The 36 Chambers: Climbing Lessons from a Kung Fu Classic

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, released more than thirty years ago, is to kung fu movies as The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly is to spaghetti Westerns. In typical fight-flick form, the act of training, of mastering one’s self and one’s art, is the focus. That makes The 36th Chamber a great metaphor for just about any pursuit, but especially for climbing: we set our sights on projects, objectives, and grades, but as soon as we attain them, they lose their luster, and we must set new goals. Even the Chris Sharma’s of the world are still learning, still fighting against their own inner struggles. 

A product of the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studios, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka Shaolin Master Killer) is the tale of a young man, San Te (Gordon Liu), who seeks revenge after his family is killed and his home burned by the oppressive Manchurian government. San Te makes his way to the a Shaolin temple, where he is allowed to stay on and train with the badass kung fu monks. The film follows San Te’s passage through the temple’s chambers, each holding a particular kung fu lesson. (Not all thirty-six chambers are actually portrayed, Buddha be praised.)

The training methods employed by martial artists have inspired diehard climbers over the years. The intensity of focus and the acceptance of suffering, coupled with the strong desire to master and control one’s body, make martial arts training and climbing training close cousins. Also, there is danger inherent in both activities — in martial arts, other fighters; in climbing, gravity.

For those looking to truly understand and master the intricate psycho-physical art of rock climbing, San Te’s travails at the Shaolin temple serve as a solid framework. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, to be sure, but mostly because kung fu is awesome and so is climbing I have here adapted five key training tips for climbing from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for climbing purposes.

A brief disclaimer: the recommended exercises below are not based on any formal education, just decades of climbing experience and exposure to the thoughts of other, far more skilled rock jocks. Know thy limits. If you tweak your groin or sprain your scapula trying one of these exercises, you have only yourself to blame. 

Step 1: Footwork, balance, timing

“I kept it moving: fast, balanced, light… that is the secret. So, balance your movements.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Balance, footwork, and timing. These are the foundation upon which strength must be built. Skip them at your own peril.

Soon after San Te begins to study kung fu at the temple, he finds that he must cross a pool of water to access the dinning hall. Floating in the water is a bundle of logs, the only stepping stone to help him across. Try as he may, he cannot make the leap, and always ends up in the water. In the end, he learns how to combine timing, momentum, force, and balance to cross the gap.

In climbing, balance and timing are basic critical elements. It is typical to watch experienced climbers “float” up difficult routes and think that their strength must be very great, but, in fact, balance and footwork are the foundation of any skilled climber’s repertoire. Without them, strength will only take you so far.

Recommended exercises: Climb slabby routes or problems without grabbing any handholds — use only your palms flat against the surface of the wall or rock to balance yourself, relying on your legs for support and your toes and sticky rubber for contact with the wall. To do this, you’ll need to focus on balance, timing, and momentum to shift your weight from your lower foot to your higher foot and gain upward progress.

Step 2: Shoulders, upper body strength

“Most techniques need strength of arms.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
The shoulder joint is the most vulnerable part of the climber’s body. All the force generated on a climb must pass through this complicated joint. Weak muscles here will lead to poor form and injury.

San Te’s next challenge involves carrying water buckets up to the top of a long chute. He must dump the water into a chute to help the monks below wash dirty robes. (I can’t help thinking there must be a better way… .) The catch comes in the form of knife blades strapped to San Te’s upper arms, pointed inwards. He must carry the buckets with arms outstretched or risk stabbing himself in the ribs.

For climbers, a powerful upper body is important, especially on overhanging climbs. But it’s not only about pulling hard… pushing is involved in a variety of scenarios, from stemming in dihedrals to Gastoning to manteling. Most importantly, strong shoulders, upper arms, and back offer support while climbing, allowing you to move upward with control and precision, and without injury.

Recommended exercises: To prepare the upper body for the rigors of difficult climbing, you can’t go wrong with the basics: pull-ups, push-ups, curls, dips, front and side shoulder raises, rows, and overhead presses. When using weight, it’s best to avoid lifting too heavy — anything you can’t control (read: move smoothly, without shaking or hoisting) through the whole range of the movement is likely to cause more harm than good. If you don’t know what these exercises are or how to perform them, best to consult a trainer or at least a really good YouTube video. As always, if you feel any pain, other than the pain of muscles burning with fatigue, stop immediately and don’t do what you were doing ever again. If you’re like me, you already have problems with your shoulder joints. This article does a good job offering basic exercises to help develop the small, weak muscles around the shoulder that help protect against rotator cuff implosion.

Step 3: Wrist, grip strength

“How are your wrists? Are they real strong?”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Forearms, wrists, and fingers allow the climber to maintain a firm grip on holds.

In a later chamber, San Te has to lift a hammer on the end of a ten-foot pole and with it bang a massive bell. The exercise was devised to strengthen the hands and wrists, to create and unbreakable grip on one’s own weapon or an opponent’s weapon or body.

Finger, hand, and forearm strength is the hallmark of a rock climber. They are responsible for maintaining contact with the rock. Just a glance at a persons digits (are they calloused? Are the knuckles enlarged?) or forearm muscles (are they bulging, laced with veins?) will tell the story.

Recommended exercises: Better than all the fitness-shop grip-strengthening doodads combined is hangboarding. Workouts are brief (mine usually run for twenty minutes) and you don’t need to do them more than twice a week, especially if you’re mixing them in with a regular climbing routine. You can probably find a used hangboard on Craig’s List or eBay, and your local gym almost certainly has one, too. The most effective hangboard routines don’t involve much movement: you basically grab a pair of holds and dangle for three to eight seconds (if you can hang for longer, the holds are too easy for you), and take a brief rest. repeat three more times, and then move on to another pair of holds. I usually warm up on the bouldering wall, then start with a set of hangs on jugs. Then I progress through slopers, two-finger pockets, medium edges, small edges, and finish with slopers again. Simple. The Moon Fingerboard has consistently received good reviews , and Moon provides a nice, battle-tested workouts you can use with it.

Oh, and  don’t forget to climb. Climbing tends to be the best training for climbing.

Step 4: Eyes, focus, relaxation

“A man who wants to fight, he must have perfect eyes.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Often neglected, the eyes are critical in the act of climbing. 

To make sure San Te can track rapid motion with his eyes while keeping his body still, he is asked to place his head between two burning incense sticks (they’re more like logs, really). The instructor in this chamber then whips a lantern back and forth, asking San Te to follow it only with his eyes.

Most climbers often think first about their hand holds, then their foot holds, and then maybe a third thing, like breathing or core tension. How you use your eyes, though, is important. Just like batting in baseball, where you keep your eyes on the ball until contact is made, when making a deadpoint or dyno, maintaining visual contact with the goal hold is key. In addition, what you do with your eyes at a rest can make a big difference in de-pumping and preparing for the climbing ahead.

Recommended exercises:  Find or set dynos and practice making the leap. Once you’ve stuck a particular dyno three times, staying conscious of your gaze’s direction, find a farther dyno or pick goal hold that requires more accuracy (obviously, this will be easier to do in a gym). Breathe, focus your eyes on the prize, and jump, watching your hand all the way to the hold.

You can also practice using your eyes to recover.  The simple act of looking down and “softening” your focus (letting your vision go slack, so that everything is blurry) while on a rest hold allows for a more rapid relaxation and, therefore, recovery. This I picked up from the Boulder-based climbing trainer, Justen Sjong. Get yourself good and pumped on a long route, series of problems, or treadwall, and then settle in to a rest and look down, practicing deep, belly breathing until you feel your heart rate slow. Continue climbing and repeat as many times as possible.

Step 5: Head, determination, toughness

“This phase here usually needs two years. You must pass it, or you’ll never go any higher.”

36 Chambers - training tips for rock climbing
Of particular importance to The Blockhead Lord, a strong head is good for more than just cracking walnuts. One must cultivate a stone mind when tackling highballs, cruxes high above protection, or other sketchy maneuvers.

The final chamber shown in the movie is focused on the head. Not so much a matter of thinking, it’s all about toughness. Heavy sandbags dangle from the ceiling, and San Te must run through them using only his shaved dome to clear a path. It’s painful to watch as he butts the bags this way and that, stumbling around drunkenly with red welts on his forehead from the impact. Still, he passes through, and goes on to train with various weapons and fighting techniques.

I have seen more climbers stymied by their own fear and doubt, usually baseless, than by any lack of strength or skill. For instance, the second most of us experience a deep pump setting in, though we might have a good bolt, cam, or pile of pads at our feet, we start to climb like a fall means certain death. We manhandle every hold and fling our feet from one solid perch to the next in terror, literally shaking ourselves off of the wall. Nearly paralyzed, we attempt to downclimb to a safer position, only to fall awkwardly in the process. But letting fear guide your decisions on the wall is almost never a good idea. Unless you are certain that a fall from your position will result is injury or worse, it’s better to pause and breath and try to let the adrenaline blinders fall away before deciding where to go next. Often, we are just a move or two away from a good stance, a huge jug, or the next point of protection.

Recommended exercises:  Look, I’m not going to recommend people go out and start taking mondo whippers on purpose. But that’s what I did. At the gym where I worked, my friend and I agreed that we’d each lead  climb out the wall’s long roof, turn the lip onto the headwall without clipping the last bolt (or two) beneath the roof, and then jump. That first moment, when no clipped bolts were visible and the air started to move around my ears, was terrifying, but the bolts and my belayer were steadfast. The falls were soft pendulums into empty space. After a while, they became less scary and more fun. It helped build the trust in the system required to climb without spirit-sapping anxiety. A similar exercise could be performed with much smaller falls than the twenty footers we took, but only on an overhanging wall with plenty of ground clearance. Of course, this is not to be attempted if you’re not a confident and competent lead climber and your belayer doesn’t have a Word’s Greatest Belayer mug. As with all things in climbing, the wisdom of taking “practice falls” is yours to determine. As the disclaimer goes, climbing is inherently dangerous, and so on and so forth.

Even more basic, the simple act of climbing more frequently can help reduce discomfort on the wall. As you get used to moving in the vertical, everything becomes more tranquil. Climb up to the point where your fear starts to kick in, then pause and practice steady, deep breaths, until you feel composed enough to look up and read the route ahead. Practice using your eyes to steadily scan the terrain around you, spotting holds that might be good for resting or for clipping, making a mental note of their location and possible sequences to attain them. Then, focus on moving to the next good hold and the next, rather than aiming for the top all at once. This works as well outside as it does in, on a trad climb as on sport routes. It is the art of confident, purposeful climbing, and it takes time and practice to perfect. In the end, no matter how you do it, you must develop a strong head if your hope to move on to climbing proficiency and even mastery.

More training stuffs:

FUN FACT: The star of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Gordon Liu, appeared as the wizened, deadly, white-bearded martial arts master Pei Mei in the movie Kill Bill.