How to Conquer Roof Climbing

Dani Andrada roof climb

Dani Andrada climbs the Great Arch in Getu Valley, China. Photo credit: Sam Bié.

Roof routes can be a lot of fun and more importantly, they make you look super cool. But for many of us, they are confusing, difficult and intimidating. We’re left cursing our weenie arms. Climbing roofs, however, may be more simple than you think! You might not even need those beefy biceps. Here are three tips to help you conquer the upside-down world:

1.  Practice. I used to fall the minute I started a roof. Embarrassed, I avoided them entirely. The result was that I couldn’t climb roofs! Make sure you’ve got a cushy pad below you and don’t fret about falling. If you’re embarrassed, go to the gym at a less busy time when there are fewer bodies and eyes. Roof climbing requires unique movement, endurance and technique. Increasing your core and arm strength will certainly help, but the best way to familiarize yourself with this type of movement and build these skills is to just do it.

Recognize that climbing upside down may also bump your grade down. Start with easier routes. These will have bigger hand holds, and allow you to log time on the roof, which is the goal. If roof routes are too challenging in general, begin with steeper routes and overhangs, and work towards the full 90-degree roof.

2. Develop good technique. Climbing roofs is about conserving energy. You’re constantly fighting fatigue, and the best way to do it is with technique. Keep your arms straight and your hips pulled in to the wall. If your butt sags, it will stress your arms. Twist your body when reaching for holds to keep one or both hips close to the wall.

Chris Sharma bouldering on the incredibly difficult "Witness the Fitness" rated V15, a 40 foot horizontal roof problem in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. No Sales to Manufacturers or Retailers of Mountain Climbing Gear or Equipment, Clothing/ Apparel, Footwear, Watches or to the Nutrition Industry.

Chris Sharma on Witness the Fitness, V15. Ignore the crazy hair and notice how his hips are level with, if not above, his shoulders. Photo Credit: Corey Rich

3. Focus on your feet. Choose foot placements carefully and apply as much pressure as possible to your toes to pull your hips in and relieve your arms. Roofs are different from face climbing in part because rests are less obvious, so finding small ways to reduce pressure from your arms is essential. Experiment with heel hooks, toe hooks, knee bars and bicycles, all of which will lessen pump and help you reach holds you never thought you could.

Sasha Digiulian at Melloblocco 2012. Watch how she constantly shifts her feet for the best placement, keeps her arms straight, and twists her hips to reach the next hold or clip.

Save energy by visualizing moves beforehand. You want to move economically in any route, but on roofs this is even more true. I’ve seen many burly climbers walk into our gym, muscle through a roof route and fall on the last move because they wasted their energy with sloppy technique when they could’ve completed the route simply by using their brains (and dialing down their egos!).

4. Strengthen your core. Though your arms may feel the burn on roofs, your core is doing most of the work. A strong core is important when stabilizing yourself on the wall, and when pulling your feet back up if–or more like, when–they fall.

Not being able to regain my feet was the most frustrating part of roof climbing for me initially. As soon as my feet fell, the route was over. It wasn’t until I started training my core that I was able to lift my feet. More than any other workout routine, consistently training my core has yielded the biggest results in my climbing—on roofs, overhangs and other routes.

roof climbing

Photo credit: Merrick Ales

Even doing ten minutes of core, three times a week will improve your strength and roof skills. Your best friend here is going to be planks, both front and side, which engage all aspects of your core. I like to do four 1:30-minute planks in a row: front, left side, right side, front again. It’s better to do a shorter plank with good form, though, than a longer one with bad form (keep your butt down!). Start with 1 minute, 30 or even 15 seconds planks and build up.

You may also consider exercises such as crunches, Russian twists, V-ups, scissor kicks, or anything that targets your back, lower or upper abdomen, or obliques. Check out this post for instructions on specific exercises.

If you have access to a pull-up bar, rock rings or hang board, the “Knees to Elbow” exercise is particularly useful. If you can’t quite get your knees to your elbows, just raise them to your hips or chest. To work your lower abdomen more intensely, straighten your legs. You can also practice this exercise on an actual route using two holds. Just remember to be kind to your fingers—pick jugs to practice on, and stop if you feel any pain.

Roofs are not vastly different from vertical climbing, just energetically intensive and less forgiving of mistakes. If you adhere to these tips, you will find them much more doable and enjoyable. You should also see improvements in other areas, since solid technique and a strong core are great assets in all types of climbing.

Climb on!
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9 thoughts on “How to Conquer Roof Climbing

  1. Rebecca says:

    Cool! Definitely one of my weaknesses. I always have a hard time getting oriented on roof routes because it’s tricky to ‘see’ that I need to turn my body around 90 degrees or whatever and it feels foreign to be fighting butt sag instead of just shifting weight over your feet.

    Love adding supine planks too, so you can turn all the way around.

  2. bieber4lyfe! says:

    I conquer roofs with my mind. I just think of them as slabs. BOOM. Send city and I’m rolling in the 8a points.

  3. Brianna says:

    Great article! If you’re going to do core exercises, think it can also really help to do exercises that incorporate an unstable object. So using a yoga ball or TRX are great because you have to fight that much harder to stabilize yourself and find that sweet point of balance — much like on a roof!

  4. Really interesting stuff!

    I made a guide to building core strength while hanging from a hangboard (or pull-up bar, or anything else):

    Hope it’s useful!

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  7. Just came across the article and it is extremely timely, since yesterday I spent the day doing overhanging climbs and the new roof lead project at the Reach in London ( Managed most of it this time around (last time was a disaster!), just by doing loads of heel hooks. Will definitely keep at it, it’s great fun and gives a very unique sense of achievement…

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  9. Drew says:

    I’m not sure if I will ever be able to do this but these seem like good tips for anyone willing to try. Thanks for the advice.

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