Climbing Technique: Gain More from Your Sessions

I think one of the reasons climbing is becoming so popular is because of how much sitting and resting we do. Spin class? Hell no. Running? Opposite of sitting. Surfing? Sitting waiting for a shark to eat you while you get sun burnt, maybe. In contrast, we climbers do an awful lot of sitting around. Watch this Nina Williams video of her working the Automator Boulder (V13) in Colorado. She takes 20-30 minute rests between attempts. When working on routes outdoors, most people take substantial rests between burns on their project. I bring an REI camp chair to the crag for God’s sake. Sitting around is an integral part of the sport.

So what if I told you, that whether you were on the wall or sitting on your ass, you could get better at climbing? Ever heard the phrase “watch and learn”? Its time to start doing it.

All that time we spend hanging around between burns, we could be watching and learning. But how does this work? And why?

Observational Learning

Studies on motor learning have shown that motor skill acquisition can be aided and improved by observation of the skill.

From demonstrations, individuals have learned explicit strategies that they can employ when physical performance is required. It has also been suggested that observational practice techniques might also work to aid motor skill acquisition through a more motor-based matching process.

Watch and Learn: Seeing Is Better than Doing when Acquiring Consecutive Motor Tasks

In one study aimed to analyze the effects of viewing demonstrations before or during practice of a new motor skill. There were three groups. The first group, termed “pre-practice” viewed 10 demonstrational videos before engaging in practice. The second group was halted in their practice every three attempts to ingest the ten demonstrational videos throughout the session. The third group, a combination of the two schedules, received five videos pre-practice, and the other five were dispersed throughout the session.

The groups were tested on form and accuracy while practicing, immediately after practice was completed and 48 hours later. The combination group had the highest retention, followed by the all pre-practice group, and finally the interspersed group.

These findings suggest that several modeling exposures before practice and several more exposures in the early stages of practice were optimal for acquisition and retention of form.

The interaction of observational learning with overt practice: effects on motor skill learning

All of this to say that there is proof that observation can aid in the learning process. We might as well use all that sitting time to our advantage.

Time is Money

Honing the skill of learning while off the wall is an amazing tool for weekend warriors. We only have so much time to train and climb, so we should squeeze ever ounce of improvement we can out of it.

Here is an excerpt from 9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes – read carefully. It’s important.

Those who spend that resting time with the mind wandering elsewhere…. learn to climb slowly and stop learning altogether

Those who replay the movements of the climb just done, recording which moves felt good or bad and looking back at the holds trying to understand why, and then plan their next attempt to try the movement a subtly different way, progress fast… These climbers are storing up move processing time at a much higher rate than the ‘passive’ climbers.

9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes by Dave Macleod

Be the climber who pays attention. Let’s examine how this would look in a few settings.

In the Gym

You hop down off a boulder problem, take a seat and look up at the wall. A stronger climber is working something hard. You pay attention to what they are doing, you try to work out where their hand will go next, you notice when they have tension and when they release it. You have no intentions of trying that boulder today, but instead of looking at your phone, you watched something good and you learned instead.

After they are done climbing, you still have a minute or so before you will be fresh to try your boulder again. You look at the holds on your boulder, remembering why you fell the last time. You envision yourself doing the whole thing, trying to imagine new beta, or a slight adjustment to your body position that might make that move possible. You think about how you can do it better next time – did you have to readjust a hand during the sequence? Can you try to hit it right the first time, instead? Would twisting your hip in more help you reach the next hold? You take mental notes of what you can do better and implement these in your next attempt.

See? Wasn’t that a better use of your time than looking at memes? Instead of zoning out, you continued to engage in activities to improve your technique. You might even do your boulder faster than you would have if you spent your rest scrolling on Instagram.

We can apply this mindfulness to outdoor sport climbing as well.

While Sport Climbing

You show up to the crag and unfortunately, someone is roping up below the route you wanted. They are going to climb it and clean the route so you decide to wait around for it since you are next in line.

Instead of diving head first into getting your rope out and gearing up, you take the time to watch the climber. You have heard that the crux is near the middle so you start to watch. You take stock of the climber’s pace. It looks like it gets pretty pumpy at the top, but the beginning looks vertical with good holds. You see that the climber is moving quickly through the bottom and all of the holds are good options. The climber plunks through the moderate beginning up until the crux. You see the gears shift and you notice that the climber has found a comfortable rest position before moving into the crux. You mentally tic the holds and feet she uses moving through it. You note the body positions she hits as she makes her way through the hard moves. Now, you have a vision of one way to do the crux. She then moves to the pumpy section, continuing to move quickly again. She is well on her way to the anchors and you begin getting out your gear.

Good thing you watched instead of going straight to racking up your draws. It might take you less time to send this now, since you absorbed some knowledge ahead of time. Shit, you might even flash it.

Thoughts on Onsighting

Obviously, if your aim is to practice onsighting, you cannot spend your entire life as a beta pirate as described in the scenarios above. However, seeing beta and replicating it is a useful skill, so it is worth practicing. Additionally, you can learn by watching people climb, even if you do not intend to climb what they are climbing.

Bringing it Together

There are many situations in which taking a step back and keenly observing the climbers around you can help you to learn. Even if the climber is less skilled  – sometimes I watch people and ask myself what I think they could do better to improve upon what they just did. I keep this to myself, of course, but it is an exercise I like to do from time to time.

Most of us have a limited amount of time to climb. Between the volume that our bodies can handle and the constraints of everyday life, the time we get on the wall is finite.

So I urge you to start paying attention. The time spent sitting on your ass is more useful than you think.

How do you spend your time between burns at the gym? Do you have plans to change your behavior in the future? Drop a comment and let me know what you think!

Want more tips to help you become a better climber? Stay up to date on my latest posts by following me on Instagram, Facebook, and subscribing to my monthly newsletter!


The interaction of observational learning with overt practice: effects on motor skill learning

9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes

Watch and Learn: Seeing Is Better than Doing when Acquiring Consecutive Motor Tasks

Sending your First 5.12: Movement Drills for Climbing

Lauren abernathy climbing moonboard
Lauren new river gorge climbing

“ARE YOU OK?!” My belayer yelled up at me. He could hear me sobbing – not what you want to hear from your friend who is 90 feet up on the sharp end of the rope.

Fortunately, these were tears of joy. I had just pulled the last hard move of the route and was sobbing my way to the chains.

“One! TWO!” I yelled down as I clipped each anchor. I’d done it. I finally sent my first 5.12. I was delighted.

For me, my first 5.12 was a big deal – it is for a lot of people. As Maureen Beck says in her Reel Rock Debut “There’s a freaking book about it: How to Climb 5.12!”.

Climbing my first 5.12 is a memory I will always treasure. So if you haven’t climbed 5.12 yet, or maybe you haven’t sent the grade in a while, I want to help you get there. So here’s the first installment of my own analysis on how I sent my first 5.12. This first of many in this series is all about improving your movement skills.

Mindful Practice vs. Going through the Motions

In 2017 when I set out on my first training program EVER, I started with the Rock Prodigy Program. It recommends doing a lot of ARC training. And supposedly in the process of getting in tons of mileage on rock, your technique will improve and you will become a better climber.

This is basically true. After incorporating lots of ARC training I went from doing my first 5.10a outside to doing my first 5.11a outside in a matter of three months. Which is pretty considerable. I believe my increased endurance and improved economy of movement had a lot to do with that.

lauren climbing rodellar
The author going in for a clip on the second 5.11a that she would send on her 2017 trip to Rodellar, Spain. Photo by Jan Novotny

However, as I got better at climbing, I had to up my game a little more. I had certainly increased the difficulty of the routes that I train endurance on; however, instead of mindlessly cranking out route after route, I started to carefully consider my movement. No matter the grade, I began to take care to perfect the sequences. I started to re-do the same routes and boulders over and over until they feel “perfect.”

I used to think I was practicing my technique by climbing a shit ton, but I realized that it is essential to focus on different aspects of your climbing (e.g. putting weight on your feet, keeping your hips from sagging, moving statically instead of dynamically, etc.) instead of going through the motions. Do not assume you’re getting better sheerly by climbing more. You must learn to practice deliberately.

Resources for Movement Drills

So how do you practice climbing deliberately? If you had asked me that six months prior to sending my first 5.12 I probably would have said “um… make sure you don’t miss footholds and don’t cut feet if you don’t have to, I guess”. I had no clue and I hadn’t really thought about it either. This is where the movement drill resources come in.

If you want to practice deliberately, it’s a good idea to break down your climbing into little concepts that you perfect. These can come in the form of a movement drills.

Everyone climbs a little differently, so I don’t want to sit here and tell you exactly what drills to do. You know yourself and you know the projects that you want to do. It’s up to you to find the best drills to incorporate into your climbing practice.

Here are some ideas of where you can get quality movement drills to incorporate into your sessions:


Here are some other footwork related drills that seem a bit complex in the prop department. For entertainment value only:

  • putting jingle bells bracelets on people’s ankles and telling them to climb with “quiet feet”. Which is like asking a dog with a collar on to run without making noise.
  • Putting coins on holds and having people try to place their feet directly on the coins as they climb. Slightly less stupid, but who carries that much change?

I know, I know. My short list of resources probably amounted to about 50 different ways to practice your climbing movement. Don’t freak out. In the 5 weeks leading up to my first 5.12 redpoint, I only employed about 6 different movement drills from the Power Company Movement ebook, and consistently practiced them. Pick 6-8 drills that you will enjoy and can stick to, and then practice them often. Then after 4-8 weeks of practice, swap a few out for something new.

Practical Applications when Redpointing

At this point you might be thinking “Is this really going to apply when I’m thrashing at my limit outside? How does my perfect footwork on my 5.9 warmup help me when the going gets tough?”

The answer is that because you’ve practiced economical movement, you’re prepared to deploy it. While sussing out the beta of my first 5.12, Starry, at the New River Gorge I actively engaged TWO of the six movement drills that I had been doing from the Power Company ebook while working on the route. Here is an explanation of how I used the Heavy Feet Drill as well as the One Touch drill for my redpoint of Starry.

Heavy Feet

This the heavy feet drill. You may be familiar with this from a previous post.

On Starry there is a ledge that permits a full sit down rest in preparation for the crux sequence. The catch is that you have to traverse out pretty far to get to it. The debate is whether or not the rest is worth all that traversing. However, I noticed that the feet on the traverse out were very large and easy to work with. Thinking about my efficiency, I fully engaged the “heavy feet” drill during the traverse sequence. I did my best to put as much weight as possible on my feet to minimize exertion while traveling to and from the rest spot. As a result, the traverse didn’t really pump me out at all and I got a great rest on the ledge as a reward.

One Touch to Victory

Again, you might be familiar with this video from my last post, but one more time for the homies in the back because this drill is a GAME CHANGER:

The moves at the top of Starry were pretty tough, but I think this long crux sequence wouldn’t be any harder than V3 if took the 20 feet of crux and plopped it on the ground with a pad underneath it. However, when you do the crux, you’ve already been climbing steep stuff for 60-70 feet, so you’re a little gassed at that point.

With a high crux like this, efficiency is the name of the game. Every twitch of your hand counts and the pump clock is ticking.

So when I worked out the beta for the crux sequence, I had two obejctives:

  1. Figure out how to grab the holds correctly the first time and don’t waste energy adjusting or fidgeting.
  2. Eliminate sucky intermediates by doing one big move instead of multiple small ones.

The more I worked through the crux, the more I was able to accomplish the above objectives. By the time I went for the redpoint, the sequence was wired and I did a fairly minimal amount of readjusting through the crux. Either way, throughout the entire process, the efficiency that comes from “touching a hold once” was top of mind.

10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s NY Times Best Seller, Outliers, he cites a study on musicians stating that with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you can become an expert at anything. While it has come to light that this rule isn’t as hard and fast as originally presented (and also does’t make total sense when discussing it through the lens of athleticism) the basis of the rule is that greatness comes with deliberate practice.

Lauren hoboken gravity vault climbing
Me practicing the one touch drill on an autobelay at my local gym.

Fitting it All In

So how does one fit this deliberate practice into their climbing schedule? Here are my two favorite ways to do it.

  1. I combine movement drills with my endurance training.
  2. When I warm up for bouldering, I incorporate drills into my warm-up. I especially like to repeat sub-maximal problems when warming up for a tough bouldering session until I feel that I have completed them perfectly (a la the “Perfect Repeat” drill as seen in the Power Company Movement Skills ebook*).

Practicing these movement drills in your warm-ups is very beneficial in integrating improved movement patterns into your bag of climbing tricks:

“We recommend doing a lot of the drills that we’ve developed while warming up because I want you to do it while there are no other stressors involved: when you’re not focused on sending, when you’re not pumped, when you’re not physically fatigued or powered down. I want you to be able to focus on how you’re pressing with your feet or driving through your arms while that’s the only thing you have to think about.”

Kris Hampton – Power Company Podcast Episode 124 – Meditation and Yoga for Climbers

The Month Before the Send

So how does this all tie into my first 5.12? Here are the specifics:

I started training movement skills for 2 hours total per week starting on April 22, 2019. I sent my first 5.12 at the New River Gorge on May 26, 2019 – about a month later.

I definitely noticed improvements in my movement patterns within a month of practicing them deliberately, which was cool to see. Do I think that movement drills alone helped me to send? No. But do I think that improving my economy of movement help me to a speedy 4-try send of my first 5.12? Absolutely.

The bottom line

If you want to break into 5.12, there are a lot of ways to get there, but the first and most important step to climbing 5.12 is improving your overall climbing ability – and that starts with deliberate skill practice.

What are your favorite movement drills? Have you ever used them before? Have specific questions about how I used them in my training? Drop me a comment or shoot me an email – I’d love to discuss!

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*Please note tjhat after my last post I became and affiliate for the Power Company Climbing ebooks. I do receive a small commission for ebooks sold through the links provided in this post. If you are interested in purchasing this movement drills ebook, please consider doing so through one of my links. It help keeps my content free and accessible to all!

Quick tips for Climbing Overhang

Happy Technique Tip Tuesday, everybody!

I hope this article finds you well. As a former Red River Gorge native, I am thrilled to discuss some tips for my favorite style of climbing: steep, overhanging.

I used to hate overhanging routes. They made me feel weak, uncoordinated, and a V0 on a 45 degree angle usually left me feeling pretty pathetic. However, with some targeted training and an attitude adjustment, this is usually the kind of route that makes me smile the most:

Personally, when I first started climbing (and before I knew anything about training) what I did to get better at steep routes was climbing more steep routes and doing pull-ups. When I first started climbing I literally could not do a single pull-up. To accommodate for this I modified with resistance bands and/or putting one foot on a chair. I also started doing a lot of easy, steep boulders over and over. I found this to be pretty impactful, generally.

Of course, there are always a few quick things that you can think about as you start pondering problems in the cave in your local gym, or the steep route at the crag you’ve been dying to try. You definitely do not have to be able to do even one pull-up to climb steep routes, but it does help!

Check out these tips and instructional videos to see how you can take your overhang game from V0 to hero:

  1. Twist your body to climb overhanging routes more efficiently
  2. In a similar vane (and you’ve probably heard this one before) you can conserve energy by climbing with straight arms, only bending them when it is absolutely necessary–same goes for overhangs. Keep that in mind the next time you’re three moves in and you’re pumping out. If you think you need to lock off to do a move, think again!
  3. Keep your hips into the wall! Check out the video below to get a more detailed overview of why this is so critical.
  4. Drive with your feet! Even though the route is steep, you can and you must continue to drive with your lower half. Make sure you place your feet such that you can push/pull yourself through your next move.Think about how many pull-ups you can do vs. how many flights of stairs you can climb. The more weight that you can take off your arms, the better!

New to climbing? Do overhangs bum you out? Can you barely hang on for one route?

If upper body strength and steep routes are a challenge for you, try adding 3 sets of pull-ups (5-10 reps) a twice a week and make it a point to climb a little overhang every time you hit the gym! Climbing more overhang is going to be the key to improve, but spending a small amount of time improving your strength can help too!

Good luck and happy climbing!



How to Heel Hook Correctly – Technique Tips for Climbing

Everyone with useful beta and better technique than me: Lauren, just heel hook.
Me: Nope. No thanks, I’d rather inefficiently stab my toe into the wall with my knee in my face instead.

It’s been a hard fought battle with my peers, but I have finally conceded: heel hooks are extremely useful, especially if done correctly. For this Technique Tip Tuesday,  let’s take a second to watch this shaggy man with a fun accent tell us how to do it right!

The difference between active and passive heel hooks is something I had never considered before, but I am very happy to have learned. Here is another video that underscores the effectiveness of actively heel hooking with some more XTREME examples (also some super rad tunes in the background.)

Here’s my buddy being really dramatic about the SICK actively engaged heel hook he’s about to pull off:

Do you like heel hooks? Do you hate them? Are you a convert like me?!

Comment or shoot me an email and let me know. I’d love to chat.



Two classic, effective ways to improve footwork for climbing

The worst whip I’ve ever taken resulted in two staples in the back of my head. Why did I fall? My foot blew!

Footwork is very important in climbing–debatably the most important aspect of your technique. Practicing good footwork can make or break your ascents (and maybe even your head).

So what can be done to specifically target footwork improvement? Let’s find out!

I went scouring the internet and my climbing reference books to find some groundbreaking drill that is fun, exciting, convenient, and will cure inefficient footwork for life. I found no such thing.

What I did find (and have my own experience with) are the two drills below. They are widely recommended because they are simple and effective. If you haven’t heard of them, try them out this week and see what you think!

  1. Silent feet – When climbing practice silent foot placement. Ensure that the feet are placed carefully and quietly. When feet are placed silently, they are placed accurately. If the toe gently lands on the chip, and sticks, that one movement is all you need and then you move on. It is meticulous. It is efficient.
  2. Downclimbing – most of climbing is done looking up,  leading with your hands. When you downclimb, your feet lead and the weight is on the toes. Make sure that when you do it, you climb as carefully down as you do up. It can be strange at first, but you get used to it.

The best way to practice these drills is to do so when you warm up. Hop on some easy boulders to warm up for your day of climbing, climb carefully with silent feet and climb down the routes as well.

Here’s a video that I think illustrates this super well (skip about a minute in if you don’t care about what literature pro climbers are reading–feel free to watch if you do!)

I hope you enjoyed your weekly dose of climbing technique. For the betterment of myself and others I’ll be bringing you a technique tip every Tuesday for Technique Tip Tuesday! I’m a sucker for alliterations.

See you next time!