Monday, October 8, 2012

Defining Body Tension

I've been absolutely swamped by "real work" for some time now, and, like many of the blog authors out there frequently lament, the fun stuff has been shoved aside temporarily.

However, I did have a minute to respond to a post on the Self-Coached Climber blog a few days ago. The SCC was one of my first training books and helped me to really gain an understanding for how to not just suffer through but actually get better at movement. I started routesetting very early in my climbing career, and that urge to improve quality of movement I think is a huge factor in my setting as well - not just setting to get a route up, but setting something that will force quality of movement as a criteria for success.

Flaws in the scope of the definition

The next post on the SCC was an interesting one attempting to define body tension. Here's a fascinating topic, mainly because I don't think anyone can agree on what the topic is. Body tension is a term that gets thrown around pretty willy-nilly as it relates to climbing. I'm not a movement expert, just a routesetter, and even for an expert body tension is tough to define. If we just replace it with a more discrete term like "isometric contraction" - which Douglas was right to correct me for using in the comments - we still have some fundamental issues:
  • We have to account for several different methods of generating tension. Compression, where two holds facing opposite directions are pulled in a direction other than downward; could be two hands, a hand and a foot, or in some cases two feet. Opposition, where the holds are facing each other and are pushed outwards. The obvious example being a stemming corner, with something more extreme like an elevator move in a steep wall being the higher end progression of the same idea. Finally, there's the pure resistance style - everything pulls in the same downward direction, and the climber produces all the tension from their body.
  • The above three types of tension are very rarely used in isolation. Purely anecdotally, I would say most routes, even if they are biased toward a certain style, involve a considerable amount of moving in and out of different types of tension. For instance, if I make three foot moves to put my heel up, I'm probably in more of a resistant tension for those foot moves, and then the compression allows me to relax those muscles just enough to make a hand movement.
  • This is probably in every bulleted list I've ever made on this blog, even when I try to generalize, but morphology plays a tremendous role in body tension. A tall, apey climber with larger levers is simply going to struggle more in a tight elevator position on a steep wall than a shorter climber.
  • Finally, and this is the one that probably hurts the most: as with most movement analysis in climbing, there is no standardized measurement for "tension" of any kind!

Body tension in routesetting

All of this makes it difficult to define something as ambiguous as "body tension." But we can make it a bit easier on ourselves for the purposes of this thought exercise. Let's make a few reductions:

First, let's assume we are trying to define body tension for the purposes of routesetting. How a setter should use body tension to their ends, rather than how a climber should understand it in order to solve a sequence. Our goal isn't to define body tension for getting to the top of the wall, but to define body tension for how it can make it easier for us to get the climber to do what we want.

Second, we're looking for the most broadly applicable version of the term. So for the time being, let's be egregious and take all dynamic movement out of the equation. We're going to define body tension as if every move is made in a static position - as thoroughly unrealistic as that may be. Dynamic tension adds elements, both time-wise and kinesiologically, that are way too complex for me to grasp yet, much less put into words.

OK, so now our goal is "to define body tension, for the purposes of setting, for static movements, mostly." Perhaps not as heroic as the original thesis, but a bit easier to corner.

Here's the meat, and it's gonna sound obvious: Climbers, when possible, want to avoid tension. Resting, finding easier sequences, and using intermediates instead of performing moves with a point of contact off are all examples of this. If climbers seek to avoid body tension, then it is our job as routesetters to ensure that the intended sequence is the one that follows the path with the least body tension. Unanticipated sequences and rests plague competition sequences because the climber has found a point where they can reduce the load on their core muscles (whatever those may be - we're being vague here!)

As routesetters, how can we use this definition to our advantage?

  • Knowing that a "rest" doesn't just imply a large hold the climber can dangle from - it implies any position where the climber isn't in an actively tense position. Many times, a non-extreme compressing or opposing position with a foot will allow a reduction of body tension for an arm. Heel hooks and drop-knees are great examples of times when you will see competition climbers shake their hand before moving, because they offer a chance to have less body tension momentarily.
  • A skipped sequence (for a climber of the appropriate skill level) often occurs in a similar scenario - when a climber can find an easier form of body tension through a move. A hidden toe hook, greater hip flexibility that allows a more dramatic rockover, and the unplanned use of (or unplanned way of using) intermediates are all examples of this.
  • Tricky sequences are great for testing a climber's route reading skills, but for a sufficiently technically adept climber, they often present enough options to let climbers find positions that either benefit their body type or skip sequences. The more holds are available to a climber = the more options a climber has for body position = the more opportunity for reduction of tension through positioning.
  • If you need to tire a climber out quickly, maintaining the same kind of tension over a long problem or route is better than rotating through different types. After doing many compression moves in a row, a downward pulling hold with an edge on it can be restful. After doing many downward-pulling resistance moves in a row, having a chance to heel hook and squeeze can be restful. In both of these examples, the same position might not be restful at the end of the other problem!
  • Conversely, if you want to test a climber's ability to read the sequence, be liberal with the need for tension. This is why you don't see a lot of incut holds on the world cup circuit - the same sequences can usually be achieved with neutral-edged-holds that have a much smaller margin for body position and thus require more tension to maintain.
This post is just a brief glimpse into a dense topic. I'm sure Douglas will continue to provide insight on his blog. In the mean time, ABS season is coming up and I'll probably have a bit more to talk about before I take off to travel for the winter. Happy setting!


  1. I don't recall you ever covering this before (correct me if I'm wrong), but what exactly is an 'elevator move'?

  2. Sorry, general setting term. An elevator means holding two gastons in opposition, like you're holding an elevator door open.

  3. Great post! Thanks for your perspective. I cringed a little when you said I corrected you. I didn't mean to correct you. I was just saying that I think there are other situations as well, and as I describe them in future posts we will see if others agree with my analysis. Anyway, thanks again!

  4. "Routecrafter" and Douglas Hunter, thank you both for your ideas and your vision about this topic.
    Interestingly "Body tension" is a term which is so fashionable these days, but at the same time, nobody knows really what it is.
    Building on your vision, I will try to reflect on how this ability can be trained effectively.
    I really enjoy your blogs and your insights ;-)


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