Climbing superstars are testing the limits of human strength

In 2016, Shauna Coxsey reached the final of the bouldering competition at the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Climbing World Cup in Munich’s Olympiastadion. The British climber had competed at the venue previously, coming third in 2012 and second in 2014 and ‘15. This time, beneath an undulating glass canopy inspired by the Alps, she faced four climbs up four different walls. Dotted with sharp, geometric resin outcrops, they looked more like the frozen screen of an early video game than a real-life mountain.
The rules of bouldering competitions are simple. The athlete is kept in isolation, unable to see the wall or their competitors. They step out, a buzzer goes, and the clock starts counting down. They have four minutes to complete a 3D puzzle, designed by some of the best climbers in the world to be so mentally and physically taxing that it’s just about possible to solve – but not by every competitor, and definitely not on the first try.
Coxsey examined the first route carefully for as long as she dared – a near-90-degree outcrop followed by a knife-edge grey hold – then hurled herself up the wall with nothing but bare hands, rubber shoes and a bag of chalk. She used fingertips, hips, toes, elbows, knees – every part of the body pushed to its limit. Climbers are allowed to fall off the wall and start again, as long as they hit the top within 240 seconds, but she made the summit with barely a pause.


On her second climb, she faced a wall with ten sharp, angular outcrops. She pushed off with her feet, leaping almost her full body length up and over an overhang, dangling from a tiny hold with her right arm while chalking up her left. She bounded a few more feet, reached out for a murky black shape and felt something tear in her shoulder. Although she didn’t realise at the time, she’d torn her labrum, the cup-shaped rim of cartilage that lines the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder. Tears to the labrum make the shoulder hang loose and risk dislocation.
Ignoring the injury, her adrenaline carried her to the top and then on through her third climb, a challenging route involving several leaps and plenty of upper body strength, which she aced at the first attempt. At the fourth climb, her shoulder finally gave way. The wall looked like a half-finished game of Tetris, with L-shaped green holds set at right angles. Her first move needed to be a hard dynamic leap to grab a sheer surface. No other competitor had made it, and for a second it looked like she might, but her time ticked away and she walked slowly back to her changing room – disappointed, perhaps, but not defeated.
Across the World Cup bouldering season, which consists of seven competitions on three continents, Coxsey had already finished first four times – enough to secure her first World Cup win. On the podium she couldn’t raise her arm to celebrate. She headed back to her hotel room with her training partner and best friend Leah Crane – the two look like sisters, with the same height, same build and same blonde hair – where she tried to take her jumper off. A wave of pain tore through her. “Leah,” she said quietly. “I can’t get undressed. Help me.” Then she burst into tears.
Typically, says Dr Stephen Fealy, an orthopaedic surgeon at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, athletes take up to a year to recover from a labral tear and, if lucky, regain up to 80 per cent of their pre-injury performance. Fealy, however, deals with American football players, baseball pitchers and weightlifters – not climbers. In 2017, 12 months after her injury, Coxsey returned to the World Cup, and won it again.


“It was totally crazy to win,” she says, shaking her head. “All I was thinking about was getting stronger. But I did it.”
Her next challenge is her biggest yet, and something the climbing community has never seen before: in 2021, climbing will debut as a new sport for the Tokyo Olympics, and Coxsey is the only British athlete selected to compete. It comes at a time when climbing has never been so popular – the IFSC estimates 45 million people now participate in indoor sport climbing globally, just below the figures for golf and baseball – and marks a new milestone in its development as a competitive sport.

Coxsey trains at Sheffield’s Climbing Works
Sabrina Bongiovanni

Historically, climbing wasn’t a sport at all. People have been clambering up mountains since at least Palaeolithic times, when hunter-gatherers followed herds uphill from winter to summer pastures. The first officially recorded climb was Antoine de Ville’s 1492 free solo ascent – the technical term for climbing alone without equipment – of Mont Aiguille, near Grenoble in France. De Ville, however, was attempting to prove the value of techniques designed to attack besieged castles. It was Walter Parry Haskett Smith’s 1886 ascent of Napes Needle in the Lake District that introduced rock climbing as an activity in its own right, rather than a necessary evil on the way to the summit of a mountain.


After the publicity around Smith’s 1886 ascent, climbing – then known as Alpinism – spread through Europe and the US. The idea of climbing low boulders or artificial walls arose initially to deal with specific problems encountered on mountains. Bouldering began in an area of unusual geology around Fontainebleau, south of Paris, where huge boulders of hard sandstone poke out of sandy ground. So-called Bleausards made up the French expeditions mapping the central Asian Karakoram range and the first ascent of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas. Edmund Hillary, meanwhile, trained for his team’s ascent of Everest on tricky sections of Snowdon.
“For the best part of a century, rock climbing existed as part of an overall mountaineering tradition,” British climbing historian Mick Ward explains. “Climbing on a 40-foot cliff in the Peak District was viewed as training for a 200-foot cliff in Wales, which was viewed as training for a 12,000-foot peak in the Alps, which was viewed as training for a 20,000-foot mountain in the Himalayas.”
In the 1960s and 70s, new generations of rock climbers emerged with no interest in reaching mountain summits. Natalie Berry, climber and editor in chief of, cites climbers such as American mathematician John Gill, considered by some as the father of modern bouldering, and Leeds University sports lecturer Don Robinson, who built one of the first indoor climbing walls in the university in 1964, as key players in creating what’s now known as sport climbing.
The first sport climbing competitions, conducted outdoors, appeared in the 1980s, but the 1990s saw an influx of indoor climbing walls in the UK and US. Early climbing wall The Foundry, opened in Sheffield in 1991 by climber Jerry Moffatt, offered the then-revolutionary format of movable polyester resin holds. These meant routes could be designed, removed and reset – but polyester was brittle, and easy to chip or break.
It wasn’t until Chas Fisher, the Colorado-based founder of climbing wall company Straight Up, hired intern Josh Doolittle from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1992, that the climbing world was introduced to high density carving foam. These foams, which come in a variety of densities, mimic different types of rock – sandstone, granite, limestone, basalt, schist – as well as new textures not seen in nature. Hold designers carve shapes from the foam to create silicone moulds that they cover in durable, flexible polyurethane.

Leah Crane (left) and Shauna Coxsey scaling a modular wall at Unit E
Sabrina Bongiovanni

Traditionally, holds resembled features you’d find in nature. The basics are still in use, known as jugs, crimps, pockets, slopers and pinches. Jugs are hooks or bowls that are easy to grab; crimps are small edges only big enough for fingertips; pockets are small holes that fit between one and three fingers; slopers are surfaces that have no lips or edges and where gripping involves pressing the hand down to generate as much friction as possible; and pinches look like a squeezed sponge where thumb strength is key. More recently, huge surreal shapes known as piggybacks and volumes – lifesize features that instantly change the wall’s climbing terrain – have joined the route setter’s toolbox.
“At competition level, route setters want the most beautiful and most complicated holds imaginable,” says Percy Bishton, bouldering’s chief route setter at the Olympics and an experienced climber in his own right.
“Route setting is a creative job, so many are sculptors or creatives and make holds themselves. Hold development – like volumes and macros and geometric shapes – are route setters dreaming up new things to make the climb more ambiguous. If it’s just holds in a line you can see what to do; if it’s an amorphous collection of huge triangles with no visible holds, that becomes harder to solve.”
As route setting has evolved, climbers’ responses have expanded in an arms race of technical virtuosity. Traditional climbing moves such as bridging (applying equal pressure with the feet and hands in opposite directions on opposing pieces of the rock face), flagging (dangling a leg out to improve balance when climbing) and smearing (literally placing your feet on a stretch of the wall or miniscule hold and relying on shoe friction and the weight on the ball of your foot to prevent falling) are still essential.
The more explosive climbers, like Shauna Coxsey, use slaps, jumps and dynos – jumping from one hold to another – as well as dead pointing (the moment in a leaping arc where the body is moving neither up nor down and is the perfect time to grab a specific hold) and rock overs (placing the foot on a high hold and rocking the centre of gravity on to it) to complete ever more complex climbs.
One of the key pioneers of these new dynamic climbing techniques is Udo Neumann, a sports scientist who started coaching the German bouldering team in 2009. “I approached the training not from traditional climbing – more from a skill acquisition point of view,” he explains. “Climbing techniques were created by mountain guides who had to make sure that their party survived the climb. Those climbers always try to gain control by pulling themselves into the wall and pulling up with the arms. From the 1990s up to 2010, that was fine – but as the walls sloped further and further back and the holds became smoother and larger, they made it hard to climb if all you had were your arms.”
Neumann noticed 90s climbing legend Chris Sharma’s then-controversial technique where he’d stand on one foot and leave the other dangling. He realised Sharma’s leg was helping him balance in the same way as Old World monkeys with non-prehensile tails – tails that cannot grasp branches in the way that those of spider monkeys can. “At the time, the dogma was that both feet and hip had to be as close to the wall as possible,” Neumann explains. “But there was no truth in that. If you watch apes climb, they are so explosive and jumpy. They use their legs and centre of gravity far more than their arms. Rock climbing was two-dimensional with a very limited repertoire of movement. In fact, the explosive jumps of modern bouldering are just the moves our ancestors were making 100,000 years ago.”
Neumann’s ideas spread rapidly and were adapted, blending with gymnastics and “buildering” – a climbing style from the 80s that uses urban landscapes to practice bouldering techniques. Modern indoor bouldering problems require climbers to make big and dynamic movements where co-ordination is as important as strength – equal parts climbing, gymnastics and parkour.
“Climbing has evolved,” Bishton says. “When it started it was quite boring to watch unless you were a climber. As climbing has become more mainstream and moved towards Olympic sport, both the federation and climbers realised it needed to provide more entertainment.” As a route setter, he aims to make climbers push as hard as they can. “The ideal route is one that only a single person in the competition is good enough to complete, and in doing so tests the outer limits of friction with their shoes and their skin.”

Sam Whittaker, co-owner of Climbing Works, setting a new route
Sabrina Bongiovanni

The limits of my shoes and my skin,” Shauna Coxsey nods. “That sounds so simple when you say it like that. You have no idea what you will face on the wall – could be epic leg strength or all about fingers or a problem you can’t solve in your head. Most Olympic athletes can train so hard on minute improvements, which is fine for a track race. We have to be ready for anything. Rubber, chalk and muscle is where our improvements lie.”
She takes a sip from a huge mug of tea and turns to look at the odd geometric holds on the overhanging wall at Unit E, the elite Olympic training wall at Sheffield’s Climbing Works. It’s a cold February morning and Unit E is packed with people – press, officials, fans and her team – all there to hear Coxsey named as Team GB’s only Olympic climbing contestant. “I would watch the Olympics as a kid and be inspired, but also feel quite disconnected too,” she says. “You felt as a climber that you’d never get to that level. But honestly if there was ever a sport that matched the Olympic motto – faster, higher, stronger – it’s literally climbing.”
When she was three years old, Coxsey watched a TV documentary with her dad on the French climber Catherine Destivelle as she free-soloed towering red sandstone cliffs in Mali, gripping smooth undulations and hanging by her arms and legs from overhangs jutting out at least three metres into the void. The documentary is still online; if anything, the climb looks more complex and dangerous than Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan – the subject of the 2018 Oscar winning documentary, Free Solo. Destivelle’s final few feet see her clamber up a slim rock pillar and on to an overhanging stone table top. When it was over, Coxsey turned to her dad and said, “I want to do that.”
Her computer-tech father found a nearby indoor climbing wall, and by the age of four she was mastering the basics. She started competing when she was seven, won her first national championship aged nine and competed internationally when she was 13. She moved over to bouldering aged 16, in part for its more social aspect – boulder climbers hang out on the bouldering mats at the bottom of the low walls, yelling encouragement to each other, while lead climbers may have a belay partner holding their safety rope but conversations are generally technical – and partly because she hadn’t been able to compete in bouldering championships at junior level.
Aged 19 she nearly lost her way. She had broken her leg bouldering in Switzerland’s Magic Wood and found herself sat on her sofa eating biscuits and realising that if she went climbing too soon, she’d probably injure herself. “Proper competitive climbers didn’t exist in the UK at that point,” she says. “You had people who entered competitions, but you couldn’t call yourself a sportsperson. I decided to train like an athlete, not a climber; I wanted to be in the gym making myself strong for climbing, working with physios, trainers and psychologists.”
It was a smart move. Within the same year, she finished third in the IFSC World Cup. Her back-to-back wins four and five years later made her the most successful British climber in history, and in 2016 she earned an MBE for her contributions to the British climbing community. She admits that she had to take curtsying lessons before the ceremony.
While Coxsey’s career was taking off, climbing was approaching the summit of its own long scramble towards Olympic acceptance – a process that began in 2009 when the IFCS and British Mountaineering Council united with other national climbing bodies to lobby for the sport’s inclusion in the games, and ended in August 2016 when the sport was accepted for Tokyo 2020. Suddenly, an Olympic medal became a realistic goal for Coxsey – although she faced one big problem.
Most sport climbers compete in one of three disciplines: bouldering, lead climbing or speed climbing. In bouldering, athletes scale a number of fixed routes on a 4.5m wall. In lead climbing, they try to get as high up a 15m wall as possible, attaching a safety rope as they go. In both, athletes compete on unseen routes against the clock, climbing each wall alone. Speed climbing is almost a different sport entirely; it involves racing another competitor up a 15-metre-high pre-set route, meaning everyone has the chance to prepare their strategy in advance. To win Olympic gold, you have to excel at all three.
So different are the disciplines that combining them met with some strong resistance from the sport climbing community. US free climbing pioneer Lynn Hill told Climbing magazine it was like “asking a middle distance runner to compete in the sprint,” while Ward describes speed climbing as “monkey on a stick stuff, no matter how physically impressive. It’s antithetical to much of climbing’s history and culture.”
Coxsey was sanguine about lead, but speed climbing worried her. “I’ve never trained again and again on the same route,” she says. “It’s a closed system and you need a completely different approach.” She asked Crane to become her full-time coach and, thanks to sponsorship deals with Red Bull and adidas, now has a sports psychologist, two physiotherapists and a management team on her payroll.
Team psychologist Tim Pitt warns that the combination of physical and mental challenges across the three disciplines will place severe demands on athletes. “This is entirely new territory,” he says. “Each discipline requires huge psychological adaptation. In bouldering you need a problem-solving mindset. In lead climbing it’s about tolerating pain – the burn in the forearm from lactic acid build-up – while staying focused on the next hold. Speed climbing, you have to go into automatic mode and ignore the climber next to you.”

Coxsey is Britain’s number-one sport climber and a 2021 Olympic contender
Sabrina Bongiovanni

Coxsey’s training routine is punishing – between four and eight hours a day, usually six days a week. As well as practicing on indoor walls, she works with weights and spends a lot of her time focusing on fingers. “Three things are most important,” she says. “Fingertips, chalk and shoes.”
Climbing shoes have developed a long way from the hefty boots of the original Alpinists. In the 1970s, Spanish mountaineering firm Boreal experimented with a sticky rubber sole on a lightweight boot to add better grip and friction. Other brands followed. In 1991, La Sportiva Mythos came up with a tight heel and a rand – a thinner layer of rubber that covers the toe and heel to provide additional friction for hooking. Across the 90s, shoe soles bent, and toe space tightened to avoid dead air space between the shoe and the toe, improving a climber’s grip.
In 2002, Coxsey started wearing shoes by Five Ten, a company founded in 1985 by Yosemite climber Charles Cole that has since been purchased by adidas and now sponsors her. Cole’s innovation was Stealth C4 rubber – a patented rubber with a formula as secret as Coca-Cola but almost certainly involving fillers like carbon and clay, and rubber that’s not vulcanized. This keeps the rubber soft and sticky, so it forms around small bumps and bounces back to the original shape.
Cole worked with Hollywood, providing shoes for stunt teams working on movies from Transformers to Spider-Man. For Mission Impossible 4, Cole devised a new Stealth rubber – known as Mi6 – that was able to stick to the glass and steel of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for Tom Cruise’s climb. Coxsey and her climbing partner Ned Feehally started hacking Five Ten’s popular Anasazi LV shoe, adding patches of the softer Mi6 rubber over the harder Stealth C4. Eventually, Five Ten’s design team took an interest and the result – launched in 2018 – is the Anasazi Pro.
Add a bag of magnesium carbonate chalk to absorb sweat and other moisture, thus increasing friction and improving grip, and then it all comes down to finger strength – which is complicated, because there are no muscles in your fingers.
“Finger strength comes from tendons that attach to muscles in the hand and forearms,” says Feehally, who is also Coxsey’s finger strength trainer, in a physio room at the Climbing Works. “The tendons in your fingers are connected to bone via a series of connective tissues, known as pulleys. When you exercise a finger joint it will gain strength in an arc 10 or 15 degrees around where you’re exercising, so you need to train each grip specifically. When you climb, you maintain static isometric positions in your hand as you move past the hold. Everything is static but your hands are doing loads of different stuff – if you’re doing a crimp, you’re digging into the back of hold, or you might be squeezing a hold between fingers and thumb. Being good at one means nothing when it comes to the other.”
Coxsey practices at home on a pull-up bar and two Beastmaker hangboards – wide wooden blocks pocked with holes of different width and depth – to improve her strength. The Beastmaker can recreate most holds, and Coxsey is training to avoid a repeat of a brutal finger injury she suffered in 2018 climbing outdoors on a crimp.
“Historically, that’s where people get injuries,” Feehally says. “Your joints are at a really acute angle and so your tendons place more tension on the pulleys, and they can tear, which leaves the tendon flapping around loose. Your finger can still move but loses a lot of mechanical strength.”
The problem, Feehally explains, is that there is little research on finger injuries because they’re so specific to climbing, and climbing is a relatively new sport. “Ten years ago, we’d try everything and see what works,” he says. “We’re starting to amass evidence, but from an academic perspective we’re basically at the stage of saying ‘if you hang by your fingers for a period of time you will get stronger’. It’s the climbers experimenting with their own bodies that’s testing the limits of everything to do with sport climbing.”

Magnesium carbonate chalk makes for better grip on climbing holds
Sabrina Bongiovanni

It has taken sport climbing’s entry into the Olympics to really bring it to the attention of elite sport scientists, nutritionists, physiologists and medical researchers, so there’s a rush to play catch-up.
The physiology of sport climbing is unusual. “All sport is good for you, but elite sport is not good for you,” says Mike Loosemore, chief medical officer for GB Boxing and GB Snow Sports. “You become a creature fit for purpose. Most elite sportspeople emphasise one or two key areas – producing a really strong right arm, say. Climbers are probably the nearest thing to an elite athlete that’s training all their body equally.”
Jiří Baláš, a researcher at Charles University in Prague, says that running, cycling, rowing and most conventional gym workouts teach the body to perform consistent, repetitive motions, while climbing involves “nearly the whole body’s musculature in very complex movements.”
In the upper body, climbers use the forearm flexors; biceps; latissimus dorsi (the large, wing-shaped muscles on the side of the back); rhomboids, which retract the shoulder blades; and the anterior deltoid, which pulls the upper arm back for big, reachy moves. The abdominal muscles are crucial for stability, especially when the core contracts to keep the pelvis in line with the chest while hanging. In the lower body, climbers use the quadriceps to push the lower leg from footholds, the calf muscles to raise the heel when perching on a thin ledge. Every muscle needs to be trained; every muscle is at risk.
There is also the mental challenge. In those papers that have studied the factors affecting performance, most indicate that it’s a particular way of thinking that ensures success, rather than a strong heart or high aerobic capacity (known as “VO2 max”). Research led by psychologists at Bangor, Leeds and Exeter Universities identified a particular kind of mental modelling, which the researchers define as “route previewing”, as central to a successful competitive climb. In effect, the moment a sport climber turns and sees a wall, they create a 3D model of the route in their head, calculating which stretches will require the most and the least energy, and preparing for any sections where a fall is likely.
“It’s probably practice, but it feels subconscious to me,” Coxsey says. “You walk out, see that climb and either know how to do it or don’t. Sometimes you have to be open-minded and shake off your fear of committing to sequences you don’t understand. You also have to know when you’re doing the wrong thing, give up and try again – on the mat in front of 10,000 people. You can’t train for that feeling.”
“There is so much uncertainty in climbing,” Pitt says. “We’re coming into the world of elite sport, which likes certainty, likes tracking things, and believes there must be a right way of doing things. But climbing is so new and exciting we don’t know how to be predictable. It’s an experiment.”
When Percy Bishton was laying out a route for a test event in Tokyo over the winter, TV crews were trying to position cameras to capture the most exciting moments. The crews asked Bishton to position certain holds in front of the cameras, but he refused. “Percy’s job is to be unpredictable,” Pitt points out. “That’s the tricky point where the Olympics meets the world of climbing.”
Coxsey learned that the 2020 Olympics were being postponed on the same day that the UK went into lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak. With no new deadline to work to and no climbing walls open, she set about improvising a training schedule that she could stick to in the house – and set up a YouTube channel advising frustrated climbers on ways to stay in shape.
She has two climbing walls in her basement, so can train to a certain degree at home, but she can’t replicate competition boulder problems and definitely can’t speed climb. Still, she remains cheerful.
“I’ve always had to deal with changes,” she says. “Since I started climbing, the sport has changed so many times. When the gymnastics/parkour style came in I used to hate jumping around, so I trained on it until I was comfortable. With the Olympics, speed was the discipline I was most uncertain about, but I’ve trained on it until I enjoy having that same route to train on. I look for the moves I hate and train until I’m comfortable. Which means I spend a lot of time feeling uncomfortable, but I won’t let anything – from injury to the coronavirus – stop me getting to the top.”
She laughs. “That’s what every athlete says, I know, but if you’re a climber you actually do get to the top.”
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