The Limitations of Strength
It was 1999, I was a college kid in the northeast, and I had 5.14 eagerness to accompany my 5.9 climbing skills. My footwork resembled ice skating in soccer cleats, I lacked movement awareness to solve even simple problems in the vertical world, and I made up for it all by squeezing….really hard.
What I lacked in movement, I compensated for in strength. I always had plenty of that. I was a 5.9 climber who could do 1 arm pull ups – a circus trick that didn’t help my climbing much (it might have even hurt it), but I trained it like it was my job.
I was climbing at Cathedral Ledge near New Hampshire, shaking in my shoes on slippery 5.8 slabs and rattly finger locks when I stumbled across my dream route: a bolted horizontal hand traverse on a jug rail! It required little in the way of movement skills and had no feet, but that was fine – I didn’t know how to use those things anyway!
When I sent my first 5.12, I was elated! I thought that I must be well on my way to becoming a really good climber – I just needed more of what got me across that jug rail!
Discovering the Roots of Athleticism
For the next 10 years, I did what I knew best – I built strength. But in retrospect, I wonder why I kept ignoring my weaknesses? I believed that in order to improve my movement, I needed to climb more. However, I had recently become a dad and started guiding full-time. While getting out cragging became a challenge, maintaining strength was easy.
I trained hard, maintained my strength, and it did absolutely nothing for my climbing. I started thinking that I had reached my plateau. Shortly after I moved to Driggs, I met a new climbing partner with the opposite abilities: he was high on movement and low on strength. The stark difference between us was that he climbed 5.14 and I still struggled with 5.12. The experience of climbing together reinforced that while my strength training was making me stronger, it wasn’t making me any better at climbing.
I spent the next decade studying human athleticism. I began to understand that climbing movement is not a modern development. In evolutionary terms, humans were climbers before we ever stood upright and learned to walk. Our species evolved from chimpanzees who lived in trees in Africa.
The vertical world and the athleticism to navigate it is the oldest movement pattern in our repertoire. In other words – climbing is woven into our DNA; it’s very literally within us.
Crawling to Climb
This discovery led me to explore the movement patterns that we know are a part of our evolutionary story. Interestingly enough, these are the same ones that children use to navigate the world, long before they learn to walk. I’m talking about crawling!
Crawling is an ancestral habit of our species that we moved away from as a species when we started to stand upright, to walk, and eventually to run and hunt. As climbers, we draw on this ancestral habit to perform our sport. Climbing is literally vertical crawling.
Crawling involves distinct coordination and reciprocity between the upper left and lower right portions of our bodies. Our ability to hone these patterns can transform our vertical performance.
About 5 years ago, I started trying to incorporate this discovery into my training. I embraced the idea that crawling isn’t so much a single movement – it’s more of a strategy that we can use to cover ground.
Thinking of it this way, I started to open my eyes to the breadth of movement that falls under the banner of ‘crawling.’ Crawling is simply quadrupedal (4-limbed) locomotion. It has many variants: we can move laterally, we can move forward, use different gait patterns, and adjust stride length and tempos.
Putting it All Together
At first, I crawled like I climbed, with way too much force. Initially, it felt like strength training! But over time, my brain started to solve the movement puzzle – to complete the same move, with less and less force. Crawling became fluid, even easy.
As I integrated this habit into my climbing, it was shocking. My climbing movement improved more with crawling than it had in 10 years of climbing. These movement sessions didn’t require any equipment or make me fatigued – so I could do them daily – I was logging some serious ground time, and my climbing was reflecting it.
I went from being a climber that relied on strength and endurance to cover ground to feeling like strength was a reserve that I called upon only when the movement required it. It would be easy to point to the improvement in grades, and that has happened – I’ve now climbed a variety of 5.13- routes, but it’s my confidence that’s improved the most.
In the past, I had to rely on a very finite resource to overcome vertical terrain: strength. Now, I can rely on an infinite resource: movement. Movement is a solution to a problem, and now I feel like I trust my body to find solutions to vertical problems in ways I never dreamed were possible. My confidence on harder grades, run-out, dicey terrain, and on every kind of rock is through the roof – and that has made climbing so much cooler than I ever thought possible!