Ice Climbing: Core and Figure 4’s

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Angelika Rainer utilizes a high-closed-figure-4 position while pushing on the trailing foot to reach through the crux on a D-14+ in Italy. Photo by Tom Ballard

By Steve House and Andres Marin.

The Figure-4 is written off by many climbers as an advanced climbing move reserved for the most advanced mixed climbers. Take the the figure-4 into the gym however, and it becomes a great core exercise that addresses the entire upper-body in a very ice-climbing specific way: Hip-flexors, abdominals, lats, shoulder girdle, and grip, are all stressed by this movement. It is also advantageous to learn this movement in the safety of the gym, so if and when you do need to try a figure-4 outdoors, you know how.

First a few tips on the move. Many people do not realize that there are three figure-4 positions, low, medium, and high. The low-figure-4 is the most frequently used position. But beware, it is quite difficult to move out from the low position and if you lack the strength you may get stuck in the low-figure-4. In our experience the best position is the middle-figure-4. It is easier to move from than a low-figure-4 and you can use your leg to squeeze tightly to your forearm, which adds to your stability and the strength of the position. The high-figure-4 is often needed for the most difficult drytooling moves. This position gives you the most reach, but you can’t squeeze the forearm of your gripping-hand very hard when compared to the middle-figure-4 and it requires more strength to extend.

Andres Marin demonstrating a high-open-figure-4.

One often-overlooked advantage of a figure-4 is that when climbing on insecure holds, weighting the tool in this way keeps the force straight down, and therefore more secure. Often people, especially us old-schoolers, are tempted to first try to climb with our feet. But even a slight amount of foot-pressure can put an outward force on the tool and this can be enough to cause your tools to pop, and you to fall.

And finally, one bit of practical advice on the Figure-9, which some of you might have seen. (This is similar, but with right hand over right foot or left hand over left foot). This move is not a replacement for a figure-4. It is used for going sideways across a roof (away from the arm/leg-side that is engaged) or for grabbing a rest before a big move. Because it’s not significantly different from a figure-4, we don’t see an advantage to training figure-9s in the gym.

Today we want to teach you how to do a figure-4, and hopefully add a new fun twist to your ice climbing training.

You will need a place to hang from two tools; ideally your arms are fully extended with your toes not touching the ground. Place a bouldering pad or other padding under the area in case you fall.

Remember: A figure-4 move puts the opposite leg goes over the opposite arm. Or, to put it another way, your right leg goes over left arm and your left leg over right arm.

Start by engaging your shoulders and core. Curl your legs up as you rotate your body up and back and bring your leg over the arm to rest it in the elbow (low position). If you can not execute this move, keep working those hanging leg raises. Here’s a video to be sure we’re all clear on how this move works.

The Core-Figure-4 Exercise

Hanging from two tools, moving into and out of Figure-4.

Right side:

3x to a high-figure-4 (Pause with your leg gripping wrist area lightly)

3x to the middle-figure-4 (Pause with your leg tightly gripping forearm)

3x to the low-figure-4 position (Pause with your leg in the crook of the elbow)

Rest 2-3 minutes.

Repeat to the left side.

You can make these more difficult by:

  • Doing the above weighted (ankle weights or boots)
  • Or holding your legs out straight, approaching a front-lever position.

And for the more advanced climbers who may be applying this movement on a route:

Andres demonstarting a middle, open figure-4 position.

Figure-4 Reaches

10x per side. 2-3 minutes rest in between.

Get into either an open or closed (you need to practice both, so go back and forth), middle or high figure-4 position and drop your free hand down. From that starting position twist and reach your hand as high and as far up and forward as possible; as if you’re reaching for a hold. Progress by gripping a dumbbell (it won’t take much). This is best done with nearby wall, so you can practice pushing with the straight leg. This comes closest to simulating the most common form of this movement, and often the crux of, a real route.

An open, high figure-4 with a reach. Note how he is pushing his body forward and up with his lower foot. It is useful to hold a pencil in this hand and make a mark on the wall as high as you can reach. Date each high mark when you train and watch your reach progress.

Ice Climbing: Core and Figure 4's

Now that you know something about this technique, it’s easier to appreciate Angelika’s excellent form. Her Figure-4 is very high, and she’s got her foot in front of her thigh, probably to get the right angle on the reach. I also looks like she’s gripping the top-most grip on the tool. The trailing leg is fully extended and she’s toeing hard into that foothold, which surely helps her maintain the body tension needed to get her torso and arm so straight and so extended to reach to that hold. Angelika is the 3x world-champion in mixed climbing.

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