It’s common to hear a climbing buddy holding forth about their diminutive stature and how it’s putting them at a disadvantage.
All too often a route they’ve been struggling with for the past half an hour is a walk in the park for their 6’ 2” mate, which is often followed by a lot of cursing and claims of an unfair advantage.
But does being tall really offer that much advantage and vice versa, does being short really hold peoples climbing back?
The long and short of it is (ba dum tss), that height just doesn't have anything like as much of an impact on climbing ability as weight and technique do.
It's power to weight ratio and technique that really makes the difference. When we look at the data, it's actually the case that the majority of the top climbers are little below average height. So, quit moaning and get climbing!
Ok, so let’s break it down a bit more and look at this from both side.
This is an unassailable truth, there is no getting away from the fact that taller people are able to reach further, which means for a given body position, there are more options open to them.
It’s also worth pointing out that this applies to arms and legs, the latter often being overlooked. This compounds the benefit, as longer legs provide a larger base, from which those lengthier arms can then be leveraged.
Of course, the Ape Index is a consideration here. This is the ratio of your height/reach (index finger to index finger). Whilst the norm is an index of 1, the same as your height.
It’s entirely possible for it to vary either way, potentially causing someone of a greater height to have a shorter reach, or it can also go the other way, which can be a genuine advantage.
It’s not all sunshine and roses!
Compact or scrunched up moves are just plain harder.
Imagine a situation where you need to get really high feet, in order to make the next move, it’s clearly going to be harder when your knees are around your ears.
It’s also worth pointing out that longer limbs are going to be harder to keep on the wall on steep ground. That extra leverage is going to require greater core strength to stop the feet cutting free.
So, reach is a definite advantage, but those extra-long limbs are not without their down sides.
In absolute terms, yes, for the most part.
A larger frame, is going to be equipped with larger muscles and so greater absolute strength, particularly in an untrained climber.
Again, this is not without its challenges, the most obvious one being all that extra weight.
More mass = more weight and whilst strength generally grows with size, it does so at a slower rate than weight. That is to say, as you get bigger, your weight grows faster than your relative strength.
This hits those tall guys and gals where it really hurts, power to weight ratio.
The top climbers, as we’ll see in a bit, vary in size a fair bit, but the most glaring metric that stands out is their weight. For the most part, all of them are light, really bloody light, particularly for their height.
We’ve already touched on the inverse of this, bigger people are generally heavier, so smaller people are generally lighter.
This is a big advantage, particularly as climbers mature into the intermediate levels and beyond.
People with a smaller skeletal structure are able to achieve a lower overall body weight. With the right training over time, they’re able to get light and strong, which is where we all want to be.
This is perhaps why many of the top-flight climbers are slightly below the average height. Once technique and minimum weight are achieved, the smaller frames can get a lighter lowest weight, hence edging up the power to weight.
This is also worth bearing in mind, that a smaller frame is able to be positioned in more cramped and contorted positions.
This is certainly a benefit when thrutching up some horrendous narrow chimney. Having less limbs to co-ordinate and a generally smaller frame are likely to be of benefit.
So far, it’s certainly not quite as clear cut as you may have thought.
What does the data tell us?
I took an extract of data from the top 100 climbers over the past 12 months from 8a.nu, and looked at their vital statistics. Whilst I can’t make any assessment as to the veracity of the data, it ought to be fine for our purposes.
I did this for both males and females and then removed any entries that didn’t have their height or weight available, which was a fair few unfortunately.
It’s worth noting, that the UK and USA average height for males is 175 cm and 177 cm respectively. When compared to the average for the top flight male climbers we have data for, they’re slightly under average, at 173 cm.
The women’s national average is 161 cm for the UK and 162 cm for the USA, which is pretty much bang on for the sample of female climbers.
Both groups showed a significant variance around these averages, with the males ranging from 146 cm to 189 cm and the females ranging from 139 cm to 178 cm.
Here’s the data tables I pulled together.
|8||Luis Rodriguez Martin||170||58|
|19||KYMY DE LA PEÑA||167||63|
|42||Alberto Gines Lopez||169||58|
|47||Lucas De Jesus Martin||167||53|
|51||Iris Matamoros Quero||180||68|
|52||David Martinez Lorden||176||63|
|75||Thomas P. O’Halloran||180||68|
|137||Angelina (Angie ) Scarth-Johnson||139||40|
|291||Martina Cufar Potard||168||58|
|532||Ana Senegacnik Kurnik||170||58|
|839||Céline Le Dily||170||58|
Well, it seems clear that in order to be a top-flight climber, height just isn’t that much of a factor. It’s entirely possible to climb at mind bendingly strong grades, irrespective of your height.
If any thing, being slightly shorter than average is of benefit, as it doesn’t effect reach too significantly, but does have a positive impact on weight.
What is clear, when looking at the data is that most of the climbers in these groups are light…and I mean, really light!
For example, the legend Adam Ondra is a tall guy at 185 cm, taller than me, but weighs only 68 kg. I’m erm…a little heavier than that, (cough 20 kg).
A stiff breeze and he’d be airborne.
Something that did stand out from the data was the relationship between rank and height. There was a correlation between an increase in height and an increase in rank (rank getting worse).
This is the same for height and weight, which could lead one to argue that as you get taller, it’s harder to get lighter and so on average, this has an impact on your ability to climb at the very highest grade.
My suspicion is that in the early years of ones climbing career, the inherent strength and reach advantage of taller people, coupled with the more vertical routes that are typically climbed means that taller people are generally at an advantage.
But as they progress into the intermediate grades and beyond, their smaller, lighter counterparts adapt their techniques, developer their strength and are then able to capitalise on their naturally smaller frames.
Of course, this all depends on what route you’re on. Some routes will naturally be easier for someone of a smaller stature, whilst others will be easier for our tall friends.
So, if you are in the more vertically challenged category, you’re not at an inherent disadvantage, you just need to adapt your style and keep on training.
Here’s a few areas to focus on that may help.
Flexibility - Working on your flexibility will ensure that you maximise you reach as much as possible. Practising yoga or something similar is a great way to improve this. It can also help with balance and core stability, key skills for improving your climbing.
Dynamic Moves - As a smaller climber, you’re going to have to make more dynamic moves than someone who can statically reach for a hold. Practising dead-points and explosive dynamic moves on easier ground will help you learn the movement and body awareness needed to latch those dynos when it counts.
Improved Footwork - Work on spotting those intermediate foot holds, sneaky smears, hidden heel hooks or elusive egyptians maybe the missing move holding you back from glory. Plus, you’ll look awesome doing them.
In all truth, many of us climb so far below our genetic limit that we need to realise that it’s not our height that’s holding us back.
Focusing on getting stronger, fitter and technically better are going to have a much bigger impact on our climbing.
So, keep cranking and don’t let your height hold you back.