Height in Climbing

Height has always been a contentious topic in climbing. And understandably so! There’s nothing quite so frustrating as watching someone reach past a move you’ve been struggling with for hours!

But how much of an advantage is it in practice? Being tall might not necessarily be an advantage as keeping body tension is trickier on steep problems, and of course height is closely correlated with weight which means taller climbers will on average be heavier than shorter climbers.

We’ve recently been doing some data analysis work with Jack Turner, a data analyst and computer scientist who’s about to start his PhD. The core of this work has been around improving the mathematical models we use for predicting climbing performance but we’ve seen some other interesting results as a spin-off. In particular, Jack noticed that if you control for climbing ability, height is negatively correlated with many of the tests we use for testing energy systems. In short, the taller you are the less strong and fit you need to be!

One of the tests we conduct as part of our Lattice Board Assessment is a maximum moves circuit on the lattice board, where you simply do as many moves as you can until your elbows go up and your forearms wilt. If we look at all the climbers who have a reported redpoint grade of 8a we can put together the following graph.

As you can see there’s a clear negative correlation here, that is as a taller climber you need to score less moves than a shorter climber to be able to climb 8a. It’s important to note that the correlation is not a strong one, though. Because the data aligns with our experience as coaches, we’re confident in saying that being taller is beneficial here, but saying precisely how beneficial will have to wait for more data.

We see a similar pattern to the above across many of the other tests we perform with one interesting exception: core strength. Note that core strength is a very broad concept and doesn’t have a nice clean definition. Our own testing in this area is still fairly basic, though we’ve found the FMS tests we currently use to be effective. Having said that, we found core strength to be positively correlated to height. That is, taller climbers need to have better core strength to climb the same grade.

So there you have it, being tall is more of a help than a hinderance in many cases! But, as with all data analysis, this comes with some caveats. In particular you’ll notice that the best climbers in the world aren’t all 7ft giants. It’s obviously quite tricky to get a good volume of data in the V15+ range, but we think it’s safe to say that being tall isn’t everything. There’s likely an optimum height where the advantage of added reach is outweighed by the disadvantages of being tall. And to all the shorties out there, don’t worry, you can always get stronger!

Comment List

  • nick emery 04 / 09 / 2017 Reply

    Did you factor for ape index? This might explain some of the differences? As a positive ape would be, I feel, a greater advantage than overall height. Do you think there are too many confounding factors to draw any definitive conclusions? Years climbing? Specificity? Temperature? Variance in frictional properties of wood used in Lattice boards (picky)? Etc. I’ve been climbing years, train, I think, with a sound scientific bias but see very little improvement. Time for a Lattice assessment?

    • Remus Knowles 04 / 09 / 2017 Reply

      Hi Nick, we didn’t control for ape index as it’s data we only started collecting recently. Definitely agree that their are a lot of potential confounding factors, though given that it fits with our experience from coaching we’re pretty comfortable saying that height is definitely an advantage in a lot of cases. I think what’s tricky is saying exactly how much of an advantage, and when it stops being an advantage. For this we’ll need a lot more data, so get going on that lattice board assessment!

  • James 10 / 09 / 2017 Reply

    Of course it just mean that the lattice board is easier for the short.

  • Florian 08 / 10 / 2017 Reply

    Is there any Data that might suggest how easy (or hard) it is for a climber of a certain height to achieve a certain level of (for example) fingerstrength?

    what i’m getting at is this: if you compare climber A (180cm, BMI of 21) to Climber B (170cm, BMI 21), then Climber A needs 2,5% less (relative?) fingerstrength than Climber B…if I understood correctly what you said on the podcast with neely. So let’s assume A has a relative strength of 100% of BW on the testing edge and B 102,5 % of BW – they should theoretically climb the same grade. BUT…wouldn’t A have to train a lot harder to achieve a similar amount of relative strength because his bodyweight is higher? Which would mean, that height is only an advantage if bodyweight is equal?
    it would be interesting to see, how abosolute weight (not BMI) correlates with climbing performance.

    • Remus Knowles 09 / 10 / 2017 Reply

      That’s an interesting way of looking at it. We haven’t got much data on the rate at which climbers adapt to strength training at the moment, but my intuition is that it’ll be very hard measure accurately. Psychological factors are probably going to play just as big a part as physiological, so there’s a lot of variables in the mix. It’s a really interesting area though, any inroads we could make here would be really cool!

      • Florian 09 / 10 / 2017 Reply

        i agree that it would probably be very difficult to assess the adaption rate to strength training. maybe it would be possible to look at the development of the yearly 8a.nu score?

        i’m not sure if your sample sizes are big enough…but what if you had a group of climbers that have identical BMI? would it be possible to look for a correlation between height and ‘hardest redpoint’? if the taller climbers within this group climb harder grades, then height would seem to be a very strong predictor of climbing performance because they achieve this in spite of being heavier, if the shorter climbers climb the higher grades, then (absolute) weight would seem to be more important than height. if there isn’t any correlation, then its back to square one 🙂

        i would guess that in a group of climbers of identical WEIGHT, the taller climbers achieve higher grades

  • Florian 08 / 10 / 2017 Reply

    (at BMI of 21 Climber A would have 68kg BW and climber B only around 61kg)

  • Andreas 09 / 10 / 2017 Reply

    I think it would be good to see the R-Values of these statistics to actually see if there is any significance in the data. We might just be looking at noise IMO. (Similar for the BMI graph, the R-Value would be most helpful)

  • G 16 / 10 / 2017 Reply

    Re ape index, should we use shoulder height instead of full height?

    Apparently Ondra has a negative ape index, and I read an article on 8a saying this meant he had short arms that were easier to bend. This kind of went against the recieved high ape index = good wisdom.

    But he’s also appears to have a really long head-and-neck, so maybe he’s actually got reasonably long arms for his body and his brilliance is consistent with said received wisdom?

    I suppose this also raises the question whether you should use shoulder height instead of height for these graphs. An extra inch of head never helped anyone climb harder! (Except when headstanding into a bat hang, obvz)

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