Training the “dead zone” for tall climbers

Long arms are the subject of much jealousy and rage. No doubt they have great benefits. But as your ability to reach through cruxes grows, there are side effects. Shoulder engagement and lockoffs are more difficult with longer levers. Lanky climbers need to spend more time on these physical deficits, and spend time on the wall in weak positions.

One of the side effects of long arms is an inability to exert force when handholds are directly in front of you. Longer levers, in their weakest position, pushing your chest and COG away from the wall. We need to attack this in several ways: force production with shoulders are internally rotated, conscious practice dealing with it instead of melting off the wall, and technical foresight to avoid weak positions when it counts – but not avoiding them so much that it becomes kryptonite.

This is something I deal with (I’m 5’10” +4 / 178cm +10) and this summer I’ve spent a lot of time training my dead zone. I’m working on building strength in that position on & off the wall, and learning to create power through my core from this weak zone.

Drills (technical work)

Climbing “worm style” problems: select holds that create a roughly straight line. Feet are tracking. Body will twist during hand movements, but remain parallel to the wall during foot movements, forcing dead zone work. Integrate by adding this style of climb to your board session or any strength-oriented climbing session.

Climbing “match style” problems: select a row of holds moving laterally and slightly upward. Holds should be about 7-8 fingers wide at first, so matching requires just a bit of adjustment. Match every hold. Use any feet at first. Upgrade to using foot jibs only later in your program. Make sure to mirror the drill so you are going both directions.

Adding power to dead zone: select sets of holds & footholds such that all your points are in a small box. I like jug hands, and a primary foothold roughly at my bellybutton. Make sure contact with the target hold is smooth and effective. Feet should stay on. Progress by making the feet worse, or the move larger (but maintain smooth contact) and then using smaller holds. After some adaptation, these moves can be strung together to create a higher stress situation.

See my Instagram post (panel #5/6) for a few examples of single moves.

Don’t avoid the dead zone (mental work)

Avoidance is usually a sign of something bad.

Many tall climbers are notorious for avoiding scrunchy moves or sit starts. Many climbers of all sizes develop ego revolving around what they’re good at. For the long-armed among us, myself included, the dead zone is an example of avoidance that will eventually come back to haunt you.

When we avoid sit starts, or big moves, or matching holds, we lose a chance to practice. That lost practice means less skill to apply to the next situation, and further reduced confidence. It’s important to attack these problems head on.

If you’re circuiting problems at the gym and avoiding every problem that has a scrunchy or dead zone move, you might be shooting yourself in the foot. Instead, consider adding these problems consciously. Accept that you might need to back off the difficulty slightly in order to keep your practice high quality.

However – if you’re ready to send the problem of your dreams and you figured out some beta to avoid a dead zone weakness, you should absolutely go for the send. Being aware of needing to work your weaknesses shouldn’t mean you avoid your strengths.

Strength training

Any typical lockoff training is probably advisable for the long-armed. Movements like front-levers and one-arms are going to be especially difficult. Longer levers and larger mass mean proportionally much higher force required.

Most climbers have some kind of upper-body pull or lockoff training. Isometric clusters, or isometrics built into pull-ups (“frenchies”) are two good examples. These can be progressed by adding load or moving to unilateral work.

Strictly training the upper-body pull in a dead zone position (like a hands-together pull up) is possible, but my instinct is that it’s not very ergonomic enough for sustained effort.

Towards the performance season, two options to add power in the position: either add intensity to the upper body pull, either by increasing load and reducing volume; or move to the wall and perform deadpoints/dynos/campus movements from a dead zone position.

The upper-body push is also a relevant training movement, especially pushing isometrics. And these can be ergonomically performed in a close-grip position. Diamond press-ups are one example. Doing bench press with a trap bar would also be good. I have lately been doing isometrics where I lay supine and squeeze a heavy kettlebell in front of my chest with a palm grip.

To summarize:

  1. Time on the wall under tension in weak positions
  2. Some form of lockoff in the upper body pull (isometric clusters) – progress load or time under tension
  3. Some form of close-grip upper body horizontal push – progress load or time under tension
  4. Progress to on-wall power movement as performance season approaches

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