How to climb – Like yourself Pt 1

So, I was perusing the awesomeness that is Crux Crush and this post popped out at me: ‘How (and why) to Climb More Like a Dude’. This got me thinking. I climb with fantastically strong people. The benefit of living in the climbing mecca that is Sheffield, is that I often rub shoulders with Alex Puccio, Mina Leslie-Wujastyk, Leah Crane, Diane Merrick, Shauna Coxsey, Kathryn Schirrmacher. I also climb with other, not as famous, climbers like Jules Littlefair; and those who are super motivated, but climb for the fun of it and  push themselves.

However, not once have I ever thought – y’know, I really ought to climb like a dude. This may be because I’m already have a thuggy style and I’m fairly strong. I like roofs, over hangs, and things which I can lock-off down to my waist (see below for images). However, it may also be because the community that I climb with share beta and techniques, not based on gender divisions but on the individual strengths of each climber.

Here is Shauna Coxsey ‘locking off’ with her left hand. Source: Climbing Hanger

Helena Aleman. Spanish Climbing Championship (Gijon 2012)

Helena Alemán is locking off with her left hand to pop to the top hold. Photo: Darío Rodríguez. Source: Eva Lopez Personal Climbing Coaching

 There may be a difference in culture between the USA and UK. There is certainly some elements of sexism within climbing in the UK, but often its more of the everyday variety. For example, I’ve been told many times to ‘man up’ if my head is failing on a top move. That said, I’ve also been told to ‘suck it up’ and ‘c’mon Kate, it’s easy!’ All of which can be (un)helpful depending on the context. However, in terms of the difference between climbing styles for men and women, increasingly there is little difference.

Most women I know throw for the crux I’m starting to develop this (on the advice from Diane) but I’ve terrible aim. I’m also noticing greater parity in the training areas of climbing gyms. I see girls on the fingerboards doing pull-ups, on the floor working their core and starting to campus. It seems to me that the focus on training and getting strong is a central element to all climbers who enjoy the sport. Those that dabble, don’t.

One thing that is particularly cultural is vocalising. In general, British climbers are fairly quiet. They don’t shout/grunt/huff while working hard. I think it’s interesting that Crux notes the socialization element of this trait. I wonder if the Brits are culturally trained to be restrained (unless its tennis).   Saying that, with the growth of climbing coaching, focus on breath and breathing during hard moves has led to more noises – mainly in the huffing and grunting variety!

So I guess what I’m saying is that Crux’s tips are really helpful and good advice. They didn’t really need to dress it up as climbing like a dude, as most of the tips are akin to climbing like a ‘thug’ (whether or not that label connotes masculinity and whatnot, I won’t go into – in this blog at least!)

My pointers for climbing would be:

  1. Feel your body. Once you ‘tune in’ to feeling your body, you can start to feel the subtle differences in shift weight and slight changes in foot position which may make the difference in completing a move from getting shut down in it. Just learning to marginally move my hips and weight around has really unlocked a number of moves and techniques that have done wonders for my climbing! See here, for example.
  2. Watch others and get them to watch you. It’s amazing how much info I’ve picked up from watching others climb – not just the sequence they use, but also more subtle things, like where they move their hips and foot position. If you’re struggling on dynamic or popping moves, watch how some one similar to you does the move and try to break it down. Get them to watch you in return.
  3. Get strong. No matter how good your technique is, how tall/short, dynamic or flicky you are, there is no reason not to get stronger. And by this I don’t just mean pull-ups. I mean pull-ups, push-ups, core, fingers, legs and particularly bums. So many moves start in your legs and bum that without working and getting these muscles stronger, you’re not going to be able to do certain styles of climbing. For that same reason, it’s really important to work the antagonistic muscles. There are some really good pointers here, here, here and here for strength training.

Mina training at the Climbing Works. Good lock-off strength on display! Source: The Climbing Academy

  1. Get dynamic. I’m not a dynamic person by nature. I’m thuggy, but my dynamic power is not great so practicing is a must. To me, being dynamic includes being able to flick from one hold to the other; single dynos, pops and then the big ol’ double dyno. If you’re a competition climber, being able to double dyno is pretty important (Watch any of the IFSCWC bouldering comps and you’ll see at least one). I think for more general climbing, being able to flick between holds and pop are more important. This is quite straightforward to practice – find some holds and practice using your leg to generate a ‘flick’ so you can move between them. I am definitely weaker when having to flick with the same leg and hand.
  2. Footwork! Footwork is so important. It’s what generates a lot of the movement and power in climbing and often what takes the longest to develop. I struggle with balance a lot, and this results in scrappy footwork. Best way to practice – climb more!
  3. Don’t beat yourself up. This is probably the one thing that holds me back. I beat myself up. A lot. I find it very hard to keep perspective in climbing and training requires a lot of perspective. It’s identifying weaknesses and working on them. Don’t confuse competitiveness with beating yourself up! Yes, be competitive but only if its helpful to you. Me, I try not to be, because it translates to failure in my mind. I try to be supportive and enjoy climbing with a group of friends rather than trying to beat them. If you are a competitive person and that’s what drives you – then fine. But if you’re not, and you’ve a different way of gaining enjoyment, improving and working, then don’t be! Just remember – you’re supposed to enjoy climbing and enjoy the moves. If you’re not, take a step back and try and figure out where that enjoyment went.

For those who are interested in the tips that Crux offered, here they are:-

1. When in doubt, throw for it. You’re at a crux move, and you’re at a loss. Where are the good feet? What’s that next hold gonna be like? Maybe you’re pumped, exhausted, mentally fatigued. Do you just bail and let go, dropping to the crash pad, or yell “take!!” or do you summon that last bit of effort you have, let go of your perception of the outcome, and just throw for it? Whether it’s their egos, or their perseverance, or a healthy combination of the two, 9 times out of 10 you see a dude make some kind of crazy throw for something, rather than just letting go. And maybe 5 out of 10 times it works!

2. Get competitive. While both men and women are probably equally competitive, women are socialized not to voice it or acknowledge it in the same way. We’ll tend to say things like “inspiration” instead of competition. As in Mary saying, “Cate climbed that 5.12 and I was really ‘inspired’, so I attacked the thing all afternoon until I finally sent the f*%#er.” Or me saying (through gritted teeth), “I’m so inspired by how Amy climbs the same grade as me even though she’s only been climbing for 6 months.” So ladies, let’s just acknowledge it. We’re competitive too, and thank goodness! Do you think ladies would be out there crushing as hard as they are these days if it weren’t for competition? And that’s not just competition within the sexes, it’s between them too. You know part of the reason ladies climbing at the top of their game push themselves is so they can reach grades that so far only a few men have achieved. And that’s to all our benefits. So, make peace with your competitive edge!

3. Get vocal. So maybe not Adam Ondra vocal (click here and check out minute 1:15 if you’re not familiar), but for some of us (like me), and most dudes, it comes natural to make noise when you’re putting in hard work. Again, this may be a socialization thing, but we are taught that ladies just don’t grunt. Something about letting out a grunt, a yell, a loud forceful exhale, heck, a moan even, really helps you dig deep. Or maybe it’s the natural by-product of digging deep? Regardless, it feels good, so start grunting!

4. “Just Pull Up”.  So while we hate getting this particular piece of beta, the dudes have a point.  Yes, men naturally have more upper body strength, and yes, women are known for their technique to make up for lack of said upper body strength.  However, if you can work on your ability to do pull-ups, this will show in your ability to climb.  If you need some pointers to get you started check out this post and you’ll be well on your way. 

5. Push your climber. You know, like in that really sensitive way guys do when they’re belaying or spotting you, and they say really sweet things like, “Just grow a pair!” (meaning ovaries, I’m sure) and, “Quit whining and just go!” And while, as we mentioned, we all hate the old “just pull up” beta we sometimes get from our male partners, there is something to that “sensitive” encouragement sometimes that really can push us that extra bit.

Missy, Crux Crush

So what do you guys think? Is there a cultural difference between British and American climbing communities? Do you think that because we have so many strong female climbers both outside and in the competitive scene that there isn’t the same focus on gender? Or am I just getting a bit too academic in my reading?

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11 thoughts on “How to climb – Like yourself Pt 1

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  3. Great post! I’m researching climbing femininity for my MA thesis and I’m really surprised to see how many different and often contradicting attitudes women display. there are some who have this kind of ‘i’m a girl so i can’t do this’ thinking, but there are some who think that gender divide doesn’t exist anymore. it kind of confirms that the same social setting can mean completely differed things to different people. Crux Crush post points out things which I guess are traditionally more masculine that feminine, although it is precisely in settings such as climbing community that divisions like that gradually loose their power. apologies for my little anthropological rant 😉

    • Happy to discuss more. Have you read vicky Robinson’s book on masculinity and climbing? Its very good. Ill give you the full details when im on a computer rather than my phone. Kate

      • The Everyday Masculinities? It’s on my reading list 🙂 Definitely a big flaw of my research is not looking at masculinity at all… My only justification is that it’s a conscious exclusion (something like, alternative masclinities were already discussed so much in the context of lifestyle sports that now it’s time to focus on femininties and forget about dudes)… Not sure how well it holds though 😀

  4. Hey Kate-Loved this post, and just love all of your tips and suggestions. It got me thinking about something that hadn’t occurred to me while writing the post. It was about something a friend of mine said to me a few months ago. She has been climbing for about 10 years (to my 2 years) and one night I was bemoaning to her how frustrated I was that my husband, who started climbing at the same time I started, was already climbing much higher grades than me, and seemed to improve so much faster, despite the fact that he and I put the same amount of time into it. And she responded that she noticed that at first too, when she first started climbing, and then said that at some point, after climbing for several years, the abilities of herself and the men she climbs with just kind of leveled out, so much so that she doesn’t really think about gender as much anymore. So, after reading your post, I was thinking about women that are more experienced than I am, and the women who are climbing at a “higher level”/harder grades than me, and about the fact that there really isn’t a difference between the sexes at that point. Once you’ve kind of built up the strength, and of course your technique already rocks, cause that’s what women typically use to compensate at first, and men typically need to work a little harder at, it all just kinda evens out? I dunno, that’s kind of what I’m realizing now that I’m thinking about it more. And maybe it’s just right now, from where I sit (or climb, haha) the gender difference feels very real (and at times frustrating), but I think probably with more years of experience and building strength under my belt, I’ll probably see that there isn’t a difference, as much between myself and the guys I am climbing with? I dunno, does that make any sense? I’m kind of thinking out loud. And it doesn’t really answer some of the questions you are posing, necessarily. But thanks so much for this super thoughtful response, it definitely got me thinking, and hopefully will get others thinking (which is why I wrote the original post in the first place). Love your site, and am a new follower 🙂 Best, Missy

    • Wow! Thank you so much for your reply – I’m just about to head off climbing now – and what you said has definitely got me thinking. Leave it with me and I’ll get back to you! P.s. – I love your blog! I love hearing about what happens on the other side of the pond. Kate x

    • it’s kind of annoying but true, thanks to testosterone men do build up strength quicker than we do. but luckily climbing is a very technical sport so this is definitely not the only thing that makes the difference. so i’d totally agree with what you said, how women progress slower. i’m going to be horribly boring here, but try reading ‘throwing like a girl’ by prof. marion young, it’s a super eye opening explanation 🙂 you’d need access to an academic database, if none of your mates were students i could send you a pdf if you were interested.

  5. A lot of people have told me that women naturally make better climbers and that it takes men a while (eg a lot of training and experience) to catch up with them, mainly for the reason you listed under “just pull up.”

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