Rock Climbing Techniques – Avoiding a Pump

A classic rock climber’s enemy is the so-called flash pump, which we discuss in a separate article. Here the muscles build up with lactic acid because the climber hasn’t warmed up properly. Result? The rock climber’s muscles fail to do their stuff. The climber either falls off or ends up hanging on the rope, having failed on the route.

While the rock climber’s flash pump is eminently avoidable by thorough warming up, sustained, strenuous climbing will still cause arms to blow up like Popeye’s. Fingers weaken and uncurl, sometimes at the most inconvenient times. In rock climbing jargon, you’re pumped.

You can avoid a pump for as long as possible by breaking a climb into sections and using rests between sections. On the first ascent of Realization (5.14d/F9a), the then hardest route in the world, Chris Sharma rested for more than 10 minutes before completing a final section of relatively lowly 5.12d/F7c climbing. Sharma had the mental discipline to remain in the rest until he had obtained maximum advantage from it. Conversely, many climbers I know leave rests too soon, because they tire of the mental uncertainty and, “just want to get it all over with.” Unfortunately, if they’re still tired, it may be over very quickly indeed – but not in the way they wanted.

Of course, some rests are ‘sucker rests’, good for maybe 20, 30 or 40 seconds but no more. A quick shakeout and it’s best to press on. As with everything else in climbing, you just have to use your judgement and do what seems best.

Between rests, you may not be able to avoid a pump but you can certainly get better at managing it. I like to get a hand off and shake out as often as I can (which is usually pretty often!) Obviously the more power you have, the easier it is to hang from the other hand – so get power! Shaking hands out alternately can relieve the pump almost totally. In addition, there is a huge feeling of self-confidence as the pump vanishes and you become almost fully physically recovered.

When I shake my hands out, I drop them as much as possible. Flexing the fingers seems to improve the blood flow and reduce the risk of tendon damage if I’m pulling on tiny holds.

One final tip that really works wonders for me: even during hard sequences, I find I can often do ‘micro shakeouts’ or at least flex my fingers even between moves. Although this only gives momentary respite, believe me, momentary respite is so much better than no respite. For me, it can make the difference between completing a 30 metre 5.12 and falling off.

Many people think that elite climbers never get pumped. I can assure you that they do. However they tend to be far better than the rest of us at managing the pump. If you follow the simple strategies outlined above, you too will become better at managing the pump. Improvement isn’t just for elite climbers; it’s for all of us.