Scarpa North America Blog

How to Set Great Gym Routes with Joel Zerr

May. 21st 2015

Climbing participation has exploded due in part to the growth of climbing gyms. These indoor facilities provide both a controlled environment for new climbers to test the waters and a place for more seasoned climbers to train year round. Part of the attraction of gym climbing is variety. With quality route setting, a gym can offer a new experience with almost every visit. But good climbing gym route setting is a science not easily replicated according to SCARPA athlete and USAC Level IV sport and bouldering route setter Joel Zerr. Joel currently sets for The Spot in Boulder, Colorado. He’s also guest set for countless gyms and national competitions including USAC youth events and the UBC Pro Tour. Quality route setting, according to Joel, is critical to the enjoyment of indoor climbing and it can actually help a climber progress. Here are a few of his tips to get it right.

Joel Zerr works on climbing gym route setting.

Joel Zerr sets a new route at The Spot.

1. Select Appropriate Holds

It’s important for the hold selection to be appropriate for what you’re trying to create. Depending on the grade the holds may need to be a little more comfortable and less aggressive.

2. Force Original Movement

In route setting, you’re not just trying to replicate the same thing every time. If you put a foot directly under a hand hold, it’s almost like climbing up a ladder. There are little tricks you can do to force a move like setting the feet out to make the climber pull differently or skipping the feet entirely to push climbers to use heel hooks or toe hooks. Original movement keeps gym climbing more interesting.


3. Look Pretty

Aesthetics is more important than people realize in modern gym climbing. People tend to avoid ugly routes. You don’t want to use old holds from 20 years ago that are all polished. They just don’t have that look. Modern holds are much more creative and striking. We use tape at my gym but sometimes I’ll try to match hold color because it looks better. Look is a huge factor to make a good route for both competition and commercial setting.

Joel Zerr foreruns a route he just set at The Spot.

Joel Zerr foreruns a route he just set at The Spot.

4. Guide the Climber

When something flows really well and you’re forcing the movement, the climber shouldn’t really have to think so much about what to do. Climbing is about solving a puzzle. Some parts of the solution should require thought, but others should come naturally. Both contribute to the climber’s overall excitement with completing the route.

5. Forerun

You absolutely have to forerun your routes. As a setter, you’re constantly guessing. Often times you can imagine the movement required of a particular setting, but you never really know until you try it. I don’t care how much experience you have. If you don’t forerun your routes, you’re never going know for sure. Sometimes a small tweak can really bump the quality of the route.

Joel’s footwear of choice.

SCARPA Rapid LT for setting in the gym and approaching outdoors.
SCARPA Instinct Lace for everyday climbing.

Holds for Climbing Gym Route Setting

Tools of the trade

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