You’ll learn how to climb your first 5.10a (or V2, or V4, or 5.11a, or 5.12a) in this post, and more importantly, I’ll give you a framework for reliable, continuous, and measured improvement. This framework will serve you for the rest of your climbing career.
Someone on Quora recently asked “How can I climb my first 5.10a?”
Some variation of this question goes by on /r/climbing all the time.
This question is a good question for a two reasons:
- You’re already improving. If you want to improve, you probably are improving, or even if you feel like you’re not, you’re close to making more improvement, with the right approaches. For this, I salute you!
- Improve at improving: Learning how to climb the next grade (V2, 5.10, V5, 5.11, etc) will teach you how to learn to climb even harder. This current climbing barrier will be a mini-experiment for “how do you systematically improve at climbing”, and as you improve, you’ll also improve at improving. (Crazy, right?)
1.You’re already improving
How long have you been climbing? A few weeks, maybe a few months?
Do you maybe feel a little stuck right now, or you feel impatient to improve faster? (“Come on, muscles, skin, and tendons! Heal yourselves in 8 hrs of sleep every day!”)
You’re improving at rock climbing every time you go to the gym. You may not see the improvement, but this is because you’re not looking hard enough.
This isn’t feel-good nonsense, either. I’ll never say “you’re a special snowflake and can do anything and we’re all winners!”. That’s a lie. What’s true is that you’re learning a lot when you’re first starting to climb, you just don’t see it very well.
(If you’ve been climbing for a few years and feel like you’ve stagnated, you probably have stagnated, and are not improving. The framework I outline below will be useful to you, too.)
In the beginning… of your climbing career
Think back to the first time you tried climbing. Do you recall how strange the different holds felt? You probably grabbed a jug, and thought “this makes sense” and then felt a crimp, a pinch, or especially a sloper and thought “wtf?”
Now, a few months/years later, looking at a climb from the ground, you can imagine how you might use different holds. You don’t have to re-learn how to hold onto an undercling every time you touch an undercling.
Every time you get on the wall, you’re improving, thanks to building new schema. A schema is:
an organized pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them.
Every time you rock climb, you are building your own “mental library” of hold types, movement patterns, etc.
Imagine you asked someone for advice on some specific boulder problem you were working on, and they said “shift your hips over the right foot, lock off your left hand, and throw with your right hand for the pinch.”
If they’d never done any of those individual components, this would feel rather difficult. But, right now, every time you go climbing, you’re teaching yourself these complex movement patterns that you will start being able to combine into more complex “chunks”.
Here’s a good example. This is an excellent depiction of what it looks like to build a mental library of movement patterns:
Video embedded in this Quora answer about how to climb 5.10a by Jane Kim. Well worth a read.
Look for the increasing complexity of her movement over time. This increased complexity is because she’s building “chunks” of movement that she can use when the situation calls for it, without having to think hard about the movement.
I promise that from 0:51-1:01 she’s not thinking “high right foot, pivot hips to right, use momentum to move my low foot up, twist lock into my low hand and extend my left to the jug, and now quickly open my hips to the left, move my right hand, step through with my left foot, use a left hand intermediate to adjust my balance to move my foot up again, and go again with the left to a good hold.”
She’s just rock climbing.
Improve at improving
The other reason “how do I climb my first 5.10a/V2” is such a good question is because the process you take that will get you to 5.10a is pretty similar to the process you can use to get to 5.10d, or 5.11a, or maybe even 5.12a (Or V3, V5, V8). The exact things you’ll do to move between the grades will change, but the strategic approach will not change.
What this means is we need to build a framework for improvement.
No matter what the area of improvement is, these four rules of thumb will take you pretty far:
- Ask for help
- Repeat the fundamentals
- Build short feedback cycles
- Set good goals
Ask for help
You’re new to climbing, so most people are better than you at climbing. This is a great thing! You can ask almost anyone questions about rock climbing, and get value from it. Flip this to someone like Sharma. How many people do you think he can ask for advice on his current project?
So, when you encounter something difficult, ask someone for help.
There is one thing that will set you apart from everyone else, and allow you to improve really quickly.
Don’t ask for help just when something is difficult/feels impossible. Practice saying “how could I have done that better?” or “How would you have done that?”
Prepare for a wealth of insight.
Repeat the fundamentals
As soon as someone has sent a route, they usually count it as “done”.
They are throwing away the best opportunity to improve.
The first time you finish a difficult problem or route, it’s a struggle. But if you do it a few more times, it will start to feel much easier.
This change isn’t because you’re getting stronger, it’s because you’re getting more efficient. You are becoming a better rock climber.*
Next time you are in the gym and you send a problem or route, resolve to send it twice more, either that day, or the next session.
The next times you do it, you’ll have an “apples to apples” comparison of your efficiency, technique, movement, and your brain will be automatically looking for ways to improve the climb. You might not necessarily be conscious of this, but your body is able to anticipate what certain moves are like, and will be prepositioning itself to move efficiently and with power.
*You ARE getting stronger by repeating problems, but it takes more than a few minutes/days to realize those strength gains. If something gets easier in a time frame of a few hours or days, it’s because you’re climbing it more efficiently, or maybe are feeling more rested when you attempt it.
Build short feedback cycles
Do you track your improvement by if you can do a certain climb of a certain grade? This level of detail is a 30,000 foot view of your climbing. Since progress is only visible over a time frame of months, it’s not useful for getting from 5.9 to 10a, or 10b to 10d. You need feedback cycles that impact your day-to-day climbing.
A “short” feedback cycle, ideally, would be the “size” of one hand or foot move or body reposition. Imagine you could be followed around by the best climbing coach in the world, and whenever you made a move, they’d say “you did that right” or “no, not perfect, do it differently, like this…”
In the space of a single climb, you could have received ten or twenty or fifty pieces of feedback about your movement, body positioning, pacing, etc. This immediate feedback would be life changing
Unfortunately, you cannot recruit the world’s best coach to follow you around on every rock climb, so you have to get creative. This is why asking for help is so valuable.
You don’t want to just “do the move” but “do the move with perfection”.
This is also why you need to repeat routes after you have sent them. This allows you to shorten the feedback cycle to comparing how a move feels this time vs. how it felt last time, a few minutes prior.
With shorter feedback cycles, you can quickly improve your specific movements and build strong schemas that will help you do not just one specific move better, but will be helpful every time you encounter similar movement for the rest of your climbing career.
Set good goals
Good goal-setting encourages short feedback cycles, and vice versa. They are two peas in a pod. To set good goals that encourage short feedback cycles, make the short feedback cycles the goal! For example, if you are headed to the gym tonight, you could have two feedback-related goals:
- Try to repeat that hard climb you finally sent once more tonight
- Ask one person to watch you on that climb and make three suggestions on how you could do the climb better.
See how specific these are? They are “process oriented”, not “outcome oriented”. No matter the outcome, you can achieve these goals, and you’ll be a better climber for it.
You may also want to reward yourself for doing these things. It’s really hard to ask someone else for feedback on pretty much any part of your life, so decide how to reward yourself if you do this thing.
This reward could be a glass of wine that night. , maybe a book you’ve not bought but have wanted to read, maybe a bowl of ice-cream. Whatever counts as an incentive, use it to help convince yourself to set good goals.
Related on goal setting: Seven ways to accidentally get better at climbing
More than just climbing
When you identify and practice a framework of improvement in one part of your life, you’ll start to see ways the framework might add value to other parts of your life.
This is one of my favorite parts of climbing. So much of what I learn while climbing can be implemented in other parts of my life, and many things that I learn elsewhere, I can apply to my climbing.
Do you already implement any of these suggestions in your climbing? If so, what’s been your experience?