Three Elements of Climbing: Balance, Timing, and Power

Three elements of climbing: balance, power, and timing

As a student, I worked at the university climbing gym with an odd character I’ll refer to as KP. This fellow claimed a disorder that somehow linked his left and right hand; when he gripped with one, the other was compelled to contract sympathetically. To adapt his climbing to his condition, KP developed a unique approach to climbing. He needed to execute moves very efficiently to be able to climb at all.

This approach, in turn, formed the basis of his teaching technique. Balance, timing, and power—these three elements were the building blocks of all climbing movement, KP believed. By mixing and matching them in various degrees, once could achieve the highest level of ability. And like the “four humors” of medical history, an imbalance of any of these elements would impede one’s development as a climber.

I’m not sure I ever fully bought in to KP’s philosophy. Still, there was something to it. It encapsulated some useful truths about climbing and allowed people an entrance into the subtle art of vertical movement. Here, a few thoughts on the three elements, based only vaguely on the ideas KP espoused those many years ago.

Balance – The most fundamental element of climbing is balance. Without balance, we would be flailing and straining constantly. It is the foundation on which everything is built.

Balance is the art of using our skeletons to support our weight under the pull of gravity. When we stand over foot holds on a vertical or slabby wall, we can hold ourselves easily on the smallest of pockets and edges. Our muscles can relax, almost as if we were standing on flat ground. This changes with the angle and shape of the wall, but the basic concept still holds, even if that means we’re balancing the pull of opposing holds against one another on an overhang.

The problem with balance is that moving the center of gravity requires us to exit perfect balance, in which case power and timing come into play. For example, when you go from standing to walking, you immediately begin to fall forward, swinging your leg out to catch yourself before going too far out of balance. In such a case, timing is critical to not falling on one’s face. Which leads us to our next point…

Timing – On a climb, timing allows us to move without relying only on power (strength, muscular exertion) to stay on the wall. A deadpoint is a moment that takes full advantage of timing. At the top of an upward movement, our bodies experience a brief moment of respite from gravity’s pull. Before our mass begins accelerating down, there’s a chance to grab a hold and control it. This is the deadpoint. Grab too soon or too late, and the movement becomes significantly harder to execute. Timing is the thing.

The points in a climbing movement that free us up to move our feet and hands are often fleeting, and a kinetic sensibility and general practice allow us to make the most of them. This is the art of timing. Paired with balance and power, it makes for that effortless style that the best climbers exhibit.

Power  I put power last not because it’s the least important, but because it’s the flashiest of the three elements and therefore can distract from the development of a well-rounded style. Most climbers think the best way to improve is to do pull-ups, lift weight, and hangboard, ignoring the development of balance and timing skills. Strength is the first attribute we cite when describing an impressive climber: “Oh, she’s strong,” or, “He’s a beast.”

One would be well served to focus on the development of balance and timing solely for much of one’s early climbing days, in an effort to become more efficient and controlled. Muscular fortitude will come somewhat naturally as a result of practice, and can then be augmented as needed through training after such good techniques are in place.

The three elements of balance, timing, and power are really inseparable. To develop one without developing the others at all is nearly impossible. But it is certainly possible to rely too much on one at the expense of the others.

A climber who leans on balance too much is often afraid to attempt dynamics, and thus get stumped by anything he can’t reach with a relatively static motion.

A timing-reliant climber will move too quickly, often putting herself out of balance and relying on fast reflexes to stay on the wall—the problem here is that the slightest misfire will result in a sudden descent.

And power climbers, while able to lock off or campus through moves impressively, can easily find themselves in situations where a simple balance shift or a deft dynamic snatch would have yielded the same result with half the exertion, leaving more fuel in the tank for later.

KP’s theory of balance, power, and timing, provides a pretty good framework for addressing individual moves, and I’ve found that martial arts practitioners, baseball pitchers, and golfers, among others, break movement down similarly.

I also feel that one could apply these three elements metaphorically to life as a whole:

Balance is the ability to find one’s center no matter the orientation, to remain relaxed even in challenging contexts.

Timing is needed to move from one balance state to the next. In these periods we are vulnerable to disruption, but we must use timing to our advantage to move in the desired direction. It is often the most efficient way to move from one circumstance to another.

Finally, extreme reliance on power should be used as a last resort. Balance and timing typically allow us to move with greater efficiency, but when we meet a cruxy moment in life and there’s no way around but through, power becomes a necessity.

Even then, the sparing, and wise exertion of power is required, and this understanding is best had when moving from a position of balance.

Climbing Back to the Beginning

Gym climbing scene distorted into a circle

Before you study Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; while you are studying Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers; but once you have had enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and rivers again rivers.
— Zen saying

On the first attempt, Lois tied in and climbed the blue route almost to the last hold. Somewhere near the top, she was too tired to sort out a tricky sequence and sagged back onto the rope.

“Aw, shoot!” she shouted, “I almost had it!” I lowered her to the ground.

Lois was a new climber, a woman in her 40s looking to try something different. Like most people coming to climbing for the first time, she was unsure of herself on the wall, afraid of falling, and quick to shout, “Take!” when something didn’t make sense. The route she just attempted was at the edge of her ability. As her instructor, I had recommended she try a new climb, just to see how she would do. We were both a little surprised at the result.

“Nice work up there!” I encouraged her. “Let’s rest for five minutes. You’ll get it next time.”

But when the five minutes were up, and Lois re-checked her knot and began to climb, things didn’t go so smoothly. She managed to reverse every move she had done just right the first time, steeping left foot where she should have gone right, crossing up her hands and having to match on every hold, throwing herself around awkwardly instead of using balance to stand up and reach. Whatever intuition had propelled her up the route on her first attempt was now mired in a fog of indecision. After much frustration, Lois reached the top of the wall and asked to be lowered down.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “Everything just felt wrong. I was trying to remember what I did the first time, and threw me off.”

Lois’ experience is not unusual. There is a funny phenomenon in climbing where your first attempt is near perfect, but your second (and third, and even fourth) are all mixed up. From what I can tell, it’s a case of your body understanding the best course of action and your brain subsequently getting in the way.

Philosophies and religions throughout history have suggested that we must seek to return to some sort of original state. In the Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra identifies this as a central aspect of Zen: “The process of enlightenment consists merely in becoming what we already are from the beginning,” he writes.

In Ecclesiastes, the speaker writes, “God, when he made man, made him straightforward, but men invent endless subtleties of their own.”

In the Tao Te Ching, passages like this one are common:

Open yourself to the Tao,
then trust your natural responses;
and everything will fall into place.

Similarly in climbing, I believe most of us carry a certain innate understanding of movement in our bones, but that we have forgotten, or confused that understanding.

Lois, like most of my students at the climbing gym, came to me from a life spent seated: at work, at home, in the subway, in a car…. I don’t believe she had ever done anything much more physically complex than riding a bike on a paved surface or assembling Ikea furniture. In her decades of risk-averse life, she had grown afraid of heights. Any original knowledge of movement had been overwritten by a set of culturally accepted rules designed to minimize risk.

But on her first attempt on that blue route, for whatever reason, maybe because she didn’t have time to think about it, her unconscious self was able to flow freely up the wall. When she tried to remember what she had done, she created layers of anxiety and doubt that muddied the process. Her third attempt was little better than the second, the fourth a bit better still. On the fifth attempt she finally managed to climb better than the first. It took her almost an hour to return to her starting point and consciously understand what some part of her understood almost instantly.

It seems silly, but I think this kind of cycle is necessary. Intuition alone or intellect alone will only take us so far. Each person must work through long, confusing, or awkward periods of trial and error to come back to the place where he or she started. Through the course of a lifetime, we make many such circuitous journeys, on the wall and off, but it is not a case of simple repetition. When we return to our starting point after trials and tribulations, everything looks different because we have changed. We have gained a new perspective to take with us on the next climb.