Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Monkey goes Hands Free

Just to contradict the muggles out there who think climbing is all about the arms, today, I'm going to talk about hands free climbing.

"Are you kidding me?" is the general response I get when I suggest it for the first time to any of my fellow climbers. "Oh no, not again." would be the other common response when I reminded them the idea during our next session.

Some people think I'm obsessed with the idea, but then I've only done it about 3 or 4 times over the past 6 months. Though I sure as hell suggested it a lot.

So what's the dealio then?

Hands free climbing, at least the way I do it, is just a training exercise to improve my balance and leg strength. I don't ever consider the grades when attempting it, and falling off is just a reminder that there is room for improvement.

I was introduced to no-hands climbing by fellow climber Matt at Redpoint last year, probably 2 or 3 months into my climbing career, when I was beginning to top 6a+ routes.

I can't even remember how the conversation came about, but before I knew it, I was on the beginner's slab falling off repeatedly and trying not to think of Bridget Jones.

Yes, I watched it, and I liked it.
Hands Free climbing is hard.

My first attempt, using every hold available was probably a Grade 2. Nothing felt right, and the temptation to grab something on the wall was huge. "Just how the hell does anyone do this?"

Sure enough Matt gave a quick demo and he casually flew up in no time. "Bastard." was probably my first reaction.

During that same period of time, eager to improve my skills by doing as little actual training as possible - I read, a lot. And sure enough I came across an article on that made mention of this secret training method. Here's what they had to say:

Exercise Drills to Improve Body Position

Climbing with Tennis Balls
Simply hold a tennis ball in each hand and climb a slab. Because you are now unable to use your fingers to grasp the holds, you are limiting the amount of force your arms can apply to them, engaging your legs and hips automatically. Try and take mental notes about how your body moves during this exercise.
Climbing One Handed
Climbing one handed is the next stage up from "Tennis Balls". Choose one hand to use the whole way up the wall and don't alter! You will now have to encourage the use of your legs and hips even more and this time begin to use momentum to carry you through the moves. To increase difficulty again, just climb one handed with a tennis ball.
Climbing No Handed
Climbing no handed is obviously the most advanced of these three exercises. This will engage your arms, legs and hips as well as forcing you to use momentum through your legs to make high steps and awkward balancing movements. Your hands are allowed to palm on the flat wall for this, just make sure you don't inadvertently push against a hold. For all these exercises, its best to do them on a top rope wall!
Well if it's on the internet then it must be true, right? Well in this case, yes, actually.

Yes tennis ball climbing comes before hands free - but a climbing centre is a hazardous enough environment without bouncy objects... I also didn't want to confuse any tennis players.

Better grab the bouncy objects before someone gets hurt.
Much to my other climbing friends' frustration, I revisited the no hands training in the coming weeks, and it was during one of these sessions that something besides my knee clicked:
Get your centre of gravity above one foot, and you can move the other one up freely.
Suddenly, no hands climbing was achievable (not easy), and more importantly, climbing just became so much easier. I was finally relying on my feet to move up, and my hands got the chance to rest. The upside was, I could climb for much longer (5 hour sessions saw less pain than my original 2 hour sessions); the downside was, I was no longer developing strength in my arms.

Thing is, no hands climbing isn't always beneficial, especially if you don't really get what you're trying to achieve. So here are my tips for no hands climbing, hopefully to guide you in the right directions towards this 'clicking' point:
Shit's getting real.
  1. Start on gentle slabs. While no hands climbing is doable on steeper slabs, doing them is like trying to reach Mars before the Moon landing. Take baby steps up, both in gradient and footholds.
  2. Lean into the wall. You'll gain more understanding of 'sideways' balance out of free hand climbing than 'front / back', focus on that.
    By leaning into and resting your palms gently on the wall, you can focus working on your sideways balance. Also, leaning into the wall means your palms will gain more friction - allowing you to 'hand smear' on the wall to both keep your sideways balance AND upwards movement.
  3. Feel and shift your balance. The step by step of hands free climbing is as follows:
    1. Steady yourself on 1 foothold;
    2. Free the other foot
    3. Move up to the next foothold.
    To do this, you need to understand where your balance is, otherwise it's impossible to lift either foot without falling off.
  4. Keep your hip above one foot. To free one of your feet, you must maintain your balance and weight on the other - the easiest way to do this is to keep your centre of gravity above one foot. Your hip is a pretty good representation of it, so move it directly in line above your weight bearing foot.
    Once you feel all your weight on that foot, you should find it easy(ier) to gently lift the other foot. If it feels difficult still, it means your hip (centre of gravity) is not directly above your weight bearing foot yet, keep shifting that hip over. The other way is:
  5. Use momentum to go up. Some moves are impossible to make statically as  above, typically because you're stretching your legs to the limit and still can't reach the balancing point. This is when you need to make a dynamic move.
    Visualise your finishing position first, which should be a perfectly balanced stance - ideally with your centre of gravity above the weight bearing foot (less variables, less unknowns, less chance to fall off) - use momentum to carry the other foot into the finishing position.
  6. Turn your body. Learn to twist and turn your body - all these are useful in normal climbing as well! - so that you can better adjust your balance, as well as observing where the ideal footholds are.
  7. Make smaller steps. The biggest mistake I've seen my friends make is to make too big a step up, either in terms of height or width.
    The further the next foothold is (regardless of direction) the more you need to stretch to allow your centre of gravity to sit above one of your feet. Just imagine trying to place your centre of gravity above one foot while doing the sideways splits - it's physically impossible!
    Now try and do it when you're in a shoulder width stance - easy, because you do it all the time when giving speeches.
  8. Flag your arms AND your body. We've all seen climbers flagging their legs to counter balance themselves, the same principle applies here. In fact, flagging your whole body creates a much bigger impact than arm / legs flagging, since it simply carries more weight. Use it to help you find that balancing point to move up.
  9. Take your time and keep trying. Reading this list is not going to help shit unless you actually try out Hands Free climbing - and sorry but reading this list also isn't going to help you much when you're on the wall either, because until you've experienced that balancing point; when you finally made a hard move by shifting your balance, and gently letting go of your other foot - you won't really get what all this is about.
    You will fall off, loads, and you may get disheartened. Don't. You're not climbing here - you're trying to learn something. Failure only means you have more room for improvement.

  10. Don't over do it. While I'll strongly encourage new climbers to try this exercise, don't feel you have to do this every session. There's only so much you can gain from each exercise, and it reaches diminishing returns very quickly especially when it finally 'clicks' what you're trying to learn. Focus on applying it to your normal climbing instead!
So there you have it, happy climbing!

Monkey goes call Sex Line with hands-free kit


    1. I swear my arse suddenly has a lead weight attached to it when I try this. Must keeping trying it, though...