Biomechanics is the science of how we move. It’s incredibly useful because it helps us to understand movement in a systematic way – which means less guesswork and more focused performance goals.
Two aspects that are essential to climbing movement literacy (the ability to climb and execute key movements in climbing) are momentum and coordination. If you’ve been around climbing gyms, crags, or climbers in general, it’s very likely that you’ve heard these words used more than a few times. But the real question is: When using these terms, momentum and coordination, do we really know what they mean and how to truly use them for our performance benefit?
More than just dynamic movement
Usually when most people first start climbing, they climb without consciously thinking about using momentum. Everyone moves in slightly different ways, but oftentimes beginners have a lack of control of their movements (swinging around, loud foot placements, etc.) or they try to control too much (stiff arms and torso, rigid movements, etc.). Everything is so new compared to life on the horizontal plane. It’s like the equivalent of new babies stumbling around as they first learn to walk.
As time goes on, a beginner’s movements become more stable. But then, sometimes, too stable. At times, holds might seem to be just out of reach or at just the “wrong” angle.
If only I was stronger… if only I was taller… if only –fill-in-the-blank-excuse–… then I could get the next move.
But the solution here is often (especially earlier on in one’s climbing journey) better tactics by making use of momentum (*important to note here that using momentum still applies and is only refined as a climber’s abilities and skills improve). Also, I’m talking about climbing at a grade that is within reach (not many grades above one’s current max).
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here… What is momentum again?
Momentum is a cool parameter that quantifies both motion and inertia – that is, how a body moves and how resistant it is to changing it’s movement. The actual mathematical formulation for momentum is as follows:
where p stands for momentum, m for mass, and v for velocity. It might seem confusing that the symbol for momentum is p, but we’re not going to get into discussing that here. I digress.
Momentum is an important quantity when it comes to sports because they involve humans (with various masses) moving in various ways (different velocities). In climbing, using a little momentum can often get us to actually grasp hard-to-reach holds. Why?
We are constantly fighting against gravity when we climb. If you do not move quickly enough to a hold that isn’t easily within reach, you will likely come up short and fall. This is where we can thinking about starting to tune our momentum parameters to improve our climbing movement.
Since our mass doesn’t change when we climb, the main parameter we can think about tuning is velocity (there are other ones as well, but I’ll save this for a later discussion). If we can’t quite get to a hold, we likely need to move faster or increase our velocity. How do we do this? One way is to create the right setup.
In our setup for a move, creating more distance between our body and the target hold can give us more time to speed up (increasing velocity) when moving towards the next hold. If we’re already too close to the next hold (imagine being in a lock-off position or quite close to the wall), then it’s hard to really create velocity as velocity is distance traveled over a period of time.
Then next time you’re climbing, think about how the distance your body is from a hold affects your following movement. Think about how this relates to the small momentum lesson we just went through. It is important to mention that creating more distance is not always the right strategy, you can still create momentum with smaller distances and this is something part of a larger discussion (hint: scroll to the end of this post if you’re interested).
More than just a name for a modern bouldering style
The word “coordination” seems to have been popularized as new competition boulder problems have incorporated complex dynamic movements. However, coordination is actually something that we’re constantly doing. When you get up from a chair, reach for something, and walk, these are all different ways that we coordinate our limbs.
It is a bit unfair to describe coordination by saying we “coordinate our limbs”… so what does this really mean?
The concept of coordination is truly multidisciplinary and does have several related but subtly different meanings. A recent research study by Arata et al. sought to clarify these different meanings that are used in the field of biomechanics and motor control. To briefly mention the definitions of coordination from the paper, they’re as follows:
- Relation between elements to achieve a motor task
- Relation to reduce degrees of freedom
- Neural organization where elements can vary based on a task
- Self-organizing relation that reduces degrees of freedom
These definitions require a lot more discussion to dig into. For now, we’ll stick with the first definition mentioned above.
A simple way to understand coordination is how our joints work together to create a specific movement. Coordination doesn’t have a mathematical equation tied to it like momentum does. This can make “tuning parameters” a bit more nuanced.
What’s something, then, that we can “tune” when focusing on coordination? The first parameter that always jumps to mind is… timing. Coordination is all about timing. If you think of anything that is uncoordinated, the reason for this is that the timing of their relative movements is off. Perhaps the movements look jerky or strange. The smoother the movement, the better the coordination.
Simply put, one of the most important questions you can ask yourself while climbing is When? It’s easier to think about one segment or joint initially. Maybe a move you are trying requires subtle hip swing. When is the best time for you to swing your hips to make the move smooth? How does this relate to your overall movement?
Coordination is quite an interesting and complex concept to consider. It’s not necessary to understand all the nitty gritty details of coordination in order to achieve excellence in climbing. However, there are plenty of useful aspects to the theory that can help to improve your tactics and likely accelerate performance once understood well.
Momentum and coordination are paramount to moving well on the wall. Understanding the mechanics of these concepts and how to “tune your parameters” can prove to be exceptionally useful when working out hard moves.
This article just barely scratches the surface of these topics. If you’d like to dig a little deeper with me and learn more about these topics and ways that you can improve your movement tactics, then I’d highly recommend signing up for my masterclass! It’s packed with information and you can watch it at your own convenience.
Link for the Momentum & Coordination Masterclass: