy, or girl who is confident enough to have a dynamic style, considers the best foot sequence before actually going for the move, and lastly (LASTLY!) has the strength to move to the hold, and hold onto it.
For girls, first of all, no progress can happen without addressing the fear of falling first. Every effort will fall flat on it’s face. You can’t climb to your potential without slapping, snatching, deadpointing, dynoing on most moves, or if fear of falling is dictating how you approach every move. The solution is simple, easy to follow and 100% successful whether it’s bouldering, sport climbing or trad. The details are section 3 of my book.
With that out of the way, there is an argument for some girls for a little dedicated work on the larger upper body muscles. In some cases, girls who can move confidently and have strong fingers struggle to clock up enough mileage on steep powerful terrain to ‘fill in’ their lack of upper body power.
The best way to address this is simply by climbing on steep ground with well spaced holds that are big enough that you can actually climb all session long. In many climbing walls, the number of steep juggy problems on the boulder walls aren’t numerous enough to prevent boredom. Answer: ask to set some more yourself. Steep juggy routes does it too - especially if you climb them with your feet on features only. Sometimes though, a little supplementary weights for a few months is useful to get you off the starting line.
I wouldn’t lean on them permanently, because the strength gains will eventually be more than cancelled out by how badly weights make you climb. Basic exercises like a work out of pull-ups (probably assisted at first), lat pull-downs, press-ups, seated rows (but not the low resistance aerobic type), and maybe some hanging leg raises and clean and jerk are all good. Do more of the ones you can feel you are really weak on. A few sets of each, a few times a week, for a few months should get you to a stage where you can drop the weights and progress to doing all the work on steep powerful real climbing moves.
Above all, don’t be intimidated by the ‘wads’ at the bouldering wall with tops off and making loud grunts. They don’t bite! They are often a useful source of new problems to work on, if nothing else. Just remember to burn them off occasionally on the balancy wall problems and high-steps..


Gif said...

Great post! I totally agree that some girls just need to get stronger. They may have the most perfect technique, but if they can't make the throw, the move just won't happen.

I'm in the middle of your book and it's awesome! I've really learned a lot so far. Thanks!

Clare said...

Could you expand on "how badly weights make you climb"? Is that because of excess mass, or relying too much on strength, or are there other factors?

Any thoughts on whether weights have a role in preventing injury by training antagonist muscles?

Just remember to burn them off occasionally on the balancy wall problems and high-steps.

Shhh, it's funnier if they aren't warned in advance ...

kicksywicksy said...

I agree wholeheartedly, and find these problems are my problems. As a moderately skinny girl climber I do find myself let down by lack of strength, held back by fear and inability to allow myself to just throw for some moves. Any immediate simple tips to improve dynamic climbing?

Anonymous said...

yep, cause being dynamic works in every situation. including slabs

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,
I was wondering when your book comes out? I loved the first one and am looking forward to the next one

Anonymous said...

I'm a not-so-skinny female climber but definitely feel like I fit your profile - can hang on forever with strong, short fingers, but a bit scared to make the throws and climbs way too staticly. One thing I thought I'd share that helps me is to practice "pressing down with your feet" as you climb. Besides getting more impulse force going in the legs instead of the arms, I find pressing with my legs naturally leads to speeding up and sometimes I find that I've made a deadpoint before having a chance to start procrastinating.

Also, bouldering.

Finally if there's a dynamic move I'm too nervous to go for, I'll jump aiming to slap the hold instead of latch it. Because you aren't "losing control" just intentionally slapping and falling your mind lets you do it, and then next time you can give it a for-real try. (Kind of crutch but it's better than being "stuck".)

Anonymous said...

As a skinny female climber, I'm actually a bit off-put by this post. I don't choose a static move because I'm afraid to fall. In fact, quite the opposite. It's because I'm very aware of my muscle mass and am working out how the move can be accomplished without all that slapping and grunting and ineffectual male ego that often circulates climbing gyms. On numerous occasions I've been known to bypass a dynamic move with some static acrobatics (one on a V9--so I don't want to hear it). I love your blog, but please be careful lumping all female climbers together. Not only does it perpetuate a stereotype, but sometimes it's the MEN who need to learn a little something about technique! So, climb on!

Dave MacLeod said...

Thanks for the comments all.

Clare - The negative effects of weights on technique come from 2 things. First the fact you are lifting bits of metal instead of practicing how to move on the rock. Apply it to another activity like Ballet - they need strength but to much time away from the technique drills means it is not learned fully. Second, the strength is only useful in the presence of good technique. Body tension is meaningless if you cant keep your feet on the footholds to apply it.

To the previous anon. - I don't think the post is really aimed at you. It's not a stereotype that female climbers are scared to fall and need to work more on the prime movers. Look at most of the popular bouldering flicks and there are tons of examples of the opposite. However, it is a fact that both factors are the most common weaknesses in female climbers. I'd put it at over 90% of the female climbers I've coached. I haven't lumped all females together. I said it was "the common finding".

As you say this obviously doesn't apply to you - great. But I would still question whether your finding of climbing more statically than your peers points to good technique. Except on a relatively small proportion of moves, static movement is inefficient, generally speaking. If you can manage hard moves with minimal use of dynamic movement, I would predict that your standard would take a jump if it was applied more often. But that is very hard to do if you see static movement as a positive performance technique.

It's true that male climbers, especially those that do a lot of bouldering fall into the habit of being dynamic and aggressive, but merely at the expense of technique, and I did allude to that in the post. It does sometimes stem from ego or an overvaluing of aggression and strength in climbing. However, to get the most out of your strength to weight ratio and climb to your potential, grunting and slapping (with control to match!) is a good idea. Look at the modern women's tennis game to see how power and aggression has influenced a raising of the standard in recent years.

A final point about 'slapping'. Slapping, like the male hot-heads you talk about at the gym do, is dynamic movement, but not good dynamic movement. Use of momentum coming right through the body is the ideal movement and the most efficient. Pure slapping is just a quick movement of the hand. grabbing the holds quicker is similarly inefficient as statically locking between them. Use of momentum is a complex skill of using the whole body. If you're interested I've expanded more on momentum in '9 out of 10'.

Lottie said...

I've been doing some weights down the gym to build my strength/lose some podge. Will bear in mind that I should really be getting on the wall a bit more.

However, I do find it a little frustrating that people concentrate on skinny female climbers. I'm not obese but you couldn't call me skinny either but I want to be good too.

How best can 'fat-bottomed girls' improve?

Kate said...

I agree - to a point! When i started climbing in cornwall I had a huge fear of falling, which made me really staccato in my movements, and I would just hang about.... upper body strength is also an issue, but more a fear of spraining than anything - which made me super cautious, tense and more likely to sprain. I had a bad fall - broke something in my foot, but then got over it - and my fear of falling... :)

Asha Osbon said...

I know this was posted months ago, but for any late readers, this is totally true! As a pretty skinny female, until I started doing a bit of climbing-specific strength training (pull-ups mainly)... I was stuck stuck stuck around 6bs in terms of grades... masses of endurance just lacking the strength to make that crux... its taken a few months hard work... starting with lots of lower downs because I couldn't do a single pull-up! now, 5 months later, I can do 4 in a row, and am trying 7as! its the best way to do it, because having been so pathetically weak, I've developed goodish technique. So the strength goes even further... I still have a lot of strength work to do, and as strength improves, technique needs work/altering too, no matter how good i thought it was before... one word of caution though, I think being a skinny girl and launching head first into a strength training routine makes you very vulnerable to injury... so don't go too fast, and listen to any twinges / aches! good luck to all skinny (or not so skinny, but weak) women out there!!!
It CAN be done... I'm evidence of it!

Abel said...

Thanks for writing this. I really feel as though I know so much more about this than I did before. Your blog really brought some things to light that I never would have thought about before reading it. The best way to address this is simply by climbing on steep ground with well spaced holds that are big enough that you can actually climb all session long. In many climbing walls, the number of steep juggy problems on the boulder walls aren’t numerous enough to prevent boredom. Answer: ask to set some more yourself. Steep juggy routes does it too - especially if you climb them with your feet on features only. Sometimes though, a little supplementary weights for a few months is useful to get you off the starting line.You should continue this, I’m sure most people would agree you’ve got a gift. Thanks for sharing…

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Eva said...

I just ordered your book, hope it comes in soon :-)
One of the few female boulderers in my gym, most of the girls are set back by the lack of strength at the start. Do you have a tip how to get them in de bouldercave anyway? (live in holland, so nothing outdoors here)
And for the men? Hell yeah, do I burn them off every now and than!

kfields said...

Definitely a sport climbing mentality-- I am proof that you don't need to be taking falls in order to push your limits and improve. I'm a girl and I can climb 5.12 trad and I can barely do a pull up. Rock climbing is ALL technique-- anyone who has spent the majority of their life climbing will tell you so.