Home // The 10 General Physical Skills

There is a widely used list among personal trainers and exercise science majors that was created by Jim Crawley (Track & Field Coach) describing ten observable and definable qualities of athletic performance. The original title of the list, “The Ten General Physical Skills of Human Movement”, rarely sees an order of importance applied to these qualities (IE the qualities that have the greatest beneficial impact on the other qualities would obviously be the most important and therefore receive the most attention and training time).

When describing the evolution of a climber from Beginner, to Intermediate, to Advanced… another distinction becomes apparent within the list. The ten qualities can be broken up into two subsets: the first set of five qualities are capacities and the second set of five qualities are skills (as listed below). For instance, a Beginner… or one expressing very little of their genetic potential as a climber… sees gains in all ten qualities, but the most obvious and rapid gains will be in balance, coordination, accuracy, agility and tempo; these are skills where most of the improvement in ability occurs. When a climber reaches the threshold of becoming an intermediate climber one’s skills have reached a certain neurological efficiency where further improvements to these skills, while essential to the process of athletic development, no longer has the same impact at increasing the intermediate climber’s ability as they did when they were a Beginner.

To continue on the fastest rate of improvement at the intermediate level, not only does the developing climber need to intelligently manage their weekly training volume, but this shift in non-linear improvement also begins the emphasis towards developing one’s capacity. With an increase in strength, power, stamina, stability and endurance the climber will have a greater capacity with which to display their skills. Skills continue to develop but at a much slower rate. All of the physical qualities, in fact, develop at a much slower rate the more a climber expresses their genetic potential. Some capacities have an inherently slower rate of development than others. Another reason a hierarchal order to the list is helpful.

Here is the list with an order of hierarchy applied specifically for climbing:

1) Strength- the ability of a muscular unit, or the combination of muscular units to apply force

2) Power- the ability of a muscular unit, or the combination of muscular units to apply maximum force in minimum time

3) Stamina- the ability of bodily systems to process, deliver, store and utilize energy

4) Stability*- the ability to control the natural range of motion at a given joint

5) Endurance- the ability of bodily systems to gather, process and deliver oxygen

6) Balance- the ability to control the placement of the body’s center of mass in relation to its points of contact under tension and in compression

7) Coordination- the ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a distinct movement

8) Accuracy- the ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity

9) Agility- the ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another

10) Tempo**- the ability to use the appropriate time cycles between changing movement patterns

[* The term “Stability” is used in place of the original lists term “flexibility”. Flexibility has become a junk term. The extensibility of muscle fiber has more to do with the genes you were born with, rather than what the current trend in the fitness industry would have you believe. Because of this, there is almost a mania to diagnose the need for more flexibility and mobility. But without strength and stability within the natural range of motion in any given joint, especially the shoulders of climbers, then flexibility/mobility becomes dangerous.]

[** The original list defined “Speed” as the ability to minimize the time cycle between movement patterns. Climbers do not repeat identical movement patterns, let alone minimize cycle times between a repeated movement. For climbing, “Tempo” better describes the physical quality of using the most appropriate time cycles between distinctly different movement patterns. IE Climbing quickly and efficiently through a moderately difficult sequence is as important as slowing down and being precise through a delicate sequence; the terrain dictates the Tempo relative to the climber’s ability level.]

There is no faster rate of improvement than when a beginner begins the process of athletic improvement in a specific sport. Even the capacity for strength, power, stamina, stability and endurance slowly improve from climbing session to climbing session, and in the context of training, this is a good definition for a beginner: one who improves session to session. During this initial phase of development there are rapid, gross improvements to the second half of the list, which are skills. Skills develop quickly and gain efficiency DURING the climbing session, peaking at the height of the day’s performance at all levels of climbing ability, not just for the beginner. It happens after the warm up and before the day’s fatigue sets in. This “peak” of an individual climbing session is where many climbers take stock in their ability level for the day. This perspective suits the beginner because their progress is nearly on a day to day rate of improvement (at least the days they do go climbing). Where this perspective begins to break down is at the onset of the intermediate threshold, where day to day progress stalls and the first significant performance plateau that every avid climber will find themselves in sooner or later.

The capacity you have today for strength, power, stamina, stability, and endurance is what you woke up with; there is nothing you can do this red hot second to improve your capacity. Yet most climbers have it in their mind that they will go to the gym today to do something about their strength, power or endurance. The reality is that “today” does not change one’s capacity, except at the beginning stages; today is just part of the process. If you understand this then you can accommodate for the delay in an appreciable increase in capacity by using a plan to improve, over a period of time, your strength, power, stamina, stability or endurance. This is the basis of intelligent and sustainable training methodology and it is intimately connected to how much genetic potential you are expressing. For example, the Intermediate Climber uses a week’s time to go through a Stress & Adaptation Cycle. The Advanced Climber uses more time, say a month, to complete a Stress & Adaptation Cycle. This is where the term Periodization comes from, by appropriately managing the volume within these “periods” steady increases can be made in capacity as a climber. During a training cycle, skills develop at their fastest rate by doing all of one’s climbing volume at an intensity just beyond one’s current level of ability.

Periodization, as already mentioned, is an effective means to manage your training time of Stress & Recovery for developing a capacity. Prioritization, another kind of periodization, has to do with managing these Periods. This is where a hierarchal order applied to the list of physical qualities helps. At the top of the list is Strength: the ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units to apply force. This kind of physical adaptation to the musculoskeletal system is a change in the number and quality of sarcomeres (the basic contractile unit of striated muscle tissue). Not only does this change in the “architecture” of muscle fiber take the longest time to develop of all the physical qualities, it also has the broadest positive impact on all of the other physical qualities. What’s important to understand is that when the body has made these kinds of architectural changes, the changes just don’t go away, they persist long after training has ceased. Prioritization is the simple concept of “prioritizing” training time to the qualities that persist the longest.

For example, if a well rounded climber had five months before going on a 2 month climbing trip to Spain there would be ample time to have a positive impact on any of the physical qualities of their choice. Because one needs to express both strength and power in an endurance setting while route climbing, the highest return on investment would be yielded by training strength. Prioritizing 4 months of bouldering would still allow for plenty of time to transition into route climbing shape with one month of HIIT. Endurance is the least persistent of all of the capacities within the list, so it receives the least amount of training time (or even none at all for a very well rounded climber) even though the goal is to be in the best route climbing shape for the anticipated trip. Another, more conservative breakdown of the 5 month meta-cycle would be 3.5 months bouldering, 1.0 months HIIT and .5 months route climbing.

In contrast, and to help put this perspective into context, a dedicated boulderer who had never developed the SKILLS as a route climber would spend the entire five months in preparation of such a trip simply learning how to route climb. They would be a beginner, even though they may have a highly developed capacity as a boulderer and basic training principles would have to be suspended. It’s after the initial phases of the novice have worn off that general training concepts come into play. Similar to the beginner not needing to follow any intelligent plan to improve, very gifted athletes (IE genetically endowed), also can improve outside these basic principles. Bottom line, because some training methodology may have worked for the beginner or elite climber, this DOES NOT mean it will be effective for the average climber. It could even be counter productive.