System Training, part 2

Here is part 2 of my ST overview. In my previous post, I laid out the framework for the wall and then went on to explain details about feet and turnout. I also explained what the basic body position is between movements up the wall, and why it is significant. In this post, I will go into detail about the movement one practices based on the hold type. As important as the resting foundational body position (FBP) is, so is everything one does while moving between holds. I don’t have many photos this time, but I do have a real world example Jill shot of me while in font. This example does lend credence to why I chose to do a specific move on a specific problem that usually isn’t done with my chosen beta. Here is one of the photos:

El Poussah. This ultra classic problem (stand) is usually performed with a toe or heal hook on the chalked sloper above my right foot.

El Poussah. This ultra classic problem (stand) is usually performed with a toe or heel hook on the chalked sloper above my right foot.

UPDATED: I forgot to add photos of the workout positions. They are now included within the body of text.

In the above photo, I’m basically turned out, flagged (with poor toe hook) and in the FBP relative to my left shoulder. My right toe/foot is very active and forcibly vectoring into a mostly side edge foot hold. The positioning is not ideal, and therefore, I have to maintain upward pressure on my left toe against a sloping slight depression. My center is basically trying to move right ONTO the right foot, as I moderate this with a sustained toe flag vectoring into the rock. By moving right, I engage my flag more aggressively so as to make it actually useful. My upper torso shifts left under the left sloper; it is this vectored body dynamic that makes this work, and it is this lateral shifting that makes movement ‘felt.’

From the above position, I’m about to cross over with my right hand to a jug. If I lose the foot, I will spin off even if I hit the jug, which is what happened over and over. As you can see, my knee is hitting the wall, and as I elevate and begin reaching, I continue to keep contact up to a point because the toe edge is not only not flat, but tucked under at a more steep angle. This complicates the body’s capacity to maintain form.

The below image shows the first move before setting up to establish the FBP. I actually flag my left foot out left (see above photo) and become totally set before raising my right hand to match (as in the above photo).

This is the first move to the sloper. For reference to how I got into the FBP position of the other photo.

This is the first move to the sloper. For reference to how I got into the FBP position of the other photo.

MOVEMENT: So, now on to the actual movement on the ST wall. Yay!!!! With large crimps, pinches, pockets and slopers, the body position is always in the FBP for resting or between moves. Small crimps are the only exception where you never settle into the FBP. Foot choices are up to the practitioner in that they can choose to step high or keep their feet low, but they should always practice all positions… keep mixing it up, so to speak.

[SIDENOTE: Crimping properly is usually referred to as open crimping or just not over-crimping regardless of where your thumb is. Crimping correctly is about the PIP joint having a slight acute angle while the DIP joint remains approximately straight or flat. It is my belief that this requires we train muscles of both our long and short flexor tendons. The long flexor rotates the last digit down while the short flexor rotates that PIP joint down, which in turn rotates both the distant and intermediate phalanges down. If we aren’t actively tensioning with our long flexor, that last joint, the DIP joint, will begin to bend towards hyperextension. Imagine your elbow being hyperextended, yuck. As I mentioned before about increasing turnout slowly, the same thing happens here, and that DIP joint begins to stretch further and further in hyperextension. It’s this balance of force between both the flexor digitorum profundus and superficialis muscles that allows us to not overcrimp. In reality, most just train by keeping their hands “open.” Open crimp training that doesn’t utilize less than full-pad edges won’t result in developing proper crimping on thin edges.]

I previously mentioned using a long flat bar for feet, and this is because I want to practice working with feet in any lateral position relative to my body centerline: with enough experience you will “know” where an ideal foot location is relative to your holding hand, and therefore, working “outside” and “inside” that point is important. I might take one set up the wall at my most convenient lateral position then my second run might be slightly outside, third might be further outside, and a fourth might be slightly inside that idealized position.

Start with the FBP hanging on hold 1 (opposite hand to foot), then reach to hold 2 laterally. Switch feet and immediately return to the FBP. Now reach with a lock to hold 3 (up and diagonal), but don’t dyno for it and again switch feet and hit that FBP. Move the holds closer if you can’t static it (a static move is literally being able to hold your hand over the hold before grabbing it—many peeps in the gym seem to think static is just not a wild dyno). Continue to the top. If you find the number of holds too many, just do an even number of holds that’s controllable and add holds over time (similar to weight lifting).

The most important element here is HOW you hold your body and HOW you use your body while moving—technique. Working with a partner is critical if you both exchange input on what each other is doing and, in that process, are educating yourselves on what is correct or incorrect. A mirror is excellent (obviously to the side) as it gives one a check each time he or she returns to FBP. Two mirrors, one on each side, is even better (you could have a rotating wall, but that might be a bit too extreme!!!!).

Here I'm reaching laterally only to the hold at the same level.

Here I’m reaching laterally only to the hold at the same level.

Here I'm reaching upwards to the next level of holds using a foot one rung higher.

Here I’m reaching upwards to the next level of holds using a foot one rung higher.

Basically, don’t “pull” the shoulder into a postured position. This is a fallacy. Push up from your turned-out leg as you settle into the FBP, and relax your shoulder, so to speak, down with a lifted chest. Don’t over rotate the upper torso as this decreases your connection to your ribcage and upper thoracic, but think of a hook pulling your sternum up along the alignment of your spine. It’s as if you are saluting or standing straight but of course you’re at the angle of the wall.

[SIDENOTE: This is my biggest issue with seeing others trained by trainers or coaches who don’t emphasize technical precision. Every sport on the planet has fundamental technical attributes that must be maintained for maximum efficiency, and when it’s not practiced in climbing, it’s a tragedy. Ugh!]



Here is what NOT to do. As you can see I've isolated the pull to the shoulder only with a slightly rolled and raised shoulder.

Here is what NOT to do. As you can see I’ve isolated the pull to the shoulder only with a slightly rolled and raised shoulder.

This is the same but with reach. Note the slightly turned in hip, and though not shown, I'm also drifting outward at the hip.

This is the same but with reach. Note the slightly turned in hip, and though not shown, I’m also drifting outward at the hip.

Now on to the two hold types, small crimps and slopers, and Rule #2 and #3. While Rule #1 is specific to FBP and performing lock-offs on a variety of holds, Rule #3 includes cutting loose on slopers whereas Rule #2 avoids the FBP altogether when using small crimps. The Huber’s performed the lock-off position only without first establishing the FBP while using small crimps. I think they did this because with a straight arm, there’s a tendency to over crimp in order to maintain control of the hold. In lock-off, it’s easier to hold the position relative to the crimp and maintain some degree of proper crimping but of course very hard to actually lock off. This is done by stepping up to the highest foot bar or hold possible and then centering over (perching on) that foot with the lock-off. Remember to breathe and continue up the wall until all holds are locked off. Lock off the top hold while holding your hand in space above the last hold as if there are more holds above. Again, remember to open that upper chest just enough to maintain good form. Lock-offs are oftentimes prone to rolling the shoulders and chest inwards.



Here is a lock off using small crimps. My position is ok, but I have a slightly reduced turnout.

Here is a lock off using small crimps. My position is ok, but I have a slightly reduced turnout. This might be due to using slippers.

Slopers are a different beast altogether. From the base FBP, while maintaining turnout, use momentum as necessary to reach the next hold, then after reaching the hold, stop with tension and immediately cut loose your feet. Control your shoulders and body motion then immediately swing a foot back in and return to the FBP. While in the hang position, don’t let your shoulders lose their postured position. The lateral move is pretty basic, but the upwards-angled throw requires real momentum originating from the hip. That’s because your other hand is not on any hold. Keep the turnout, as this is easily lost with large footholds. Don’t rotate your knee in. Track your body with turnout and generate that push/momentum while in turnout. Your body should move laterally with a slight arc around the hand hold. At first this will feel awkward because you really only have two weighted points on the wall. But because of the limited contact with the wall, the momentum learned will be more pure and will require proper execution to be successful.

BODY TENSION: Body tension, or core strength, is the body’s ability to form a rigid structure against which any amount of force from the hands and feet with NOT deform that structure. Footwork is the ability to drive off whatever is available with confidence and directed force, or vectored force, such that with body tension, it will translate into forward or upward progression. This is why Adam Ondra had climbed to such a high level while never really being able to do a 1 arm pull-up.

Within this structured form, the body still needs to move fluidly as holds and centering demand. From a side view of the FBP, it looks rather simple and almost comfortable. Think of it as the downward dog of Yoga. What’s really interesting about it (and any movement or static position) is that if you imagine the body as a single piece of steel, the body will hang and rotate around the hand point naturally driving the foot into the wall. This, of course, is relevant to overhangs, and shows what body tension is really about.

This is the actually send image. I held the dyno without losing my foot.

This is the actually send image. I held the dyno without losing my foot.

In the above photo, I’m losing the FBP structure, but I don’t lose the toe force vector on the side edge, nor the turnout. Basically, I’m NOT strong enough to do this move with more control. Although I’m beginning to lose control, I never lose form, and as a result, I stick the sloper while still maintaining form just enough to settle into the jug. My left shoulder maintains posturing at its minimum, ugh, hence why my body is drifting outwards. Needless to say, I stuck the move. Immediately afterwards, I move the flag to a poor divot (if memory serves, as it was 2012) then raise the right foot off the edge and onto another foot higher up.

ROUTINE: Do at least 4 sets per hold type, two per starting hand. That means if you do 4 runs (sets) on the wall, you will alternate between starting right hand followed by left then right then left. Then switch hold types and repeat. Since the basic set is large crimps, small crimps, pockets (2 and 3 finger), pinches, slopers, the total number of sets will be 24 minimum if you do 4 sets per hold type. The Hubers’ did 6 sets per hold AFTER doing a full body workout warmup that included front and back levers. If I remember correctly, they did 10 second holds, 6 sets per lever. The good thing about back levers is that they require balanced and flexible shoulders. Many people can do front levers, but back levers really test whether you have healthy shoulders.

I can’t remember rest times between sets, but it was something like 5 minutes. For us, it was critical to have at least 3 people where the rotation initially seems slow and later the rest was very welcomed.

FINAL THOUGHTS: As you can see, it’s a rather complex workout that requires technical awareness based on a target ideal. Systemized training (SZT) is perceived easier to do because whatever sequence you perform you just mirror it in reverse; that type of wall has mirrored holds on the left and right. But the point of ST is to control turnout with body awareness, posturing and core tension while moving. If you workout with SZT, technique is still the highest priority, and in that context, it can be much more complex because you’re movement choices are much greater and hence demand technical awareness of every move you perform.

However, by simplifying the workout to specific areas of movement that need training to be efficient, ST has greater capacity for healthy improvement for someone that doesn’t understand movement overall (most people). That said, what I think should be taken from ST workouts is the emphasis on turnout control in a movement context, which can help climbers of all abilities.

This covers the approximate workout of the Hubers’ specifically with regard to System Training. Since the Hubers’ did this back in the 90’s, it can be considered outdated. While working with Scott Sanchez, we added underclings, side pulls, and gastons and expanded it to include parallel leg orientation. The basic layout is a good platform to further other forms of technical development as long as one is cognizant of good technique and form. Working in parallel has its own set of technical necessities both with the hips and shoulders.

FURTHER FINAL THOUGHTS: Climbing is a conundrum between trying to have maximum hand strength and driving force capacity while climbing efficiently enough to minimize their use. The irony continues because training to maximize hand strength and driving force capacity only makes us want to use it more. We are basically chasing after our confidence embodied in our strengths. Hence, the basic rule in climb training is ALWAYS train your weakness.

Movement is about vectoring with control originating from our centers (chi) through any of all four potential points of contact. Our body design determines our movement paradigms, and movement efficiency comes from range of motion, structural integrity, commitment to moving through foundational positions, and maintaining mental acuity, focus, and breathing. Think of your head as a person in the drivers seat “driving” the body upwards. The body will do as the driver demands, if the body has been trained correctly, with maximum commitment to technique and range of motion. This leaves the driver to think about strategy, sequence, clipping, fall awareness, pad arrangements, pro placements, rope management, etc., or nothing besides just climbing (ie, soloing).

6 climbers that I have watched in videos come to mind that demonstrate this principle of efficiency: Adam Ondra, Alex Megos, Paul Robinson, Sasha Digiulian, Alex Honnold and Ashima Shiraishi (there are others, of course). Paul is a bit different in that he pursues bouldering almost exclusively, and he shows that just “training” through climbing has the capacity to place him in the top tier. Bouldering, though, demands power and strength beyond just body weight as forces can easily exceed body weight. It could be said that Paul would do well with a limited but targeted strength buildup, but this can’t negatively impact his movement skills, as his movement skills  are what allows him to achieve his high standard. He’s an extremely efficient climber, and like all climbers, has room to improve. And this is where “training” has it’s potential pitfalls: Anything you work on that makes you strong or proficient will also incline you to prioritize it over a more holistic approach to movement and, hence, efficiency. This is why movement understanding is so important; by understanding movement one can relate training to weakness to efficiency; without it, it’s all just reaching in the dark. But I digress…

~ by r. mulligan on 2014/09/08.

12 Responses to “System Training, part 2”

  1. Rob, in the part where you describe the sloper training, you mention that: “That’s because your other hand is not on any hold.” I’m assuming that you mean that when you hit the next hold, switch feet, engage the FBP, then you take your trailing hand off the wall entirely and begin the next motion. Assuming I have this correct, is this also something you want us to do on all types of holds? In other words, when sitting the FBP, do we always take the trailing hand off, or do we keep it on in order to “help” with the functional movement.

    • Yes, I think you caught a typo (I will review and correct) but basically yes. Once in the FBP position, remove the lower hand and stabilize. I often place it across my waist because if I hang it to my side, I tend to drop that shoulder like in a shakeout position. With slopers, as any of the holds, the lower hand must still be on the originating hold until after arriving in FBP. Thanks for catching that…

      • oi. Now I see why this is going to get tiring. 😉 Thanks, Rob. Going to try it out as a training regimen. Will let you now after two weeks how it goes.

    • Taylor, I should have read that part first, so let me elaborate on the quote you stated: when you initiate the momentum to reach the next sloper, it is done with one hand on the weighted “start” sloper and the other is not on anything. That way the momentum is must come your core. If you have the other hand on the “former” sloper, you have a tendency to use it to get to the next hold. So, having a free hand is consistent with the previous FBP in that it should be just hanging or resting on your waist. I do use that free hand by swinging and aiding the mo to create more inertia.

  2. Rob, you explained why you don’t use FBP with small crimps (or attempted to based on the Huber’s training and potential reasoning), but why the dynamic motion and cut on slopers? Pure training do you think? Is there something more specific to sloper movement?

    • Thanks for you response. If I’m correct, that’s what the Huber’s did. It’s necessary to maintain shoulders even when cutting loose, and with slopers, there’s a relationship between success and shoulder control. Slopers require a more direct downward force and to do that, the shoulders need to be more properly postured. It can be argued that if one was to climb exclusively on slopers, they will intrinsically be more composed and better connected. I hope that helps.

      • Interesting. That opened up a completely new lens for me to evaluate climbing – I’ll be thinking about that one going forward in an attempt to evaluate. Thanks, Rob!

  3. Awesome article again! I am so psyched that you took the time to write all this. I will be sharing it with as many people as I can. Now if we could just get them to set up the system wall correctly at the gym! Some greater concepts here about using hip drive to generate movement and I love the cue of keeping the chest up for lock offs!

    • Thanks! Yeah, there are important elements that when adhered to really can make a difference in climbing… like learning to shift/rotate/elevate or lower to find that special place of balance (that I call centering), where force is reduced to support instead of force becoming part of the act of holding a non-optimal non-balanced/centered position. Beefcake climbers are notorious for practicing this form of non-efficient movement.

  4. Really good stuff. I need a system wall!
    In relation to this idea of pushing not just down but out on footholds (and working weaknesses) I’ve been working a lot on strengthing (and lengthning) my hip extension and the results are pretty amazing. For many climbers (and runners and cyclists) it seems we have very shortened and tight hips. The old mobility issue…
    Over the last few months I’ve been doing target exercises to strengthen the glute med, (which in many people is so underused it doesn’t even fire) as well as just increase my hip extension. 4 minutes a day of doing the “couch stretch” (although I don’t do it on the couch!) has totally changed the way my body moves and my posture. It seems to dovetail with system training. Curious if you see this in your students.
    At first I could barely hold the couch stretch postion for 10 seconds at a time and it was incredibly painful. Now I can comfortably hang out there for a couple minutes and an getting beyond the 90 degree range.
    Anyway, hope you guys are well…all the best

    • That’s very interesting. I’ve been targeting the glute med myself for my SI joint injury.

      Agreed, I think a system wall would help your movement in that you’re already strong at pulling and hanging. Learning to drive with the legs more would really add to your capacity. Adjusting the wall angle for your needs is critical too, unless you have prior experience and know what angle to go with. I would guess 35°could be a good starting point for you (though you might adapt to 40° quickly), but having the ability to move up to 45° would be sweet. Every 5° is a noticeable change.

      Poor turnout or tight hip flexors really can cause a climber to avoid trying to control turnout in the first place resorting to some amazing attempts at turned in movement! Scott is a good example of someone who targeted poor turnout using system training with amazing results. Though his turnout is mildly better after ST, it’s the control aspect that has made all the difference.

      Thanks for the comment, and hope to see you guys next year… hopefully!?!

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