What I learned working and climbing at 4 different gyms

I worked as a setter and desk staff at two different gyms and climbed at two others, all within the span of 3 years, which I felt gave me a really good basis to compare aspects of the gyms. Here’s what I learned about setting: 

  • Grades matter very, very little. They are subjective and mostly rough guides to help you loosely estimate difficulty. Don't place significance on them. Half the time, us setters are flip flopping between two grades and pick one without much thought. 


  • Dont grade compare climbs on different terrains (slab vs overhang) It doesn't work. 


  • Each gym has an endemic setting style that affects your climbing style. Only climbing at one gym will subconsciously alter your style. Recognizing this is crucial to having self awareness as a climber. Climb at multiple gyms if possible. 


  • Note: larger/ more commercial gyms with many setters can offer more variety IF the head setter allows their routesetters to express their creativity. A suffocating headsetter can ruin a gym. (I have not worked with a headsetter like this, but I have heard horror stories)


  • A good head setter will work WITH setters to tweak their routes to make them more customer friendly. (I havent experienced this kind of poor leadership at any of the gyms I worked at but a close friend of mine did and he quit shortly after. He found it to be very frustrating) 


  • A good head setter teaches and coaches their setters on how to set more effectively. A poor head setter changes problems without explanation. 


  • A good head setter forces their setters to think for themselves frequently. Delivering all of the answers to setters is coddling and doesnt produce independence. (Thanks to Nate J for this one!)


  • Ideally, customer friendliness decreases slightly as grades increase. Setters worry less about span, safety, and comfort as grades increase. Boulders inside become more and more realistic (to outdoors) as grades get higher. Thats not to say that v10’s are built to be actively dangerous, but rather that they may contain more moves that are tweaky, out of span, or uncomfortable than your average v5. 


  • Span is the most important in lower grades. Shorter climbers MUST learn to be more dynamic as they progress, because the outdoors doesn't follow span rules. V0-4 every single move should span from hand to foot, v4-6, there may be one or two dynamic moves, v6+, boulders may have very little regard for span, depending on the style and hold type


  • The easiest way to tweak the difficulty of an existing boulder is to rotate holds 5-10 degrees at a time. 


  • Directional holds are king if you want your boulder to have a “forced beta” (thanks nate!)


  • Conversely, if holds can be grabbed from multiple directions with similar positivity, your boulder may have “beta breaks” 


  • Forerunning is really fucking tough on the body


  • Its important to try to break your boulder during forerunning.


  • Measuring span is super important for customer friendliness. Most gyms have customers ranging from 4 feet to 6+ feet tall. Understanding how your climb will be climbed by climbers of different heights is crucial.


  • Watch people climb your boulders. This is where you’ll learn the most as a setter


  • Routesetting is the act of creating an enjoyable and useful climbing experience for others. your opinion and enjoyment of your boulder matters very little relative to the customer's experience. If youre having fun but the customer isnt, you're doing something wrong!!


  • Dont get holds stuck. Its a pain in the ass…


  • Its ok to tweak boulders after people have climbed them. 


  • Making a boulder look cool is actually an important part of getting people excited to try it. Often bigger holds in interestingly geometric patterns get customers stoked. 


  • Avoid using high profile footholds on slab/vert, especially near the bottom of the wall. Its dangerous (falling hazard) and allows tall climbers to reach thru sequences


  • Avoid setting moves that could lead to uncontrolled falls near the edge of the padding


  • Heel toe cams should always be set so that if other points of contact slip off, the cam releases by default. Having heel toe cams be too secure could lead to broken ankles. 


  • Pressure washing is pretty boring, bring earbuds and a podcast. 


  • Setters try to have an even distribution of grades in the gym so that there are boulders for every level, proportional to the quantity of climbers of that grade. (for example in one gym, the majority of climbers were projecting v5/6, so the majority of boulders were v5/6, with fewer of each ascending and descending grade) Typically gyms have a right-skewed distribution, meaning that there are more v0-2 than v8-10. This allows the gym to be more beginner friendly and allows a variety of warmups for intermediate/advanced climbers.


  • Climbing holds are expensive!!!!

On company culture/non-setting at gyms

  • Each gym has a unique culture. Some gyms are friendly, welcoming and positive, and others can be more clique-y. I find that bigger chain gyms have less homogenous culture and tend to be less welcoming. Generally at a small gym everyone knows each other and is friendly. 


  • Gymtimidation is real. Some beginners are downright uncomfortable around people climbing much harder than them. Being aware of this can help you be a better steward of the sport. Going up to a group of newer climbers and hopping on your proj in front of them can make some people uncomfortable. 


  • Advice to beginners: be curious about intermediate/advanced climbers and be willing to ask for help. Most climbers love sharing knowledge and talking about the sport. That's part of why they got to an advanced level! If you come across someone rude who doesn't want to help, just move on, I promise most of us are nice :)


  • Befriend the setters. Understanding what goes on behind the scenes will help your performance and beta reading.


  • Don't buy brand new shoes at a climbing gym. You can try them on, but youre almost guaranteed a better deal literally anywhere else. 


  • Gym desk staff often have good beta advice. They get to see everyone trying a boulder, they can be a great resource. Make friends here. 

Thats all i can think of for now. Thanks for reading!

-Matthew :)

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