Growing up, I was always a fan of martial arts but for some reasons, never took any class (here I'll choose to ignore a couple years of Taekwondo). Instead, at age 14, I started rock climbing. This would become my passion and, for the next 15 years, all my life was centered around climbing. I traveled the world searching for the best rock and ran a fairly successful website, drtopo.com. During that time, I would often discuss with friends how climbing was similar to martial arts and we'd argue how well a a guy like Bruce Lee or Jet Li would do in climbing.
Although I never saw a high level martial artist start climbing, I saw many gymnast get into it and it became obvious to me that gymnastic is one of the best background to get into climbing. Well, here I will argue than just like wrestling, climbing is one of the best background to start BJJ (and probably all type of grappling).
At age 30, nagging injuries made climbing a pain in the ass so I finally decided to switch my focus into something else and here I am, in my third year of BJJ. I must say that I'm loving every minutes of it and I just wished I picked up BJJ sooner.
So, without further ado, here are some similarity between climbing and BJJ.
- pulling more than pushing
The two disciplines share the same basic movements. It's one of the first thing beginners get told in BJJ, you need to pull rather than push your opponents. Pushing requires too much strength and will get you submitted if you do it at the wrong time. In climbing, you almost never push but are always pulling yourself to the rock. It is such disparity in climbing that climbers must do a lot of push-ups to work the reverse muscles and avoid injuries.
- variety of grips
It's one of the first thing BJJ player think of about climbing. It must give you super grip strength. I guess it does although this has never been my forte. Still, I remember one day at the beginning when someone told me my gi-grip was wrong and he could just pull his sleeve if he wanted to. As he tried to demonstrate my grip remained strong and his sleeve didn't move an inch. Still, the strongest grip in my class belongs to a removal man. I think my advantage here is more for the variety of grips. In climbing, there are hundreds of ways to grab a hold and if my instructor tells me, don't put your thumb here, no pinky here or palm up on this one, it all feels natural to me. I usually spot and remember the proper grip, thanks to my years of climbing
- remembering sequences
Along the same line as remembering the proper grip, climbers are used to memorize long series of moves (and not just the hands). A classic game of indoor climbing is the Add-On. One climber start and do one move. Another one goes afterward, do the same move and then add one. Then a third climber repeat and add a third move. And so on. Usually, if your body can follow, you can go and remember more than 40 moves. Another big climbing skill (and one of my favorite) is flashing routes. This means that you watch someone (or a few persons) climb a route and then you try to climb the route on your first try, using the knowledge you acquired watching the others. On one of my favorite climbing moment, I watched two locals climb something in Red Rocks, Las Vegas. When it was my turn, it felt like I had climbed that route a dozen times, although it was only my first.
This skill makes it easy to remember when my instructor shows long sequences. Even as a white belt, I would often tell blue and purple belts what the next move was. (Although I often get lost when there's a lot of spinning involved).
When you work on a climbing route (ie try it for a long time), you visualise the moves a lot. Before going to bed, I'd do the moves in my head and would visualize every details. Hand sequences, type of grips, foot placements, body placements, etc. Once again, after some time, this can be done for 50 moves or more, with a great amount of details. I use this in BJJ, when I visualize what we did in class and ingrain it in my memory. Same thing for stuff I like on youtube or on dvds. I've done a few submissions from stuff I've never practice once, but visualized many times. I haven't drill enough yet to have muscle memory, but I have a bit of "visualisation memory".
- using the legs
Just like you tell BJJ beginners to pull, not push, you always tell novice climbers to push with their legs rather than pull with your arms. You see that especially with strong guys, they will pull with their arms since it allows them to do the first moves but after 10 moves, they are dead. Girls, on the other hand, don't have that strength so they will use their legs from the start. Your legs are so strong, use them... Same thing with BJJ when it's an arm against a leg. The leg win. In BJJ you have to use you leg as much as possible. Just look at the size of the legs of Marcelo Garcia. I must admit that I haven't been able to fully transfer that concept yet, but I'm working on it.
- pacing yourself
It must be the same in most sport, but is blatant in climbing. You have to pace yourself. Use the minimum of energy for each moves, learn when and how to rest. This is crucial if you want to reach the top without falling. Same thing with bjj. You often hear that you should only use strength to finish a submission or to escape one. You have to remain calm even in the face of danger (facing a big fall in climbing, or facing a bad position in bjj). Control your breathing... I don't have a good cardio, but I'm one of the guy that rolls the most in my class because I pace myself.
Still, some strength is needed in both climbing and bjj. Since they share the same basic movement (pulling), my body is used to it. Especially locking the arms bent. I've been told by the removal man with the sick grip strength that I was using too much strength. This surprised me because I've been really careful about that since the start (especially since my dojo has many lightweight). I know that girls like to roll with my cuz I'm really relax and I practice lazy-jutsu. So his comment surprised me and I thought about it for a while. Maybe it's because of the resistance thing. I'll keep my arms bend and keep them like that for a long time. However, this is achieved without much strength and seems a natural thing to do after 15 years of holding to a cliff. Well, at least I hope that's what it is. I definitely don't want to muscle my way around while I do bjj.
- not overgripping
Another key skill, that goes along with pacing yourself but deserve a special mention by itself. When you're holding yourself with the tips of your fingers, it's tempting to squeeze as hard as you can. However, do that and you have nothing left in 2 minutes. You have to grab each holds with just the right amount of energy. Same thing with the grips in grappling. If you grip with all your strength, you'll barely be able to survive 5 minutes. What happens then in a 10 minute match? Or in a 20 minute match? This seemed to be a key strategy of Ryron Gracie at Metamoris. Use the minimum amount of grip early in the match and save it for the end.
- the hips
We hear it all the time in bjj, the hips are of the uttermost importance. Scoop outside, turn a little, switch sides, etc. It might not be as obvious when you start climbing, but as you progress, you realize that moving your hips sideways here, closer there or turning them there makes a world of difference. It's another thing that wasn't my forte in climbing but still, being aware of the concept makes me pay close attention to my hips during bjj class.
- heel hook, toe hook
The basic movements of the legs in climbing is to push you up the wall, but as you progress and climb steeper stuff, your legs start to do something else... They pull you into the rock. Heel hooks and toe hooks are key in higher level climbing and you learn to have great precision and sensitivity as your foot pulls you in while your body progress a move or two. In bjj, it seems to be the opposite. Your body stays in place, but your hooks follow your opponent. Yet, the sensitivity remain the same and it seems natural to me to keep pulling with the top of my toe against someone else leg and just follow them.
All right. That's a long article. Dang! I should wrap it up here but I have to point a few differences too.
- of the couch.
Climbing sucks for one thing. Unless you're a complete natural, when you stop for a few weeks, even a few days, it seems you loose so much strength and you just suck every time you get back into it. Bjj doesn't do that to me (although I hear people complain about that at the dojo). If you learn to roll without much strength, taking time off is not a big deal. I have to stop 3 months each year because of my job and last year, the top dog of the class said I somehow got better after that long time off of doing nothing (well it's not nothing since I watch videos and visualize a lot). That definitely a plus for bjj, especially when you get older and life doesn't let you play every day.
I did a fair amount of climbing competitions when I was younger and I quickly learned to fend of the stress and stay relaxed. So when I did a small in-house competition this year I thought I could apply that skill on the mat. Boy was I wrong. As I faced my first opponent my blood was boiling and I was everything but relaxed. I'm sure I'll learn do deal with this stress if I pursue the competition aspect of bjj but it's a totally different type of pressure.
- gravity on your side
When you climb, you're always going against gravity. When you grapple and you're on top, gravity is on your side and that's really cool. Weight to strength ratio is key in climbing and my body type ain't the best for that. For bjj, being heavy is good and it seems like all body types can find advantages. My short and stocky nature is no longer a curse but is now a blessing.
- watching movies
I find climbing movies a lot of fun. I watched a bunch of them and made a fair amount as well. They can get you motivated and entertain you. However, unless you're planning on climbing the exact same route from the movie you're watching, you can't learn much from a climbing movie. Bjj is the opposite. Except for a few movies (usually involving Marcelo Garcia), bjj videos are not super entertaining but are very informative. You can learn a lot of techniques from dvds and youtube (if you separate the gems from the junk).
Ok. I'll stop now. Thanks for reading. This article doesn't imply that if you start rock climbing, you'll get all these benefits from the get go, but I think that it can be a great thing to complement your bjj if you're into that sort of things.
And if enough of you rec my article, maybe that will encourage me to write my next fanpost that will be titled "Steven Seagal : I want to believe".
Now, keep calm and roll on.