A Moment On The Lips, A Lifetime On The Hips – The Importance Of Hip Rotation In Coaching

I have a collie dog, Tess. She’s a fantastic dog, amazing to take to the crag but she’s obsessed with play; fetching, thrashing her toys around, catching things. She loves it.

Now i’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a dog jump to catch a toy or a stick but just try and picture it for a minute: dog on all fours, toy thrown above her head, she leaps up in the air to catch it. Now think about where that power is coming from. How is she doing it?

I don’t know about you but when i first pondered this, i would’ve assumed the power came from her front legs. I was expecting a bend at the knees before they extended and the momentum carried her upwards – the power all coming from the muscles in her legs and that explosion of energy with a flick of her, erm, ankles i guess.

I was intrigued. So i filmed it.

Watching it back in slow motion, it was fascinating to find out the power isn’t coming from her legs at all, but from a movement in her shoulders. Her head dips and then her spine thrusts upwards before the legs engage. I mentioned this to my other half, who was throwing the toy and she seemed to think that was obvious and maybe it is. But to me, the fact the jump came from an entirely different area of her body seemed suddenly very crucial to understanding movement.

This whole thought process actually stemmed from a jump where she twisted in the air. I wondered how she was generating the power to turn in mid air to catch the toy – something she does with remarkable ease and accuracy. Sadly, we couldn’t get her to twist again but i’d already got enough information to process.

How is this helpful?!

Em, my girlfriend, seemed a bit confused. “How is this useful to you?” she asked me, pointing out “dogs are very different to people you know…”

She’s right, of course, dogs are made entirely differently to people. They stand on four legs not two, their anatomy is leagues apart from that of your average person. The reason i’d been thinking about it stems from my attendance at the recent BMC Coaching Symposium and some thoughts i’d had coming out of that.

While there, i’d had the absolute pleasure of meeting Udo Neumann; in my eyes, a revolutionary coach of the German Bouldering Team and an absolute legend. He’d been one of the main draws of the event for me and once there, he was definitely one of the highlights.

His focus is certainly on movement. We saw some videos from his coaching sessions with prodigy Tomoa Narasaki, who is certainly worth a watch. His instinct for climbing movement is immense and he’s a joy to watch. He also showed some exercises he’d got some of his younger students doing, campussing where they “cross the centre line” – something that instantly makes the climbing more complex. (He’s absolutely right by the way, try it.)

We then went and had a play and as i watched a handful of coaches of a wide range of abilities, it dawned on me that crossing the centre line doesn’t come from the arms, or indeed the shoulders, it comes from the hips. In fact, SO much in good climbing movement comes from the hips…

Trunk Rotation and Cross Training

I’d asked Udo about the benefits of swimming and had chance to discuss this greater after his workshop. I’d shown him some freestyle strokes while standing on the floor and the importance of twisting the hips – and crucially, how the power is generated by that twist.

Climbers often think of using other sports as cross training; so much so, that was Udo’s initial thought when i mentioned swimming. Working antagonist muscle groups, preventing injury, improving cardiovascular fitness, these are all hugely worthwhile things. What got me wondering was whether, as a coach rather than a climber, how much can we learn from these other sports?

One of the big themes of the weekend was how other sports do coaching SIGNIFICANTLY better than climbing and how we can learn a great deal from them. I couldn’t agree more – i’ve since bought a copy of the BCU Coaching Handbook for paddling – but what if we actually increased the specificity of what we’re looking at them for?

I did a coaching session last week and focused on the use of the hips in climbing, twisting from the hips, using them to utilise holds better, to extend reach and so on. The session was all about trunk rotation; a phrase that actually first came to my attention many years ago while living with a paddler, in the context of good kayaking technique.

Look up trunk rotation in the back of the BCU Handbook mentioned, you get no less than five page references, all of which are related to good paddling technique. That’s almost as many as pages on “Performance”, “Warm Up” and “Practice” and matches entries such as “Variation”, “Skill Development” and “Imagery”.

Taking the focus away from the obvious areas (the hands, feet and limbs) and moving onto somewhere more subtle (the hips, shoulders, core muscles) is something that other sports obviously look closely at, something that we started the article with and something we really should be doing a lot more.

Udo had a phrase during his keynote speech: “We always think the questions that surround us are the most important”. It’s as relevant when looking at our climber as it is as a philosophical point and something the best coaches will do: stop looking at the obvious and start looking for the more subtle aspects.

This one was proven in another workshop using some impressive glasses that monitor where the focus of the coach’s eye goes, after watching where experienced and novice coaches focus their attention. Very impressive and guess what: the experienced ones were looking at the hips.

Three-dimensional climbing

At the end of the session, i was talking to one climber and said about making things more three dimensional when he pointed out that with twisting, overhanging walls, the climbing already is three-dimensional. That’s not really what i meant.

3D movies have done a wonderful job in confusing people in terms of dimensions. Trust me, my ex’s then-ten-year-old daughter is an excellent example. So let’s take a look and i apologise if this is completely obvious.

  • One Dimension

Take a piece of paper, draw a line on it and add a slider that moves along the line. This is one dimension. Ever used in climbing? Well, obviously not in real life (unless you’re thinking about something like climbing a rope) but actually it’s really useful. Draw markers on your line and you have a scale; used for quality (how well did you do that, out of ten) or if you think about it, grading. After all, grades are nothing more than markers in one dimension. That’s why they don’t work that well every time, as there are too many factors for that single dimension. Something like the British Trad or US grading systems adds further dimensions but that’s something different for another day.

  • Two Dimensions

Think of a graph. Any graph (pretty much) and you have an across value and an up value. Two dimensions! Great for thinking about forces (for the physics fans out there) but once we introduce a beginner climber to a wall, chances are they’re moving left and right, up and down, parallel to the wall. They’re actually just moving in two dimensions – they’re not moving away from the wall at all.

If you ignore the fact that the wall moves around and think that they are remaining parallel to the wall at all times, you could think of it as two-dimensional climbing. And there are those hips again: parallel to the wall, two-dimensional climbing. After all, the lower the number of dimensions, the simpler the climbing, the same as with crossing the centre line.

Three Dimensions

I promise i’ll stop saying “dimension” in a second, please bear with me…

Now think of a climber on a wall. They’ve got their x-value (left and right, across) and they’ve got their y-value (up and down) but now, if they twist their hips around, they’ve got an in and out value too – a z-value. THIS is what i mean when i say about 3D climbing. It’s utilising that twist to make things more complex. And once you start to get people to do this, you start to turn them into significantly better climbers.

Hip Focus Benefits

We’ve already talked about a few of them but let’s review.

Increased Reach. Try this exercise: stand face on to the wall, hips parallel to the wall. Now reach up with the right hand and mark where you’ve got to. Now touch the right hip to the wall, hips perpendicular to the wall and try it again. Next, turn around and touch left hip but still reaching with the right hand. See the differences?

By leading with the hips, you significantly increase the reach available to the climber. Again it comes back to a leaping hound right at the start – stop thinking about trying to stretch the arm more, concentrate on lower down the body.

Disguised learning. I’ve tried to teach flagging by telling people where to place their feet and often, they get a bit lost – after all, it’s a tricky concept. But instead, place your climber on some pre-chosen handholds, give them one foothold and now get them twisting their hips. All of a sudden, they’ll start flagging naturally.

The added bonus of this is that style of learning. Effectively, they’ve just learned to flag on their own, learned the principles of flagging, rather than just the name of a move. They’ll implement this naturally from here, far more than if you just told them to flag. And their decision making will be stronger as a consequence.

Dissipate forces unevenly between the hands. I tried this exercise, it’s a lovely one. Pick two shoulder-high handholds with feet on the floor. Now touch one hip at a time to touch the wall and watch what happens to the force in each hand. By moving the weight around, you’ll move the forces into the opposite handhold to the hip.

This can be incredibly crucial later. We’ve all been on something brick hard where you can’t release a hand as they’re both clinging on tight. Teach this weight distribution trick and climbers all of a sudden learn to start moving their body weight around in that third-dimension and allow more progress.

Different use of momentum. We all know that we can use momentum to reach a hold but this is often done by reaching with the hand and what often happens is the body naturally bends in the middle to compensate. Likewise, on those campusing moves, using the feet as a pendulum to swing to a hold means the hands are left lagging behind and it’s an awkward snatch to catch a hold, followed by a wild swing.

Another floor exercise: feet pressed either side of a doorway and now touch each hip in turn against the side of the door. The shoulder will most likely follow. It’s the same movement as on a rockover: lead with the hips, let the body roll over. A much more efficient way of stretching to the side.

Get the hips in. Start moving the hips closer in to the wall, especially on a slab and the weight goes much further into the feet and out of the arms. Just WATCH OUT! that your climber isn’t getting their hips in by pulling with the arms; it has to come from the midriff.

Don’t forget with this one that it is JUST as important on steep ground as well. The best way to conserve energy is to “keep yer feet on” in the words of Don Whillans, and this is best done by focusing on hip movement, positioning and good footwork.

Improve cognitive development of the climber. Anything that makes them think and understand movement will make your climber better. And i don’t mean make them climb a graded harder, i mean make them a better climber. They’ll have more understanding of climbing and movement, they’ll have more intelligence to be able to put these ideas into practice when it really matters for them.

Anecdote: Uni climbing wall project
Back in my third year at University, i was climbing reasonable hard and was making my own projects up with existing holds. One problem started with a campus move and it's crux involved a big cross through. I tried it for weeks, repeatedly doing the same thing as tickling the hold. Right foot was a solid heel hook until suddenly, one day, i added a small crew on and twisted my hips to be parallel to the wall. Instantly, the move went. The crux wasn't the reach, it was figuring out the hip movement.

Conclusions

Hopefully, i’ve highlighted some important advantages to focusing some of your coaching time on the hips. For coaches at any level, spending at least a few sessions on this area will pay dividends to your climber and is a major focal point for their improvement.

It’s something that is critical with beginners, can push people up a grade or two when they’re at that intermediate stage and as i saw with Udo’d campus sessions, can be invaluable even with the very best climbers.

Don’t agree? That’s absolutely fine! All i ask is that you’ve thought about it, considered it and made up your mind with a reasoned argument. But maybe give it a try first; you might be surprised with the results.

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