In this exclusive mini-series, the legendary Johnny Dawes gives us his unique off-beat perspectives on three essential components of movement skills – Footwork, Dynamic movement, and Balance.


3. Balance and body shape.

“Or how not to be a muscled grunter.”

Our bodies are amazing at making a myriad of shapes to fit the rock. It’s a wonder to me that even alien features like cracks can be adapted to. The logic of body position is an extension of the way footholds are used. Handholds too have their sweet angle. Handholds taken together with footholds will make you into a shape. Take any array of holds and leave somebody committed to staying on there and they will slowly morph into a shape closer to the optimal one. Even a tiny deviation from the easiest position will have a dramatic bearing on your ability to move.

Each position has its internal muscular tension and in turn the type of mental mettle that it requires to hold it. Some shapes are horrific fights while others are gentle perches that require listening to. Our ability to seamlessly change gear from one shape to the next appropriately is what makes a sequence able to flow. At that stage fingers get less greasy, boots less gritty/dusty, forearms less tired. Once one is familiar with the ticker tape of shapes on a climb it becomes scarcely necessary to contort the body to look around at holds. Adam Ondra hardly seems to look at any holds yet preternaturally latches everything precisely. This with genetic luck is why he hasn’t grown into a muscled grunter. He carries the least weight he can. A lighter body can be accelerated and a smaller body can fit more shapes successfully.

A discussion of body position automatically brings up the subject of flexibility. Rotation around the waist, the ability to throwing and holding box splits opens up a wealth of rests and other options to solve moves. The more flexible we are, combined with keen proprioception (accurately feeling where our body is) the less likely we are to injure ourselves from thrashing tight muscles. Once the next body position is clear to us our ability to know when to move becomes stronger. Before we move, the weakness we face becomes tangible, how to counter it clearer.

When we climb we each have a battery of default positions we can quickly choose from. Alternatively we can be lazy and be highly alert to position. On sight! Once you’ve got the hold, adjust straight away so you look for the foothold that would suit it. If you are unsure think like a route setter eager to flatter the climber. Ask yourself: “Where would I put the foothold to make this handhold work best?” Armed with this, candidate footholds will be immediately visible. That’s not quite true! Some holds you can’t see from above and would have had to spot before going up devising a way of marking their position when above them… Two lengths lichen to lichen 90 degrees to right… So on.

In our minds there must be a channel, a skin channel that is tuned to the nerves of our skin surface. Record the shapes on this channel and you have another way to see. A modest addition of vision, sighting particular holds to tether this new way of seeing to our conventional way makes a composite system much more robust and quicker to respond and modulate. No hands climbing is a potent way of learning about this. Each couple of footholds makes a fixed shape of you. In between, you move with the last position as residue, future positions as opportunities to recover inaccuracies. This turbulence seems irresolvable until we start to take on the way gravity is ripping us off.

That’s as far as I will go here. My forthcoming book “Use Your Feet” will explain this in detail.