Margo Hayes making a great effort to turn us away from Fanny Gibert as our favorite climber. Photo: Jennie Jariel

Research > Syntheses > Climbing Mobility > “Climbing Mobility Case Studies”

I’m indebted to Jared Vagy DPT “The Climbing Doctor” for his review.

Slab/Volume Climbing and Trunk Mobility

Below are the two mobility projects I’ve been working on with my athletes.  Note that these elements are NOT based on research.  They are based on my personal observations as I iterate my analysis with my recommendations with my own personal understanding of research.  Future research would need to confirm or deny whether these attributes affect “performance” – specifically defined.

Slab Climbing and “Volume” (hold type) Manipulation

I’ve included volumes here because sometimes, but not always, volume-climbing mimics traditional slab climbing. Below are three sub-skills to this type of climbing. I call them “French Slab Feet”, and “Fanny back-bend”, and have added the controversial chicken wing.

Nathaniel Surma demonstrating a heel drop in turn-out position, and the complicated forces and angles required to have French slab-feet. Photo: Jennie Jariel

Dropping the heel and ankle manipulation – “French Slab Feet”

  • Includes ankle dorsiflexion, inversion/eversion, and forefoot abduction / adduction; Hip & knee internal/external rotation (ex. N. Surma)
    • Provides varying pressure into the wall as CoM manipulation occurs in/around “no shadow” and volume feet.
    • Note in Bimini’s case the angle of the knee: knee flexion changes which muscle in the calf dominates (biasing the soleus muscle and joint capsule), something a good PT can help out with!
Bimini Horstmann showing us the calf extension to reduce toe-shin distance and create pressure.  Photo: Jennie Jariel

Back Contortion – “Fanny back-bend”

  • Includes Thoracic-Lumbar Extension
    • This can be “thought” of as allowing us to manipulate two semi-distinct centers-of-mass within the trunk – think of it like an A and B to the trunk-specific CoM (see “M-CoM” below), which for practical coaching purposes can be used to differentiate one from another, and also from the hips.
  • Situation 1: the hips and lower trunk stay aligned tight to the wall, and the upper part of the trunk pulls away.
  • Situation 2: the hips and lower trunk jack-knife, and the upper part of the trunk tightens up to the wall.
  • Note: Unfortunately these are “static” pictures that don’t clearly show how climbers “fold” into and out of these positions. Often these moves start one way and end another.
Fanny Gibert showing us “Fanny Back-bend” Situations 1 & 2. Situation 1 (right) shows how it may be helpful to keep part of your trunk over your feet – and tight to the wall (here in turn-out position). Situation 2 shows the hips out – likely due to the volume configuration, which requires dorsiflexion of the left ankle combined with partial flexion of the knee, which pushes the hips out – creating a constraint on the climber and a need to seek an alternative “fit.” Photo: (Left) Eddie Fowke of The Circuit Climbing and (Right) René Oberkirch

Shoulder Mobility – the Controversial Chicken-wing:

  • Includes shoulder abduction, internal rotation, shoulder extension.
  • Fantastic example of how a “performance-based” move can also be concerning from an injury standpoint.  In the situation described, throwing the trunk in tighter to the wall may involve the leverage of a “chicken-winging” elbow.
Janja Garnbret showing us a situation where shoulder mobility facilitates pressing and torquing the upper CoM (trunk) to “fit” between volumes. Photo: René Oberkirch

Multi-Centre of Mass (M-CoM) Manipulation

Below are two sub-skills to this type of climbing. I call them “trunk and hip CoM-ping.”

Trunk Center-of-Mass (CoM) Positioning – “Trunk CoM-Ping”

  • Includes Trunk rotation and lateral trunk flexion and opposing-side extension.
    • For crossing, reaching, using “directional” holds, and full-body turn-in (trunk rotation) and turn-out (lateral trunk flexion) or partial-body turn-in and turn-out – e.g. hip turn-in with trunk extension, hip turn-out with trunk rotation). 
Nekaia Sanders using trunk rotation to orient her body better to pull off an undercling, volume-directional. Note the lower right foot. Directional pressure through the base may either facilitate or constrain trunk mobility. Photo: Jennie Jariel

Hip Center-of-Mass Positioning – “Hip CoM-Ping”

  • Hip “Turn-in” Movement (Lower-body specific)
    • Refer to the picture of Charlie Osbourne further down as an example of lower body hip “turn-in”.
    • Turning in: Hip / femoral adduction w/ hip internal rotation
    • Turn-in Inside High Backstepping: Knee flexion with either hip extension/flexion; hip internal rotation
  • Hip “Turn-out” Movement (Lower-body specific)
    • Refer to the picture of Augie Chi further down as an example of lower body hip “turn-out”.
    • Single leg high-step: Hip Flexion; hip external rotation; hip abduction
    • Double leg high-step (Double Perch): I’ve seen climbers have no problem high-stepping but can’t pull up their lower leg to save their life.  There is no muscle that crosses the mid-line between the legs (the left and right have their own adductor muscle compartments), just a “fascial plane” which can be improved through passive ROM exercises. 
      • Additionally, take a look at this write-up on how “perching” helps perceive the ability to act.
Fanny Gibert showing off how lateral trunk flexion on one side pairs with extension from the opposite side.  This delivers pressure across her body and creates space to bring up her left foot. Photo: Eddie Fowke at The Circuit Climbing
The above image shows two examples which should be FIRST considered separately. Left: Janja Garnbret using “Fanny back-bend” situation 2 (referenced earlier) in a non-static situation where she is jumping for a hold. Right: Janja demonstrates how ideal trunk positioning & shoulder alignment for the grab can be facilitated or held-back by skeletal mechanics: namely the hips’ relation to the shoulders (i.e. the parallel lines).  Without the height of the hips, the target may not have been reached.  While the LEFT image is an earlier element of the RIGHT image, I wanted to illustrate how two complex skills which should be given consideration individually can be combined during a single movement. Photos: René Oberkirch

Without mobility, climbers compensate in various ways

Skeletal Positioning

Climbers may compensate differently when they have low range-of-motion. Sometimes, the skeletal structure needs to be ideally positioned to facilitate the movement.

Example: Double-high Steps (Double “perch”) can be worked around.

Below, Augie Chi shows how he can get both of his feet incredibly high. However, while my climbers work to attain Augie Chi levels of double high-step, they also know that they can tactically position themselves to “cheat” through lower levels of mobility. First, they can “pre-position” the wrong foot higher for one move (e.g. it’s an easier move) while the opposite foot remains lower and the leg straighter. This then allows them to do the next (second) move without requiring the double high-step. 

Augie Chi executing a double high-step or “double perch” to set a base from which to grab right-handed by pulling up a second (right) foot. Also an example of lower body turn-out. Photo: Jennie Jariel

Note that pre-positioning “the wrong foot higher” may require something I call “high-siding” – a form of upper-lower limb positioning where the higher foot and hand relationship is ipsilateral (same-sided — e.g. a high right hand and a high right foot) rather than contralateral (opposite-sided — e.g. a high right hand and high left foot) which tends to be more normal in climbing. 

A second option is to cut, which may change the positioning of the hips enough to allow you to pull the foot up. A third (and slightly less strenuous option) is modifying the opposite leg’s knee to turn-in which can allow you to raise the higher leg’s hip/knee.

Muscular Challenges

Your body’s morphology extends beyond the typical “tall/short” dynamic, and even the consideration of additional muscle to added weight is not quite helpful enough to provide solutions to a climber’s existing habits. What am I talking about?

Example: Trunk morphology leads to habit formation

My wide-trunked climbers trend toward using turn-out and higher feet to avoid turn-in and trunk rotation, which can “tip” them off the wall due to a shift in how the center-of-mass sits in relation to the feet. This habitual shift means he less commonly uses turn-in, the skill is not developed, and as a result a “weakness move” arises.

Charlie Osborne and his morphology. Here, he’s attempting to pair turn-in from the lower body with turn-out in the upper body. Photo: Amanda Pugh of @chalkdustphotography

Other common problems and possible solutions to mobility issues

Trunk flexion with extension

Sometimes, focusing on deadpointing into a strong shoulder move (e.g. your L’s) – similar to a wide-set grip – can be beneficial. 

Dynamic Movement

Virtually all of these moves are intended to help you first fit between your anchors of pressure and then help you feel more “stable” as you pursue the next hold.  Understanding timing, accuracy, and plyometric movement will help you skip past the instability inherent in a lack of mobility.

Grip Change

Changes in the direction of pull may necessitate a change in the type of grip you use in order to better control for what are called “antero-posterior” (basically: pulling out from the wall) forces which come as a result of that “scrunched” feeling and hip jackknifing or outward leaning of the trunk.

Challenges

While these joint movement instructions can give you a sense of how to target climbing-specific active and passive range-of-motion, they don’t necessarily help you with issues which may arise out of your individuality.  For example, with the hips you may have issues with bony hip anatomy, capsular mobility, and/or femur length which augment your ability to gain full benefit.  This is why a PT or S&C specialist is so important.

See a framework on improving mobility.
See select research on the topic of mobility and climbing.