Vertical “Gainz” – OCR in the climbing gym

I’ve seen you, wearing your Spartan Race or TM Finisher tee, white socks loosely sagging out of your ill-fitting rental shoes as you thrutch and claw your way up some jug-haul, attempting pull-up after pull-up, believing in your mind that you’re one step away from becoming the next American Ninja Warrior…

(Bolded terms are defined below)


Although this is a (slight) exaggeration, many obstacle course racers have been flocking to climbing gyms in an attempt to improve their grip-strength, widen their repertoire of movement skills, and raise their “bad-ass” quotient*. And yes, a few are thinking it’ll prepare them for American Ninja Warrior**.  Aside from the latter it’s true that climbing skills are an excellent addition to an obstacle course racer’s toolbox. The kinesthetic awareness, core strength, and improved grip that result from climbing will improve your ability on just about any obstacle – not just the obvious one such as Spartan’s Z-wall, but also the Tyrolean traverse, wall and rope climbs, “Herc” Hoist, Spartan Rig, monkey bars, and even a bucket or jerry-can carry.

Since I’ve been teaching climbing technique for the past few years I figured that I would put together a précis on how to maximize your gains while not coming across like a total amateur in the gym. In climbing we call beginners “gumbys,” it’s a phase everyone goes through, but hopefully this advice will speed up your transition to becoming an experienced “rope gun.”

First, don’t whine ceaselessly about how afraid of heights you are. Everyone is afraid of heights. That fear is the product of millions of years of evolution and it kept your ancestors from waltzing off cliffs. That fear/rush is what makes climbing exciting. Your fear will never go completely away, but as you learn to trust the equipment, your belayer, and your skills you will learn to accept the fear and, eventually, even enjoy it.

On your first visit you’ll need to decide whether you’re going to work boulder problems (the short walls with pads under them) or learn how to belay and climb routes. Realize that the easiest boulder problems start around an advanced-beginner level of route difficulty – so expect to flail and fail if you start there. In a nutshell bouldering will increase upper body and contact strength, while climbing the longer routes will foster the development of endurance in your grip and is more conducive to learning proper technique. If you’re going to hit the climbing gym on a regular basis the best possible scenario would be to do both. However, if you choose to try both just remember to take off your harness and chalk bag before bouldering, they’re not really necessary and look silly.

The next thing to do if you’re planning on being a regular is to buy your own gear. Have shoes properly fitted by someone who knows what they’re doing. Don’t believe the hype and get a pair of $200 shoes that require a crowbar to force your foot into; you don’t need them and won’t for a couple of years at least. Choose a comfortable harness and pick up a chalk bag that, unless you’re 14, isn’t shaped like a stuffed animal.

At this phase in your climbing career the fastest route (see what I did there?) to be a better climber is to climb; the more frequently the better. Climbing involves a very specific set of physical skills so, in general, other types of exercise don’t transfer to improved climbing ability. Also, notice all those strength training apparatuses at the back of the climbing gym—things like campus rungs and finger boards? Stay away from them! Until the tendons in your fingers, elbow and forearms mature, which occurs more slowly than the muscles, they can be a fast track to injury, especially if used incorrectly.

Routes start with your hands on the start hold(s). They finish when you reach the top and “match” both hands on the finish hold or top of the wall surface. Do not smack the taped X on the wall – that screams gumby!

Familiarize yourself with the grading systems (YDS for routes and V-scale for bouldering) and chose your projects appropriately. Try to pick routes where you can make moves only using the holds that are “on” (i.e., taped or colored) for that route. If you can hardly make any moves at that grade choose an easier route.

Although the holds bolted to the walls generally approximate the varieties of real rock you’ll encounter outside (except for the ones shaped like dinosaurs or the Buddha) they are made of plastic – don’t call them rocks or grips; they are holds. Here’s a handy guide to some common types.


Good climbers can make hard movement look easy. Don’t be fooled! This PSA is for you those of you who can “lift big”: don’t follow female climbers around the gym jumping onto everything they climb thinking it might be easy. I find nothing more amusing and irritating than watching guys trail my wife around the gym falling off the first move of her warm-up problems.

Good technique isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t particularly intuitive and can be difficult to learn by just watching. It’s mainly about being efficient and adjusting your center of gravity to avoid “barn-dooring” off the wall. It begins with good footwork (edging, pivoting, smearing, switching feet) and then progresses to more advanced moves like back-steps, drop-knees, heel hooks, and flags. Here are some basic moves:


When you climb remember to use your legs to drive you up the wall, instead of scrambling them up after you. Don’t “over-grip” and squeeze more than necessary with your hands. Look down, choose higher feet, and stand up off of them rather than trying to do a “pull-up.” If you become tired try sinking down into a straight-armed stance, loosely hanging off your joints. This will allow the relatively inefficient large muscles in your upper body to recover before the next move. Sometimes it’s easier to attain this stance with only one foot on a hold and the other pressed up against the wall. Having “three points of contact” frees you to more creatively play with your center of gravity.

“Campusing” is a term that means using only your upper body to provide momentum to move between holds. It’s incredibly inefficient in terms of stamina and is used outdoors only in specific situations. You may see more advanced climbers campusing as part of a strength training workout. However, it’s not a substitute for good technique (ditto for dynos between holds). Learn how to use your feet!

After you’ve gone to the gym a few times take a class to learn proper technique. This will prevent bad habits from becoming ingrained and slowing you down later on. Also, be friendly and ask for help from other climbers who look like they know what they’re doing. They will be happy to spray you down with some beta if you’re stuck on a move.

After a few visits you’ll begin to notice an increased awareness of your core and how it can stabilize your body while climbing. Your grip strength will improve as will your ability to “read” the sequences in a route. All of this will not only increase your efficiency and success on obstacles, but it will also allow you to start climbing more difficult and interesting routes.

Eventually you may want to test your skills outdoors on real rock. Being on the sharp-end of the rope or topping out a boulder problem outside are incredibly rewarding. Learning to lead outside takes a lot of additional instruction, but once you can flash 5.9s in the gym consider taking a lead climbing class. If you want to boulder outside all you need is a guidebook and a crashpad and some spotters. Another great way to get a taste of the outdoors is to hire a guide at an outdoor climbing area. With a guide you can spend the day outside climbing safely and getting instruction at whatever level you require.

Most important, remember to have fun! Climbing is an amazing sport with a rich and colorful history. It spans across a wide range of endeavors as diverse as mountaineering, big wall, and multi-pitch trad to gymnastic sport routes and burly “high ball” boulder problems. A wealth of books and websites are available to help you learn more about the sport. For example, Dead Point Magazine is a free e-zine with a great video library that’ll get your palms sweating and itching to send on real rock!

Climb on!

* Obstacle racers are pretty obvious in the gym because they do burpees between routes.

** The successful contestants on American Ninja Warrior with climbing backgrounds are generally 5.13-5.14 climbers (i.e. professional level). If ANW is your goal and you’re banking on climbing skill to get you there then you only have 8-10 years or more of hard training before you begin to approach their level of ability.


Gumby: beginner climber.

Jug-Haul: route with lots of large, easy to use holds.

Thrutch: popping to the next hold as you begin to “barn-door” – evidence of poor technique.

Spray: talking about a climb, can also be excessive boasting about one’s ability.

Beta: insider information about a route (from watching a “Betamax” – anybody remember those?).

Dyno: using momentum to jump to a hold that’s too far to reach.

Flash: doing a route cleanly, no falls, from bottom to top the first time you’re on it.

Crash-pad: portable cushioning for outdoor bouldering.

Send: to complete a route or problem successfully.

About the author:


David Kalal has been stick-clipping bolts and giving bad spots around the world since 1999. For the past few years he’s taught Fight Gravity – a technique class for beginner climbers at The Gravity Vault gyms in New Jersey. He got hooked on OCR in 2010 when he realized that due to his tremendous grip strength he could excel at OCR if only he could learn how to run really fast…and how hard could that be?

Check out the author’s videos if you’re bored at Note that none of them have been recorded in the gym. Please take this to heart and resist the urge to post videos of yourself sending projects on plastic!

Many thanks to Mya at for allowing me to use her wonderful illustrations!


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Dave Kalal

Dave Kalal has a doctorate in clinical psychology and has worked in the field for over 20 years. He has harbored a life-long passion for science, with an emphasis on scientific skepticism. Dave has been an avid rock climber since 1999. In 2010 he completed his first Spartan Race and since has gone on to ultra running and endurance events, including the Spartan UltraBeast and FYA Survival Runs. Currently he races with Team Vita OCR.
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