Balance and Tension

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    The Club Cat

    Who’s psyched for the second installment of ‘Alex does a bad job of explaining things he doesn’t understand: The Climbing Edition’? (No, me neither…)

    Once again, a couple of disclaimers:

    1. As I rediscovered (and reproved) at Boulder World today, I’m not really a very good climber, so take my advice at your own risk.
    2. This subject contains the sort of ill-defined terms and concepts that lead to opinions. If you allergic to these, read at your own risk, particularly if you like your monitor not covered in froth.

    Right. On with the ‘explanations’.

    Unlike last time, I’m not going to bother trying to split this one into smaller sections, as balance and tension are pretty much the same thing seen from different directions (see, one of those pesky opinions already).

    Balance is a very good thing. Good balance means more rests, and less falling, hopefully. In climbing terms (and most other terms, now that I think of it) balance is all about trying to keep your weight over your feet As with most things in climbing, there’s static balance, which generally involves the placement and usage of holds, and dynamic balance, which is harder to get a feeling for, but is basically maintaining your balance during movement. For instance, standing on one leg with your eyes closed (harder than it sounds) is static balance, but wlaking on a slackline is dynamic balance, since you have to ‘correct’ for the motion on the line.

    Tension is (kind of; beware opinions) the amount of sustained effort you have to maintain in your body in order to hold a position or move. For instance, slopers usually require tension to hold, since they are hard to ‘hang on your bones’ on, or stopping a barn door with core tension.

    …As I said, ‘ill-defined terms’.

    So, balance good, tension bad? As always, it’s not that cut and dry. Finding a balanced position can be awkward or impossible, and you can waste time and energy looking for one, and tension through the legs (heel/toe-hook, for example) can reduce the tension in the rest of your body, and give you a more balanced postion.

    tl;dr : Balance is where your weight is relative to your feet (and hands, I suppose), tension is used to make up the shortfall between ‘balance you currently have’ and ‘balance you need not to fall off’.

    From now on, I’ll be using the terms in an odd sort of mish-mash, and hope you get the meaning, with tension largely implied. Ill-defined terms, not a good climber. Or teacher, as we’re finding out.


    Maintaining balance

    Maintaining balance is all about understanding (intuitively, if not cognitively) opposition, compression and resistance. Resistance is simply how much ‘downwards’ force you can apply to a hold (ie. can you pull down on it. Note that the hold doesn’t have to positive. you can have pure resistance-style climbing on slopers, and long as they’re all facing the ‘right’ way up). Opposition and compression are more or less what you’d expect. Opposition between holds means that you can push outwards on them (eg. a gaston or a foot placement during a layback), and compression is when you can pull in on holds (eg. a sidepull or hand placements on most aretes). Once again, you’ll very rarely use them in isolation. For instance, as you may have gathered from the examples, when you laybck, your feet and hands use opposing forces to get you up. A more involved example would be a drop-knee with one hand on a undercut, the other reaching for a sidepull. Your feet are pushing out against each other, giving opposition (and resistance), while the hand on the undercut is basically just supplying the tension needed to hold you onto the wall. When your hother hand reaches the sidepull, you can compress your hands to free up your feet for the next move.

    I’d go take a break after that. Seriously, go make some tea, do a few pull ups so you can forget this whole ‘balance thing’. Right, done? Let’s move on to


    Finding balance

    Most of this you’ll just have to work out for yourself, since it’s something your body adapts to with experience, but that’ll go quicker of you consciously think about it, so here’s a few tips.

    Think about plumb lines. a good rule of thumb is that the majority of your weight acts in a straight line down from your hips, hence the near-constant beta-moth advice to ‘try keeping your hips closer to the wall’. This means that there is less weight puling away from the wall for your hands to hold in, and the foot holds will be used more efficiently (except with smears, where you need as much contact as you can get, and bringing your hips into the wall bends your feet out from it. I know, climbing is full of contradictions). So, if your hips are above your feet (more often ‘foot’ when doing more dynamic moves), you will normally be more balanced.

    Try not to have all of your points of contact with the wall in a straight vertical line, as this leaves you liable to swing about (same reason you shouldn’t place all the gear for an anchor in a vertical line). Don’t be afraid to remove a hand or foot to use to balance yourself.

    Flagging. One of the single most useful things you can learn to do well, particularly on overhangs. Your legs are full of muscle and weight a (relatively) large amount, so use them. Often, you will need to be on one side of a hand hold to get any use from it, and you’ll notice that your hips will probably move out of alignment with your feet. You can often use one leg to flag so that more of your weight is over the foot hold, rather than being on your poor arms. You can also press your flagging foot/limb (you can flag with arms, but it’s of less use) against the wall, such as when you need to cancel a barn door. In particular, remember that positioning of limbs is not limited to one side of the body; cross-throughs and flags are the best examples of this. I had a very hard time not writing ‘fleg’ in that paragraph.


    Core tension

    Finally, we reach the most despised and notorious part of tension and balance: the core. Your core muscles connect your upper and lower body, and as such are undeniably useful, but are often neglected when it come to climbing, which is just plain silly. The most obvious deficiency in most people’s core, and one of the greatest benefits to climbing from using your core, is obvious when you try and climb on a roof or overhang: You can’t apply any force through your feet, they cut loose, and you can’t get them back on the wall. When you think about it, your core is essential to being able to use your feet on steep routes, since it links your body mass to you legs, and without it, your hips will sag away from the wall, and you can’t get any leverage through your feet. There are other situations (nearly all in fact, but you wouldn’t notice most of them) where core tension is good, such as holding a barn door, palming off a hold a long way to one side, and most cross-through moves, to name a few.


    I really do hope someone, somewhere finds this useful, or entertaining, even if just to scoff at my misunderstanding of an horrendously complicated subject. If not… Screw you, I need sleep.


    Further reading/blog posts which inspired this article:

    • This topic was modified 6 years, 8 months ago by The Club Cat.




    Excellent post Alex! These are fantastic.

    *Preface: If Alex is a poor climber, I worry about where that leaves me*

    Just some other opinions. I’d agree with 99% of what you’ve said, this is mostly just nitpicking (moreso discussion, I agree with everything you’ve written).

    “balance and tension are pretty much the same thing seen from different directions” Kind of agree- you can be balanced without tension, but applying tension should also improve your balance. Though continually applied tension will also make things more difficult.

    “balance is all about trying to keep your weight over your feet” I’d have said balance is the ability to control your center of gravity. Again, nit picking, and you later use the plumb line analogy, which covers it perfectly.

    Static vs Dynamic balance. Dynamic balance being a shifting center of gravity, could this be considered momentum? My lack of maths physics means I may have the wrong thought process here.

    Agree on definition of tension.

    This the raises the question of how much tension is appropriate? Constant heavy tension will cause injury, but not having sufficient tension will also cause injury. I’m trying to think of the right way to phrase this- you want to be applying tension, but not tense? That statement could probably be improved on.

    1 final point (to anyone still reading). Core strength (real core strength) will not be built through sit up alone. You want planks, leg raises, or god forbid GHRs, squats and dead lifts, in there as well. Full core tension. (Yes I’m aware I’ve left out the likes of dragon flags. Come at me bro)

    Again, awesome work Alex and It’d be great to see more of this kind of thing!

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 8 months ago by chris.
    The Club Cat

    Yeah, I only realised how fuzzy this whole topic is, and how hard it is to explain to someone else, especially through text, after I started, but by then I was committed…

    The relationship between balance and tension is really hard to describe, as you often aren’t really paying attention to what you’re doing halfway through a move. What you’re essentially doing with body tension is ‘redirecting’ your body weight, so that you’re more balanced. I know that sounds silly/physically impossible, but it seems like the best way to describe it…

    Yes, that is a better way of putting overall balance, but I was more thinking in terms of the inherent balance the positioning of the holds give you. Basically, assuming you were a solid object, rather than a person capable of adjusting, for that definition, which was probably a bad way of going about it, but once you start considering people, then tension is an inevitable part of the definition of balance.

    Kind of. I’d’ve said momentum was more closely related to tension than dynamic balance. Dynamic balance is (to me at least) being able to stay balanced during movement. Take a large deadpoint, for instance; you would use body tension to control your momentum, and then cancel it out at the appropriate time, but if your dynamic balance was off, your weight would shift, either from over your feet, or away from the wall (or both). You might still stick the move, but you would need to put more tension (especially through your core) to make up for the lost balance. So if you have good dynamic balance, you are able to move between points of static balance easily. I guess?

    The ideal amount of tension is ‘as little as possible’. If you think of it as the amount of effort needed to hold a position/movement, using any more than necessary will be tiring, and can even over-balance you. However, some positions/moves require too much tension, and trying to do them is when you’re likely to injure yourself. About the only way to injure yourself with too little tension is by falling and hitting yourself on something. Holding tension in your body requires you to be tense, so knowing when you stop is what’s key to preventing injury.

    Yes, sit ups are a fairly useless way of training, but since I have no medical background and do no training myself, I didn’t really want to get into recommending ways to train, only for someone to injure themselves and complain/sue/stab me for it.

    Atm, I have another article planned, but it will have to wait until after my last exam. If you have any request, I can try not to bugger them up in an article.


    It seems well written to me, though that probably doesn’t count for much. It would be cool to get a hands on type session for this kind of thing going on. Using body tension to try correct a barn door, holding yourself when you come off an over hand etc.

    The only thing I can think of that requires constant tension would be your shoulders. And tension is the wrong word for that. But not locking off your shoulders can lead to injury- think of how you’re meant to hang at the bottom of a pull up. Constant tension in so far that your joints are prepared to bear some form of weight- as you said, as little as possible.

    The Club Cat

    I’d love to run a couple of sessions, but it’s probably best to leave that to next year, unless someone specifically comes to me looking for one.

    If we’re going to start talking about shock-loading joints and the like, imma need some more coffee, preferably Irished up…

    The places you will always have tension are mostly your legs/feet and core. As soon as you’re standing on something less than a jug, you need to maintain tension in your feet to keep your weight on the holds, which can add up quickly, and with no core tension, you will flop about everywhere and severely limit your reach. Even just holding your core will often allow you to reach a hold you think you can’t. Ideally, you don’t really want your shoulders engaged the whole time, but it’s important that you know when to do so, such as in dynamic moves and anticipating just before you need them, to prevent injury as much as possible. However, particularly on overhangs, if you allow your shoulder to drop (ie. not locked) you will get much more from a rest, as you’re ‘hanging on your bones’ rather than having to use your shoulder muscles.

    As I said several times, as super-complicated topic, which I’m not really qualified to talk about. These are just my thoughts on the matter, and not necessarily right or useful.


    These are just my thoughts on the matter, and not necessarily right or useful.


    This  could be applied to everything I say 😛

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 8 months ago by chris.
    The Club Cat

    Welcome to the Internet. If more people could admit that, it would be a much nicer place.


    Very good Alex.  I found this very beneficial. I was trying to explain this to a group and was finding it awkward to explain in words. This is useful so thank you very much  you did a very good job!

    The Club Cat

    I’m glad it was helpful. When I read it back the morning after writing it, it seemed mostly like barely coherent gibberish.

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