Polish climber and author of Born to Climb, Zofia Reych, shares their top advice.
1. Climb more!
For nearly every beginner, climbing more is the most important and the fastest way to improve. It is also the advice most commonly given by more experienced climbers, instructors, and coaches – but its lack of specificity may be frustrating. If you’ve already maxed out the time you can spend on the wall, there is still more you can do to progress. Below are nine more ways to improve at climbing – ones I wish I knew when I was a beginner some two decades ago.
2. Learn to rest
Understanding the importance of rest is key — not only to preventing injuries but also in making the most of the climbing you do. Your brain cannot learn new movement patterns when tired, and your muscles and other soft tissue can’t become stronger without time off. Whether you’re a beginner or an elite athlete, balancing the right training load is a challenge that simply does not go away. In fact, finding the sweet spot will only become harder as your level progresses, so it's better to embrace that part of climbing from the day you start.
3. Define your goals
Goal setting is important, not only to keep up your motivation but also to find out whether you’re being realistic. Before you even think of your short-term goals, the grade you want to climb, etc., carefully examine your lifestyle, schedule, and your current fitness level. If you’re going through a particularly intense time at work or school, adding the pressure of athletic performance on top of all that is simply not a good idea – unless you want to burn out or get injured. To approach climbing with performance in mind, make sure there’s space for it both in your agenda and your brain. Adding climbing to your schedule can be a great way to improve your physical and mental health, reduce stress, etc., but only if you treat it as such.
4. Mobilise, mobilise, mobilise
Watch any high-level climber on the wall – be it in a World Cup competition, or outdoors on rock – and you’ll be astonished at the range of motion in their hips, shoulders and, if you pay more attention, also in their ankles. You might be tempted to stop, drop, and start stretching immediately, and it is not a bad idea at all – but there is something even better. Instead of improving the passive range of motion by simply or exclusively stretching, make sure to work on the active range of motion by mobilising. Much like resting, mobilisation is an important component of injury prevention, but it also allows a climber to pull off much harder moves – and this applies to both static slab creeping and dynamic overhang climbing.
Love that slab? Get on an overhang. A power machine in a roof? Challenge yourself on a delicate face climb. Knowing your weaknesses and addressing them from early on can save you much frustration in the future. This applies not only to your preferred style of climbing, but also to the type of rock you get out on, or conditioning. If your upper body is strong, make sure that your legs follow suit. Conversely, if you excel at standing up on high feet but can’t yet do a pull up – you know what to do!
6. Film yourself
Video recording and analysis is a tool used by elite climbers who excel both in competition and on the rock. By seeing how you climb, you can better understand your strengths and weaknesses, as well as assess and improve your technique. There is, however, a catch that many climbers don’t know about. Watching a recording of yourself can never replace intentional climbing and learning to feel and understand your body as it goes through the climbing movement. Thinking about how you’re going to execute a move before you try it (visualisation), micro-adjusting as you are in the process, and reflecting on it after you’re back on the ground is a must – and once you’ve done all that, then get your phone camera out.
7. Train antagonists
Every muscle in your body has a buddy that does exactly the opposite work: biceps and triceps, pecs and lats, abductors and adductors – the list can go on. Climbing tends to overuse our pulling muscles and training those that allow for pushing is extremely important for injury prevention. And there’s even more to it: research shows that antagonists are important for generating a greater power output through their opposing muscles. Counterintuitive as it may sound (and in great simplification), if you want to get better at pulling, work on your push-ups!
If performance is what you’re after, following a training plan is the best way to maximise gains. For new climbers, it may still mean loads and loads of time on the wall, but having everything clearly scheduled – how many routes to climb, how long to rest for, conditioning, mobility, etc. – will remove a lot of doubt and confusion from the process. In addition, for a certain type of personality, following a training plan is simply great fun: just imagine all this structure, tables, and tasks to tick off your list!
9. Go outside
Unless you’re interested purely in indoor climbing, time on rock is the best tool you have to improve. The complexity and creativity of moving on natural rock will challenge you in ways that plastic never could. (Although with the new style of indoor comp climbing, there are also incredibly interesting comp challenges that the rock cannot provide.) In addition, if you’re tired of the gym and of training, going outside is sure to rekindle your love for climbing. There is, however, one caveat – if you expect to go outside once a year for a weekend, and perform at the same level as you do indoors, you are in for a disappointment. If your focus is indoor climbing, getting out on the rock is always a treat and never a test.
10. Understand your motivation
There is a reason why elite athletes are usually under the care of a sport psychologist. Understanding your motivations, as well as everything else that’s associated with climbing on a mental level, is extremely important, not only to make sure that you perform, but also to make sure that climbing brings you happiness and not grief. If you want to have a lifelong relationship with the sport, understanding what keeps you ticking in climbing is as important as knowing your goals. If you climb for the joy of spending time with your friends, perhaps a training plan is not for you. If you love movement, perhaps you want to focus on that experience and not think about the grades at all. And if you’re a grade-oriented climber, make sure that the progress is what you really want, and that your motivation is internal – instead of, for example, wanting to impress somebody.
Most importantly, climbing is supposed to be a source of joy and fulfilment. Chasing constant improvement can be very satisfying but it is not the only way to be a climber. And it is also very unlikely that you will blast through the grades if it doesn't make you happy! So, the most important, underlying tip for everything climbing related is: joy first, progress second.