This post originally appeared on the Tune Up Fitness® blog on 10.31.2018.
The first memory I have of being fully present was face-to-face with a bat while we were both hanging off of a small sandstone cliff in Michigan. I was about 10 years old.
I put my left hand on a ledge, pulled myself up and froze. My belayer asked me what happened. I told them I was looking at a bat. They asked if I wanted to come down. “No, no, no, no please let me stay.”
Climbing to Get Grounded
I don’t know that I’ve ever come that close to meditation before or since. My mind was wide open and empty. Time stopped. I was fully present in my breath and body. From what felt like hundreds of feet up (probably closer to 15), I felt strangely grounded.
Climbing was my yoga long before I knew that yoga was yoga. As I’ve moved from place to place, relationship to relationship, it has been one of my constants. I frequented a grungy little bouldering gym as an angsty college student in TN. I picked up my fair share of cute guys at Brooklyn Boulders during my time in NYC. I now teach at Seattle Bouldering Project, a gym that will always feel like home.
Climbing has always been a place of refuge–one of the only places I’ve felt permission to be fully embodied. It’s still the place I go to get grounded.
Rock Climbing is Not an Upper Body Sport
Author Tess Ball practicing her rock climbing technique
As a movement coach and former climbing teacher, one of the first myths to bust when I teach new climbers is that it is predominantly an upper body sport.
Sure, your grip, shoulders, biceps and back will get worked, but as you develop technique, you start to realize that your true power comes from other places: your feet, your problem-solving skills and your ability to breathe when things get a little spicy.
It’s a full-body, full-attention, whole person kind of sport.
Here’s the deal: Any time you’re resisting gravity you must create a downward force. To scale a wall, you’ll use some combination of limbs. If you’re just using your arms, you’re using 50% of your potential. The more skill you develop with your feet, the less your hands and arms have to do. (Which is excellent news for anyone who doesn’t have the grip strength of a gorilla.)
Rock Solid Climbing Prep
Here are some of my favorite ways to help your brain and feet become more connected. Yay, proprioception! Once you’ve mastered these moves, you’ll be ready to try some more advanced footwork!
With each move of your climb, place your toe on the chosen foothold and wag your heel side to side. You can, over time, do this drill with more and more weight on that foot. The goal is to increase sensation while pivoting on your toe.
If you want to stop wasting energy mid-route, using your feet precisely will help a ton! Approach each foothold like you would press an elevator button. As soon as you plant your toe, press into that foot and make your next move. Try not to readjust once you’ve planted. This skill will help you become far more efficient so that you can climb longer and feel better afterward.
Here I share my favorite post-climb routine with exercises, then self-massage on Roll Model® Method original size therapy balls to get my feet to look and act like feet again.
Whether you’re new to climbing, brushing up on your skills, or just intrigued by the idea of scaling a wall, I’d encourage you to head to your local gym or crag and try out some fancy footwork.
Nothing else even comes close to getting me fully present, breathing deeply and completely embodied. If you have any questions or want a climbing buddy (have rope, will travel!), reach out in the comments below…