Thursday, May 28, 2009

I Climb Like a Girl

"The Big Concept: Climbing is a movement sport, not a strength sport. The best climbers are good at climbing; strength matters far less than the combination of the climber’s motion skills, attitude and mind. The best way to become a better climber is develop better movement; strength will develop specifically for climbing movement as fast as it is needed. Most climbs are combinations of movements; the better the climber is at those movements, the better he or she will climb the route. Strength is not even secondary, it’s about last on the list of needed skills."
--Will Gadd

I credit two people with teaching me the fundamentals of climbing, both are girls. And I'm damn lucky they took me under their girly wings.

Generally speaking, boys and girls approach climbing differently. In the beginning - on those first 5.7s and 5.8s - boys tend to use upper body strength and power to climb. Girls on the other hand usually do not have that upper body strength and must rely on *gasp* learning technique. This makes for an interesting comparison curve. Boys move quickly through those lower grades, being able to power through moves. Girls progress more slowly, learning balance and movement skills.

But strength takes you only so far. Mr. Gadd is correct: Climbing is a movement sport, not a strength sport.

As the climbing grade (difficulty) increases, it becomes less and less about pure strength. And this is due to many factors: balance starts playing a larger role with smaller holds and steeper inclines presenting a climber with more off-set balance moves; on higher grades the margin of error becomes smaller and things like center of gravity (COG) go from "important" to "critically important"; and the placement of hands and feet on holds and the timing of each movement become paramount.

Which is why when you work on your balance and hand placement and edging and all those other aspects of climbing in the beginning it means those higher grades are much more attainable.

So those who focus just on strength tend to move up through the lower grades quickly and then plateau; and those who rely on technique move through the lower grades more slowly but do not hit that same plateau. And the best part about learning technique? You gain the strength along the way.

I am eternally grateful to Rosa and Kristen because they would not let me rely solely on my boyish strength and were continually pointing out ways I could improve technique. (Rosa: "Use your feet! Use your damn feet!") At times it felt like the stream of commentary from my climbing partners was criticism, but it gave me the skills to lead a 5.12 in a relatively short period of time.

I'm not claiming that strength is unimportant to climbing. It is, in fact, on the list of have-to-haves in climbing. But the importance of strength is overemphasized and a misunderstanding of what kind of strength is needed (isometric versus concentric, anyone?) is perpetuated, especially by new climbers. I remember grumbling something about 'not being strong enough' and Kristen telling me that she couldn't even do a pull-up. This from a girl who looks like she dances up 5.11s. At the end of the day climbing is about a lot of things. But I'm lucky I learned to climb more fluidly and efficiently and not just stronger.

I climb like a girl. Thank God!

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Clynton said...

Thanks for taking the time to describe the difference between these two styles of climbing. It makes a great deal of sense. And it gives folks like me who haven't climbed in over a decade some hope that we can still do alright when we return to the sport!

Erica said...

I also think you are influenced a lot by the partners you climb with most often, especially the ones who you look up to as mentors - when my husband and I first started climbing, for example, I was the stronger climber, and we always climbed together, so he got used to thin, technical stuff as opposed to steep jug hauls. Now he much prefers crimpfests over big burly routes! But on the other hand I know a couple where the husband is much stronger than his wife, but his wife climbs like him - always trying to make big dynamic moves rather than getting her feet up. Just another observation. Thanks for posting!

Paukku said...


I agree. Which is why I am glad my early climbing was with Rosa and Kristen. I think that has given me an advantage in climbing because I did work so much on the technicalities and the flow of climbing, following the lead of my partners.

Thanks for your comment!

Rockgrrl said...

Nice article, now we see how you send so hard Paukku ;)

I made a "I Climb Like a Grrl" design for my shop years ago, so I've been noticing who purchases it for some time. I'm proud to say that it isn't only girls who buy it (it's on men's clothing as well as women's).

In fact one of my friends thought I'd made it for him, saying proudly that he climbs like a girl and his wife prefers to climb the overhung burly stuff :)

Stephen W. Weiss said...

That's a great article. I unfortunately have not learned how to climb like a girl and do rely too much on strength to get me through routes/problems. I feel like it takes me longer to figure problems out because of lack of flexibility and fluid movement. Sounds like you learned the right way. Way to show your feminine side!

Haley @ Climb Run Lift Mom said...

Great post :) I learned to climb with guys and I think that it negatively impacted my climbing. I still tend to try to "muscle" up a route that I'm struggling with even though I know better. Someday I hope I can climb like a girl, lol :)

Anonymous said...

Love this post... I've tried to articulate this before to women who are new climbers and they get frustrated when someone else who's new cranks harder grades faster. You do a much better job of explaining it here!