Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Chris Hampton and I host the Power Company podcast. I’m also the owner of Power Company Climbing, which is a group of coaches that trains climbers. We try to give climbers the tools they need to succeed, whether that’s specific products to streamline their process, or coaching, or the podcast, or whatever it is. I come to this field from a background in skateboarding and gymnastics. I was a hardcore skater for many years, as well as a gymnast and a gymnastics coach. I came to climbing after those things, so I bring processes I learned there into my climbing and coaching.
Our discussion today is about preventing injuries. What injuries have you experienced, and what is your general process for avoiding them?
I think I’m lucky in that I haven’t had a lot of injuries. I’m good at toeing that line that exists when you’re performing at a high level. I’ve had a few finger problems, as well as some hamstring injuries, but they were all small. The only major injury that interfered with climbing was something caused by work conditions. I used to be a mural painter, and I spent a lot of time working on overhead ceilings, which involved pressing hard on the ceilings for different decorative techniques. My right shoulder eventually blew out. It was a labrum tear combined with a full tear of the supraspinatus. My biceps long head was totally shredded, so they had to cut a piece out of the biceps tendon to repair the shoulder. That was my major injury.
In terms of preventing injuries, my number one strategy is that, as soon as I start to feel those tweaks or tingles, I try to figure out the cause. Maybe I’m grabbing a hold in a certain way. Or maybe I can feel it when I do a certain type of move. Whatever it is, I try to back off that specific activity. I don’t quit entirely, but I try to reduce motion to a lower level that feels more bearable. Then I build back up slowly.
As I mentioned, my shoulder injury stopped me cold for a while. But in that time, I found things I could do, so that when I came back from the surgery, I ended up climbing some extremely difficult boulders after only a few months. Ultimately, I came back stronger than I was before.
What specifically did you do while unable to load your shoulder?
I got lucky in that my physical therapist was a climber. She would do manual manipulations to keep mobility, and she gave me strengthening exercises as well, including time in the weight room. Outside of her requirements, she asked me to experiment and see what I could do. Given my background as a coach, she trusted me to try and do that. So, I came up with things that made sense, for instance. light dead lifts. As long as I kept my shoulder and arm below my head, I would try it. Gradually I got stronger and could move from dead lifts and kettlebell swings into lightweight overhead. During that process of strengthening the shoulder in general, I discovered that if I got on a really steep system board, I could maintain holds in front of me and just move my feet around. I couldn’t go overhead, but I could still spent quite a bit of time on the board. I would move my feet and practice my tension while on a specific grade. Pitches, crimps or whatever. When I was finally able to climb again, everything came back so fast. In fact, I didn’t feel like I had lost much. It was like shaking off a little bit of rust.
On a systems board that’s completely overhung, the huge benefit is that neither your shoulders nor hands are above your head. So, you can really train your fingers. It’s also shoulder stability in a non-aggravating position.
Yes. I was trying hard to stay engaged. I wasn’t trying to lock my scapula back, but I was making sure I wasn’t letting my shoulders go. And I was paying really close attention to how I held the tension and where I placed my feet. Those things make a big difference in climbing, though we often take them for granted when our shoulders are healthy.
What exercises do you really enjoy, or do more frequently than others, especially as a way to avoid injury?
Strength training. To a point, I think it can go too far and become its own thing. But I do like to feel strong and resilient. When I’m on a road trip, I take a couple of kettlebells with me and I’ll do some workouts that focus on hinge patterns and things like that.
Over the years, my hips and hamstrings have gotten ridiculously tight and immobile from sitting in chairs, or from driving in a car to jobs when I was a mural artist. So I use a foam roller and lacrosse ball, which help me feel like I’m moving better. I spend five or ten minutes before I get going for the day; it doesn’t take much time and it makes me feel like I’m more prepared. For me, that’s a win.
It makes sense to bring along the kettlebell if you’re driving. But what if you’re traveling by flight? Do you have any tips or ideas to maintain strength without heavier equipment?
When I was a gymnast, we did a lot of strength training using just body weight. I’m a firm believer that you can get very strong using such methods. I’ve seen it happen over and over and over. Having a general strength routine that I can do daily just feels better, and goes a long way.
What are some of your go-to drills and quick hits for improving footwork.
I have to preface this by saying it all comes down to how you practice. There’s this big idea that “ten thousand hours makes you a master,” but that isn’t entirely true. It’s more about the way you practice and how deliberate you are in that practice. For instance, by focusing attention on your footwork, how much are you driving through your legs? If you try to improve it over time, you’ll get better at it. It takes deliberate attention and it might look funny in a commercial gym. People might look at you and wonder why you’re tackling easy problems over and over. It’s because you’re learning to put your attention into your footwork. Later, you can take that to a climb that’s moderate for you, maybe even hard, depending on how good you’ve gotten at it.
The trouble is, many people want to jump to those hard boulders faster. But when they get there, they’re overwhelmed. There’s so much input. They have to maintain a bad hold, have to swing off, have to think about tension while swinging, et cetera. It’s easy to just forget about the footholds. That’s why you have to learn to keep your attention on your feet until it becomes automatic. Of course, that takes quite a bit of time. But that’s where the Jimmy Webb and the Daniel Woods are. The reason they’re so good at keeping their feet on and maintaining tension is because it’s automatic.
When you talk about attention, is that just awareness? Or does it include literally looking at your feet?
It’s all those things. There are many parts of it, but they all come down to keying into different moves. You can focus on a specific cue that allows you to not have to think about the rest of the move, and instead focus on this one little thing.
We have a drill called rooting, in which we think only about trying to put your weight through your feet and then climb a problem. You do it a couple of times, just focusing on your feet, and putting your weight through them as much as you can. And you’ll do that over time on gradually harder and harder boulders until it starts to become more and more automatic for you. At the base level, I think that rooting drill is a great start for people. It feels strange at first, but I’ve gotten so much feedback from people over the years saying they just sent a project and didn’t realize until they were through the most challenge move that they were doing the rooting drill during the crux. That’s a big win, as far as I’m concerned.
What are some differences between intermediate and elite climbers, in terms of movement efficiency?
One of the biggest things I notice ties into the idea of driving through your feet and keeping tension. On a lot of big, dynamic moves, pro climbers can slow a move down right at the last second. They’re a little more precise. They’re not loading their fingers as harshly as somebody who might just fling their body at it and hit it totally out of control. Pros have a level of control in there before they hit the hold, which allows them be more efficient and stay on. That comes down to the tension they’re able to keep or reapply.
I don’t think of tension as a light switch. I think of it more like a dial. When a really good climber initiates a big, dynamic move, maybe they’ve turned that tension dial way down. But then near the end of the move, they’re able to dial the tension up and slow the move down. Even though they’re in the air, they’re able to slow the move down, hit the hold more precisely, be in more control, and have more left for the rest of the climb. In contrast, a less skilled climber with less control might hit the hold, but they’ve spent so much energy latching on that they fall off the next move.
Are there any drills you recommend to develop the coordination of tension, the speed of movement, and the ability to slow down when you’re about to contact?
We kind of have a training hierarchy that starts with the rooting drill I mentioned earlier. The whole thing was originally imagined by one of my coaches. We worked on it together and created an e-book that we have out called Applied Body Tension that works you through the whole system. The drill in which we focus on the tension at the end of a move, we call Dead Stops. You’ve already worked on rooting, on creating tension through your lower legs. You’ve turned that into something automatic. You’ve learned how to create tension through the arms. That’s also become automatic. Then we start focusing moving our attention away from the feet and arms, as they’re in contact with the wall. Instead, we focus on your tension at the end of a move. You’ll do a move that’s moderately hard for you. It’s difficult, but you attempt to slow it down at the end, and make small gains. It shouldn’t be a move so easy that you can just stop in midair and hover over the hold, although that’s valuable. But that’s further down in the hierarchy. Dead Stops are more about slowing the move down enough that you can be precise right at the end.
Where can people find you if they want to follow up and check out some of your resources?
We’re at PowerCompanyClimbing.com, or search for Power Company Climbing on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest.