At 5 feet 3 (163cm) I’m guaranteed to always be the shortest guy in the climbing gym. Together with my 5-foot gym partner and girlfriend, we often have to improvise our beta and steer away from the one the route setters originally intended.
If you are reading this article, you likely have the same issue or know someone who has. The holds always seem too far apart, and you get frustrated every time you see a tall friend flash your project without even using every hold. It happens.
But are short people really disadvantaged in rock climbing? Or is it just an excuse? And what about tall climbers? Are they disadvantaged as well? This post will cover everything you need to know about the strengths and weaknesses of both short and tall climbers. The outcome might surprise you.
Is rock climbing harder for short people?
When asked whether or not short climbers are disadvantaged, many climbers (a lot of them above average height) will have replies ready such as: “Lynn Hill freed the nose at just 5 ft 1” or “most world cup climbers aren’t that tall”. These are both true, but these examples have a fatal flaw.
The comparison is unfair. None of us are legendary climbers like Lynn Hill or athletes competing at the highest level in the world. Your average gym climber who is below average height is going to be disadvantaged by their height.
When short climbers have to incorporate a smear or add two extra moves to reach the same foothold as a tall climber, one cannot possibly claim that being shorter isn’t a disadvantage.
However, this does not mean that short climbers shouldn’t go climbing. And neither does it mean that it is impossible for short climbers to get good at climbing.
Here’s my take. Short climbers are disadvantaged. With shorter wingspan and legs, they have less overall reach meaning they will struggle compared to a taller climber.
But a lot of that disadvantage will fade away with experience, at which point the advantages of being short will cancel out the reach advantage.
Let me explain with a fictional scenario. Imagine a beginner climbing couple (6 ft guy, 5 ft girlfriend) on their first visit to a bouldering gym. With the obvious reach advantage, the tall boyfriend is going to be progressing much faster than his significant other. Fast forward a couple of months and the couple is on the same wavelength. How did this happen?
Well, the short climber adapted to her smaller frame and started incorporating climbing techniques to make up for them. Meanwhile, the boyfriend has taken his reach for granted and started plateauing once the routes became more technical.
Short climbers have it harder than tall climbers (at first) because they have to incorporate extra moves to achieve the same goals and they need the necessary experience to successfully read problems and incorporate those moves.
However, this evens out in the end. Once a short climber understands how to extend their reach with proper climbing technique, the difference between short and tall climbers becomes negligible.
Additionally, being small comes with some advantages in climbing as well which we’ll go over further in his article.
Short Climbers: Strengths & Weaknesses
The advantages of a short climber
Being short isn’t all bad! Here are some of the benefits of being a short climber:
- You progress faster as a short climber
- Short climbers have less mass
- Short climbers have better positioning on the wall
- Short climbers climb more elegantly
A short climber progresses at a faster rate
In the early stages of climbing, climbers of all heights will try to get to the top by any means necessary.
A tall climber will often get by without using any technique to send beginner grades and even some intermediate grades. On the same grades, a short climber will experience a higher level of difficulty as they won’t reach the holds as easily. As a result, this forces short climbers to adapt early on and the outcome is that short climbers are exposed to climbing techniques much earlier than their taller counterparts.
I’ve noticed this a lot with new couples at my bouldering gym. Usually, there is a sizeable height difference between them and the male climber is always able to make a boulder problem look easy while the female climber has a harder time but employs much better technique.
Once these two climbers reach into the higher bouldering grades, the tall climber will likely struggle to learn proper footwork and figure out beta while the short climber is already accustomed.
Short climbers can achieve an optimal strength-to-weight ratio
Being strong is super important in rock climbing. But unlike other strength-dependant sports, you need to be light as well in order to climb hard. This is because climbing forces you to be able to easily carry your bodyweight from your fingertips.
Being both tall and light is difficult to achieve. Even when a taller person is considered skinny, they will still weigh much more than a short person with the same percentage of bodyfat. As a result, short climbers can achieve a higher level of strength over weight than a tall climber can. Thus, short climber are advantaged in rock climbing because they can achieve a better strength-to-weight ratio.
Short climbers look better on the wall
Now this isn’t exactly an advantage, as in it’s not going to help anyone progress in climbing, but in most cases, a short climber will look much better while climbing than a taller climber.
Many short climbers are very technical which makes them look amazing on the wall. These shorties often look more calculated and graceful than your average lanky climber.
Examples of short climbers who look amazing on the wall are Kim Jain, Seo Chaehyun and Ashima Shiraishi. If you haven’t yet seen these women in action, I highly recommend that you go to YouTube and do so.
Ashima’s style is amazing. This 5-foot climber is great at extending her reach with her dance-like moves, which I’m sure she picked up from her dancer father. Kim Jain (5 foot) is known for her very technical style of climbing, which is slow and methodical. And Seo Chaehyun (5 ft 3) seems to be a faster, yet still elegant version of her mentor, Kim Jain.
The disadvantages of a short climber
Here are the weaknesses short climbers have to deal with:
- Short climbers have less reach
- Short climbers have to create their own beta
- Short climbers expend more energy
Short climbers have less reach
The main weakness of a short climber is that they have less reach compared to a taller climber. Due to their smaller size, their wingspan is shorter and their legs are shorter. This can result in small climbers being forced to adapt the beta or make dynamic moves (e.g. deadpoint) where another climber can easily reach the next hold.
Short climbers have to create their own beta
Often, short climbers can’t use the intended beta because they don’t have the reach to make it happen. Or a short climber might have trouble copying the beta from one of their taller friends. For this reason, smaller climbers frequently have to come up with their own beta or make some changes to the existing beta.
This requires some extra thinking powder before an attempt and can lead to the climber expending more energy during a send as they have to adapt on the fly.
Tall Climbers: Strength & Weaknesses
The advantages of a tall climber
The advantages of a tall climber are fairly obvious, here they are summed up:
- More reach
- Most artificial routes are made for tall climbers
- Tall climbers expend less energy
Tall climbers have more reach
While tall climbers have other things to worry about, reaching a hold is almost never something they have to worry about. If a tall climber can’t reach the hold, it is not meant to be reached statically.
Many artificial routes are made for tall climbers
Most route setters are men and most men are average in height. For this reason, many artificial routes are set with this body type in mind. So for gym climbing, a tall climber tends to have an advantage over a short climber.
For example, a tall climber who climbs in the V5 range will top just about any V5 route as long as it’s in their style. A short climber who climbs in the same grade difficulty at the same bouldering gym might have to pass on some V5s with big reaches.
Sure the climber might be able to send the boulder problem by using a different beta but this might make the climb harder than originally intended by the setter, and thus requires a higher level of climber.
Tall climbers expend less energy
Being tall as a climber is energy-efficient when compared to a short climber. To get from A to B, a short climber will have to incorporate an extra set of moves or change up the beta. The tall climber can do the same route in fewer moves and thus preserve more energy. Expending less energy can make the difference between topping a long route or not.
The disadvantages of a tall climber
Contrary to popular belief, tall climbers have their fair share of weaknesses that they have to deal with as well.
Here are some disadvantages that come with being a tall climber:
- Worse strength-weight ratio
- Some body positions are impossible for tall climbers
Harder to achieve the optimal strength-weight ratio
Because of their larger bodies, tall climbers always have to carry more weight than short climbers. This forms a weakness for tall climbers in the advanced grades and above where being strong becomes essential. Sure, tall climbers can become strong but a shorter climber will always be lighter and able to obtain a better strength-to-weight ratio then them.
Some body positions are harder for tall climbers
Being tall and reachy isn’t always an advantage in the sport of climbing. Sometimes, tall climbers find themselves in uncomfortable positions that are damn near impossible to get out of.
This stumbling block first caught my eye when I noticed a tall climber struggling with a crimpy sit start at my local bouldering wall. I had previously sent the boulder problem and couldn’t even remember the sit start causing any trouble but when I saw a tall guy attempt that same problem, it actually looked impossible. He was so scrunched up, it didn’t look feasible for him to make the next move.
Short vs Tall climbers: Which is better at…?
Short climbers are better at steep climbing (overhangs)
Due to the more ideal strength-to-weight ratio that comes with being short, short climbers have an advantage at climbing overhung terrain. Tall climbers have to carry extra weight from their lengthy limbs and this can make it harder for them to perform in steep climbing.
Being light and able to achieve better body positioning gives short climbers an advantage over tall climbers when it comes to overhung terrain. Additionally, steep climbs usually don’t have as many reachy moves as say a slab climb would.
Though of course, Adam Ondra has no problem climbing the overhung sport route Silence, graded 9c.
Tall climbers are better at climbing Slabs
Slabby terrain is where tall climbers can truly shine. Having a good reach is essential for many slab climbs, especially those set in a bouldering gym. Due to the angle of the wall, slabs rarely have an uncomfortable position where tall climbers might get scrunched into.
Dynamic moves are more difficult on the slab wall, this leaves short climbers who often have to resort to dynamic moves due to their lack of reach, at a disadvantage.
Short & Tall Climbers FAQs
Can short climbers reach the highest level?
Short climbers can and have reached the highest levels of rock climbing. For example, Lynn Hill at just 5 ft 1 was the first PERSON to free climb the nose of El Capitan.
Here’s a small list of short rock climbers:
|Rock Climber||Height (cm)||Height (ft)|
|Lynn Hill||157cm||5 ft 1|
|Seo Chae-hyun||162cm||5 ft 3|
|Kim Ja-in||153cm||5 ft|
|Ashima Shiraishi||154cm||5 ft|
|Alex Puccio||157cm||5 ft 1|
|Beth Rodden||154cm||5 ft|
|Laura Ragora||152cm||4 ft 11|
|Brooke Raboutou||158cm||5 ft 1|
Can tall climbers reach the highest level?
While many could argue that the average male rock climber isn’t very tall, there are still many tall rock climbers that have reached the highest level of rock climbing. So tall climbers, just like short climbers, have no excuses here. 😉
Here’s a small list of tall rock climbers:
|Rock Climber||Height (cm)||Height (ft)|
|Dean Potter||196cm||6 ft 4|
|Adam Ondra||186cm||6 ft 1|
|Danyil Boldyrev||190cm||6 ft 2|
|Jan Hojer||188cm||6 ft 1|
|Meichi Narasaki||185cm||6 ft 1|
|Bassa Mawem||183cm||6 ft 1|
How much does height matter in climbing?
It might seem like height matters in climbing, but in reality, height really isn’t a deciding factor. Sure having a long reach is helpful, but it comes with its own set of disadvantages. The only noticeable difference between short and tall climbers is that the weaknesses of a shorter climber are more prevalent in the early stages of rock climbing while the defections of tall climbers show in later stages of climbing.
While doing research for this post, I couldn’t find a single paper that could produce a notable connection between height and climbing level.
One study conducted at the University of Derby looked at how body characteristics may affect a climbers skill found that height was not a significant contributing factor amongst advanced to elite female rock climbers.
A systematic review of many research papers found that there was a weak negative correlation between height and climbing level. Which means the shorter climbers overall were found to be performing better. Take this with a grain of salt as this was a weak correlation. What this does show however is that a climber’s height is not what is holding them back.
I’d like to finish this article by referring you to the Tall vs Short climber video by Central Rock Gym on YouTube. If you still have any doubt that BOTH short and tall climbers can be disadvantaged in climbing, this video is a must watch. It features two strong climbers on both sides of the spectrum and showcases their strengths and weaknesses on different boulder problems.
Giles, Dave & Barnes, Kimberly & Taylor, Nicola & Chidley, Corinna & Chidley, Joel & Mitchell, James & Torr, Oliver & Gibson-Smith, Edward & Vanesa, España-Romero. (2020). Anthropometry and performance characteristics of recreational advanced to elite female rock climbers. Journal of Sports Sciences. 39. 2020. 10.1080/02640414.2020.1804784.
Dominik Saul, Gino Steinmetz, Wolfgang Lehmann, Arndt F. Schilling. (2019) Determinants for success in climbing: A systematic review. Journal of Sports Sciences.
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