Climbing Handholds: What Can I Hold?
When one walks into a climbing gym for the first time or first time in months, their eyes are drawn automatically to the brightly colored holds on the walls and structures. As odd or funny as some may look, they serve a purpose to help you become a better climber.
Climbing handholds or holds are hard plastic pieces attached to a wall or boulder so climbers can grab or step on it. The holds are arranged in paths called routes or problems, by trained route setters. They’re bolted or screwed in. Also, they come in a broad array of sizes and shapes to provide different challenges for climbers.
I’m Grabbing a What?
According to Jake and Kyle Love from Badwater Bouldering Productions, there are at least seven types of holds used for climbing. One word you’ll hear a lot when describing holds is their positivity. According to the University of Oregon’s Outdoor Pursuits Program webpage author Chuck Woodward, positivity refers to the ease of maintaining contact with a hold. There’s an inverse relationship between the positivity of holds and the force required for adherence to them (the more positive the hold, the less energy necessary to hold on). For example, if one has a deep incut, a well-defined edge, or is easy to grab, it is considered positive.
Those types are:
- Edges and Crimps
- Flakes and Underclings
Jugs are traditionally large; incut holds with space for both hands to fit on the hold. To help visualize, think of the handle of a gallon-sized milk jug. This hold is easy to grip comfortably. The word jug can also mean a hold’s awesome positivity. One would find many of this kind on beginner routes and problems because they’re easy to grab. In my opinion, they’re the favorite to have when climbing.
Slopers are very rounded and lack a definite edge or lip to grip. Usually more substantial in size, friction and strength are your friends when it comes to holding on to these. I have a tough time with slopers because friction is the main factor when tackling it. What I have found is to spend as little time on the hold as possible. It does help though to practice climbing on them. Once one can get above it, a decent move could be to push off from the top. Slopers are the most positive when your weight is distributed directly below the hold with your arms straight. (I think that’s the only time they are positive.)
Edges and Crimps
An edge is a flat face that meets the wall at around a 90° angle. This type of hold can have an outside rim or lip, and can also be slightly rounded. There are 2 kinds of edges.
Crimp or crimper is a small, shallow edge. An edge is considered a crimp when there is only enough room to place about one knuckle, or one pad, of your finger(s) on it. If it’s big enough to have two, it’s considered an edge. Crimps force the hands into a distinctive “crimp” shape resulting in the knuckles just behind the fingernails settling into a collapsed position. Crimps can be hard to hang on, especially if there’s no finger strength because you’re holding on to such a small area.
Sidepulls are a vertically or diagonally oriented edge with the face pointing away from you. Thus, you pull sideways instead of straight down, hence the name. Sidepulls are positive when you are pulling towards yourself while maintaining an oppositional force. For example, if the sidepull is to your left, then lean and push with your legs to the right. Sidepulls can be tricky to get used to if you don’t grab them often.
Pockets are holds that have an opening, shallow or deep, that allows one to hold them with only one to four fingers. One needs a lot of finger strength for these. Pockets that are only large enough for one finger are called monos. When using one- and two-finger pockets, use the most muscular fingers—the middle finger for monos and the middle and ring fingers for two-finger pockets. It’s best to use as many fingers as possible to increase surface area if possible.
Pinches are holds with two opposing faces, which must be pinched (usually by the entire hand, with fingers on one side and thumb on the other) to grip. Technically, any hold in which the use of the thumb in opposition improves the hold’s positivity is a pinch. Pinches require significant hand strength and commonly used for more challenging routes plus boulder problems. These vary in size.
Flakes and Underclings
Flakes are thin slabs detached from the main face of the wall or rock. An undercling is a flake with the incut facing down. These require oppositional force and become more positive as you move your feet up. To use it, one pulls up and out while pressing down against the wall with their feet to move. Underclings are awkward to use if you’re not used to holding them.
Rails are long, flat, cylindrical, or sometimes bumpy holds that are usually big enough to match (have both) hands. However, some are incut or slopey. Others are narrow enough to pinch. Often, rails are positive, but some can still suck to grab.
I’m going to mention a small disclaimer regarding climbing holds; all these types have variations within them. For example, you can have a juggy undercling or a sloper-y pinch. Once you climb outside, it’s not as obvious what’s positive and what’s not.
Some features that people do use as well to climb are volumes, aréts, and huecos. These aren’t holds per se. That’s why I don’t have them listed above.
How Do I Grab That?
Now, I hope you have a better understanding of what climbing holds are or had a refresher. The next step is grabbing and holding them efficiently. I may have mentioned some of the information already, but I’ll go more in-depth on why particular holds should are held a certain way. So, when you’re climbing, your body is safer, and not struggling as much trying to send. Until next time, happy bouldering!