Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thoughts on Balance

I read an interesting climbing physiology article that made a distinction between dynamic and static balance. This got me thinking quite a bit about balance, both in general, and as an aspect of climbing.

Having good balance seems like it can be distilled down to these concepts pretty easy. Imagine a guy on a highline. While he's making slow, gentle foot movements, he's maintaining good balance. This is static balance, in the sense that his center of gravity is not making any sudden shifts that cause a need for him to react. If there's a sudden and powerful gust of wind, and he kicks one foot off, waves both arms and compensates to bring his center of gravity back, that's good dynamic balance. Both are elements in climbing. Actually, the gust of wind as a metaphor can be pretty effective: foot pops, big moves on the route, or improper footwork causing a difficult move can all be unexpected factors of dynamic balance. Obviously, dynamic moves will also need dynamic balance; but the climber will have more mental time to prepare for the body positions required by that move when they arrive at it.

Very often I see novice climbers turn static balance into dynamic balance, or try to force their way through sequences with dynamic balance. In my opinion, this tendency can be used as a way to encourage good movement.

The Tipping Point

A concept I find fruitful for setting good balance is the tipping point. Think of the tipping point as the position where the climber's center of gravity could (or must) depart its comfort zone while making the next move. The tipping point can occur during a foot move, hand move, or body positioning switch. Good climbers, or at least climbers with good balance, will find a way around a tipping point. The climbing concepts of counterpressure, compression and three-point tension are ways around tipping points. As with many concepts in this blog, the tipping point varies dramatically by climber.

As a routesetter, you can use the tipping point to enforce good movement habits in climbers. Setting a move that uses good static balance, but is very difficult to do dynamically, will encourage methodical, calculated climbing. Setting a move that requires good dynamic balance but is difficult to do statically will nurture confidence and comfort moving past the tipping point. A healthy balance of these tactics will keep routes fresh for climbers.

Personally, I like to think of balance as a strong counterpart to the choice-reward system in climbing. It's one of the most natural ways to create a choice. Different climbing styles will automatically lend themselves to static or dynamic balance. In routesetting, it's fairly common to see a route where static balance is favored over dynamic balance - for instance, doing a big lockoff instead of jumping to gain the next hold. In many cases, this is because the dynamic effort tends to require more energy (again, all physiological considerations aside.) On hard routes, that wasted energy can serve as the punishment in the choice-reward system. It's less common, but you will also occasionally see routes that punish climbers for using static balance: for instance, attempting a big lockoff but without enough momentum to reach the next hold. For these moves it becomes difficult to retreat and start over if you don't generate that initial oomph. A lot of the time this can be forced with a lockoff that requires both hands to stay on until the climber maxes out their body position and gets most of the weight on their legs.

Most moves can be accomplished with static or dynamic balance without a huge variance of energy expenditure. For many moves, the type of balance used to gain the next hold will have less impact on energy expenditure than the body positions chosen to successfully maintain that balance. This is why climbers wind up with different styles - because their physiological traits (and sports/athletic experience, and a ton of other things) affect the body positions they feel natural in.

When setting, I try to explore different types of balance, and try doing moves at different speeds or body positions. Moves that only feel balanced in one or two body positions can be frustrating, but rewarding. Moves that are comfortable in many positions can create a natural feeling during climbing, but be somewhat less fulfilling. To summarize, experiment with as many types of balance as you can, on as much terrain as you can.

Setting exercises:
Force a barn door on an arete (easy)
Force a barn door on a severe overhang (easy)
Force a barn door on a vertical wall (medium)
Force a lockoff that requires static balance, such a big rockover move on a specific foothold (medium)
Force a lockoff that requires momentum to get into the right body position (medium-hard)

See if you can get climbers to use different styles of balance when you expect them to.

Happy setting!


  1. Great post! Do you know where I'd be able to find the original article on balance? I'd be interested in reading it.

  2. Hey Aaron, send me an email at routecrafting@gmail.com and I'll get you the article. I'm not sure where to find it online anymore.

  3. Just curious... is forcing a barn door to make the climber figure out how to get back into balance on their next move? I'm assuming you're not forcing the barn door just to make them fall off, but is there something else that I'm missing?
    Thanks! Just found your blog and am loving it!

  4. Kim,

    Forcing a barn door is just an interesting "move" you can set - rather than being a specific hand or foot movement, it's a body positioning issue. The climber has to engage their core and really work their entire body, rather than just looking at a target hold and grabbing it, looking at a foot and stepping on it, etc. It mixes things up. But, yes, it can also be used to try to make the climber fall.

    Similar moves:
    - Cutting a toe or heel hook, with the other foot staying on a foothold, provides a similar big swing.
    - "Tucking" the body down onto a foothold to slide into a kneebar or twisting into kneebars to extend the reach
    - Needing to move the body to balance on one foot/hand combo, to make a very small hand adjustment on the offhand - such as making space for a hand foot match.

    Setting these types of moves will help climbers learn to climb using their entire body, staying aware of their center of gravity, rather than just grabbing hold after hold.