May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1996


On the rock or off, Robyn Erbesfield has one command: Know where your body is
By Mark Jannot

"For me, balance is almost everything," says Robyn Erbesfield, adapting the game face that she's worn en route to the last four World Cup sport-climbing titles to the demands of her new career as a part-time coach. "In my sport, you've got to find the right balance in every movement, so I analyze exactly where I want my body to be placed at all times."

Because of the paramount place that balance and agility hold in sport climbing, the meticulous, intensely competitive 33-year-old has put together a regimen that can develop those skills both on and off the rock. Each of the five exercises detailed here works in a slightly different way, but all will improve your mind-body interface no matter what your sport--and particularly in such balance--intensive activities as mountain biking, surfing, boardsailing, and skiing. The key to her program's success, says Erbesfield, is to mix it up, doing at least one but no more than three of these exercises each day for 15 minutes apiece. "You've got to change your approach constantly to keep things fresh," she says. "In a sense, you need balance in your approach to balance."

The Chair Swing
Set up a chair three feet in front of a pull-up bar, either in a gym or in a door frame at home. The chair back should be about waist-high. Hanging from the bar, swing forward and place your left foot precisely in the center of the chair. Then float over and place your right foot in exactly the same spot. "If you do ten of these you're doing great, because the concentration requirements increase as you tire from holding on to the bar the whole time," says Erbesfield. "And as a bonus, this works your abdominal muscles really well."

Active Stretching
Start in a standing position, with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your hands reaching above your head, fingers interlaced and palms pushing upward. Lift your shoulders toward the sky and slowly rotate your arms farther behind your head, bringing your shoulder blades together. Next, contract your abdominal muscles and tighten your glutes. "I think of it as being a house on a good foundation," says Erbesfield. "Everything below your belly button should be tight." From there, bend your knees and crouch into a froglike position, bringing your arms out straight, palms facing away (bottom photo). Move your upper body from side to side as if pushing against a wall on either end, and then drop your arms, take a deep breath, and relax. Repeat the sequence three times. "When you tense your body like that," explains Erbesfield, "and then throw in rotation from side to side, it takes a lot of concentration to keep your balance. It gives you a heightened awareness of all your muscles."

Walking the Plank
While this exercise can be done on a thick length of chain, a tightrope, or even a two-by-four suspended on a pair of sawhorses, the ideal tool is a standard gymnastic balance beam. Stand on the beam on the ball of one foot, lifting the other leg and using it and your arms to find a balance point. When you've mastered that, try standing on one leg with the other leg behind you, and then lean forward with your upper body while raising your back leg as high as possible, using only your outstretched arms as stabilizers to stave off a face plant.

Climbing a Slab
This is the only one of Erbesfield's balance enhancers that directly involves climbing, so if there isn't a rock gym in your area or you're just not the climbing type, says Erbesfield, skip this and concentrate on the other four exercises. The idea is to negotiate a 70- to 80-degree wall--"low-angled," in climbing parlance, though that's obviously a relative term--using only your feet, so that you have to concentrate on just those two points (photos above). "You start to realize immediately how important body placement and finding your balance are," Erbesfield says. "You can't advance until you've committed all your weight to one leg, which allows you to free up the other." But since climbing a wall without hands can be difficult for a beginner, Erbesfield suggests that you start by using your thumbs to aid with balance. "Think of them as antennas, helping you feel your way but not taking any weight." Climb as high as you can this way, and then finish the wall using your hands if need be.

The Stair Hop
This exercise was inspired by an off-season training technique in which alpine skiers slide down a slope of loose gravel, applying just enough pressure to one leg to slip a bit down the hill before shifting weight to the other leg and slipping in that direction. In Erbesfield's version, the idea is to find a rhythm while carefully descending several flights of stairs, springing from one foot to the other, skipping steps to keep your attention focused. Practice springing far to the right, then far to the left, using your arms to rebound off the walls of the stairwell. "As you speed it up," Erbesfield points out, "you'll be working on agility as well as balance."

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