Our human ancestors spent 60 million years as arboreal creatures. Up until roughly 3.5 million years ago, trees and cliffs were key habitats for our ancestors, serving as places to hide, sleep, observe … and, of course, play. A good climber on a high perch was less likely than one on the ground to be eaten by a predator and could scan surroundings with more ease, aiding in survival. As a result, our locomotor system evolved for hand-assisted running, climbing and jumping in trees.
Modern gym bouldering is sometimes dismissed for not having anything to do with “real climbing.” By “real climbing,” critics often mean sport climbing, in existence since the 1980s. Hard sport climbing requires a strong upper body, heaps of contact strength, and it mostly takes place on two-dimensional surfaces. On sport climbs, pushing and pressing, the techniques of modern bouldering, are typically less efficient than pulling and holding. Dynamic jumps in sport climbing are often not possible, or practical, the way they are in bouldering because the contact points are small and painful. Running jumps, when part of a boulder problem in particular, are often criticized as “circus tricks”… as if that were a bad thing.
The three-dimensional jumping and stemming of modern bouldering provide fodder for the criticism that indoor bouldering has evolved further and further away from climbing. But when you look at modern bouldering from an evolutionary standpoint, and not from a sport-climbing perspective, a different picture emerges.
Climbing is to humans what swimming is to fish. Or flying to birds. When we climb, we explore a complex, 3-D habitat and employ movements our primate ancestors still use. Modern gym bouldering is a return to our real climbing roots.
Let’s take a closer look at these types of movements.
As the distance between contact points increases, risk assessment and complex coordination of movement become more important. All of our primate relatives use combinations of running and jumping to reach the next contact point. Evolutionarily speaking, combinations of running and jumping were always a requirement to climb. Gibbons, a species of small apes found in Southeast Asia, are capable of navigating jungle trees at 35 miles per hour and have been known to leap upwards of 50 feet from tree to tree in a single hop.
Crossing large distances between contact points is a signature aspect of modern parkour-style bouldering, and every World Cup competition will have numerous boulders involving such a skill, something that competition climbers in the 1990s and early 2000s didn’t have to master. In the above image, Tomoa Narasaki crosses a large gap during the 2018 Innsbruck World Championships. The move required the athlete to push off a giant volume and latch two small crimps on a triangular volume nine feet to the left. The crux wasn’t so much the jump, but arriving at the hold with just the right timing and body position to stick the crimps.
Crossing a gap requires the intelligent use of momentum, and it is momentum that differentiates modern climbing from its predecessors. When you use momentum, the line of gravity falls outside the base of support provided by your contact points—i.e., the climber is never simply pulling downward and so a reaction is needed in order to stay balanced and moving. Momentum- based climbing moves have a window of opportunity for this reaction—and the more difficult the move is, the shorter the window is open.
For instance, when a climber dynos to a bad sloper that cannot be held statically and has to launch immediately off the sloper to the left, then in order to reach the farther hold momentum has to be maintained and redirected through the middle hold. See top-ranked Janja Garnbret complete this move below. The middle sloper cannot be held statically, so Garnbret has to pendulum her body to arrive at the next set of holds perfectly. Latching the middle sloper has a small window of opportunity. Often, in World Cup bouldering you will see a triple, which requires the climber to make three dynamic moves in a row and carry momentum through each of them, none of which could be done statically. Carrying momentum is about timing, and time constraints very much characterize modern World Cup bouldering.
Countermovements and Co
Countermovement, arm and leg drives, and other variations go by a variety of names. In the U.S., moves like these are called pogos, in Germany a ninja kick and in Japan cypher, but the meaning is the same—the enhancement of jumping performance when using an arm or leg swing to generate momentum for a jump. In the image below, notice how Garnbret swings her left leg to begin the movement. This is a lateral pogo.
The increased velocity of take-off stems from a series of events allowing the swinging limb to build up energy and transfer it to the rest of the body during the subsequent stages of the move. It is used to increase energy at take-off and to store and release energy from the muscles and tendons around the joints and ‘pull’ on the body through an upward force acting on the trunk. Say, for instance, the holds are so bad that a climber can barely hold them, much less generate momentum from them to move sideways or up. One common solution would be for the athlete to swing their legs to generate lateral or upward trajectory. Problem solved. Often, however, this type of move requires a precise foot stab at the end of the movement cycle, as German rock star Alex Megos demonstrates above.
Limited Contact Points
Parkour athletes practice their movement art on man-made, mostly uniform structures that permit the hand to wrap around cylindrical shapes, like rails. In climbing, though, most contact points can tolerate limited peak force, so we have to handle them carefully and smoothly. Ten years ago, the main issue with any dynamic move was to reach the next hold. It would usually be positive enough that how the climber got to it didn’t matter, only sticking it.
This is no longer the case. The challenging part now often begins the moment you reach the hold. Contact strength is still important, but modern holds cannot be held unless you position your body perfectly in relation to them. Hence a top competitor may often get one hand on a finishing hold but fail to bring the other hand up to match, an added difficulty intended by the setters. Dynamic bouldering is about achieving the ideal position relative to contact points by means of managing the competing zones of balance created by your limbs. In high-level comps, differences in contact strength have little visible impact on the results in finals. Differences in mobility, hip control and reactive leg force are, however, extremely decisive.
Coordination is the harmonious cooperation of sensory organs, peripheral/central nervous system and the locomotor system.
As classically defined in sports physiology, the coordination abilities are: adaptive, balance, combinatory, kinesthetic, orientation and rhythm. Many were absent in climbing until very recently, such as rhythm. Today, combinations of running and jumping require very fast steps, and so the ability to incorporate rhythm has become essential for top athletes. Same for combinatory, which goes to the heart of double and triple dynos. With large volumes, a high degree of orientation ability is now standard.
Adaptability and Problem-Solving
Boulder problems require solutions that work. Ideal solutions used to consist largely of hand and foot sequences, so-called beta. With the introduction of volumes in comps and gyms, however, beta became much less obvious. What “works” in each case depends entirely on the individual climber.
To find your solution, you have to simultaneously compare your skills and the requirements of a problem, then gauge the result. It is advantageous to focus on solving the problem your way, rather than distract yourself by guessing what might have been the intentions of the route setters. Courage and confidence in one’s own solution decide bouldering competitions.