Get Stuck Into Crack Climbing!

off-width climbing

Literally stuck! Photo by Dave King.

In this post we’re looking at off-width cracks and chimneys - the two most difficult types of crack climbing to master! Last week we covered finger, hand and fist cracks - these are the ones to start off with if you’re new to crack climbing. Off-width and chimney routes can be punishing and usually have little protection, so you should be familiar with crack climbing before moving up.

But if you love crack climbing and you’re ‘sticking’ with it, off-width cracks and chimneys are a great new challenge! Let’s get stuck in!

Off-width cracks

Off-width cracks are too big to fit your fist into and too small to fit your whole body into. These are generally considered the most awkward routes, as it’s not always clear what to do to progress. Perseverance is the key to these routes. It may seem impossible at first, but if you keep trying, you will get up there!

The jams

As these cracks are too big for a one hand jam, you’ll need to use both of your hands.

Butterfly jam

The butterfly jam.  Photo by Dave King.

The butterfly jam. Photo by Dave King.

Commonly called the butterfly jam as it looks a bit like a butterfly. You may also hear it referred to as a hand-hand jam or double hand stack, which gives you a pretty good idea of what it is! 

Place the palm of one hand against one side of the crack and do the same with your other hand. Your hands should be back-to-back. Slide your hands in until they are touching and can’t go any further into the crack, then use the normal hand jamming technique - tucking your thumbs under - to form a secure jam. 

Fist and hand jam

This is for wider off-width cracks, when the butterfly jam is too small. 

Place the palm of one hand against the rock and slide your fist in on top of your hand. From here slide your hands deeper in to the crack until they can’t go any further, then clench your fist tightly to get as much expansion as possible and make a hand jam with your flat hand. This may feel really awkward at first but it’s a very secure jam.

Arm bars and chicken wings

Time to look ridiculous! When the crack gets too wide for hand stacks, you can use a combination of arm bars and chicken wings to work your way up. Arms bars are generally used for upwards progress and chicken wings are mainly used for resting. 

Arm bar

To make an arm bar, have your palm against one side of the crack and your elbow bone against the other side of the crack. The width of your forearm is a brace across the crack.

To move from this position, you’ll have to jam your feet in and push yourself up using your legs. The arm bar should be facing downwards - fingers pointing downwards - to be able to push yourself up.

Chicken wings

Place your palm on one side of crack with your fingers pointing downwards and place the back of your tricep against other side of crack with your elbow pointing upwards. The chicken wing technique should hold you in place when you need a rest.

How do I move my hands up?

It seems like as soon as you move your hands to make another jam, you’d fall off. The only way to stop yourself from falling off is to have a good foot jam. A technique called heel-toeing is used in off-width crack climbing.


Footwork is the key to success for this type of climbing. Your foot should be sideways on in the crack - effectively forming a bridge. The back of your heel and the outside of your big toe should be pressed against the sides of the crack.



The ultimate suffer-fest! Chimneys are giant cracks big enough to fit your whole body into. These routes are not easy and usually offer little protection. Chimneys can be dangerous routes due to the lack of protection offered on most routes - if you fall, you’ll fall far. There is no way to escape a chimney half-way through unless you’re lucky enough to have found a gear placement. It’s either top out, ab down or… fall down.

If you ask most climbers how to get up a chimney they’ll say: “Any way possible!” - It usually requires bracing your back against one side of the crack and having your feet braced against the other side with your knees bent. Your feet should be parallel to your hips. Your arms should be straight out in front of you, hands pressed against the crack on the other side (if you can reach), acting as a brace. The way to work your way up is to push yourself up using your legs.

Or here’s Dave (left) using a bridging technique.

You’ll need to build up your core strength loads to take on the mighty off-widths and chimneys.

Building Core Strength

Your core is your greatest body-part weapon in climbing. I recently fractured a rib (not by climbing) and it’s only when you can’t engage your core that you’ll realise just how integral your core is to climbing.

The strength of your core affects more than you might think. High heel-hooks, for example, require a strong core. Sure, getting the height is achieved by being flexible however, the strength of your core muscles is what will determine if you can hold the move once you’ve placed your foot. Your core muscles do their part in keeping your foot high. 

Building up your core muscles can improve all aspects of your climbing, so even if you’re not climbing these kind of routes, it’s well worth improving your core strength.

Climbing and bouldering indoors can build core strength over a period of time. However, the quickest way to build core strength is to get in the gym and do some focused core exercises.

Brown’s Gym is upstairs in Vertical Limit and use of the gym is included in your entry to the climbing wall. So there’s really no excuse not to compliment your climbing training with some gym training.

Using the gym regularly can help you to build strength and conditioning in all areas of your body, which can dramatically improve your climbing. See our previous post on how to use the gym to improve your climbing for recommended exercises and tips.

Core Exercises

Sit-ups and Russian twists are two good core exercises. We have covered the correct way to do sit-ups and Russian twists in this post. If you struggle with sit-ups, there is an aid you can use in Brown’s Gym to help you - great for beginners or if you’re rehabilitating from an injury, like me. These exercises can be made more difficult by using weighted exercise balls, which you can also find in Brown’s Gym. If you would like further advice on recommended gym exercises to compliment your climbing or a personal training session, be sure to ask Dave Brown and he’ll be happy to advise you!

If you really want to improve your core strength, doing a reasonable amount of core exercises - 30 sit-ups - every day, rather than 200 once a month, will be more beneficial for you in the long run and will bring results. Try fitting in half an hour of gym exercises after your climbing session.

We hope to see more climbers in the gym soon!