As a short climber, sometimes the way I do moves on routes or boulders is a lot different than what a taller person would do. And let’s be honest: sometimes what I do is harder than what a normal-sized person would do. I’m about 5’0″ with a negative 1″ ape index, and what I’ve noticed is that short climbers have to move dynamically more often, lock off farther, use smaller intermediate holds, and employ oddly named contraptions like “stiffies” to get our draws on the wall.
So in light of this topic, below are the things I do to train to compensate for my height. I’m not the strongest climber in the world – that’s for sure – but all of these things have helped me climb 5.13’s and get better at bouldering indoors. If you have any other suggestions for shorties, please comment below.
I used to get really frustrated about how much easier climbing seems for taller people. While watching a 5’10” guy casually skip 3 crucial micro crimps of my short-person sequence on a route, I’d ask myself, ‘Why me? Why can’t I experience climbing like most other climbers do? Would I climb way harder grades if I were taller? This isn’t fair…’
But in recent years, I’ve realized that my attitude about being short wasn’t helping me. In fact, it was hurting me because I’d get angry at the route setters, at taller climbers, and/or at myself and then my motivation to try hard would just evaporate. It was really counter-productive for me and sometimes a bit of a buzz kill for my climbing partners.
So I started accepting my place in the world as a small person and thinking of these things as challenges rather than undeserved punishments. With so many amazing short female role models now, I can just say to myself, ‘Brooke Raboutou and Ashima wouldn’t have a problem with this. What would they do? They’d try harder, jump farther, not be scared, and have really good coordination. And they probably wouldn’t get butt-hurt about being short.’
So now I usually think of reachy moves as challenges that will make me stronger, or puzzles I need to solve with different beta. I love puzzles. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes I give up on super reachy moves and move on to the next climb. But in general, I’ve accepted that I am short and I will have to exert more energy on some moves than a taller person might have to.
Do Short Climbers Actually Have A Disadvantage?
Now, I bet there are some tall people reading this saying, “But shorter people have advantages in climbing!” And I completely understand that shorter people sometimes have the upper hand in climbing. I’ve gotten no-hands kneebars that my taller friends couldn’t dream of fitting into. I fit well into scrunchy dihedrals. I have a shorter lever arm length, which makes it easier for me (in theory) to climb on steep terrain. So I do realize I’m not at a complete disadvantage.
Having said that, Tom Randall and Ollie Torr of LatticeTraining.com did an analysis specifically about height on over 500 people they’ve assessed, and this was their conclusion: “In short, the taller you are the less strong and fit you need to be!”
They also talk about their findings in a podcast interview I did with them. In that interview they said the following:
A taller climber – not at the most extreme level, but at the taller end of a normal spectrum – requires significantly less finger strength than a much shorter person, regardless of the grade that they climb. So if they’re both climbers who are operating at say, v8, then the taller climber can still climb v8 with less finger strength than someone who is ten centimeters shorter than them.
They added that this is partly because of the lock-off strength required by a shorter person and partly due to the greater number of moves they’ll have to do to cover the same distance as a taller climber.
Interestingly, they also said the following in that interview (you can read the transcript here):
If we rank all the different performance markers that we look at in the profiling, the taller climber has an advantage in every single area, except for one, and that is core strength. So the tallest climbers need to have the best core strength for the grade. That’s the one area they cannot neglect.
So what I took from all of that is this: as a shorter climber, I need to have really, really strong fingers. I also need to be fitter and stronger in every other way. Except for core strength, but I still train it just in case…
How I Train for My Height
Long before Tom and Ollie were conducting research on short people, I knew that I needed to compensate for my height, so I began training specific things to make my wingspan less of an issue. Over time, I realized the stronger and more powerful I was, the easier my alternate beta became. In fact, I realized that the stronger I was, the more often I could actually do the taller person beta.
The main areas I train are below, and I’ll explain each more specifically.
DISCLAIMER: But first, as a disclaimer, I’d like to make it clear that these are the areas I think short climbers should focus on, and there are many ways to train them. What I’ve laid out is the program I use as someone who’s redpointing 5.13’s and who’s been climbing and training for over 20 years. So if your climbing level or training experience level is different than mine on either end of the spectrum, I encourage you to respect where you’re at and do training that’s appropriate for you. For example, if you just started climbing a year ago and you’re redpointing 5.10+’s, you probably don’t need to be campusing; doing dynamic moves on boulders might be enough for you right now. On the flipside, you may be stronger and fitter than I am and can do more advanced skills with the TRX, etc. In short, what I’ve laid out isn’t necessarily right for everyone, but hopefully it will give short climbers a starting point.
Here’s what I focus on:
- finger strength
- lock-off strength
- wide pulling strength
- dynamic movement and contact strength
For all the reasons stated above, having a really regimented hangboard routine where you’re consistently increasing the load you’re hanging with is super important. Once a week I do repeaters on the Beastmaker 2000 where I do:
- 5 sec on
- 5 sec off
- 5 reps
- 3 minutes rest
- I do 3 sets of those on 4-5 different grips, and I add increasingly more weight to my body on each subsequent set.
- half crimp on small edge, three-finger open hand on small edge, full crimp on small edge, two-finger pockets on small pockets
Another day per week I do max hangs, so…
- 10 seconds on
- 3 minutes off
- with the highest amount of weight strapped to me that I can muster
- I do 5 sets of that on a half crimp on the small edge on the Beastmaker 2000
I consider my limit bouldering sessions (1x/wk) and my route projecting sessions (2-3x/wk) finger workouts as well. I always stack my hangboard sessions on the same days as my climbing sessions, either before or after, depending on my schedule. That way I get proper rest days.
Short climbers have to be able to lock off farther than taller people so that we can reach those big moves. It’s important for us to be able to pull a hold down to our waists–and stay there for a while–so we need to train for that.
One of the things I do to train this is weighted pull-ups 1-2 times per week. I attach weights to my harness with a sling and a carabiner, and I do 3 sets of 3-5 pull-ups with 3 minutes rest in between. I had my pulling strength tested with a strain gauge by Dr. Tyler Nelson at one of the Performance Climbing Coach Seminars that I teach at, and according to my results, I can do a single pull-up with 60 extra pounds on me. My 3-rep max at the moment is 35lbs. Strain gauges are really nice tools to give you an idea of where you stand with max efforts.
Campus Board Lock-Offs
Another drill I’ve done for lock-off strength is lock-offs on the campus board. Campusing, in general, is good for lock-offs (more on that later), but if you’re new to climbing or training–or you just don’t want to campus–you can keep your feet on.
How to do them with feet on:
- Place both hands on the bottom rung on the biggest set of rungs
- Then reach as far as you can with one arm to touch a rung (don’t grab it)
- Then go back down to the bottom rung
- Do the same thing with the other arm
- Repeat 3 times
- Rest for 2-3 minutes
- Do 3-5 sets
I’ve also had route climbing sessions where I take some time to do a couple of routes where I do 3-second hovers on each hold before I grab it. That trains climbing specific lock-offs, instead of just the vertical lock-offs on the campus board. You could do the same thing on boulders.
Climbing on hard-for-you boulders and routes will help with lock-off strength, too. On-the-wall strength-building should not be underestimated, so make sure you’re challenging yourself on hard, reachy moves regularly.
Wide strength is important for short climbers because we’re working at our maximum reach more often than taller people. People are naturally much stronger when our elbows are bent, so training with our arms wide open is really helpful. It’ll allow you to engage your shoulders and actually move off of a hold even when you’re so extended that your face is touching the wall. I use gymnastics rings to help train this, but you can also do wide weighted pull-ups, wide pull-downs with a bar, type-writer pull-ups, and many other exercises.
Gymnastics rings were a part of my training this winter and I’m about to put them back into my routine. Doing flys (see below) on them is incredibly helpful for wide strength, even if you have to start on the rings in a more vertical position. You can eventually work your way down into a horizontal position where your body is parallel to the floor. These exercises are also really good for squeeze strength, which we need if we’re going to be climbing on steep or powerful terrain. Alex Stiger mentioned her use of gymnastics rings in her article, “How I Trained for Tombraider 5.13d” and she’s a 5’0″ crusher.
When I train on rings, I do 2-3 sets of 10 flys with 2-3 minutes rest between sets. Sometimes I also do I’s with the same number of sets and the same rest time between sets. This video from EpicTV is a great tutorial for climbers on how to start working gymnastics rings into your training.
Shorties need to reach dynamically or jump to holds more often than taller people do. This requires a lot of technique, power, lock-off strength (covered above), coordination, and aim.
First, let’s have a look at my favorite video of Brooke Raboutou being superhumanly coordinated…
I wish I could offer some drill to help us all be as coordinated as Brooke and many other competition climbers, but this kind of thing takes practice and being willing to fail a lot. I have a feeling she didn’t do that move on her first try, but she probably had a positive attitude about it and tried it until she got it, despite only being 5’2″. Practicing on this kind of comp-style boulder is part of what makes Brooke so good at moving dynamically. All of us short climbers can take a lesson from her and make sure we get on climbs that are seemingly beyond our reach.
One of the things I’m trying to work on right now is my aim. I find it difficult to make contact on all the deadpoints I have to do, so trying to be more accurate and really know my reach is key. For me, repeatedly trying hard, long moves on boulders and routes is a good way to train that. Even when I get the move, I like to do it again and again so I get to know my body a little better.
I’ve had to change my mindset about these moves, too: instead of avoiding long moves like I used to, I face them head-on and try to figure out subtle body position changes to help me aim properly and accurately grab holds that are far away.
The Moonboard–or any board–comes in really handy for training dynamic movement and aim. I haven’t gotten into Moonboarding too much just yet, but having done it here and there, I know it’s something that will help me.
Campusing is another good way to train coordination, contact strength, and aim. When I was campusing before my shoulder surgeries (I’ll start again this winter), I’d do 4 sets each of ladders, pull-throughs, long move drills, and sometimes double doubles on the medium rungs. I’d do it one day a week after warming up on boulders or routes, and the sessions were long because the sets require so much rest (3 minutes each). I felt a difference in my climbing for sure. I was more powerful, more confident, and my contact strength was better. But campusing is unnecessary if you’re just starting out climbing, if you’re new to training, or if it hurts you to do it. Try using the campus board with feet on at first if you want to ease into it.
I think core strength is underrated for short climbers. A few weeks after I started training on the TRX, I definitely noticed an increase in my climbing ability. Because of my newfound core strength and coordination, I was able to stay tight and pull myself into the wall more often, instead of just jumping for big moves and not being able to keep tension even if I did grab the hold.
Here’s what I do:
- 45 seconds of the plank
- rest for 30 seconds
- 45 seconds of the saws
- 30 seconds rest
- 45 seconds of mountain climbers
- 30 seconds rest
- Continue on like that until I’ve finished 3 sets of each exercise.
- It takes about 9-10 minutes and I do this a couple times a week.
There are plenty of ways to train core strength, but that’s what I do. I prefer the TRX over mat exercises on your back because it feels more like what we do on a climbing wall.
Fear and Confidence
Another thing that has really held me back as a climber – and especially as a short climber – is fear. I don’t think this is acknowledged very often, but when you’re shorter, your feet are often higher off the ground at the tops of boulders than taller people’s. When you’re short and you have to do a dynamic move 8 feet off the ground instead of being able to go to it statically and in control, it’s scarier.
And even if you’re 1 foot off the ground or on a toprope, it’s just scarier and more insecure to move dynamically than it is to move statically and in control. You have to have supreme confidence in your abilities and you have to be willing to take a potentially ballistic fall. I understand that these fears are components of every climber’s experience – I’m not trying to say that climbing is not scary for taller people; that would be absurd. I’m just pointing out that it’s possible that short climbers have to move dynamically more often than taller people, and that means it’s scary more often for us.
I struggle with fear quite a bit, but I’ve somehow learned to tame it a bit these past couple years. Through a lot of self-reflection and many rational discussions with my husband about how unwarranted most of my fears are, I’m just less scared now. I also did (and still do) a lot of work with a therapist to decrease my overall anxiety in life, and that’s made it easier for me to go into climbing sessions feeling calmer.
Now that I’m not as afraid of doing big moves, I’m much more willing to go big, and the more practice I get with big moves, the more confident I am with them. That’s what I was talking about with my aim above. Aiming correctly at holds has always been a weakness of mine, and now that I’m not scared of trying to go for the holds, I get a lot more practice, which has made me a better climber. My aim is better now.
The other thing that’s helped my confidence/fear is that my shoulders are much stronger now since having both of my shoulder surgeries, so I’m not as afraid as I was before of hurting them when I cut my feet and latch a hold. By the way, shoulder strength is key if we’re going to be cutting our feet all the time. I do weighted pull-ups, push-ups, and most importantly handstands on a regular basis to keep them strong.
I do handstands after every climbing session and it’s maybe the most important thing I’ve ever done for my shoulders. Eight months after my last shoulder surgery I was still in a LOT of pain and unable to do a variety of exercises and climbing moves. I certainly could not climb with my shoulders fully extended. I started doing handstands, and after a few weeks I was able to do push-ups, pull-ups, and fully engage my shoulders while climbing again. It was like a frickin’ miracle and I have to thank my friend Shannon Forsman for encouraging me to do them. I highly recommend strengthening your shoulders with handstands or weighted shoulder presses. It will help your shoulders, and it might also decrease your fear of hurting yourself on dynamic moves.
To sum things up, I am short and I’m still learning to deal with it, even though I’ve been climbing for 22 years. Sometimes it sucks. But in the end, I think life is all about solving problems and overcoming challenges, so we short climbers can use these long, dynamic moves as opportunities to solve the problem and get better at climbing.
We can revel in our amazing successes when we do long moves we didn’t think we could do. We can bask in our sends that include a dyno for a pocket around a blank arete (my last project). And we can do everything in our power to make those moves possible by training finger strength, lock-off strength, wide strength, dynamic movement, and core.
Whatever you do, try not to ever say, “I’m too short for this move,” because, well, Ashima Shiraishi is 5’1″…
About The Author
Neely Quinn is the owner and founder of TrainingBeta.com, and she’s a nutritionist who specializes in helping rock climbers reach their goals. She’s been climbing since 1997, and has redpointed up to 5.13c. She loves climbing on slightly overhanging limestone and sandstone sport climbs, and has been embracing bouldering for the sake of her sport climbing. Neely lives in Longmont, Colorado with her husband, Seth Lytton (co-founder of TrainingBeta) and their dog, Zala.