4 January 2012
I’ve just spent the week staying with family in Glasgow and visiting the fantastic new TCA bouldering centre as often as muscles allow. It’s obviously a bit different from most bouldering facilities, being the biggest in the UK, and this brings many new benefits for training, as well as some new ptifalls. Some observations on these:
The first observation I made which was very heartening, was the notable absence of people complaining about being too short, or the moves being too reachy. Obviously, part of this is down to an underlying assumption that by it’s very nature, the bouldering game involves more big dynamic moves that route climbing tends to. For those who find themselves often blaming failure to climb on height or reachy setting - have a few sessions in a bouldering centre like this. Take time to look around you at the short folks slapping and jumping for the holds. You can’t change your height, but you can learn to move your feet into the right position and then go for that hold!
Someone asked me about how training purely in a bouldering wall, even for route climbing stamina might affect their technique. It’s a worthy concern - constantly bouldering teaches you how to to deliver maximum force and tension from start to finish. It’s often very easy to tell that a climber mainly boulders, just by looking at them climb for a few moves. For someone very experienced who is still climbing a lot of routes for a large part of the year, it’s not such a problem. But if a large proportion of your yearly climbing is on a boulder wall and you are ultimately training for routes, it’s still worth putting a harness on and clipping a rope on a real route whenever you can so you don’t lose the ability to climb with minimal force on the steady parts of routes. In the boulder wall, circuits are still ‘the business’ but make sure and mix them up often and include some you don’t have dialled, so you remember how to use your brain while pumped and make it up as you go along if you mess your feet up or forget where the next hold is.
Someone else asked me about high steps. They are a real weakness for me, as they are for a lot of guys. I’ve improved mine a good bit with some work but I’ve got plenty more to do and I’m determined to sort it out this year. My passive hip flexibility is fairly poor but I get away with it to a certain extent by having very good active flexibility. A lot of folk don’t know about the difference. Passive flexibility is the range of motion (ROM) you have when you pull the limb as far as it will go with an external force (such as your hands pulling your leg into a high step position). Active flexibility is the ROM that the limb can achieve under it’s own steam (i.e. Your highest high step in a real climbing situation!). Obviously, if the antagonist muscle group is very short, passive flexibility will ultimately limit how far you can pull the limb. But in reality, active ROM is often limited by the agonist muscles ability to pull hard in the inner range of it’s ROM. I’ve seen lots and lots of climbers with pretty or even exceptional hip flexibility who still struggle with high steps because they are not strong enough at the extreme joint angles to pull the leg really high under it’s own steam. Why? Like everything, it comes down to the basic rule of training - what you do, you become. They spent lots of time sat on the ground stretching by pulling the leg with an external force, and not enough doing desperate tensiony high steps.
Properly inflexible guys like myself have to do a lot of both passive and active flexibility training - a LOT and for a long time - to see real improvements. So if you really want to high step, work on it every time you climb. If you have your own board, make sure you set problems with very few footholds available and in very unhelpful places. Try to set them so that moving the feet is the crux of the problem. Train yourself to stay tight and strong on the lower foothold and two handholds while you forcefully open your hips and pull the leg right up into a high step at the limit of your ROM. I find it helps to visualise my body as a rigid board stretched between my toes to my fingers while I move the other leg. You can also stretch by pulling the leg up with your arms to stretch your gluts and then let go and try to hold the position unassisted to train your inner range holding.
Training at big boulder walls with big dynamic moves requires a lot of body tension. I’ve often seen the term ‘body tension’ referred to in magazine articles as a strength aspect. It’s not just that. Strength is needed to be able to apply body tension, but it’s your technique that actually does the applying! It’s perfectly possible to be a front lever monster with rubbish body tension on the rock because you fail to apply that strength. A big part of body tension technique is remembering to apply tension through one or both feet through the whole move as you dynamically lunge to the next handhold. I found myself recently completing a lot of problems during training by consciously thinking about this as I executed the move. Really claw down into the key foothold with the big toe until the last possible moment. This buys you the maximum amount of time to take the next hold a little slower and more accurately and generate enough grip to hold onto it. I often remind myself by saying ‘through the whole move’ inwardly as I set up for a big move, so I don’t lose tension too early and end up with an impossible swing to try and hold. It works!