Rock climbing

Should I train strength or technique for climbing?

As a climbing coach, the first thing I do with my clients is perform a strength and technique assessment. Understanding a climber’s current level in each helps me create a more personalized program. If a client exceeds their strength, I know their technique is good and prioritizing strength will be the best course of action. On the other hand, if a client is stronger than the current incline they are climbing, I know focusing on technique will be most helpful.

For example, a rough benchmark of the V4-V5 level is being able to do about five pull-ups. If a client comes to see me climb V5 but is only able to do two pull-ups, upper body strength is an easily identifiable “low fruit” to focus on. On the other hand, if a client comes to see me climb V5 and is able to do 10 pull-ups, it is clear that strength is not their limiting factor and that technique must be the priority.

Let’s start by defining strength and technique more clearly.

What is strength?

Strength is the ability to exert force. That’s exactly what we do all the time on the wall, whether it’s pulling down during a lockout and exerting force on your upper body and fingers, or lifting up on a walking high and exerting force on our hips, legs and toes. Strength can be specific to a particular movement (such as a difficult heel hook or tricky coat), specific to climbing (such as finger strength and upper body pull strength), or general (such as hand strength). hips and core strength). To become a complete climber, it is important to cultivate all three types of strength.

What is technicality?

Mmovement goes from point A to point B, but technical goes from point A to point B effectively. There is often more than one way to navigate a climb, but some are better than others. Examples of good technique include being precise with footwork, finding ideal hip positions for delicate movements, and moving at a pace suited to the terrain. Having good technique means both being able to execute a climb and finding the best way to do it.

A graph showing the interrelated relationship between strength and technique over time. Usually, as one rises, the other plateaus, but gains from one will help you break through the plateau of the other. (Graphic: Juliet Hammer)

Strength versus technique

Although at first glance strength and technique may seem like opposite aspects of climbing, they are actually interrelated components that make up the integral climber. In other words, you won’t get far with just one or the other – both are needed to become the best climber you can be. Meanwhile, there are benefits to excelling at each, but there are also limitations.

The relationship between strength and technique is an ebb and flow, as this diagram shows. Often it is difficult to make huge progress in both simultaneously (with the exception of new climbers: in which case it is not uncommon to see rapid improvement in both.) While one of these components of climbing improves, the other is often capped.

For example, you may find that you’ve stalled in your climbing after making good progress in your technique – you’ve reached a point where you’ve learned all the moves you can perform at your current strength level. Therefore, to improve your climbing level (move to the next level, get stronger at your current redpoint level, improve your base of climbs below your redpoint level, etc.), you need more of strength. Once you gain strength, you then have to learn how to apply that new strength to the wall, and your technique starts to improve again. This process repeats itself over and over again: improving one aspect of your climbing can help you cross a plateau in the other.

Evaluate your climbing

So how do you determine which aspect to work on? Here’s a simple self-assessment you can do at the gym or at your local crag.

Choose four different climbs:

  • A technical vertical climb
  • A vertical climb based on strength
  • An overhanging technical climb
  • A strength-based overhead climb
Examples of a technical vertical climb would be a competition style boulder or a tricky slab with poor toeholds. Success here will depend on learning the move and performing the skill; you will need strength, but that is not the determining factor.
Technical vertical ascent
Juliet Hammer on a technical vertical course at the gym – slabby, with poor footholds. (Photo: Juliette Hammer)
For the strength-based vertical climb, like a simple crimp ladder with high steps and deep locks, success depends on the stability of the movement and the execution of strength – for example, having the hip strength to get up through the high steps or have the strength of fingers and shoulders to cross the deep lock. Technique will be important here, but is not the determining factor for success.
Strength-based vertical ascent
A strength-based vertical climb, with small holds and long blocks. (Photo: Juliette Hammer)
On a technical slope, for example, a tricky rooftop climb that requires knee bars, toe hooks, and bikes, specific footwork skills, and movement efficiency are needed to be successful. You need to know how to execute technical footwork while maximizing momentum and hip positioning. Force tends to be greater on steeper climbs, but applying that force will depend on good technique.
Overhanging technical climb
A technical overhang climb – in this case involving the opposition of a toe hook to stay in the wall. (Photo: Juliette Hammer)
Finally, on a strength-based overhang, like a dynamic but simply sequenced steep climb that requires big pulls and hard toes, success depends on power, upper body strength and core strength. In this case, the application of the technique depends on the force.
Strength-Based Overhang Climb
A strength-based overhead climb – a direct pull on big ones hold a roof. (Photo: Juliette Hammer)

Perform each of these styles of climbs, filming yourself for reference. Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 3.

  • 1: Unable to complete the climb, having great difficulty understanding and performing the movements
  • 2: Able to complete the climb but with moderate difficulty. I feel like the climb could have been executed better.
  • 3: Able to complete the climb with little difficulty and satisfied with the execution.

When you look at your scores, you can then determine what your strengths are and where your weaknesses lie. Use this information to then target those areas for improvement.

If you find that strength is holding you back, a good place to start is to do some structured strength training. If you are new to strength training, it is recommended that you hire a trainer or find a teaching program. If you find technique is your deficit, a good place to start is to create intentional practice with your climbing and have a goal for each session (e.g., focus on footwork during your warm-up, take a video of you on your project, etc.). Again, a trainer or a teaching program can also be helpful.

Juliette Hammer (julietamanda.com) is a distance climbing coach based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She helps climbers of all levels achieve their goals through technical and strength training.