Climbing Moves, Holds, & Technique: The Beginner’s Guide
There’s an awful lot going on in climbing. That’s actually one of the sport’s main attractions. No two climbs are ever the same.
But with so many variables in what makes a climb how are you supposed to make sense of any of it?
Well, there are actually a few different categories we can put aspects of a climb into. These categories can include what the rock is shaped like and how you cling to it — the holds. They can also include how you travel between these holds — the moves.
There is actually a vast array of ways you can move between climbing holds. The important part is that some of these ways are much easier than others.
Good climbing technique is when you perform the easiest possible movement to get to the next hold.
This guide covers everything you need to get started — from choosing the right body position for a move to fine-tuning the exact orientations of your body in that position to harness the best possible centre of gravity.
Firstly, let’s go through the different types of climbing holds.
This is your bread and butter climbing hold. It’s what everyone thinks of when trying to imagine what climbers are hanging onto.
The name actually comes from the way your fingers hold it so this hold describes a small but positive edge you can only fit the top pad of your fingers on.
This is what you’ll find yourself on when trying climbing for the first time or when warming up.
A jug normally describes a large, deep hold that you can wrap your whole hand around.
Interestingly though the word jug is probably the most SUBJECTIVE term in climbing holds and is often used to describe a hold that you can grip okay but your climbing partner struggles with.
If you take a crimp and then try to imagine grabbing something as unlike it as possible you’ll probably end up with a sloper.
Slopers are often large, round holds that do not have a positive gradient. This means you can’t close your fingers around them at all and your hand remains quite open.
Sometimes you may come across a small version of a sloper that takes up the space of a small crimp but isn’t positive like a crimp. These can be called slimpers. No one likes slimpers.
A very simple concept here. This can be any of the previous holds but the grabby (positive) part is facing sideways and away from you rather than upwards. You must, therefore, pull sideways on this hold rather than downwards.
Okay now imagine the same thing again where the hold is sideways but rather than facing away, the grabby part is facing towards you.
This is a bit more of an advanced climbing hold as it often requires a lot of shoulder power to use. If you’re ever wondering, a dynamic move into a gaston is one of the best ways to blow your rotator cuff!
Alright same as before but the grabby bit is now facing downwards. These holds are one of a few occasions in climbing where big biceps can make all the difference. Get those guns going!
Underclings inspire their own specific technique in climbing. As you move your body above an undercling it becomes much easier to hold. So naturally many hard climbing routes and boulder problems require you to pull on an undercling as far above your head as possible.
As you might imagine, a pinch is a climbing hold that requires your thumb to get in on the action as well. Often the squeezing action is what is required to grip and use this hold.
These holds are usually oriented vertically because if they were oriented horizontally it’d likely be easier to just use them as a crimp or sloper.
This is when, rather than gripping a variation in angle on the wall, you are dealing with an actual hole that has been eroded in. Pockets come in all shapes and sizes. They can be deep like a jug or shallow like not a jug.
Sometimes you can fit your whole hand in them, sometimes you can only fit one finger. A pocket that you can only fit one finger in is called a mono.
This is a much less common hold but you are starting to see them more with the rise of competition climbing. A guppy is a hold that you can wrap your whole hand around sideways and the main gripping point is more across the palm of your hand rather than your fingertips.
Guppys are usually the side of a sloper or an angle on a volume (a large, rounded or geometrically shaped hold onto which smaller holds are usually bolted). They might sound like jugs but they aren’t…unless you can use it and your friend can’t.
Okays, now for the feets.
There’s quite a large array of things you can do with your feet. Essentially the whole dogma of climbing technique revolves around how well you can take your weight off your arms and put it onto your feet.
Here, we aren’t going through the best way to put your feet on footholds — that could fill up a whole article in itself. We are just going to describe the 2 main types of climbing footholds you normally stand on: edges and smears.
You can equate these to walking up stairs (edges) and walking up a ramp (smears).
Edges are the easy one. This is just any bit of the wall that sticks out to create a positive surface that you can put the edge of your foot on.
Smears, on the other hand, are something you might not have thought about if you haven’t climbed outside much. Honestly, the best description of a smear is ‘when it’s not an edge, but you stand on it anyway’. Often it’s a point where the gradient is not as steep as the rest of the surface so your foot is more likely to stick there.
Smearing indoors can include pressing your feet into the flat of the wall, walking along volumes with no holds on them, or using a foothold that everyone agrees is truly crap.
And now some climbing moves for you.
In climbing, there is a general aim to be more efficient. Good climbing technique allows us to use ‘less’ energy than other methods.
Essentially, your legs and core are much stronger than your arms, so by generating movement from these areas we will save our arms from getting tired and make it to the top.
Take a second to stand up, face a direction and hold both your arms straight and above your head. Now, keeping your arms facing that direction, twist your left hip clockwise towards the direction you’re facing. You should now see that your left hand is noticeably higher than your right.
This is one of the foundations of good technique in climbing. Using your lower body to move your hands without actually bending your arms.
You can actually climb some problems while keeping your arms completely straight. It involves twisting your hips into the wall to send your hands higher.
So you might have noticed that when I was climbing so majestically there with such perfect form, I kept putting one foot out to press on a blank part of the wall. That’s known as flagging.
Flagging can help with lots of things but the main ones are for balancing and locking your hip into the wall.
Imagine standing on one leg and then trying to reach as far away from you as possible. Your other leg is gonna float up and do a magical gravity thing to stop you toppling over.
You might be surprised to know that you actually do quite a bit of reaching in climbing and that other leg has been your unsung hero all along.
So back to the foundation of technique we just looked at. If you’re standing on two great footholds, it can be pretty hard to twist one hip all the way into the wall.
To overcome this, we usually lift one foot off, twist our hip in and then press that lifted foot into the wall to lock the twisted hip and allow us to move our hand.
This is one of the most basic movements in climbing. It is essentially moving your weight across onto a foothold. It can come in many forms, from a slight lean on a slab to putting your foot in line with your head and using it to pull the rest of your body across.
Often people struggle with this move because they are aiming upwards when performing it. You don’t wanna go up. Actually, the goal is to move all the way across in the direction of the foothold. Once you’re across and all of your weight is above that foot, then you can start thinking about moving upwards — it will be much easier!
A really funky one here which might not make much sense at first and often takes quite a bit of practice. That said, a drop knee can turn some of the most physically intense positions into casual ones.
To perform a drop knee you must place your foot on a hold and then twist your knee down and in towards your centre. Depending on the move, this may be only a slight twist or you may have to drop it so deep you think your leg might explode.
The dropping of the knee twists your hip into the wall which raises that side’s arm higher than the other, as we have already covered. It also dramatically shifts the weight towards the other arm to free up your (now higher) arm and it sets up a powerful lock between your legs to keep everything extra sturdy.
Pretty nifty eh? Unfortunately, you can’t use a drop knee everywhere…otherwise I definitely would.
Okay, more basics. You might have it in your head that in climbing all the holds you grab with your left hand will be on your left and all the holds for your right hand will be on your right. Not the case.
Say you’ve got a great hold on your left side (in your left hand) but the only next hold was even further to your left. In this case, you might have to reach across yourself and grab that next hold with your right hand — a cross through.
In climbing, a match is when you grab a hold with both hands. Maybe you need to free up a hand to move again, maybe you just want to stop and ponder what you’re doing with your life.
Laybacks are for when you are using a sidepull of some kind but you don’t have anything else to oppose it. In this instance, you must lean away from the hold and find a position of balance.
It should put your body into the shape of a 7 — with the top bit being your arms and…yeah I’m sure you get it.
Be careful though! If you don’t find the balance point when laybacking you will very slowly swing away from the wall and fall off. This swing is called a barn door. Barn doors are great because they occur so slowly and once they start they are exceptionally hard to stop. The result is that you have plenty of time to contemplate your inevitable doom before actually falling off the wall.
Laybacks are most commonly used on aretes. An arete is when the whole wall stops or has a relatively sharp angle on it and you can grab the edge of the wall as you can see in the video.
Now we’re getting into the slightly more advanced stuff. A heel hook, as the name suggests, is when you put your heel on a hold and you use it like a third arm to create tension and hold yourself on the wall.
When performing a heel hook, you must often think about angling your toes downwards and twisting them away from the wall. By angling them down, you activate more of your legs in the pull and by twisting them away you get your leg to pull inwards as well as downwards which more than anything keeps your heel on the hold.
This move and the next two tend to be used on much steeper terrain such as overhangs and roofs. But as climbing is so varied, it is possible to encounter these movements on other angles of wall. Aretes are an example of where you might perform heel and toe hooks a bit more often.
This, in essence, is very similar to a heel hook but you are using the top of your shoe (your toes) to do the hooking. It requires quite accurate placement and for you to be flexing your ankles towards your head the whole time.
Generally, you could say that toe hooks are for when you need to hook on something closer to your midline and heel hooks are for when you need to hook something off to the side. It’s never actually that simple but you might also find that on many occasions you can actually use either to successfully complete a movement.
Bicycles very rarely occur outside of roof climbing, but in roofs they are exceptionally useful. A bicycle is actually a combination of normal standing on a hold and a toe hook. That is, you do one with each foot.
Bicycles can come in a few different forms. Usually, you stand on a hold with one foot and then hook the back of that same hold with the other foot. You can just as often find yourself standing on one hold and hooking a different hold and it’s still a bicycle. All that matters is one foot is pulling while the other is pushing.
Something to remember though is that which foot is toe hooking and which foot is standing actually makes a big difference. So make sure you try both orientations before deciding a bicycle is not the solution to your problems.
Ever watch Ninja Warrior and see someone jump on that trampoline and then hold themselves between the two walls? In climbing, this move is called a bridge.
A bridge is often performed in a corner and you have a foot on each side, this can sometimes allow you to take your hands off for a bit and relax. Other times you might actually have both feet on one side and a hand or two on the other. The principle here is the same and it still counts as a bridge.
When working on a strenuous climb in a corner, it can be a great way to rest and get some energy back. Sometimes though, you must bridge to make it through the climb and the bridging itself is extremely strenuous.
A great move to know, a mantle is when you move from underneath a hold to above it. If you only climb indoors, you might not know much about mantling but if you’ve been outside bouldering then that’s probably how you actually got on top of the boulder.
When mantling a ledge (a flat top of a boulder), the best technique is to put a heel out beside you and use that to help lift yourself over the top. You might not always be fortunate enough to have a perfect flat ledge to work with though and sometimes you might just have to be really strong and press it out.
Mantles are not just on the top of boulders though. They can be found on slabs and vertical walls too. In fact, if you go to your slab and play the game of eliminating as many holds you can from a climb, you will almost always end up with a mantle.
The best type of move in climbing.
Dyno is short for dynamic move, which means a lot of movement quite fast. There are a few different types of dynos but the general idea is that you sink down and then explode up to leap for a hold that you wouldn’t normally be able to reach.
Sometimes it’s a pop and you just use the explosion to get to your full extension on the wall. Other times you might actually have to leap to the point where you’re not touching the wall at all.
Modern competition climbing is integrating dynamic movement more and more now as it’s so exciting to watch. It’s even gotten to the stage where the techniques are mixing with parkour to get to the top of a problem.
Bigger than it looks! Some beautiful work by @saltst and @j_p_o_c_ for the Outdoor city trailer. Can you see the point where I realise I've stuck it? #bouldering #bouldering_pictures_of_instagram #climbing_pictures_of_instagram #climb #climbing #dyno #parkour #sheffield #cwif #sheffield @theoutdoorcity @climbingworks @tenayaclimbing
For more dyno fun, check out these huge dynos.
A deadpoint is another type of dynamic move but the aim is to be very precise. It’s used when you are aiming for a slot or a pocket and you can’t just throw your hand over the top of the hold and assume it will find a bit to grab.
Sadly, this means that deadpoint moves are much closer to pops than to ‘all points off leaps’ and that’s where the name comes from. In the ideal situation, you would throw yourself upwards and at the moment where you’ve stopped going up but haven’t started doing going down (the deadpoint), you snap your fingers into the precise grip.
This is a very important movement in climbing. As you lift a hand off of a hold to move it to the next one you must casually bring it towards your mouth and blow any excess chalk off of your fingertips before grabbing the next hold.
This is very important as it lets everyone you are climbing with know that you found this move easy and you are stronger than them.