System Training, part 1

Here is the more in-depth explanation of system training (ST). My original post was rather ambiguous and difficult to comprehend, so hopefully this will elucidate things. (All photos were taken at the Factory Bouldering gym.) Btw, the Factory Bouldering gym has the only system wall I know of in socal, and it’s angle is about 30˚… good for intermediates with moderately stable shoulders. Beginners with strong shoulders can use it too.

FBP (better--I'm using a lower foot where my plumb line ends up behind me; therefore I need to 'draw' myself under/forward with my feet.)

FBP (better–I’m using a lower foot where my plumb line ends up behind me; therefore I need to ‘draw’ myself under/forward with my feet.)

FBP (worse--In this photo, I've chosen a higher foot that allows my center line to reside along the plumb line effectively allowing me to do nothing except maintain form)

FBP (worse–In this photo, I’ve chosen a higher foot that allows my center line to reside with the plumb line effectively allowing me to do little except maintain form)

FBP (useless--Here I'm just hanging with no intent to control turnout, posture, or link upper to lower torso)

FBP (useless–Here I’m just hanging with no intent to control turnout, posture, or link upper to lower torso)












In this post, I’ll detail the layout for one type of hold (all have the same arrangement but fitting them all on one wall can be a bit tricky), and explain the foundational body position (FBP) that is the precursor to what is often times referred to as a ‘system move.’ After that, in the next installment, I’ll explain the different workout rules the Huber’s used with an explanation for why I think they chose to do this. Basically, there are 3 different rules used for different hold types with one dominant rule (I’ll call #1) governing all except the thin crimp and slopers. Thin crimps require the body position to be locked off while slopers require the action of cutting loose, controlling it then returning to rule #1 positioning.

As I mentioned in my post Still Here (in socal), Still Warm, the holds for each type are placed symmetrically on the wall paired in a vertical position. Their distances are something each person needs to determine (or a qualified practitioner, whatever that is) based on a sufficient lock off without being too far. Every time any component is NOT dialed correctly, poor technique is the consequence, and with poor technique comes improper muscular development and control that will be counter-productive to efficient movement.

HOLDS: Since the move order is first lateral followed by upwards, the height each hold is to the next one and the distance it is from the one to the side is extremely important. With wall angle changes, much of this can be mitigated sufficiently that a generic pattern will suffice for most climbers. That said, height and arm length are still very important to consider. Here is a typical hold layout and working order for one side (all workouts are paired per set while performing usually 4-6 sets).

All holds have this configuration, and movement starts either at hold 1 or 2 then proceeds to the other.

All holds have this configuration, and movement starts either at hold 1 or 2 then proceeds to the other.

This is one half of a set with the next half starting with hold 2 and going in reverse, hold 1, hold 4, hold 3, hold 6, hold 5, hold 8, hold 7. I would recommend no less than 6 holds, but preferably 8 holds up to a maximum of 12 holds.

The distance between the corner holds (hold 6 to 7, etc) should be about the distance where the climber can lock off the hold with correct shoulder positioning without being forced to extend beyond their capacity range. The height between vertically aligned holds (hold 1 to 3, etc) depends on the same reach distance at lock off measured from the lower hold to the side. This is illustrated as an arc drawn around the lock off hold. In the below example, the lock off from hold 2 determines the vertical distance from holds 1/2 to holds 3/4, etc, and the horizontal distance from holds 1/3 to 2/4, etc.

Sample hold # with lock off reach range.

Sample hold # with lock off reach range.

If the hold is placed at the bottom of the arc, the wall can be shorter top to bottom, but the movement engram is less based on varied leg length activity. This limitation reduces leg length variability experience. Working one’s entire range while in turnout, from compressed to full extension is very important because as the leg extends, turnout becomes harder to control.

Types of holds include slopers, pinches (wide and/or thin), crimps (large and small) and pockets (3 finger, 2 finger optional). Each of these are made up of a set of holds that need to be arranged on the wall. Symmetry is only relevant to each hold type.

FEET: Feet are based on flat surfaces (wood is ideal), 90 degrees to the overhang, where friction is nominal but size is large. This produces greater confidence with the foot as more surface area means more forceful ‘push,’ and one can use old, comfortable shoes. Barefeet is doable too, but flagging can be very uncomfortable. And if flagging is painful to exert maximum force, so will overall body tension be reduced. Not a good thing, so use shoes that are comfortable and blown out.

Having rungs that run the entire distance from side to side is good in that it allows you to adjust body position as necessary. Marking the rungs with hash marks from center out at 1 foot increments is good to help you remember what you do and thus how to adjust to mix things up. If you use individual feet, again they need to be flat (90 degrees to wall surface), and you need many of them.

I’ve performed these exercises by starting on the lowest reasonable foot rung, and using that rung only for as many moves as possible until it’s too low to control (this is before the leg is at max extension), then I pull the leg up to the highest rung that’s reasonable to finish the exercise to the top. With more holds, I might have to make this foot switch one more time.

BODY FORM: Rule #1: The basic, and static, body position that a climber will use over and over (between each move one must return to this foundational body position, FBP) is a turned out, postured shoulder (think military when standing at attention), open chest, slight pelvic tilt (to engage transverse abdominals and protect the lower spine), active and straight flag forcefully pushing on the wall to help direct the weighted foot’s force beyond the parallel plan of the wall. What this last item means, is that besides just pushing ‘down’ 90 degrees into the foot surface, one can also push slightly out away from the wall while simultaneously pushing the flag into the wall in a bicycle-style foot arrangement. In other words, both feet are actively connected via their lower core/hip region, and this connection is either in extension or compression force.

This is an approximate showing of relationship between each foot's vector force. It's another form of 'bicycling feet.'

This is an approximate showing of relationship between each foot’s vector force. It’s another form of ‘bicycling feet.’

It is not necessary to ‘force’ the hips to be as close to the wall other than to maximize the turnout while the knee just touches the wall. Every move on the ST will be followed by hitting this position and holding it for a short breath. This is another key action that must be practiced. Breathing is not only important it is the most important habit to perform. Route climbers know this very well while boulderers are notorious for holding their breath. Each move or action is performed with an intake of air, followed by slight exhaling during the move (this is the sound made by climbers during movement), then full exhale either after grabbing the target hold or bringing the other leg up and returning to the FBP. Breathing tends to reduce body tension, but it doesn’t have to. Practice is the key, and always try to take a recovery breath between every move.

FBP (better--showing left shoulder)

FBP (better–showing left shoulder, lower foot rung allowing me to ‘draw’ down and under against plumb line.)

FBP (worse--showing left shoulder)

FBP (worse–showing left shoulder, form good but it’s less active since I’m on a higher foot and NOT ‘drawing’ my body down and in.)

TURNOUT: Turnout comes from the hip. It’s the act of rotating the femur which, in turn, rotates the knee outward or inward. In the case of turn out, the target muscles are mainly the gluteals or abductors. If your turnout is judged by you to be not good, don’t force it to the point that your core body alignment is compromised. Often those with poor turnout will arch their lower back excessively in order to get closer. Don’t. Use control of your turnout, and you will be fine. Your core should be straight from hip to shoulders as a reference point for knowing what a centered core is. Of course the core can flex, rotate, twist, while hips can rise and lower, and shoulder the same, but it’s important to know what your base center position is. Classical ballet is founded on this principle of a centered core. In climbing, I find that working from this as a basis really helps to establish HOW to adjust to varying hold arrangements. This concept is used over and over in my theory on movement. I establish a base form then through vectoring re-adjust to accommodate the uniqueness of holds and wall form.

In the right photo above, the tendency as one gets tired is to allow the body to naturally center under the plumb line. Though this is fine, in general, it prevents one from really appreciating and therefore learning how much force the feet can generate and assist the body in ‘holding’ a position of stability. Most important, for myself, I would need a steeper wall, and that steeper wall would force me to be more active. Steepness is key to having an active set of legs. Think of the degree of difficulty that allows you to max out at one run up the wall as the degree of overhang chosen. The setup remains the same, therefore it’s wall angle that makes things more difficult. So to recap, steepness at the right angle makes me HAVE to connect to remain on the wall.

[SIDENOTE: All movement has some basis in flexibility. More flexibility means more capacity for efficiency. If your turnout is poor, improve it. It will improve mildly, but it will also take time. Often, the culprit is just a tight hip joint, so when you stretch to maximize your turnout, age depending, you are stretching nonvascular ligaments that contain the joint. Some climbers have very tight hip flexors that will make it appear their turnout is poor (it is but not because of a tight joint). Climbers with tight hip flexors have a tendency to arch their back excessively AND tend to be more passive with foot pressure vectoring. Strengthen your transverse abdominals. This is your control mechanism for “feeling” structural differences.]

FBP (better--back view showing shoulder alignment; note that I try not to toe hook the right foot and only apply inward pressure to wall)

FBP (better–back view showing shoulder alignment; note that I try not to toe hook the right foot and only apply inward pressure to wall)

FBP (useless--showing how I'm disengaged even though I'm using a lower foot)

FBP (useless–showing how I’m disengaged even though I’m using a lower foot)

This FBP that I stated as the precursor to the ‘system move,’ is the basis for turnout control. Wall angle is where this practice really comes into its own dimension and meaning. As the angle gets steeper, tension must increase, and not in any specific place, but throughout the core. If the wall is vertical or slightly overhanging, minimal body tension is required as the weight is basically ‘stacked’ atop the foot. And most of us have enough body tension to operate in the vertical plane because we do it normally.

As long as the practitioner is holding a good turnout, he/she will be effective in their movement. With greater steepness comes greater forces where our natural abilities tend to dominate if we rotate towards parallel (walking/running position). In other words, in parallel, we simply ‘toe down’ hard on the foot to engage our posterior chain which links our back to our shoulders. In turnout, we need to develop isometric strength with proper lower core alignment and maintain that through the entirety of the move. Once that turnout is compromised, so will the technical capacity also be compromised, and our efficiency goes down rapidly.

Turning out with only one leg while on a steep angle has serious forces not only on it but on the entire chain of muscles from toe to fingers; furthermore, if one has a poor turnout they will feel frustrated thinking it’s this poor turnout that is the source of the problem. In fact, this is far from the truth. It’s the connection integrity that is important, not the turnout itself. Also, just by practicing maximum turnout with control will improve the turnout over time. This is because most of us have turnout limitations caused by tight ligamentous tissue in the hip socket. And when we turn out, we are in effect rotating to our maximum against the tissues’ restriction which will slowly stretch that non vascular tissue over time. On steep terrain, turnout amount is not so important as turnout control and sustainment.

To reiterate the point, tight hip flexors can prevent using your maximum turnout, especially towards leg extension. This tightness can also cause one to overly use their lumbar to connect their lower body with their upper body causing pain in their lower back while on steep terrain. Basically, our torso is stabilized (front to back) with both the lower back muscles AND the abdominal muscles (rectus and transverse), and both sides need to be adequately strengthened relative to the operational steepness. Turned out to our maximum tends to rotate our pelvis forward decreasing our abdominals in favor of our lumbar. Not a good thing. If you want to work your turnout correctly, I recommend NOT laying on your frontside in a turnout. Not only is this passive meaning you’re not connecting muscle use with turnout, but it also tends to stress your lumbar. Lay on your back (maybe with a spacer), and turn out the legs while your lower back keeps contact with the ground (or spacer). Work your turnout at differing leg lengths. The best, in my opinion, is barre work from classical ballet.

[SIDENOTE: I’ve omitted one workout the Huber’s performed, and that was a max lock off from a low jug.]

My next post will continue with Movement, Body Tension, Routine and Final Thoughts. Most all this is taken from memory, so if you find any oddities and inconsistencies, please let me know, so I can address them. Thanks.

~ by r. mulligan on 2014/09/06.

17 Responses to “System Training, part 1”

  1. […] understanding. For the most technical explanation of the move and its training, please read Rob Mulligan’s posts on system training. Or work with Chad Gilbert or Paul Dusatko – two phenomenal coaches who introduced me to the […]

  2. Hey Rob. My name is Jeff. I was referred to you because I hear you do personal training. I want yo take my climbing to the next level (5.13 a) . I would like to work on my weaknesses and build a solid training program.

  3. […] Below are some examples of how these cues would look when applied to the climbing while. Courtesy of the climbing Sensei himself, Rob Mulligan. […]

  4. […] Below are some examples of how these cues would look when applied to the climbing while. Courtesy of the climbing Sensei himself, Rob Mulligan. […]

  5. Rob, great blog and the timing couldn’t be better. My 11 yr old son, who tore through the 5.12s this spring/summer at the Red and is actively sending V6/7, just had the great fortune of attending a clinic with Taylor Reed in Columbus, OH. He’s completely rethinking how he looks at climbing and is no longer convinced he has to power his way through everything! We’ve taken part I & II of your System Training to supplement Taylor’s instruction. He says he can already feel the difference. While he is far from mastering it’s complexities he’s committed to improving. Thanks.

    • That’s great to hear! You are very welcome. For an 11 year old, having him focus on his movement and being introspective will pay dividends long into the future. ST can help one gain better insight into what they are doing and what they should be doing. It’s a hallmark of improvement… to question then feel what could be more effective and efficient.

  6. Rob, you mention that in training you want to keep the active-pressured flag straight. Frequently just after I get into the FBP but before I engage the next movement, I will intentionally force the knee into a bend suitable so that my judgment of the difference between the angle of the bend and the forthcoming straight leg will add just enough height to get me to the next hold and stay in a solid position so that I don’t fall out. I don’t always do this before I engage movement because when I need the full affect of the FBP, I often can’t because I’ll lose cohesion if I try to do it prior. When I can’t do it entirely, I end up thrutching up the wall (three-four micro bends of the knee and/or ankle to help “shoot the gap” between my two points of contact. Does that make sense?

    Can you comment on this in both regard to your training mechanism and in regard to climbing in general?

    • That is a very good point because what you are doing is prejudging the distance to the next hold through the amount of bend of the leg; at full extension you need to be AT the hold. ST is a good way to practice this over and over. As you may already experience, if you misjudge, you will either come up short or end up being a bit unbalanced (uncentered) at the upper position when reaching he hold (meaning the leg is still bent).

      A straight leg is a passive pressure point that is used for stability and control. It’s a good way to establish structure for shaking out, clipping, taking a breath, whatever. Once you bend the leg, you are creating a slightly less stable position in favor of greater potential energy output (but not always). This, of course, comes from that bent leg pressing into the wall allowing you to drive upwards to assist that working leg that’s turned out.

      That brings up another point: the lowest weighted leg determines your reach without cutting loose or loosing that pressure point (pressure flag), but if you do loose that pressure point stability drops but oftentimes is replaced with a new triangulated connection between the new hold, working hand and working leg. This inverted triangle can now be a basis for transition… etc, etc.

  7. Rob, how are you differentiating plumb line (straight vertical line down to the floor), and center line (a line equidistant between the sides?) Can you be specific?

    • Plumb line is just reacting to gravity and therefore one orientates vertically; centering (and a centerline) has to do with the positioning related to the holds in question. This produces a line between pressure points that’s NOT directly related to gravity. I’m currently writing a new post on efficiency that talks a bit about centering. Stay tuned…

  8. This is some of the most useful information on climbing posture and technique I’ve ever read. Thanks for posting.

    • You are welcome! I have refrained from posting on climbing “theory” and principle since this blog was originally about corrections to the guidebook and posting on new bouldering lines. At times, I find blogging regularly to be quite a lot of work. :/ Going into climbing movement theory seems overwhelming at times. I actually tried to correspond with a grad student in the UK on movement theory, but after 3 or 4 massive emails with explanations, it became a bit ridiculous without having written a book on it, as it was demanding that structure in order to continue.

      I’m psyched to hear others appreciate this sort of discussion… maybe… I will … get my ars … in gear … and blog some more.

      • Rob, any chance we can see the discussion you had with the grad student in the UK?

        • Probably not, because to do that, I’d have to edit the collection to make sure their order and grouping make sense. With him, I was just giving him a “flow of consciousness” where I would respond to any questions he might throw at me. Basically, this information requires a serious effort to organize, not me skillset. 😦 Sorry. I don’t want to have to answer questions from many directions on many topics. It’s better to get it organized. I’ve considered authoring it with someone else…like an editor type, which would incline me to produce a book of sorts.

  9. S1 has a system wall too. and it can vary in angle/steepness~

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