When we talk about rock climbing, we’re talking a lot about forces – forces of friction, forces of gravity, the force you exert yourself on various holds as you push and pull yourself up the cliff. Without going all the way to Newton, let’s just say that all of these forces are working together to propel you up that wall. But there is one component of rock climbing that is often underestimated: balance.
You might have Superman’s lats, but if you don’t think about balancing your body on the wall, you’re not climbing effectively. Without proper balance techniques, you risk unnecessarily straining your muscles trying to force your way, battling against your own center of gravity along the way. Example: balance was key for the climber Craig DeMartinowho had to learn to climb again after losing his right leg in a bad fall (and wrote a great article about it for escalade.comwhich you should read).
So let’s be specific. Here are three reasons why balance is vital for climbers, plus some tips on how to put what you’ve learned into practice. In other words: Bring balance to the force, climb Jedi.
Using your center of gravity will keep you on the wall. In climbing, gravity is your number one enemy, but it can also be your friend. In order to avoid swinging or falling, you have to be nice. Being aware of your center or gravity allows you to counterbalance, using your own weight to maintain balance and stay on the wall. First, find your center using a trick that DeMartino and many other climbers recommend: hook a two-foot pull to your harness and, as you climb, keep the pull suspended in the center between your legs.
Balance is the basis of all your favorite techniques. Stemming, flagging, lay-backing, etc. are all based on counterweight. In general, try to keep your hips against the wall and your arms straight, letting your legs lead the fight against gravity. In the Masterclass he teaches alongside Tommy CaldwellAlex Honnold goes so far as to say, “The point of using your arms in rock climbing is to keep you balanced on your feet, so your feet can push you over the wall.”
Balance conserves energy so you can climb higher and longer. Top mountaineer Lynn Hill prioritizes balance over strength. “A lot of women I’ve taught to climb have a better sense of balance than men,” she once said. “I think it has to do with being a bit more sensitive rather than relying on strength. It’s also a reflection of a passive attitude – balancing your way on the rock, rather than attacking it. You’re not going to do pull-ups in the presidential fitness test. Relying on brute force to smash your way through the wall will only wear you down. Instead, improve your balance with stability exercises, like those from The Climbing Doctor, Dr Jared Vagy and famous climber Jon Cardwell. As you improve your balance and stability, you can climb more efficiently, allowing you to rock those tough endurance climbs.
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