Core Strength: Man’s Superpower
First off, I need to clear up something I misstated in my La Sportiva athlete profile about Smith Rock being the birthplace of climbing in America. Obviously this is not true, as climbing traces back much further than Smith Rock’s hay day in the 80s, namely, to Yosemite. My statement was incorrect. I should have more specifically explained how Smith Rock was an essential puzzle piece in the development of American sport climbing. Alan Watts began bolting sport routes in the early 80s and a few years later Churning in the Wake was equipped with a power drill. Bolting on rappel wasn’t happening regularly in the rest of the United States, which is why the history of Smith Rock is so significant. I in no way meant to offend the efforts of those developing decades before. I am aware that Smith wasn’t the discovery of climbing as a sport. Finally, the pitch that I led on Zebra Zion is 5.9, as stated on Mountain Project and in the guidebook.
Now, onto a lighter topic.
Somehow, I came home from Smith Rock feeling more powerful than ever. Not so much powerful as in “I’m ready to take over a country” powerful, but more like the bouldering kind. This stumps me. How did I gain so much power at the least powerful cliff in America?
I think the first answer is that Smith is much more powerful than it’s given credit. Although crimpy, vertical, and technical, most of the holds don’t face the right way, and there aren’t many alternatives in between holds. This often means big, shoulder-y moves. Each day I lowered off To Bolt, it was my shoulders and sides that needed a rest more so than my fingers. I found myself locking holds off down to my waist, or sometimes my head, which was also at waist level in the uncomfortable horizontal postion I frequently found myself inhabiting (see above, screenshot from LT11). This is where the core power came in, and this, I believe, is what led to me feeling more powerful upon my arrival home.
This is strange to me. I’ve always thought that power came from strong shoulders and explosive, well trained fast twitch muscles. When I decided to boulder for my first session back home after Smith, I prepared to be destroyed. I knew that I hadn’t used those fast twitch muscles much during the last month, so I didn’t have very optimistic expectations. Remarkably, I found myself willingly letting my feet cut as I leaped towards holds like a graceful gazelle…and then stuck the moves. The gazelle part might have been in my head.
Now, my point is not to brag about my sick bouldering session at the Boulder Rock Club. Let’s keep things straight, a miraculous bouldering day for me means ascending a few V7s, nothing ground breaking. The point is that I felt strong in muscle groups that had previously felt slightly useless. Namely, my ribs. Granted, this test just in the gym, but I felt more in control and less strained when executing dynamic moves and making big crosses.
I believe that herein lies a rarely accounted for difference between male and female climbers. I’ve always thought that men had more brute strength, more powerful shoulders, and were less breakable. However, my new hypothesis is that their cores are just stronger, allowing them to explode off holds, and use the full range of power in their shoulders. Watch a strong male boulderer and you’ll see that not only do their feet cut, but they will purposefully kick out from the wall to generate momentum, with full confidence that their feet will magnetically stick back to the wall with little effort (Paul Robinson, above). As it turns out, it’s not a magnet but one of the body’s largest muscle groups doing the work.
Now, I know there are plenty of strong female boulderers out there who exhibit this type of power and control (see above, Nina Williams and Angie Payne at the Hueco Rock Rodeo, photos by Merrick Ales). But for most women, like me, that core power does not exist. So instead, we turn to things like terrifyingly deep drop knees to get us through powerful moves. While a handy trick in the bag, I’d also love to be able to kick out from the wall knowing that once my feet cut, all hope is not lost and my shoe rubber will find it’s home on the rock once more.
The question is, how do I get there? I know it’s not floor exercises, because I can do floor abs all day. I’ve experimented with tons of exercises from different types of hovering planks, to lever practice on the pullup bar. None of these has produced significant results, and I certainly can’t do any sort of lever.
I think the real solution is trying really, really hard on moves that don’t seem feasible. Even though we might not control the moves at first, we’re training our bodies to commit, our muscles to engage, and ultimately, our feet to stick back onto a hold and keep us on the wall. I think my previous experimentation with campusing and lock off training could be effective in more structured doses as well.
But the true lesson I’ve learned from all of this is that whenever I need to train power, I’ll just go to Smith, the obvious solution.