Going deeper than moves & missing the forest for the trees

When we think about climbing, we usually break it down into moves. Even climbing media about cutting-edge routes like DNA, or B.I.G. breaks them down into a series of moves. And it makes sense. Moves are the obvious way of interacting with the wall.

Moves are eminently visible, as they often come with dramatic shifts in center of mass. If a stranger leans slightly towards you, you might notice or you might not. If they take a step towards you, you’ll probably take a step away.

Our positioning and the strategies we use to make use of holds are two other ways of interacting with climbs. Being in a different position or using different strategies also enables us to do moves that we maybe couldn’t do otherwise.

In a way, a shift from single moves to relationship-to-wall is one of the most fundamental shifts a climber can make in their technique. The clear analogy is missing the forest for the trees: obsessing over one move, one position or one hold rather than considering the fuller picture of how the climber’s limbs and center of mass relate to the terrain.

In skill development, we might relate this to a environmental methodology rather than a linear one. A linear approach would be telling a climber to do a move, such as a drop knee; an environmental approach would be putting a climber in a situation where a drop knee is the clear solution, such as a concavity a little smaller than their body on a steep wall. And, maybe, add constraints that funnel them towards that solution, like “you must keep both feet on while moving your hand” or “you must pause over the target hold with stability before grabbing it.”

This article will go through some basic examples of move vs movement, common pitfalls with thinking in microbeta, and provide suggestions for improvement.

Some positions trivialize the order of moves

With kneebars or toe hooks, often the order of moves becomes inconsequential as the body can create stability in multiple planes with fewer limbs; in this case, the primary limb (kneebar or toe hook) is the important part of the sequence, usually with the other leg being the key stabilizer. The climber needs to understand the beginning position where they get the primary and stabilizing limbs in place, and the end position where they come out. But what happens in between is usually less important in terms of order of events.

A slight knee scum providing stability to make a long reach with the left hand. The kneebar trivializes this sequence by slowing down the crux move. Right Angles V8, Leavenworth

Kneebars are incredible tools – they the most powerful jam in our arsenal when employed on a bomber placement. Even just a knee scum creates an extra point of stability. If you’ve followed my work much, you know additional points of contact are paramount for stabilizing the center of mass both statically (in the case of kneebars) but also dynamically, like when climbers tap the wall with a foot in the middle of a lache.

Tapping the wall to reorient in the middle of a lache move at the Salt Lake Bouldering Project. Stability can be created statically, which is preferable, but also dynamically in moves like laches.

Grip has downstream effects on body position

Up there with seated external rotations, high-angle crimping is one of climbing training’s current golden children. Taking a maximally aggressive grip on a hold often allows us to be more “out” from the hold rather than underneath it, whereas open or drag grip forces you to stay more in the plumb line of the hold. This grip disparity becomes radically obvious when crimping on incut holds. As long as they’re horizontal in nature (down-pulling) they can be dragged for some moves; but when the holds are oriented as underclings or sidepulls, the drag grip can only be used in some fewer body positions.

(Plumb line, if you’re unfamiliar, is the angle from which grabbing the hold is most beneficial. Holds can have multiple plumb lines, and grabbing holds out of plumb is often important too.)

Forearm/arm is “in plumb” (pink line) with the sidepull being held. A strong flag with the right leg enables this by creating counter-pressure. Green Wall Center, V2, Bishop
On this earlier move, a left sidepull is being held “in plumb” so a left flag is employed. Note how the forearm is parallel to plumb and the body perpendicular. On mellow vert terrain, this is pleasantly economical.

Those who crimp everything will get stronger (if they don’t get hurt, which is a big if), but they also circumvent the learning curve of good body positioning. These climbers will then say they struggle with slopers or the drag grip, when a lack of understanding of positioning is likely the core problem. On the other hand, climbers who drag everything will learn good positioning, but when they need “5th gear” to pull out on a hold and move out of position aggressively, they don’t have it.

Climbers can attack this consideration from two angles: first, by learning how to engage different grips on holds to increase leverage or decrease aggression/intensity. This will come with a compensatory change to available body positions. More aggressive grip, more margin for position; less aggressive grip, more economy. A useful drill here is to climb problems several times: grabbing each hold “as intended”, grabbing each hold with the weak grip, grabbing each hold with the strong grip, and a final rep integrating the results of all these “test runs.”

Way “off plumb” on a sidepull on Checkerboard. Note the angle of the forearm. I’m pulling out on this incut hold to create more leverage and bring my body up. The footholds and positions available do not allow me to stay “in plumb” here. It is very hard to use a drag grip in this situation. Checkerboard, V8, Bishop

Second, by more generally climbing in a position-dominant manner instead of a grip-dominant manner. Onsight climbing over longer distances is useful for this. For beginner or intermediate boulderers, simply going sport climbing will do the trick. Inefficient body positioning creates a good strength stimulus over a 5m/15ft boulder problem, but will be torturous over a 15m/50ft wall. For more advanced climbers, more advanced constraints will be necessary: firmly taking away high-leverage grips, position advantages like heels, toes or kneebars, or big footholds, or spending more time climbing on terrain disadvantageous to that climber’s morphology, experience & preferences.

Limb independence & tension vs relaxation

One of the more advanced applications of “micro vs macro” is how much pressure to put through each limb. Are you pulling with this foot and pushing with that one? Are you digging with both feet? Are you flagging hard with one leg, and what’s the angle of pressure of that leg? Maybe when you swing out, you actually need to push into the hold with one hand to get counterpressure to balance your body as you swing.

A big jump move where force is applied both overhead (right hand) and downward in front of the body (left hand.) The forearms are both reasonably close to plumb but the left upper arm is almost above the hold and must push rather than pull to be of any use. Free Willy, V10

Calling back to the idea of plumb lines, we understand that each hold has a way it “wants” to be grabbed. Strength-skill is a way of overcoming that preference, and exerting force on holds (or on the wall) in arbitrary vectors. This is why I instruct climbers to think of basic flagging not as a positional exercise, but as a physical exercise of creating pressure into the wall. Imagine closing your car door with your outstretched leg because your hands are full.

The right foot flags hard into upward and rotationally into the wall, allowing the left leg to dig harder. The right arm is close to plumb but can drift further towards the target hold without being overly aggressive thanks to the extra stability created from the lower body. Freeze All Cylinders, V8, Bishop

Torso positioning for dummies

Maybe the most obvious example of move vs movement is torso position. Hip shifts and shoulder positioning play really heavily into this as well. I prefer to think of the torso’s rectangle in space, rather than the more traditional hip-centric thinking. Even if the pelvis or sacrum is in the same place, the angle, flexion and lateral flexion of the climber’s spine makes a huge difference in how much force is exerted through the hips and the available power in the upper body that can be applied to the holds.

This heel hook works not because I am flexible enough to put my heel on the hold, but because I am strong enough in that range to extend my hip and “yaw” my torso horizontally. This puts more of my center of mass over the heel, reducing load on my arms. Freeze All Cylinders, V8, Bishop

Again, these things aren’t really moves, and they’re often not conveyed concretely when we talk about the sequence. A lot of the time they get lumped under the umbrella of “microbeta” – “when I get that foothold, I shift my hips left” – but I don’t really like that word because it implies that they’re smaller or less important than the left-right-left-right. But if you can only do the move if you’re in the right position, or with the right tension, then it’s actually macrobeta.


Analyzing movement and understanding movement are not the same thing as embodying movement.

The upshot of analysis is it doesn’t cost much in the way of energy. Especially when performed on video of oneself later, after the session, analysis can be a useful tool for both immediate technique/beta for one climb, and also for long-term improvement.

The downside of analysis is when it takes over for intuition. Getting frozen by reviewing video, watching others’ video beta, endless discussions of mechanics and options can definitely be a detriment to a session. Days are short. Conditions are fleeting. So if you want to get better at treating climbs as environments rather than a series of moves, treat it as a long-term process.

What we want to develop here is a framework for thinking about our body in a relationship to the climbing surface, rather than thinking about a series of moves written out on paper like a grocery list.

What you might notice with really good onsight climbers is that they get these “first principles” of position right, and the moves come automatically for them. And then you’ll see really strong climbers, who know the left-right sequence, but they don’t find those positions. Strong enough climbers can still climb things, especially if they have the basic sequence dialed, because they have so much strength. Strength can overcome position demands by providing greater margin for error. But this climbing doesn’t look graceful even if the moves are done in the right order, because it isn’t connected to the wall.

Movement is a much tighter relationship than moves. You are in relationship to the climbing surface, rather than doing something on it. Personally this is why I struggle to climb hard on plastic walls. The way the holds protrude from the wall makes it feel like I’m just doing moves and not actually connected to the climbing with my whole body. Still, I try to think in the wall and volumes first when I do climb on plastic, rather than looking at the holds.

If you pay attention to my content, then you know where I’m gonna go next: all of this, the big picture of what’s going on, should be considered in your visualization before you pull on to the wall. Visualization practice begins with minutiae of moves, but eventually can and should be distilled to the basic understanding of where one is on the wall. Falling back to sequential moves is incredibly valuable, as well as the inclusion of details like what grains to nestle the fingers into – but being able to visualize broad strokes like “keep my hips in the groove through this section” or “be aggressive with my grip on the holds moving up that offset” will reduce cognitive strain and expedite the cycle of visualization and send attempts.

To me, macro beta is the big picture – what terrain are you involved in right now? Are you pressed up into the wall, pushing the holds apart? Are you squeezing up a feature? Are you balancing on a slab? What “default mode” are you in – aggressive or cautious, economical or expeditious, tight or loose? This is movement, not moves.

Maybe on a board, you are just clinging to the holds and digging through your feet, and that’s all the beta you need. In that case, a left-right-left-right sequence totally makes sense for your visualization. But there’s a very real possibility when you climb on more complex terrain, your sequence is going to have more to do with where your body is, what your limbs are doing, how your body relates to the wall – and if you get that right, the moves will often come by themselves.

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