What is compression?
Perhaps you answered the “Whatcha doin’ today?” text too quickly, and ugh: You’re now driving the van over to a friend’s house to help them switch digs. Soon, arms squeezing the juice out of one end of the sofa as you each employ competing forces and trajectories to get the thing through the turn in the hall, you encounter technical compression.
Later, huffing up the bedroom stairs with shoulders screaming, forearms cooking, hands grasping at the nothing-good-edge of the mattress as you fight pure geometry and the clock, you accept power endurance compression. Not long after, bestie shows up with cold drinks, and you squeeze the life out of them, lifting them into the air: here you’ve found explosive compression, more or less.
In a nutshell, compression climbing is simply the big squeeze: mounting and moving through a climb by way of hugging holds or features. It can feel as rough and rugged as moving a fridge, or as delicate and choreographed as pairs ice skating. It’s likely you’ve come across a few compression problems in your local gym, typically distinguished by big opposing slopers or pinches, volumes and features. Outdoors, you’ll see compression expressed in lofty desert aretes (Bishop’s Atari), weird Fontainebleau bulges (think Big Island), or techy, tricky Yosemite overhangs. The appearance and rhythm of these lines makes them seem powerful—and they often are—but with a few points considered, you can take some of the brutishness out of compression … sometimes.
Techniques and Training
Number one, and most obvious: Squeeze. Squeeze hard. Pecs and shoulders, glutes and knees.
It helps in compression climbing to have power to spare. How to get this strength? Well, a few things work beyond moving the refrigerator around the house. I used to tell people to get a landscaping job: moving rocks and timbers around all day does the trick, fast. Or, easier, find or set compression problems, and climb the heck out of ’em. Repetition encourages muscle development and muscle memory, which in turn aid in the development of technique.
If you’re not blessed with a nearby crag, a system board is an outstanding way to train compression. Set a few pairs of holds up the board in direct opposition to get moving. Big holds are a great place to start. I love a good pinch that’s just a bit slopey: You can build some pinch strength alongside the squeezers, and as you get stronger, drop a thumb and notice how your big muscle groups engage differently.
Core workouts with a medicine ball, yoga ball, or my favorite, a few large cinderblocks (don’t drop ‘em on your feet), will help build guts and wings for when you really get to hugging; dumbbell flys as opposed to bench pressing are better. Compression climbing is a full-body workout, so building the trunk of the body to be a powerful driveshaft of sorts is key. Planks, rotational exercises fast and slow, weighted burpees … all these are the trouble you’re looking for to make sure your trunk can twist fast or sit still like steel.
Develop Body Awareness
With some time and exposure to a few lines, you can begin to develop a body awareness that will allow you to assess the best way to move through these problems, beyond the ol’ slap-n-thrash.
To utilize this growing awareness, borrow a technique from crack climbing: the layback. Here are some tips.
1) Often, a compression line can be approached through a shifting of weight, a hard and steady lean to one side and then the other. Maintain the rhythm and the motion, focusing on stability at a couple of fixed points while you dart your hand out like a snake strike.
2) One of the most common errors in compression climbing is to approach a squeeze too directly, too straight-on. Try instead to keep your body moving back and forth across the line of the problem, shifting weight, and steering around and through the “barn door.”
3) You’ll find that one side or the other is usually the most stable spot from which to move. This steerage will help maximize your reach and span.
4) Keep in mind that, just as if you were laybacking on a crack, you don’t want to get too far ahead or behind on your appendages. Stretch too far, the feet can pop. Ball up too much, the big muscles of your legs might spring you right off the holds.
Heel and Toe Hooks
Another important aspect of compression climbing is the good and articulate use of the legs.
Heel and toe hooks are obviously important in the big-full-body squeeze, and as you won’t always be hugging up some perfectly square-cut block, work on the accuracy and precision of your heel or toe hooks. Some practice notes:
- Learn to use the friction of a rounded arete, a dual-texture sloper. Pull your hips in close to the wall to hook that narrow, one-pad edge. Practice quick flips from heel hook to toe hook, to gain some reach or move a foot. It’s not all starfish struggles, either: I’ve been spanned out to sounder-popping lengths, only to have to step up on some hopeless smear at my chest, body all balled up. The face will come into play, either in the tap-tap-hook upward rhythm of the squeeze, or outright.
- A certain “separation” of upper and lower body can help as well: You can hold your legs locked and still up to the hips while slapping wildly. Shoulders set still as the feet dance up and swoop to the next hook.
Take the time on the ground to look for the offset in the shape, the one good hold, the “trick” that turns ten slaps into one. There is often something sneaky about a big blank feature that allows one to unlock a rest or a respite from full-on thuggery. Once you start a, certain level of GO FOR IT can go a long way, so being ready for a fight is a great base. Be open to dance but ready to struggle.
Compression climbing is about big muscle groups: shoulders, quads, bi- and triceps. However, long-term compression climbing can cause some overuse injuries or strains on tiny parts that make up the big-muscle areas. Sore elbows are a common complaint, with the lateral or medial epicondylitis a usual suspect. Hamstrings and their connective tissue can take a sudden beating if you’re not careful on those strong heel hooks. Shoulders can tear in many different spots.
To prevent these types of injuries, keep maintenance simple and straightforward with some opposition exercises. Do the pushups, use the therabands, and stand in the doorway like you did as a kid, pressing outward on the doorframe with the backs of your hands until, when you let go, your arms rise of their own accord. It’s not genius-level maintenance: if you’re squeezing inward all the time, be sure to do some pressing outward, too.
Chris Schulte has been climbing for 27 years, with thousands of first ascents and repeats up to v15. He’s perfectly happy being “kind of a one-trick pony.”
Feature image: Chris Schulte, The Wolf AKA Air Wolf V6, Indian Creek, UT. Photo by Andrew Burr