Climbing with Straight Arms
Updated: Mar 28
Have you ever left the gym frustrated because you feel strong and ready to tackle more challenging boulder problems or more prolonged and complex sports routes? Still, you get halfway through the climb and are overcome with the ache and burn of exhaustion coursing through your muscles. Any beginner or intermediate climber has, whether they want to admit it.
What if you are stronger than you think? What if you are an arm's reach away from sending those projects? You might wonder how that is possible when you leave your climbing sessions feeling weak. Most beginners to intermediate climbers experience fast fatigue because their technique is inefficient and not because they lack strength. The greatest energy zapper and inefficient movement are climbing with bent arms.
Whether you realize it or not, climbing with bent arms is very common but requires constantly engaging all the muscles in your forearms, biceps, and back. No wonder by the 15th move a route, you are fatigued; it's like trying to hold a 90-degree lock off while simultaneously taxing the rest of your body at the same time.
So, what's the trick to not climbing with bent arms? Easy. Climb with straight arms!
Climbing with straight arms may take some getting used to if you have a habit of climbing with bent arms. However, the benefit of climbing with straight arms is that you can weigh your body's physical load into your skeleton instead of your muscles. That will conserve energy and allow your muscles to feel stronger for longer. Additionally, when you straighten your arms, you'll force yourself to put more weight through your feet which is essential for learning how to utilize your whole body while climbing and becoming efficient at shifting your weight. One of the critical things to remember about climbing is that it often isn't about how strong you are but how well you can maneuver your body/weight on the wall.
The best way to start climbing with straight arms is to incorporate simple drills on easier climbs to make you conscious of your form and movement. It also pays to videotape yourself the first few times you intentionally try to climb with straight arms. Often people think they are straightening their arms but only end up straightening them as they rest on a climbing hold and then immediately revert to bent arms as they move off one hold and to another. When you climb with straight arms, you should bend your arms as little as possible, only at the last second if needed, and then return to a straight arm position almost immediately.
While this may sound intimidating, it doesn't have to be! Below are some great drills for practicing straight arms and increasing the wall's efficiency.
Drills for Climbing with Straight Arms
Before starting any straight arm drill, remember that straight arms do not mean you don't engage your muscles. Engaging your scapula (upper back muscles) is essential so you don't injure your shoulder or elbow joints. An excellent tip to ensure that you are still engaging, even with straight arms, is to check where your shoulders are in relation to your ears. If you find you are shrugging your shoulders toward your ears, you are not engaging enough. Instead, actively think about pulling your shoulder blades down and back (towards each other), and you'll find your scapula becomes engaged!
Traversing with Straight Arms
First off, traversing means climbing laterally (side to side) with your feet no higher than 3 feet off the ground.
To do this drill, find an open, vertical stretch of the climbing wall with various holds to grab close to the ground. Start at one end of the wall and climb to the other, focusing on good foot placement that allows you to sink your weight into your feet and keep your arms straight. Do this at the start of a climbing session for 5-10 minutes.
Hips to the Wall
As mentioned above, knowing how to maneuver your weight is crucial to efficiency. As you climb, focus on turning your hips into the wall when you reach for the next hold. That will enable you to extend your arm and get further while standing up with your legs.
For example, if you are reaching for a left hand above your head, pivot so that your left hip turns toward the wall, forcing you to extend your right arm and stand up through your feet to reach up with your left hand. As you grab that next hand-hold, you focus on doing some with your arm as extended as possible.
If you are familiar with rooting, it might seem out of place here because it is typically a body tension exercise. However, completing the rooting drill, specifically focusing on 'rooting,' aka driving down through your legs with each move you make, will help you learn to straighten your arms. As you become more comfortable generating power through your legs and utilizing them on the wall, the less you'll feel like you need to bend your arms and crank up to the next hold forcefully.
Give all three drills a try, and ask for feedback on your form from a climbing partner. If climbing alone, don't be afraid to record yourself to learn when you are still bending your arms. Watching a recording of yourself is a great way to improve! So without further ado, jump into these drills and become the most efficient version of yourself.
Let us know in the comments below if you found this article helpful and if you used to climb with bent arms too!