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Last night I coached a group of adults at the local wall looking at how the rotation of hips allows us to reach higher and brings our hips closer to the wall. I thought it might be useful to share the drills we did and what we found.

Face-on climbing

When beginners rock climb, they tend to climb the routes like a ladder. Their toes will be pointing toward the rock, and their hips and chest will be parallel. They will make upwards progress in the same way one might climb up a ladder at home. This is face-on climbing, which is absolutely fine, there is nothing wrong with climbing this way.

But sometimes the route (or person’s physique) will mean that they cannot reach the next hold while being face-on. To make the move they will have to be on their tip-toes and overreach.

Side-on climbing

One way to get a few more inches of reach is to change the orientation of the hips so that one hip is near the wall. So for example, if you are holding on with your left hand and need to move your right hand, rotate your hips so that your right hip is near the wall. This will give you more reach as the right-hand side of your body (hips and shoulders) are closer to the wall.

This side-on approach can work really well on steep overhangs and for shorter climbers and it can also work really well for tall climbers on slabs. However, there are times when it’s more efficient to climb face-on. One way isn’t better than the other, they are both useful techniques that the climber needs to use in varying combinations across any given route.

Technique vs Skill

Life is full of techniques that we learn, such as climbing side-on vs face-on. The skill is knowing which technique to apply and when.

To think of it in a non-climbing context. If you wanted to put up a shelf at home. You’d need to employ the technique of drilling a hole in the wall for the fixings. The skill is knowing where to drill and what size drill bit to use.

This is relevant to climbing as we build up a repository of techniques (side-on, face-on, flagging, jamming, rock over, heel hook, toe hook, etc. etc.) and alongside this, we develop the skills of knowing which techniques works for US and when to apply them.

The key phrase there is ‘us’, as what might work for me might not work for you.

A great example of this is the world champion final video below.

Jain Kim is 153cm (5ft 0) and as a shorter climber you might expect her to climb side-on all the time to maximise her reach. In reality, she uses both face-on and side-on climbing to climb the route.

Side-on drills to improve your climbing

The difference in reach

This is to demo the point on how rotation can affect reach.

  1. Place both feet on holds and grab a good handhold about chest height with one hand. With your hips face-on (parallel) see how high you can reach with your free hand. Mark this with a tiny bit of chalk.
  2. Without changing any of the holds, rotate your feet and hips so that the shoulder of your free hand is nearest the wall. The arm that is holding the handhold should be across your chest. With your free hand, see how much higher you can reach.

You should notice that you can reach 2-6 inches higher. Is the same true if you rotate the opposite way?

Counting side-on vs face-on moves

Find a short route or boulder that you can climb and isn’t too taxing, probably 2-3 grades below your max onsight grade or easier. You are going to climb this route 4 times.

  1. Climb the route as you normally would. Get a partner to count how many moves you make that are side-on vs face-on. To do this, make a note of the orientation of the hips when a hand is moved. If the hips are parallel it’s face-on, anything else is side-on. You’ll end up with a record like ‘2 moves side on, 8 moves face on’.
  2. Climb the route again but all moves must be face-on, keeping the hips parallel to the wall as you climb. Your partner won’t need to count moves
  3. Climb the route again but all moves must be side-on. Rotate the hips left or right and pivot on your feet as needed. Your partner won’t need to count moves.
  4. Climb the route again however you feel is appropriate. Again, get your partner to count the moves. You may have a different number this time ‘i.e. 6 moves face-on,  3 moves side-on’

Analysis of results

As you are climbing think about the difficulty of each style. For example, last night some found that climbing face-on was hard, side-on was not quite as hard, but using a combination made the route a lot easier.

Once you’ve finished the round you can have a look at your figures. Did you climbing style change, did you use fewer moves, and which way felt more efficient?

If your first round involved a lot of one style, that might highlight a weakness that you can work on.

Toes to the left, toes to the right

If you are not sure about your hip orientation then work on keeping your feet pointing left or right.

  1. Climb a route and keep your toes pointing left. This will force you into using the inside edge of your left foot and the outside edge of your right foot. Keep you feet pointing the same (left) as you climb.
  2. Repeat the route but have your toes pointing right. You’ll be using the inside of your right foot and the outside of your left.


So there we have it. Changing your body position can help you reach further and by having your hips closer to the wall, you can reduce the load on your arms. If you practice the drills above you’ll feel the difference and you’ll have some more techniques in your climbing toolbox.


Let me know how you get on!

Don’t forget to check out my other How to improve at rock climbing articles, I’ll be adding more soon.

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