There are some actions which, to anybody, are instinctive in the brain. The ability to grasp an object, to see something and wrap your hand around it, is one of these. In the context of rock climbing, it is something we rely on every single time we move our hands.

In a similar way, the action of climbing can be seen as instinctive. In many ways, it is an extension of walking: movement over ground that has become too steep for us to be able to continue using only our legs. In essence, climbing is – or perhaps should be – us walking up steep terrain using all four limbs to aid us along the way.

For those of us taking our climbing skills to the next level, part of the problem can be an over-reliance on this instinctive behaviour. Our desire to figure out how we can climb harder or higher often leads us to think of aspects like strength and conditioning without actually breaking down these basic axioms and understanding them in greater depth.

Below is an overview on a theory, or indeed three theories, beginning with Hold Optimisation Theory. Here, we will break this instinctive behaviour down to look at the way we should grasp holds while climbing. From there, we will develop this into Position Optimisation Theory, where the holds combine to keep our body on the wall. Then finally, we will look at Movement Optimisation Theory and how we move from each of these ideal positions to allow us to move efficiently over the wall.

For more information on each theory, the title links through to a more in depth look into each theory. They can get quite in depth and quite mathematical so aren’t for the feint hearted. There is also the question as to who this is more relevant to: the coach or the climber. To be honest, this thought process will be useful to anyone looking to improve either their own or someone else’s climbing.

Meanwhile, there is also some assumed knowledge and some further reading with some classical mechanics (a lot of maths, mainly involving Isaac Newton) that is also useful and important to understand the minutiae of grasping climbing holds and climbing movement. For this, links to other pages will appear where necessary.

Hold Optmisation Theory – HOT holds

In short, Hold Optimisation Theory states that:

For any given hold, there is an ideal way for it to be held and an ideal direction for force to be applied.

[To understand this, it is crucial to know the different types of climbing hold – crimps, slopers, pinches, etc. For a brief overview of types of holds, click here.]

When we have a hold that is being used ideally, we can call this a HOT hold.

For most climbing holds, a HOT hold is one where the force is applied perpendicular to the surface of the hold. So with a crimp that runs between 2 o’clock and 8 o’clock on a normal clock face, the force that should be applied will be pulling towards 5 o’clock.

There are two notable exceptions to this: pinches and holds with a variety of options for force to be applied. With a pinch, the force is usually still applied perpendicular to the hold, although now there are two opposing forces used together. However, the forces are still being applied to oppose the surface directly.

With holds that allow multiple directions of force, such as a pocket, in order to make them a HOT hold, the force should usually be applied to oppose gravity.

This is, in essence, Hold Optimisation Theory and any experienced climber will do this without thinking. Indeed, many beginners will also apply this correctly without any conscious thought as to their actions, although not all the time; this is indeed a good way to quickly refine the technique of someone taking their first forays into climbing. Where it also begins to become relevant is when you are working a climb near the level of your ability and you are looking for those marginal gains to allow you to maximise your chances of success.

Where it begins to become complicated is when we now combine these holds together, rather than look at each one in isolation. That is where we now get into Position Optimisation Theory.

Position Optimisation Theory – POT positions

This one is more complicated so take a deep breath. In short, Position Optimisation Theory states:

For any given moment on the wall during a climb, there is an optimum position to be in to make the individual holds as HOT as possible.

Now, for this, we need to visit some basic Newtonian mechanics, but don’t worry, we’re not about to start talking about lots of maths with loads of complicated equations! We’re only really interested in Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion so in a really boiled down way, they include:

  1. When a body is still, it will continue to be still until a new force is applied to it
  2. Force is directly related to acceleration. The more force applied, the greater the acceleration
  3. For a body at rest, every force has an equal and opposite force

There’s another part of maths we need here: some Euclidean geometry. It’s not actually as complicated as it sounds – all i mean is thinking about dimensions. Think back to school and looking at a graph: there was an x-axis running from side to side and a y-axis running up and down. There is also a z-axis that goes in and out of the page/screen. You can demonstrate this by pointing your thumb and first two fingers in three different directions.

So, with this in mind, picture a still climber freeze framed on the wall. The big force being applied is gravity, effectively pulling the climber down towards the earth. But what other forces are being applied?

Well, there will be forces acting in that y-axis from each hold being used (unless of course there is only one hold being used in your picture but let’s stick to a more conventional picture for now). For that climber to be stationary, the holds will be combining together, as per that third law of motion – equal and opposite reactions.

So each foot or hand will be applying a force in a direction. But we can break that force down into it’s y-components and it’s x-components (using some simple trigonometry, if you’re so inclined). So what happens when a climber is stationary is that all the x-components cancel each other out and all the y-components cancel gravity. Make sense?

Still with me? Good, because we’re nearly at the crux of this theory.

To get that POT position we’re looking for, we want the forces applied on each hold to be in the right direction to make the holds as HOT as possible. There are many ways to achieve this but they all share one important attribute: the position of your centre of gravity. By moving this centre of gravity into the right place, the holds can become more HOT and you can find the correct POT position.

It is interesting and important to note at this point that once a selection of HOT holds are brought together, they often don’t combine perfectly and some compromise will normally be needed from one or more holds. What we are aiming for here is make them as HOT as possible when combined together and to reduce the total y-components of force as much as possible.

Movement Optimisation Theory – MOT moves

This is where mathematical models become far too complicated to be of any use to the vast majority of us. In short, Movement Optimisation Theory states:

There is an ideal path for the body to take to move between any two POT positions as efficiently as possible, using as little energy as possible and applying as little force as possible

Now it gets complicated but the good news is that, for the most part, any climber will do this totally instinctively; they won’t think about it at all. The better news is that if you do, and by applying HOT and POT theories, it is possible to find MOT movement.

MOT movement again focuses around your centre of gravity and moving your COG from the point of one POT position to the next. For this, we want to think about those laws of motion from earlier and this time, we’re more interested in the first two laws.

So, imagine a stationary climber who wants to move their centre of gravity in the direction of 2 o’clock. According to Newton’s first law, they will either need to apply a pull force from that 2 o’clock position or a push force from the 8 o’clock position. That could be our shortest distance to move and the most efficient use of force to move from one POT position to the next. However, it could cause too much of a swing – with too much horizontal momentum – so perhaps a combination of angular forces to move in a J-shape could be more efficient. As said, this is where it gets really complicated to analyse.

MOT movements are important as they are the most energy efficient ways of moving from the best positions on a climb. They can also be quite complex and not always in 2 dimensions – a dyno, for example, may require a climber to move out from the wall before jumping upwards to arrive in the next POT position, when holding the finishing holds.

While they are normally instinctive, by breaking this thought process down and bringing it into the conscious mind, it is possible to tweak the action to make it more efficient, before hopefully placing it back in the subconscious and allowing the brain to make the micro-calculations needed to complete each move.

Remember though: much as with the HOT-POT relationship, sometimes, the MOT movement will affect the POT positions and it may be necessary to work backwards from the movements to adjust the positions you’ll need to be in.

The Bigger Picture

It is, also, crucial to keep looking at the whole climb as one entity at the same time but i’ve avoided introducing a Sequence Optimisation Theory or similar as the accepted term for this is just sequencing. During proof reading for this, i received two notable replies that warrant inclusion at this stage:

“You might also, on a given project, opt not to do the most efficient method if it’s super low percentage and the alternative is not too much harder.” Fredrik Niva

“I do sometimes do that. Deliberately make a move preceding the crux harder than so that the crux is easier.” James Siverns

Both of these comments relate to looking at the climb as a whole and adjusting all the previous analysis in order to make the sequence overall better.

Throughout the article, we’ve found that there is a hierarchy. Overall success on the climb is certainly the overriding driver and to get this, we need as close to MOT movements, then POT positions and finally HOT holds as we can get. A degree of compromise is surely going to be needed at times. The reason to break this down is to help us make those little marginal gains that will help give us a greater chance of success.

How Does This Relate To Actual Climbing?

Theorising is all well and good but how are we able to incorporate this into our actual climbing and use this to help us improve as climbers? Of course, that’s the important bit.

In truth, this is something that climbers on a project will already do regularly; the difference here is the way we think about it. It is commonplace to work individual moves

  • By looking at all the component holds and trying to make them HOT holds, it gives a fresh insight into the best direction to pull/push and how best to manipulate the holds to make your life easier and increase your chances of success.
  • Often, it is possible to climb into each POT position to give your brain the information as to where you need to be after each move. You can combine this with HOT holds to know the position you will need to get yourself into.
  • Breaking each movement down into MOT movements means you can tweak each move to make it more efficient and to use less energy, again increasing chances of success.
  • You can combine this information together to help with your sequence, working backwards through the processes if needed to look at the climb as a whole.

In essence, these theories take a climb as a whole and break it down more and more into it’s constituent parts, almost to the smallest degree. It is a form of analysis where, at an advanced level, either the climber or the coach will start to take a closer look at a climb and find ways to improve the style of climbing and making those marginal gains.

For the beginner or intermediate climber, looking at these principles early on can lay the ground work to becoming a better climber later on. Climbers are often taught a lot of these principles but now, by thinking in greater depth, it is possible to give a better starting point.

Why not try it? Next session you have, take a climb and break it down, starting with making them HOT holds, then find the POT positions. Finally, try and track the MOT movements and see if it widens your understanding of movement over the wall. Practice on easier climbs where you can complete them to compare and then repeat on a climb at the top of your limit, as this is where it will pay dividends. Where possible, climb into each POT position to see.