Not long ago we published an article by Neely about how she trains to compensate for being short. The response was great and it clearly seems like a topic many people are interested in and need help with.
Today, we have another article about training to climb taller than you actually are. This one, however, takes a bit of a different approach and is by UK based climber, coach, and author John Kettle. John was on the TrainingBeta Podcast where he talked about how improving his movement skills helped him break a decade-long plateau and improved his climbing from the V7 and 5.11d level to V11 and 5.13b.
In this article, John outlines six ways to lengthen your reach. Three are trainable attributes and three are practicable skills. This is an extremely practical approach that will not only have you training to get stronger but also learning how to better utilize the height you do have with more efficient movement. Give it a shot and see what you think!
If you like what you see here, be sure to check out John’s book Rock Climbing Technique where he outlines in detail all of the drills and methods of technique practice he uses, both in his own training and with the climbers he coaches.
Six Ways to Lengthen Your Reach
Coming up short on reach? Do you find yourself regularly blaming the route setters and your height for failure? It is always tempting to use the excuse that’s out of your control – then it’s not your responsibility to fix it, right?
“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” – Richard Bach
Standing at a towering five foot four inches, I hate using the reach excuse as it’s so easy to do, yet there are many superior climbers without my reach. Beth Rodden and Lynn Hill at 5’, and Alex Puccio and Hazel Findlay at 5’2 all totally out-gun me on hard sport, bold trad, and boulders between them.
As I progressed through the grades, I noticed that many times I’ve written things off blaming my reach, only to climb (to my surprise) them later with improved skills, strength, or tactics. This is particularly true outside on rock, where even a five-move boulder problem often offers dozens of subtly different foot options to suit every size climber. My first V10 project was chosen after discovering the final rock-over move onto low crimps was a gift for someone who loves being bunched!
I could warm up and then run laps on this V8 section, so adding in the sloping lip traverse start to get the V10 tick was a no-brainer. On the lip traverse, I, again, exploited my short torso by establishing a foot ahead of one hand, making the set-up for the hard move easier, as my feet were in place before my hands got to the meanest slopers.
Like this example, for many problems and routes it has been about developing my own beta, ignoring advice from taller folk, and really getting to know what shorties can do well.
Here are my top six methods to feel inexplicably taller on the rock than you actually are:
Learn to Spring
Nine out of ten moves can be made both statically and dynamically, but the static method is much more strenuous. Dynamic movement means bypassing the deep lock-offs and desperate ‘udging’ moves needed to make a long move statically. Driving with the hips from the legs and fine-tuning the power and hand accuracy are skills that take time to ingrain. Here are two ways to work on this:
- On a steep boulder problem, think of each hand move starting from your toes, with the force traveling upward in a wave, that finishes with the hand movement. Make a sudden hard pull with the toes of the right foot if you are moving the right hand, and vice versa for the left. Allow the toe-pull to travel wave-like up to your shoulder before the hand begins moving. Entraining all your muscles like this can create high levels of force for even the smallest moves.
- Identify where your hip position needs to be at the end of a tough hand move, then return to the start position of the move. Gently circle the hips and then throw them to the finish position, locking your core in place as you catch the handhold. This drill helps with three skills:
- How to spot the path your center of gravity needs to take for each move.
- How to throw hips to generate power.
- How to lock the core tight to stabilize at the end of hard moves.
Practice these deliberately on all sizes of moves (not just leaping dynos) and they’ll increase both your effective reach and general climbing efficiency.
Arrive and Depart Open Handed
With only the tips of your ring, middle and index fingers on a hold in a drag/open grip you have the greatest reach. Catching holds in this finger position, before then adjusting to the best position for that hold is a sneaky way to gain an inch or two. Likewise, adjusting the trailing hand to a three fingertip drag before starting a long span can gain yet more distance.
These two techniques have got me past several of those ominous reachy route warnings in guidebooks.
For some climbers, they’re simply not comfortable enough with a three-finger open grip to consider using it in a fully stretched-out scenario. If you hate slopers, or feel relieved when you find a crimp, this could be you! Getting comfy in these positions takes time; I only got there after multiple pulley injuries forced me that way.
To develop this skill, take some time at the wall to practice deliberate drag grip climbing. My favorite way to practice this is with the Sloth Drill: Climb easy grade routes using no pinkies, thumbs or wrapping over jugs. Just open hand the tip of every hold and see how it changes the demand on your body positioning. It makes a great warm-up for crimp-lovers, and can be done traversing, circuiting and on auto-belays or tread walls too.
Be Creative With Your Sequences
Don’t be a sheep: develop your own sequences that fit your size, flexibility and build. To do this well takes a high level of awareness of how your body fits between holds, but once mastered it frees you from the shackles of needing to watch other people climbing something, or watch videos for help. Only you can work out the best possible sequence for yourself on any given climb. What you lack in reach, you can often make up for in your ability to use tiny intermediate holds and get comfortable in bunched positions.
Shorter climbers routinely use a different foot sequence to move between the same handholds; trying unlikely-looking alternative moves and thinking outside the box can be very rewarding! If you want to hone a big-reach move loved by those tiny juniors who routinely cruise adult routes at the wall, try this drill on a juggy vertical line for working hand-foot matches:
There is one rule to follow: Every time you go to move a hand, you must first have a foot on that handhold.
This is just one drill to expand your understanding of possible sequences. While you probably won’t be handfoot matching on every move of your project, deliberately working on specific climbing movements is the quickest way to expand your perception of what sequences will work for you.
Strengthen Your Shoulder Girdle
“There are no reach problems, only strength problems.”
There’s an element of the awful truth in this quote: Your ability to maintain stable shoulders when at full stretch allows you to keep your chest drawn open, shoulders down and neck long. If your upper back curls forward and shoulders hitch up to ears, you’re effectively drawing your body inward and down. This is particularly true on gaston (thumbs-down) moves and in wide palming positions.
Scapular ‘shrug’ pull-ups and the IYT Flys on rings/TRX are a great place to begin. As little as two half-hour sessions per week can make a big difference. The technique you use for these shoulder exercises is much more important than the number of repetitions or the intensity, so seek feedback from someone experienced if you’re not confident you’re performing them with perfect form. The intensity of shrugs can be adjusted much like pull-ups, by going one-handed with pulley or band assistance.
Personally, I find IYT exercises are most effective for improving reach when done prone (facing the floor) and can be done kneeling or standing, moving the feet further back from the rings/TRX to increase the intensity over time. Not only can these exercises improve your reach, they’ll also improve the integrity of your shoulders. Lattice Coaching has a great video tutorial to get you started:
Get a Bendier Spine
Arm length is only one component of reach. If your torso can twist, arch and roll well in all directions, your arms can start their reaching from an advantageous position. Stiff upper backs are a hallmark of many over-40’s climbers, and if a career spent sitting down is added in, things can get very tight in the mid to upper (thoracic) spine. Regular gentle stretching and strengthening of this area can also reduce the load on the lower back and neck (where overuse problems often surface), spreading it across the whole spinal structure.
Pilates, yoga and foam rolling are all effective ways to open up the spine and prevent you from curling into the dreaded hunched climber pose. Always go gently when starting back mobility work, always aim to lengthen and extend (rather than compress) the spine during stretches. Nicole Tsong’s book Yoga for Climbers and Kelly Starrett’s classic Becoming A Supple Leopard are great places to start improving your spinal mobility. Whatever modality you choose, however, the most important thing is being consistent with it so you can see real progress over time.
Get High Stepping Hips
Longer reaches often require higher footholds by necessity. This is especially true for shorter climbers. These high footholds need flexible hips to use efficiently, firstly to step onto, secondly to move upward from, and finally to allow you to keep hips close to the wall throughout the move. Running, cycling and mountaineering can all contribute to tight hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors. Additionally, extended periods sitting down can lead to hips being disproportionately weak in a deep squat position.
Ensuring you are both flexible and strong with each leg fully bent is the key. Stretching the glutes, hip flexors, and hamstrings, and massage with a lacrosse ball or foam roller can help increase your high-step flexibility. Many yoga poses are great for stretching out the hips. My favorites are the Lizard pose and Half Pigeon. The fearsome Couch Stretch is a great one for the front of the hips.
Strength at end-range of your hip mobility is also key to making use of flexibility gains, so working towards the pistol (single leg squat) can be really helpful. Great progressions include Goblet Squats, Cossack Squats, and Shrimp Squats. If you’re new to strength training, Mercedes Pollmeier’s Simple Strength book is a great place to start, with many bodyweight squat progressions requiring no gym equipment.
Likewise, yoga and pilates offer gentler ways of introducing more strength and mobility. Again, whichever modality you choose, be consistent with your practice so you can see your progress transfer to your climbing performance.
So there you have it. My six suggestions for lengthening your reach and being able to climb taller than you are. Three are eminently learnable skills and three are trainable physical attributes that can bring that distant hold just a little closer. Sneak them into your climbing routine, and in time and you’ll be using the ‘R’ word much less often.
Finally, one general note to leave you with. Many climbers work under the assumption that the only way to improve is by making physical gains of one kind or another. Excellent tactical and movement skills are the often overlooked areas that allow you to make the best use of your strength, endurance, and flexibility. Avoid the temptation to get sucked into counting reps and sets, while overlooking the hard-to-measure skill gains. Balance physical training with skills practice and while you’re training, ask yourself what skills you can simultaneously gain from your time at the climbing wall. Finding the right balance between these two approaches can be tricky, but be analytical about your climbing and experiment. Working on your climbing from both sides will pay off in the long run.
About the Author
John Kettle is a long-time climber, a full-time climbing coach and an instructor for aspiring climbing coaches in the UK. He also recently wrote a book called Rock Climbing Technique, and you can find more about him on his website at www.johnkettle.com. He lives in the English Lake District, where he does most of his climbing and teaching.