"Indoor gyms have taken away all the good things in climbing such as the views, nature, risk, adventure and fresh air. All that is left is the climbing" Tom Valis

Indoor climbing was first introduced as a means to train for outdoor climbing. Since inception, indoor climbing has evolved to become a sport in its own right. It is common for route setters to create routes indoors that require movements that are no longer only duplications of outdoor climbing but that involve movements that are different and/or more complex than required outdoors. I have heard many outdoor climbers complain that there is a low correlation between indoor and outdoor climbing; the types of routes set may explain this low correlation. To meet the needs of both indoor sport climbers and those training for outdoor climbs, gyms need to ensure that routes are available to meet the needs of both groups.

Differences between Indoor and Outdoor

On my first trip outdoors after an extended period of indoor climbing, I am most impacted by the three dimensionality of the rock. Indoors we climb largely in 2 dimensions created by flat panels, up/down and side to side. It is rare that the 3rd depth dimension is experienced. Outdoors we commonly are required to deal with corners bulges, overhangs, mantles, cracks and slabs, terrain that changes in chaotic fashion throughout this depth dimension. This requires that the climber is skilled in a full range of techniques that deal with constant terrain changes using changing body position and balance. Indoors many of these terrain changes do not exist or occur much less frequently.

All types of climbing moves are required in both venues. However, some moves required indoors occur less frequently outdoors and vice versa. These differences are dramatic in some cases. Almost absent from indoor climbing venues are jams, knee bars and arm bars. Smears and crack climbing moves are greatly reduced.These techniques are very important outdoors and are required on all kinds of routes. For example, even on face climbs a jam or knee bar can offer a rest that means the difference between success and failure.

The protruding holds and the multi edges on indoor holds require a high percentage of pinch grips. Similar pinches occur outdoors, but are much rarer. Outdoors, most holds are open handed, with minimal use of the thumb (i.e. crimping support). The difference is huge, from over 80% pinching indoors to less than 5% outdoors on most routes. Because of the preponderance of pinches indoors, route setters make the routes more difficult by turning and positioning the holds so as to create bizarre and contorted movements rarely if ever experienced outside. To indoor specialists, this is a good thing as it leads the sport in a new direction. To outdoor climbers, it reduces specificity in their training.

Because the moves require pinching, many unique moves can be created. However in most cases the routes cannot be done open handed for training purposes. As a result outdoor climbers end up training non-specific skills. This would be ok if the opportunity to train on more specific route existed but the majority of indoor routes deny this opportunity. The problem stems back to type of holds that are available. Once, when visiting a climbing store, I reviewed about 200 holds made by various well-known manufacturers that were spread out on a table. Out of 200 holds only 3 met the no pinch criteria. Further review of holds show that Hold Manufacturers provide only a few holds in their product line that must be used openhanded. Specific featured climbing panels, used in some gyms, are excellent and help to solve the problem, as the panel features tend to replicate real rock. However they still also depend on added holds and since they are very expensive, not all gyms have them.

Because of the protruding holds and steep walls that predominate indoors, knee drops are essential and used at a very high frequency. Outdoors they are also required but at a much lesser frequency.

Another big difference between outdoor and indoor climbing concerns foot placement technique. Because of the predominance of protruding holds indoors, climbers get in the habit of putting their foot a few inches above the hold and dropping it onto the hold. This is a bad habit that will not be effective outdoors.

Indoors, route setters set sequences that frequently allow only one way of doing the move. Outdoors there are often many options and the climber must be able to choose the best of these. Route finding which is essential to outdoor climbing is minimized indoors.

Routes are made more difficult through adjusting five variables, the size of the holds, the steepness of the wall, the distance of holds from each other, the type of hold and the configuration of holds. Steepness is not a variable that can be adjusted on most routes. On the vertical routes indoors, many route setters rely on distancing holds to increase difficulty along with the configuration of these holds and the size of the holds. As a result women particularly are at a disadvantage since they tend to be shorter and have poorer reaches.

How to Improve Training Specificity

  1. Manufacturers of holds need to develop holds that duplicate those found on outdoor climbs. These would mainly be holds that require an open handed grip without the use thumbs pinching the hold.
  2. Gyms need to establish some routes that replicate outdoor climbs through the use of holds described in #1 and creation of routes that have a higher frequency of moves that replicate movement found more commonly outdoors.
  3. Pre formed panels such as the Enterprise Panels are excellent since they offer many more hand placements that are similar to outdoors and the climber has many footholds to consider.
  4. Route setters need to set routes by using more footholds than are necessary so as to make the moves doable for all climbers and make climbers scan and decide on which hold to use.
Bob Bennell
May 7, 2000

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