The next entry in the How It Works series will highlight the lock-off. Developing lock-off strength is often overlooked as a way to improve climbing skill. Many climbers—especially beginners—don’t know what the technique entails or how to do it. Route setters and gym climbers gravitate toward more explosive movement, leaving the lock-off lonely and neglected.
Befriend the lock-off. Become old pals. It will help you get better as a rock climber. Read, watch, and learn more below.
The lock-off is a static move by definition—there is no dynamic, explosive movement involved. The goal is to retain extreme tension throughout your body in order to stay balanced and in control as you move from one hold to the next.
In the photo above, you can see Eli “locking off” a crimp with his left arm. He first pulls himself up and “locks” his left arm into position, retains tension throughout his left arm and his primary foothold (his right foot, in this case), then reaches up slowly with his right hand. The movement is precise, slow, and static.
A Lock-Off Sequence:
Although it seems like a no-brainer (just crank that thing down and hold it!), achieving a strong lock-off requires quite a bit of coordination and strength.
Using a pull-up bar to train your body in how to hold and release the lock-off position is a great way to start the required upper body strength. But a true lock-off always requires the use of your feet. In fact, some say proper foot technique is more important than the arms while locking off. Regardless, you’ll need strong arms and legs to do it correctly.
After gaining strength and power with your lock-off, you should be able to implement it fluidly throughout the routes you climb. You’ll find yourself flowing through certain moves that once seemed large or off-balance. Check out the following video to see what I mean:
Here are a few ways to build up your lock-off power:
On-the-wall training: The Hover
One of the most popular forms of lock-off training is practiced on the climbing wall. I haven’t heard of a universally accepted name for it, so I’ll just make one up—let’s call it “The Hover.” Choose a route or boulder problem well within your ability to practice this technique.
The goal of The Hover is to climb the route as you normally would, with one minor tweak: every time you make a hand movement, hover your leading hand over the next hold for 3-5 seconds before gripping it. Repeat this for every move, remaining completely static and controlled.
This technique builds strength and muscle memory in the non-leading arm by forcing you to lock off every hold you touch. Likewise, you’ll gain power in your legs (from your toes up to your hips) by holding the tension between them and your arms. As you gain experience with The Hover, start applying it to more difficult routes (i.e. overhangs) to maximize your gains. See the video below for a demonstration of this technique:
Systems wall training
Have you ever noticed that wall in your gym’s training area that’s smattered with symmetrically-arranged climbing holds? That is a “systems wall.” One of its uses is to isolate and train very specific movements—like the lock-off!
Like The Hover technique, you can use the systems wall for repetition training. The systems wall may have a slight advantage, however, in that you can use it to create a huge assortment of different lock-off positions. For example, you might choose two jugs as your starting holds and two other jugs as your destination holds. Now see what happens when you choose different footholds for every lock-off repetition you execute—the whole game changes. Now adjust the angle of the wall, and use slightly worse handholds.
Pull-up hang and release
If you’re new to the sport, this is one of the easiest, most effective ways to build strength in the upper body muscles used for lock-offs—i.e. the shoulders, biceps, and lats. All you need is a pull-up bar or juggy climbing holds.
The exercise is simple: pull yourself into a pull-up position with your chin above the bar and hold yourself there as long as you can, or in timed intervals. As you lose the ability to hold the position during each repetition, try to descend to the ground as steadily and as slowly as possible. Repeat this process until muscle failure. If you’re unable to do a full pull-up, use an elevated surface like a chair to help you get into the position.
Holding a pull-up mimics the static, controlled position of a lock-off, even though you’re using both hands. This is a great first step in building up the necessary muscle memory and strength required for the move.
Interval pull-ups (aka “Frenchies”)
This intermediate technique is essentially the next step after a pull-up hang. It will continue developing power in the muscles noted above.
While executing a normal pull-up, pause halfway through. Hold the position for 3-5 seconds, then continue to the apex of the pull-up. Hold here for 3-5 seconds. Descend halfway, and hold again. Now lower to full arm extension—that’s one repetition.
Interval pull-ups are very tiring, but they build strength fast. Try to do sets of 2-4 reps.
Pull-up one arm release
This advanced technique also requires a pull-up bar. It’s extremely effective at building freakish power in the aforementioned muscles, along with other muscles throughout your core.
Position yourself so the pull-up bar is running in the direction you’re facing. In other words, turn your body 90 degrees from a normal pull-up stance. Reach up and grab the bar with opposing grips, one hand in back (the alpha) and one in front (the beta). Pull yourself up, positioning your head on the side of the bar opposite your alpha hand. Check out the video below for a visual reference.
Next, let go with the beta hand and slowly release the alpha to nearly-full extension. The goal is to keep tension throughout your arm and release the position gradually (try not to drop suddenly, as this could result in shoulder injury). Drop down to the floor between each rep, then switch alpha arms.
One-arm releases are HARD. I would recommend not trying them until you’ve gained significant strength in your arms, especially in your shoulders, and doing only a couple sets to start. For the advanced climber looking to make big gains in lock-off and one-arm strength, go nuts with this exercise.
If you’re more of a visual learner, check out the following video to see me demonstrating the three pull-up bar exercises:
Once you become comfortable with your lock-off skills, you may find a whole new realm of climbing open up to you. The ability to pull down on a grip and hold it there is, after all, the essence of rock climbing, isn’t it? When you can say to yourself, “That move looks huge! But whatever, I’ll just lock it off,” you know you reached a new level.
Do you have any other advice or techniques for locking off? If so, let us know in the comments. Thanks for reading!
About the Author
Connor Griffith has been climbing for 13 years in areas across the world, from California to Colorado to Switzerland. A V11 boulderer with multiple first ascents around the globe, Connor is also a professional route setter, a student of climbing movement, and a coach.