By Neil Gresham
Body tension is a crucial and much underestimated form of climbing strength that sorts the good climbers from the rest. Many are quick to blame their arms or fingers for poor performances, but there is no point having strong limbs unless they are attached to a stable core. Anyone who has bouldered on steep terrain with small footholds will have felt the sensation that their feet are about to pop and their body to come swinging out. Then there is the need to replace your feet if they do swing off, to prevent you from being stranded, dangling in space. Body tension is also required in massive quantities when you need to use your arms like pneumatic props, when palming against features and bracing your body on steep terrain. It is required much less for vertical or slab climbing, so it tends to be associated with sport climbing or bouldering in the middle to upper grades. That said, it is well worth training for body tension if you are fairly new to climbing, because it will help you to develop a strong physique that is less prone to injury in the future.
Body tension defined
There are two crucial aspects to body tension in climbing. The first is the strength element – with all the will in the world, if you don’t have strong core muscles then you won’t be able to keep yourself stable when things get steep. The next is the technique or ‘neuromuscular’ element, keeping your feet on small footholds requires a great deal of control and coordination on steep terrain. We will look at these two aspects separately in this article, starting with the strength training element.
Body tension anatomy
The main muscles required to keep the torso rigid when climbing on overhangs are the abominal muscles (rectus abdominis) and the lower back muscles (erector spinae). In an ideal world, these should create an equal force on either side of the spine by contracting statically (isometrically) in order to maintain posture. Other muscles may be brought in to play to provide additional stability (known as synergists) but let’s not get too side-tracked here.
Body tension exercises
The main strength building exercises for body tension can be split into three easily defined categories. The first are the climbing-specific exercises such as bouldering or system training. The second are bar exercises such as knee raises or front levers. The third are floor exercises, which can be used to build more general core strength to support your climbing.
1) Climbing-specific body tension exercises
Bouldering If you spend enough time bouldering on very steep walls with small footholds then you will be training the right muscles to develop body tension. Yet at the same time you will also develop the relevant skills in order to make full use of your strength. However, with bouldering it is sometimes difficult to generate maximum forces so it is worth performing additional exercises, which will target the muscles with greater intensity. ii. System boulder problems A good way to get a more intense training effect from bouldering without losing the technique quotient is to do ‘system style’ problems, which have a rule or theme that amplifies the body tension element. Below are some examples: ii a) Leg swings Simply cut loose deliberately and in smooth control after every move, or every second move and then try to replace your feet without using momentum. A great way to perform this exercise is to hang from the lip of a roof and try to get your feet onto the back wall. Use smaller footholds each time you train. ii b) Reaching exercise Start with your feet on two poor footholds that are roughly level, then work your hands up the wall from hold-to-hold in small steps at a time. Try to get your body as stretched out as possible, without your feet coming off. When you’ve got as far as you can go then hold the position for anything between 3 and 10 seconds until your feet pop. Repeat up 4 or 5 times.
2) Bar exercises
Bar exercises generate higher training forces than bouldering and they are also more specific to climbing than floor exercises. Hence they bridge the gap between the two by providing one of the best ways to train for body tension: i. Hanging knee and straight leg raises (Beginner / intermediate) Hang from a bar with straight arms, keep your back straight and raise your knees to your chest, in control and without swinging, then lower. A harder version is to bring your legs straight out in front of you but take care not to strain your back. ii. Twisting leg raises (Intermediate) Harder still is to bring your legs up higher and then to twist your torso from one side to the other. A great variation is to train with a partner who can move their hand randomly from side to side to mark the spot that you have to raise your feet to. iii. Front Lever (Advanced) The ultimate body tension exercise is to hang with a shoulder width grip and attempt to raise your entire body straight out in front of you. A good way to calibrate the resistance is to bend one leg (which makes it feel slightly less impossible) and then to straighten it slightly more each time you train. Try to hold the position for between 4 and 10 seconds and do between 2 and 6 sets, subject to the presence of other forms of body tension related training.
3) Floor Exercises
i. Dorsal raises (all levels) Lie face down on the floor with your hands behind your head and raise your torso (taking care not to strain your neck) A great exercise for strengthening the lower back. You can hold the position statically for up to 8 seconds for a single rep or, alternatively, come back down after 2 or 3 seconds and go for up to 10 reps. Photo below.
ii. Iron chairs (all levels) These exercises are best performed with a partner, although you can try resting your feet on a table. Get into a press-up position and ask your partner to lift both your feet up (so that he/she is stood up straight up, with arms straight down by their sides) Now your partner must release one of your feet at random, without telling you and you must react explosively in order to prevent your body from moving at all! Do stints of 30 – 40 seconds at a time. (No Photo).
iii. Plank (all levels) Neil-Gresham-PlankThis is another great exercise, which can be performed kneeling by beginners or by balancing on one foot by advanced climbers. With the kneeling version, try alternating from side-to-side. Photo below.
iv. Crucifixes This is a brutal, but highly effective exercise that gets harder the lower you go! See photo. Hold the position statically for up to 10 seconds. Photo below.
When to train for body tension
Body tension routines fit in well at the end of bouldering sessions or you can do them separately at the gym on days when you’re not climbing. The number of sets you do should be reduced if you’ve just been bouldering, but you can go for it a little more if you’re feeling fresh. See some of the previous articles in this series for more ideas on how to structure things.
Technique - Use of Body Tension
Having a strong torso does not guarantee your ability to maintain good posture when climbing on overhangs. The secret to success is to teach your body when to relax and when to contract the key muscles. If you are over-tense the whole time then you will be inefficient and will squander energy. But if you take your eye off the ball and fail to recruit full core strength at key moments then you will go flying out of there. Here are some pointers to help you on your way. Think feet when you’re moving your hands Where so many people go wrong is that they place their feet and then forget to maintain constant pressure on the footholds while they are eying the next handhold. The crucial moment when body tension is tested to the limit is when you make the next reach. At the exact point when you hit the target handhold you must contract your abs and back muscles as hard as you can in order to maintain contact with your feet. Dig in to the footholds with all your might. This really takes some coordination if you are fairly new to the game but it comes with practice.
Pull with your feet
Many climbers who are experienced at vertical climbing make the mistake of pushing on footholds, but this can have a disastrous effect when things get really steep. You actually need to use your toes like a claw and pull with your hamstring muscles to bring your body in to the wall as you make the move, or you will simply push yourself out and come swinging off. The correct sequence is to pull in with the feet, then push upwards with the hips.
Use ‘toe-down’ shoes
Flat shoe lasts may work well for ‘passive’ edging on vertical walls but pointed ‘toe-down’ lasts are more effective for ‘active’ foot placements on steep terrain.
Everyone knows that the secret to saving energy on overhangs is to avoid cutting loose but sometimes this is a necessary as a last resort. If you have run out of options for keeping your feet on or simply feel that they are about to peel, then try to take one leg off before the other to reduce the severity of the swing. You can always tell the climbers with good body tension, because they don’t swing out so far – and this is how you should aim to climb. Arch your back as you swing, bend your legs up behind you and tense your back muscles as hard as you can to deaden the swing.
Lifting your feet
Try to use the momentum on the reverse side of the swing to help you lift your feet back up. Give it everything you can to try to re-locate them first time, because another attempt will seriously drain your energy. Practice this regularly during bouldering sessions. Your bar work and abdominal training will really come into its own for this.