Climbing Holds and How to Use Them

There is a ton of new lingo to learn when starting to climb.

It’s common for beginners to overhear a conversation between two climbers in the gym or at the crag and not understand most of what they’re talking about. Between climbing holds, climbing positions, technical jargon, and casual climbing slang, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and out of place. The lingo comes with time, but it’s important to learn how to recognize and identify climbing holds from the beginning so that other climbers can give you beta (climber for “advice”) that benefits your climbing technique and performance.

But it shouldn’t stop at just the names of holds: knowing how to use them is even more important! Many climbers have had the experience of learning for the first time what a gaston is… and then learning over time how to recognize them and use them well. It’s okay to not know the technical names for holds when starting out. Learning to recognize these different holds and how to use them comes with time and can improve your climbing ability and make it feel a lot easier to make it up your next climb.

Terminology

Before delving into different types of holds, it’s important to know about positivity and direction of pull.

Positivity refers to how much of an edge a hold has. A huge bowl-shaped jug that you can sink your hands into would be very positive. Even some smaller holds can be incut, and you can cup your fingers behind their edge and pull up on them with more ease than a non-positive crimp. Ledges and slopers are examples of holds with no positivity.

Direction of pull is important too. Most climbs aren’t climbed straight up and down – there are holds that force you to pull on them a certain way and change your body position to balance accordingly. The three most common body positions that are referenced in climbing are side pulls, underclings, and gastons.

Body Positioning: Side Pulls, Underclings, and Gastons

Before delving into different types of holds, it’s important to know about positivity and direction of pull.

Positivity refers to how much of an edge a hold has. A huge bowl-shaped jug that you can sink your hands into would be very positive. Even some smaller holds can be incut, and you can cup your fingers behind their edge and pull up on them with more ease than a non-positive crimp. Ledges and slopers are examples of holds with no positivity.

Direction of pull is important too. Most climbs aren’t climbed straight up and down – there are holds that force you to pull on them a certain way and change your body position to balance accordingly. The three most common body positions that are referenced in climbing are side pulls, underclings, and gastons.

Side pulls

Man showing how to use a side pull.

Side pulls are oriented somewhat vertically. Unlike a horizontal ledge you pull down on, a vertical edge needs to be pulled from the side. This is where body position comes into play. In climbing, you try to move up. Pulling on a sidepull, you have to position your feet in opposition of the direction of pull to then be able to move up.

Gastons

Shows how to use a gaston

A gaston is like a sidepull facing the wrong direction and is often in the form of a pocket or edge. When using a gaston, the back of your hand will be facing you; the muscle movement is similar to prying elevator doors apart. Your elbows will be out and you’ll actually be pushing out from the hold instead of pulling on it.

Underclings

Example of an undercling

Underclings are exactly what they sound like: holds that you cling on to from underneath and pull up on. Your palm and fingers will be facing up underneath the hold and you may feel your biceps straining. Because you have to pull up on them, they can be difficult to get situated on from below. Once you get a good grip on an undercling though, with high feet you can reach up high to your next hold and move off of it.

Jugs & Crimps

Jugs

Showcases how to use a Jug climbing hold.

Even if you just started climbing, you can probably identify a jug. A gym staple on beginner routes, these large open holds are easy to wrap your whole hands around and pull up on. They are the most positive kind of hold, and can be found in many forms including a bowl, horn, or hueco.

Jugs can be found in any type of stone and are abundant in the gym. Even difficult routes can have jugs. For example, many 5.12s at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky are known for being juggy but steep climbs. Jugs provide a great rest, and being able to identify jugs and using them to your advantage by shaking out and resting on them can help you gain back some energy to continue climbing.

Crimps

Hand grabbing a green climbing hold in a open crimp position

Some climbers love them, some climbers hate them.

These tiny holds require finger and tendon strength and a lot of trust. Crimps are characteristically small; typically you can only get the tip of your fingers on them. Full-pad, half-pad or even quarter-pad crimps are an imprecise but common measurement for crimps and refer to how much of your finger pad fits over it. It’s important to keep in mind a half-pad crimp will be different for every person depending on the size of your hands and how heavy you are.

Crimps are also held in different ways. An open-handed grip (keeping your palm open and not flexing your knuckles while your finger pads rest on the crimp) helps reduce tendon and finger strain and saves energy, but often comes at the expense of power and is more difficult with smaller holds and steeper angles.

Full crimping is when your knuckles are strained and bent at the second and third knuckles, and your thumb is over your fingers. It is incredible how much more power you gain by adding the thumb, and you’ll find you can bear down on tiny holds and even lockoff and execute powerful reaches the more you practice full crimping. Half crimping is when you bend your knuckles at a 90 degree angle – it is a good medium between full crimping and open-hand crimping. Always be aware that fingers and tendons are very susceptible to injury and digit strength is built over time – if you’re relatively new to climbing, you shouldn’t be full crimping very often.

Edges, Ledges, and Slopers

Ledges

Showcases how to use a ledge climbing hold

Ledges and edges refer to holds that are flat on top with usually zero positivity. Ledges are pretty self-explanatory – they are large flat holds with enough surface area to stand on. Getting on top of them can sometimes be tricky, but usually with a good mantle you can take advantage of the rest they offer.  

Edges

Showing how to hold and use an edge hold indoors.

Edges are a very common hold and can be found in all rock types. They range in size from the thickness of a dime or credit card to long rails big enough for both hands. They can face any direction, so considering how you’re going to pull on them and from what direction is important.

Slopers

Shows an example of a sloper indoors.

Slopers are another hold with no positivity; in fact, they actually bulge out from the wall. Getting as much skin-to-hold contact as possible is the secret to using slopers as the friction is what keeps you from falling. Ideally they are textured enough to optimize this friction. While this is the case for many slopers in the gym, outdoors is a different story. Slopers are prone to becoming polished and slippery from use, getting worn down with friction, chalk, body oils, and shoe rubber.

Learning how to use these holds is tricky and requires more technique than you may think. Body position is key: stay low underneath them and keep your arms long while maintaining body tension and balance as you move up, opposing your weight to the hold. Holding on to slopers can be strenuous and pumpy, especially when you’re first learning how to use them! It’s important to stay in control and keep your arms relaxed, using counter pressure created by your body rather than trying to muscle your way up the wall.

Pinches & Pockets

Pinches

Red pinch climbing hold being held in a pinch position

A pinch is just that – any hold you can pinch. When pinching a hold, your thumb will be on one side of the hold and your fingers will be on the other side. They can be large enough that they stretch out your hand or small enough that just your pointer finger and thumb are pinching down on it. Pinches can be formed from a flake of rock, the sides of pockets, or the edges of rails, among other features.

Oftentimes pinches will be vertical; using the thumb to squeeze the hold adds gripping power. They require considerable tendon and forearm strength to pull up on, so practicing pulling on them in a gym can help prepare you for encountering them on a route.

Pockets & Huecos

Shows how to use a pocket.

Pockets and huecos are round holes in the rock and are features mainly found in limestone, sandstone, and volcanic tuff. Pockets are generally small, allowing for only a few fingers, while huecos (Spanish for “hole”) have a reputation for being large and deep. Huecos can also be small pockets too, but the word is most commonly used to refer to large round holes in the rock sometimes big enough to fit your body inside. Hueco Tanks in Texas is famous for these holds.

Pockets can come in all sizes and usually have a little to a lot of positivity to their edges. Mono pockets are only big enough for one finger. When pulling on monos you want to use your stronger fingers: usually your middle or index finger. Two-finger and three-finger pockets are common in certain rock types, and similarly to crimps you want to try and keep your grip on these open to avoid injury. Using a thumb catch (a hold for your thumb to help support your fingers in moving up off the hold) can help take some of the strain off your other digits.

Huecos can be hard to get used to at first, especially large ones. If they’re big enough, try to find a kneebar by wedging your knee under an edge and potentially flexing your calf or foot in order to cam your leg in and give you arms a rest. You can even try to find a comfortable sitting or lying position if the hueco is large enough!

 When using pockets you want to use the ones that feel the best for you. One tip is to feel around and figure out what you prefer in terms of size, depth, and positivity. Pockets are unique in that they can have an edge to them in all directions and can make excellent sidepulls, pinches, and underclings.

Flakes & Cracks

Flakes

A flake is a piece of rock jutting out from the wall, with open space between this partially detached hold and the rest of the rock. Often the edge of the flake is used as a hold, either as a sidepull or a lieback (pulling back on the edge with your feet on the wall next to it as counter pressure). However, some flakes are large enough to use the crack behind them, jamming fingers, hands or even your body into this wedge.

Cracks

Showcases how to use a crack in climbing

Crack climbing is an entirely different category and style of climbing. Crack climbs are easily recognizable and may seem straightforward – after all, your “holds” are consistent and obvious. However, a sport climber leading 5.12 outdoors can have a lot of trouble on a crack climb of almost any grade if they don’t know crack climbing technique. Many gyms have a few crack climbs built into their walls, but the selection is often limited and doesn’t capture the variety of sizes and textures encountered outdoors. Gym cracks are often vertical and splitter, meaning the crack is clean and has parallel walls on either side. Technique for crack climbing differs based on the size of the crack, but always keep in mind that in crack climbing, you’re wrenching on your skeleton more so than using muscles to pull yourself up.

The largest cracks are chimneys and offwidths. Chimneys are large enough to fit your whole body inside. Technique often involves shimmying, stemming, and anything else you can do to maintain counterpressure on the walls. Slightly smaller than chimneys are offwidth cracks. Offwidths are slightly too small to shove your body into – you instead have to shove half your body in, wedging a shoulder or leg into the fissure to keep yourself on the wall. Offwidths are characteristically larger than fist size, and various techniques such as chicken-winging and arm bars can help you grovel your way up these unforgiving cracks.

Hand and fist cracks are often the best feeling cracks, especially to beginner crack climbers. Fist cracks you can get a cammed fist into: by squeezing the fist you lock it in. The appeal to crack climbing often seems like a mystery until you first feel a hand crack of your size. Orienting your hands thumb-down usually feels most secure as the torque is natural as you move up, but the range of motion is smaller than if you orient your hands thumb-up. In the thumb-up position you can make longer moves, but you usually have to cup your fingers, twist your hand or cam your thumb to make it feel more secure.

Frequently Asked Questions About Climbing Holds

How do I get better at crimps?

The same with anything – practice! Improving upper body strength with general workouts like push-ups, pull-ups, and weights helps more than you think when just starting out. If you still consider yourself a beginner climber, it’s best to start with more exposure to crimpy routes. Hop on climbs in the gym or outdoors that have crimps on them. Warm up to these climbs – don’t hop right on an 11+ with a killer crimp crux, but rather climb some easier routes that are more characteristically crimpy. If you consider yourself intermediate or advanced, warming up on these routes is still a good idea. Crimping is strenuous on your tendons and can easily lead to injury if you don’t build up finger and tendon strength over time. However, adding in a hangboard or fingerboard exercise even just once a week can drastically improve your performance. Using resistance bands or finger grippers while on the computer or watching tv can be another easy way to help build up strength.

What is good climbing technique?

  • Use holds efficiently to avoid expending too much energy
  • Use your feet and focus on good footwork always
  • Keep your arms long and relaxed
  • Find good rests on routes (and use them!)
  • Before you start a route, look it over and try to determine what moves may be difficult for you and what your beta should be
  • Make your movements fluid, only pausing to rest or think about your next moves

How can I improve my climbing grip strength?

Similar to crimps, you don’t want to jump right into training grip strength as a beginner. It’s best to start off with general upper body exercises. Bands and grippers with low resistance are more targeted hand exercises you can do to improve grip strength, and you can do these almost anywhere which is a plus. If you’re an intermediate climber, you could start using a grip board, fingerboard, or hangboard. Pinching the rails between two progressions of a hangboard is a good way to focus on grip strength, but again, start light – you don’t want to injure your fingers! More advanced climbers can add resistance with a weighted belt or backpack and can also move to smaller holds. Another more advanced technique for those with strong tendons is attaching a weight to a pinch climbing hold and then doing various exercises such as bicep curls. Before trying this technique it’s recommended to consult a trainer and be several years into finger strength development to prevent injury.

What are the types of rock climbing holds?

Jugs

Crimps

Ledges

Edges

Slopers

Pinches

Pockets

Volumes

Underclings

Sidepulls

Flakes

Cracks

How often should I train grip strength?

There are some basic exercises you can do regularly to help warm up and strengthen your fingers and grip. As mentioned above, getting a finger resistance band or gripper can be a good minimalist way to train grip and crimp strength and can be done every day. However, more advanced hangboard and progression board training is commonly done twice a week.