This is the second in a series of articles covering the fundamentals of climbing technique. This time you will learn the importance of letting the arms play a subordinate role to the feet, and you’ll learn about the power of the Left-Right Rule.
Grip Handholds “Lightly” and Let Arms Play a Secondary Role
In a sport where anxiety and fear often rule, it’s understandable that many climbers hang on for dear life with their hands. This tendency manifests itself with overgripping of the handholds and unnecessary muscling of moves with the arms. The end result is rapid fatigue, pumped forearms, and an eventual need to hang on the rope in order to rest and recover. You will no doubt experience this scenario during your initial days learning to climb.
You can avoid this outcome by practicing-and making habit-the fundamentals of proper hand and arm use. These critical skills include gripping each handhold with the minimum force required, using the arms mainly for balance and not as a primary source of locomotion, and pushing with the feet in unison with a pulling arm.
Begin by making each hand contact a conscious process. Whereas many climbers just grab a hold with little thought and continue with the process of climbing, you must make each hand placement a thoughtful act. First, consider where’s the best place to grab the hold? It’s not always on the top of the hold, and it often relates to the location of your last foot placement. Now as you grab the hold, focus on using a “light touch” that yields “soft forearms.” Sure, certain holds will demand that you bear down hard on them, but most do not. Your goal must be to try to use each hold with a light touch, and then increase the gripping force only as much as is required for the move at hand. This process of best gripping each handhold only takes a split second, but it’s a master skill the separates the best from the rest. Commit to making this skill habit through targeted practice with the drills detailed later in the chapter.
Beyond gripping the rock, you need to decide just how much you need to pull down on a given handhold. As discussed earlier, it is imperative that you push with your feet and let the leg muscles carry the load. Think of your arms as points of contact that simply prevent you from falling backwards off the wall. For example, in climbing a ladder your feet do all the work while the arms mainly provide balance. While rock climbing is far more complex than climbing a ladder, hold this model in your mind as the ultimate goal-the arms maintain balance while the legs provide thrust.
The “Left-Right” Rule for Stable Movement
The magic of efficient climbing movement comes from the synergistic interaction of the arms and legs and a constant transfer of force and torque through your body. To this end, the Left-Right Rule states that maximum stability and ease of movement comes from the pairing of a left hand and right foot (or a left foot and right hand) into harmonious action.
Let’s again use climbing a ladder as our model. Ascending a ladder with opposing hand-foot combinations (e.g. a left hand pulling and right foot pushing at the same time) is so intuitive that it’s almost impossible to climb a ladder any other way. Supposed you tried to climb a ladder with non-opposing hand-foot combinations, such as a right hand and right foot working together; you’d immediately begin to barndoor or rotate sideways off the ladder. Thus, the Left-Right Rule is a fundamental for balanced, stable movement.
While you don’t need to even consider the Left-Right Rule in ascending a ladder, formulating movement up a climbing wall is much more complex since the position and shape of the hand and foot holds wreak havoc with your intuitive sense of movement. Thus, in seeking to reposition your hands and feet on the wall, it’s helpful to ponder which holds will provide the best opportunity for a left-right combination. Easy climbs will often provide a pulling right hand that can combine with a pushing left foot (or vice versa). More difficult climbs tend to be more devious as the holds are smaller, farther apart, or displaced off to the side of the route line. Later in the chapter you will find several toprope drills to develop skill in using left-right combinations.
Copyright 2007 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.