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The New Setter Series: Hold Selection

Updated: Feb 1

Welcome to The New Setter Series, where we explore essential topics to help those just starting out, push their route setting skills to the next level. This first post is on arguably the most overlooked aspect of route setting, hold selection.

When you are learning to set, or trying to develop your route setting, "selecting the right holds for the job is half the battle. Get this first stage right and everything else will start to fall into place." - Jake Mason

So why is it so important?

In a similar way to tops chefs selecting the perfect ingredients for a dish, route setters need to choose the perfect holds to create their boulder or move. Choose good raw ingredients that go together and you're halfway towards a great plate of food. Give them low quality, inappropriate or mismatched ingredients and even the best chefs will struggle.

With route setting, there is no set recipe to follow and because we are often working with new holds or wall angles we have to be experts at making gourmet dishes up on the spot with what we have on offer. Selecting the right holds for the job will allow you to set flowing sequences that work with minimal tweaks, nail your accuracy when it comes to setting on grade and improve the overall aesthetics of your route or boulder.

Poor hold choice can make setting to your brief impossible, no matter how good a route setter you are. Getting the ingredients right is the first step, but one that is often overlooked and not given enough thought.

So what are our basic rules of hold selection?

Specific holds for each hand and feet.

Most climbing holds are lovingly shaped to interact ergonomically with specific parts of the human body. Generally they are either designed as hand holds or foot holds, and often hand holds are created to be used as a left or a right hand. Using holds in the way the shaper intended can make your route easier to read, feel more intuitive and increase the flow and comfort of the climb. Taking the time to really assess your holds to find out interesting and new ways they can be used is also incredibly valuable and can open up a whole new world of possibilities with the same set of holds.

Selecting holds that go together.

Choosing holds that go together can drastically improve the overall aesthetic and make climbs feel 'natural', like the holds 'belong'. Because of this, hold brands and shapers will create sets or families of similar holds which are designed to be used together. If it's possible, setting with a full set of holds can help elevate your setting to the next level. If full sets aren't available to you, try focusing on holds which have similarities for example in texture, shape or style and use them together to create your routes. Still struggling to find enough holds from one set for a whole boulder or route? Try using one style for hands and another style for feet. This comes with the added advantage of helping with route reading, especially for newer climbers.

Choosing the appropriate holds for angle of wall and grade.

Most setters are working to briefs set by either the wall or the chief/head setter. This brief should be monitored and constantly evolving to your customer base, giving climbers more of what they're interested in and less of what they're not. Setting to this brief (more specifically to grade) is one of the most difficult skills to master because of the degree of variables, and even the most experienced setters get this wrong often. When selecting holds think of routes you've climbed or set on that angle of wall and bring to mind the holds used to create it. Use those holds as inspiration for your selection process and it should help you choose holds that are appropriate and avoid major changes or rebuilds during testing. When you've started setting your boulder, keep asking yourself if you're hitting the difficulty needed. Think you're slightly off? Not to worry, changing the size, position and orientation of footholds can help to push your route or boulder up or down by at least one V grade, sometimes more!

I've mastered the basics so how can I develop my hold selection skills?

Plan ahead.

Having a clear but flexible plan before setting a boulder can help with your hold selection and avoid the meltdowns we all dread. The brief usually takes into account the angle of wall, the difficulty (grade) and the concept (or style). This can help narrow down options and allow you to select the most appropriate holds that are going to make your life easier during testing and really elevate your route or boulder. Once you have an idea of the holds you want to use, just double check how they attach and make sure you are fully equipped and prepared so you can let your creativity flow. We often see setters going back to the hold store because they don't have enough holds or because they haven't got the right bolts, bits or screws. This wastes time and can really fluster new setters so make sure you plan ahead to avoid situations like this.

Take your time (but not too much time!).

Once you have a plan give yourself enough time to select the perfect holds at the start of setting a route. Keep referring to your brief or plan and make sure the holds you have selected are appropriate for the angle of wall and difficulty you are trying to set. Feel like there's a crucial holds you're missing for your sequence? There's no problem in going to look for your perfect holds, but it's important to be flexible and be ready to change plans if the perfect holds can't be found. It's best to be flexible with the things you can control (like the sequence you're aiming for) and don't try to change things you can't control (like the holds you have available)

Up your Indoor climbing.

Upping the volume and variety of your indoor climbing and watching competitive climbing can help improve your understanding of hold selection. When climbing or watching climbing, pay attention to the type of holds that are used on each wall angle and at what grade or style. Once you've got to grips with this, start analysing specific moves or sequences and think about why the holds that setter has chosen work for that climb. The more experience you have climbing on different holds and wall angles indoors, the better your judgement will be when it comes to selecting them for your boulders or routes.

Learn from the pros.

Actively learn from more experienced setters, either by working alongside them or by booking a workshop or course. If you are keen to develop it really helps to fully engage with the team during testing/forerunning. Throughout the testing process the aim is to identify and solve issues with the first draft, for example, the intended sequence isn't forced, it feels uncomfortable to climb, or it is a little off grade. The solution to these issues can be down to a number of factors, but often with new setters it is the result of poor hold selection. If the team are changing holds on your route or boulder, pay attention to what changes they are making. Ask them why they made the decision to change x hold for y and get really involved with their decision making processes. There are often lots of solutions to the issues identified during testing but the most experienced setters take into account all factors when selecting holds throughout this process.

Become an expert on holds.

It should come as no surprise that the best setters in the world are also experts in climbing holds and volumes. They stay up to date with new trends by watching the world cups, they take an interest in new materials and innovations and many even shape holds too. To really elevate your route setting without actually doing any route setting, all setters should be educating themselves in climbing holds. Understanding how holds are made and shaped and more specifically what brands are available to them can make such a difference to your setting. If you set regularly at a wall, get to know whats in their store inside out, and if you can, help them organise their holds into set and families, to make selection easier and more efficient at the start. The more you know about the holds on offer and how they go together the better you will be at selecting them.

Want to learn more about hold selection? Check out or online course, Route Setting Essentials or book onto one of our in-person courses below.

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