Monday, May 30, 2011

Difficulty Analysis: The Ingredients of Movement

"That hold is tweaky."
"That foot is too high."
"That move is huge."

Is it so simple? What makes movement hard? It's easy to try a move, "feel" how hard it is, and simply end your analysis there. However, climbing is a technical activity, and the levels of complexity are almost endless. Many of the best routesetters simply intuitively know what's hard about a move, and over time that skill can be developed. But it will help to have some of the basics down to make off-the-cuff setting, tweaking and offering forerunning advice easier. Here's a few of the basics of understanding what makes a move feel hard.

Mechanical Advantage

Mechanical advantage is the term used to describe a move that can be altered in difficulty, significantly or subtly, by a subtle tweak in body position. Here are the major points of mechanical advantage, and the type of moves for which they might apply.

Straight arms - The quintessential example can be found in every coaches' rallying cry to "straighten your arms!" Straight arms use the musculoskeletal structure as a support system, rather relying on the inferior lactic-acid-vulnerable forearm muscles. Any method that allows the climber to achieve straight arms can provide considerable rest opportunities. Three of the easiest contributors to a rest position are: Holds facing straight up and down with feet directly below them; holds facing inward in a dihedral; and holds facing outward on an arete. These rest spots can be quickly tweaked or eliminated by changing the directionality of the restable hold to something less mechanically preferable.

Hold factors - the "incutness" or depth of a hold can allow for significant mechanical advantage, by giving the climber more breathing room in their body position. Larger holds, even slopier ones, provide some mechanical advantage by letting the climber's larger hand and arm muscles do the work without having to redirect their energy and tension through the smaller muscles of the fingers.

Plumb line potential via body position - a mouthful, but the best way of describing what is essentially "ideal body positioning." The best way to understand is simply to look at two angles when considering a move. Angle 1 is the angle of the climber's arm when holding the hold, or more accurately, the angle of a line drawn from the climber's center of gravity to the center of the hold. Angle 2 is the plumb line of the hold. The smaller the difference between these two angles, the more mechanical advantage exists in the route. Often moves with massive discrepancies between these two angles end up feeling "tweaky" or just plain difficult. Plumb line is without question the fastest way to make a route more difficult. A tiny twist in the directionality of a hold takes only a few seconds (compared to at least a minute to change out a hold or foothold) and can change a move from comfortable to desperate instantly.

Ankles - One sometimes overlooked mechanical advantage is the ankle. The larger the foothold, the easier it is for a climber to use the big muscles of their leg, rather than redirect tension through the complicated and smaller muscles of the foot. Huge feet with bad handholds is a great way to test or train finger strength, but simply won't force the climber to engage their core as much as vice versa. In dihedrals, this mechanical advantage can be a nightmare, as feet usually considered completely awful can be enough for the climber to relax their ankle.


Travel is my catchall word for the physical movement factors of a move. A frequent complaint among shorter climbers is that moves are too big. Being able to watch a climber try a move and understand specifically which part of the move is giving them difficulty can be a powerful asset for a routesetter. Working efficiently with forerunners for competitions and being able to communicate with and appease a gym community will both require cultivating the ability to understand why a move is "big."

Travel time - the duration of time that the climber must maintain or create body tension or momentum to execute a move. Some moves are better done quickly, and some slowly. Generally speaking, more vertical or slabby routes will be forgiving and allow longer duration movement; simply because of the imposed demand on the body to maintain tension, steeper walls require more alacrity. In some cases, such as unwinding from a deep cross through on a steep wall, the movement must be executed in a manner many climbers refer to as being simultaneously slow and fast. In many cases, a move will have a tipping point, where the move can be executed in a static manner up to that point, and the climber must alter their position to create momentum and complete the move.

Travel distance - simply the physical size of the move - but notably, not as it appears to many climbers. For instance, if the left hand is low on an undercling at waist height, and the right hand on a crimp above head height, moving to the next hold a few feet above the climber can be a body-height-sized move. However, if the crimp allows for a match, the size of the move is cut in half. This principle is why matchable holds are a huge no-no for forcing sequences (unless the match is the intended sequence) - and, due to the size of kid-fingers, why it is more difficult to set problems that are equitable for children and adults.

Body Position - the effects of body position on travel can't be easily summarized, but the most prominent effects are:
  • Twisting during travel - some moves will require the climber to twist in or out while making momentum in another direction. This allows the climber to maintain hip-wall proximity, maximize reach, and prepare to create tension in the body position that the next hold necessitates.
  • Traveling with the lower body - ankle, knee, and hip extension are all different factors in creating more distance in a reach during travel. Some moves will necessitate or favor different methods of reach - for instance, with big footholds, many climbers neglect to fully extend their ankle, because it is comfortable in the relaxed position. Climbers who are unused to slab climbing often don't have the trust and tension necessary to extend their ankles all the way. And, contrarily, many climbers on a steep wall will lack the body tension to extend through the knees and hips fully while moving upward.
  • Traveling with the upper body - reaching by extending the shoulders and elbows is a given, but for some moves, proper posture can affect a climbers reach. Often the trunk can be rotated one way at the hips, and another at the shoulders, to provide a bit more reach. This occurs frequently during heel hook moves on aretes and during the opening movement of a big barn door move. Other times, the two work in tandem.


Momentum is a crucial part of any move, no matter how static. Even an extremely secure, slow move requires generating force on a vector. Being a successful climber requires having a robust knowledge of generating, controlling and canceling momentum. Being a good routesetter depends upon being able to force the climber to call on that knowledge.

Generation through the elbows - necessary for some moves, but far fewer than the average climber thinks. There's a good chance if a climber thinks a move feels hard, they're starting with their elbows and following with their legs. Getting climbers out of this habit is an age-old problem for routesetters. For hard undercling moves, elbow generation becomes a necessity, as the legs will often be fully extended just to be in position.

Generation through the shoulders and back - for gym rats with chronic burl-itis, #2 after elbows. On the steepest walls, creating swing before a move, performing come-in moves and many forms of foot cutting movement necessitate shoulder momentum. Often flexing at the elbows first is not possible, as the holds are poor and it will result in a loss of body tension.

Generation through the hips - hip extension is a popular way to start moves, especially moves that trend sideways. Pulling in with the hips to rock over a foot before pushing off of it is also a common use of hip momentum.

Generation through the knees - generally speaking the most powerful momentum generation tool in a climber's toolbox. Many moves start at the knees. Placing feet to the side, angling them obtusely, or otherwise hindering vertical footwork can help to cancel out knee momentum.

Other methods - the "nod" move, notably, is used by some strong climbers with great success. The pogo or "moon kick" would also be a great example of an unorthodox method of momentum generation.

Setting a problem that requires multiple types of momentum is a good challenge for a setter, and can provide a well-rounded power testpiece for climbers.

Accuracy and Precision

How "accurate" a move must be can be a huge factor in discerning why the move is difficult. Major players in the precision requirements of a move can be:

  • Speed and momentum - the more momentum a climber has during a move, the harder it is to hit a hold perfectly, without over- or undershooting.
  • Body positioning - coming out of or in to very specific body positions can be stressful on the accuracy of a move. Hitting gastons can be notoriously picky on body position, and getting the shoulder and hip positioning right can be mentally complex enough that hitting the fingers right on the hold becomes difficult.
  • Hold size, obviously, is a factor in precision. Slapping enormous feature-slopers doesn't usually require a ton of precision, except in cases where overshooting will bring the climber off of their launch hold. Outdoors, slopers can require precision down to the individual grains in the rock. Indoors, requiring that level of precision on slopers is difficult (but possible.) When setting for precision, many setters will automatically retreat to pockets, and the benefits for that tactic speak for themselves.
Other factors

Obviously there are myriad other elements that come into play for movement difficulty - to name a few, I've ignored balance, breath control, endurance factors, and only glossed over the basics like hold size and distribution, countless aspects of foothold placement, etc. But this should be a good start to being able to analyze what makes a move 'hard.'

Morphology in combination with the factors in this article makes the entire topic exponentially more complicated than can be covered in a blog post. Climb with a morphologically diverse group of climbers and you will quickly recognize patterns to which moves each body type struggles on. Developing that intuition is the only way to learn how to do some of the most basic tasks required of a routesetter:
  1. To set movement that is equitable for different body types, and still performed the same (or similarly)
  2. To understand, without having to ask or watch someone try it, what makes a move feel difficult
  3. To be able to accurately and quickly look at, analyze and constructively criticize a boulder problem (an extension to #2 in that it requires actual communication)
  4. To be able to change a move to add or remove difficulty in the most efficient possible manner.
I will probably return to this overwhelmingly complex topic some time in the future. For now, happy setting!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Aesthetics in Routesetting: a Design Primer

Our job as routesetters is to set the stage for a relationship between a climber and the wall. That relationship is the foundation of the rock climbing experience, whether it's indoors or outdoors, boulder or route. Every sensory element in the equation has potential to affect the climber's experience: the fingertips feeling texture, the ears hearing belayer calls or the cheering crowd, and, maybe most powerful of all, the eyes seeking a path upwards.

The main goal of setting a route could be many things: to create enjoyable movement, to give climbers a puzzle to solve, to challenge a climber physically, to separate a field of competitors. Any of these goals can benefit from an element that many new routesetters overlook: the aesthetic. The field of design in general asserts that there are certain inalienable patterns that are pleasing to the eye. Routesetting is no exception.

It's not just holds on the wall - it's part of the experience. Embracing that and adding aesthetics into your setting is not an easy task, and takes practice. Here's a quick primer on some elements to consider incorporating into your setting. Warning: Nerdy and/or subjective design opinions follow.


The figure-ground relationship is fundamental to graphic design, and refers to the use of space as a design element. You know when a wall starts to get cluttered, because the figure-ground relationship dissipates and the wall just looks like a cluster of junk. Nice, open spaces keep the general look of the route balanced and clean. In addition, they make routefinding easier for the climber, and make it easier for a crowd to tell what's going on.

Some of the main elements of good figure-ground relationship in routesetting include:

  • Managing hold sizes - using lots of similar-sized holds, or changing up the hold size proportionally through the route.
  • Movement size and spacing - with an open, clean wall, a large dynamic move will be obvious from the ground to both the climber and the crowd. Cluttered walls make it harder to build drama for a big move. In a dihedral, a massive blank space where the climber has to palm the wall or perform hand-foot matches to get through the sequence can be intimidating from the ground.
  • Clustering holds - the right-left-right-left ladder tends to create a homogenous zig-zag of holds. Break up the movement with sets of holds. Don't let the route wander, but allow spaces in the route to keep it looking organic.


Color is obviously a huge factor in routesetting, and maybe the first design element most setters become aware of. Colors can be used to create similarity or contrast to enhance the route's image. Some experiments with route colors could include:

  • Using color to signify route changes. Use several holds from one set, then several holds from a different set to subconsciously let the climber know that a change in style or difficulty is coming up. Or break up the sets with a feature hold.
  • Tape color is a bigger factor than most setters allow. Black, dark blue and purple tape underneath fluorescent lights become the same shiny dark hue, especially for looking down at feet.
  • Colorblindness is becoming a factor for professional routesetting, and should be noted. Consider not using similar tints of color tape, such as green and orange, next together. Alternatively, using an additional indicator can be useful, such as wider or thinner tape, a sharpie stripe/pattern, or patterned tape (who doesn't love zebra-print tape?)
  • Just using the same color hold for an entire route can be boring, and isn't always possible. Consider using a complimentary or contrasting color, rather than mixing up the few extra holds. I often set a route with a main color, and also one monochromatic grouping of holds - green and black, purple and white, blue and gray, etc. It opens up the creativity, and still keeps the route thematic.


Patterns in graphic design can be the orientation of objects, clustering of objects, textures, angles, almost anything. In routesetting this goes for the movement as well. Setting a route where the climber has to overcome multiple undercling sequences in a row? Adding some basic design principles into that already strong pattern can make a good climbing experience into a great one. Some common patterns include:

  • Hold clustering, as mentioned above, is a good way to create patterns. Make a few big moves, then a complex sequence of small moves on a pair, triplet or even foursome of small holds. Or, cluster together a couple big holds and force the climber to make multiple hand and hand-foot matches in the same small space.
  • Hold type. This is one of the most obvious examples, but if you were to use a full set of similar big holds for an entire route, the design benefits are huge. On the flipside, just grabbing every huge hold you can and using all of them in a row regardless of style, color or grip type tends to look like crap - even if it climbs well.
  • Hold angle. Many routes outside feature left- or right-leaning weaknesses, where the climber moves up primarily with a series of sidepulls and gastons. This can get monotonous and frustrating indoors, but used sparingly it does create a strong design pattern from the ground.
  • Tape angle. This is much-debated, and personally I find that using one tape angle tends to look better only if the route density is very low. Usually I prefer taping for visibility. However, taping for visibility can also wind up looking chintzy and unprofessional. A good rule of thumb tends to be taping at a downward 45 to one direction, and then breaking that system a) only if the original angle can't be seen for a crucial move; and b) only to switch to the opposite downward 45. Many gyms also forego tape completely, but I find that to be a big enough limiter to creativity (unless your hold selection is extraordinarily well-funded) that it isn't worthwhile. Except maybe in the case of CATS-style gyms, where the demographical emphasis is on people training for climbing, not the inexperienced public.


Symmetry can be a more advanced design element in setting, but I have seen it used (consciously or otherwise) with success. It can refer to the physical design symmetry looking at the route from the ground, or the movement on the route.

  • Reflective symmetry. This is commonly found on dihedral or arete/compression routes, where the holds are placed even with each other.
  • Rotational symmetry. A route that traverses slowly can easily have symmetry along the 45 degree line. This can require quite a bit of forethought, but when pulled off, looks great.
  • Movement symmetry. This is a bit harder to do, but setting up moves coming into and out of a large feature can have great symmetry. For instance, make a big move off a sidepull to a flat edge, then power up to a big feature. Match on the feature, move up to a flat edge, then out to a sidepull of the opposite direction. Sort of a movement palindrome.


This is mostly covered under patterns, but changing the scale of a route quickly or slowly can be an interesting design element. For instance, starting the route on big slopers, then slowly reducing the hold size to slopey pinches, down to tiny slimpers for the very top. But laziness isn't a design element. Many routesetters make two big mistakes with scale:
  1. Grabbing all the huge holds, and expecting movement to spontaneously occur.
  2. Grabbing all the tiny holds, because they had a few too many PBRs last night and don't want to haul up a heavy bucket.

Neither of these are criminal offenses, but they both can make for dull movement and route design. If you climb in a gym regularly, you can probably name a setter who overuses one of these two techniques. To use scale well, try some of these ideas:

  • Know how to be consistent. Don't just use all medium-size holds - yes, it gets just as monotonous for the climber to climb on it as it does for you to haul them all up. Use big holds, then a few small holds, then big holds. Brief consistency is still good.
  • Know how to be inconsistent. Intersperse holds that are otherwise similar (such as in texture, rock type, or grip type) but are different sizes. Try a compression route where the left hand is slapping up an arete or large sloper feature, but the right hand is making bumps on smaller slopers. When that sequence ends, do something completely different, then set the mirror of that movement on crimps and a big edge feature.
  • Try changing the scale slowly and consistently, starting with tiny bubbles, then knobs, then normal-size slopers and finally Boss-style features.
  • One great tool for hold scale is screw-ins. Especially when used mounted on volumes or large features, a screw-in can completely change the character of a sequence. Best of all, it can be hard to read screw-in moves from the ground, especially if the routesetter is especially devious with the placement.


The shape of things is another obvious element that can be used. Here are some basic ideas:

  • Most hold companies have at least one set of blocky, geometric holds. Using them together looks great. Using them mixed in with blobby holds looks so-so. Using them in alternating sets or groups, broken up by features and tertiary sets looks fantastic. These block holds are a great way to learn how to mingle hold types.
  • Choose features that compliment (or contrast) your route's structural theme. Setting with pinches? Consider big tufa features. Slopers get big slopers. Crimps get crimp rails or big edges. Pockets get huecos.
  • Keep in mind, most rules exist to be broken. Whether you're striving to make the route completely intuitive or utterly puzzling, it should always be entertaining. It's not as much which holds you choose to use - it's the order you use them in. Set an intro boulder problem on pinches, into a few moves on feature slopers. Then a middle section of mid-size sloper movement. Use a big tufa feature to transition back into a final problem on pinches again. The theme changes, but the climber is comfortably transitioned from section to section.


Design can be a powerful tool for adding to the experience of a route. Learn and experiment with different techniques for intimidating, assisting, or inspiring climbers, both from the ground viewing the route, and while climbing it. "Art people" are all about breaking rules, so don't take anything in this post too seriously.

One rule that probably shouldn't be broken is never sacrifice movement for aesthetics. I'd hazard a guess that most gym climbers aren't going to compliment you on how pretty your latest route is. However, you are likely to get commentary if the movement sucks. So learn and implement as many of these techniques as possible, but don't overdo it. Try one at a time - similar texture, color, type, OR style. Then start mixing and matching. If the "perfect" hold happens to break the theme of your route, don't chuck it aside - try to find a way to incorporate it into your route and make the theme fit the movement.

Happy setting.