Flow is often what we want in routes. In a commercial context, flowy routes are one of the most popular products we offer. When we're talking about roped setting in a gym, it's what most people want, most of the time. If route setters were Italian chefs, then being able to set a flowy route is like being able to make pasta. It's the staple of our range. It doesn't mean it's the best on offer, or the thing you must create every time you sling grips, but it is an essential part of the repertoire.
What is flow? Simply put, a route that flows, is a route that has movement that feels intuitive. You set up on the starting holds, and it feels good. You're not bunched up and straining to get off the deck, not confused, it seems to be 'just right'. Higher up, you execute a cross over sequence, rolling the hips to weight the new hold, look down - bang - there's a foot right where you want it. This is flow.
So how do you set a route that flows? There's a few key principles to keep in mind:
1. Let the holds dictate the movement
2. Don't overthink the sequences
3. Avoid cruxes
1. 'Let the holds dictate the movement'
A sure fire way to break the flow of a route, is to try to force a hold to be used in a way that it's not suited for. A hold almost always has an ideal way in which it can be used. Often this simply boils down to comfort. Try gripping the hold in different ways, spinning it around, left hand, right hand, generally the optimum position - the position the shaper intended - will become quite obvious.
If you select the wrong holds to haul up the wall with you, you're going to be struggling from the beginning. On the flip side, with good hold choice, and proper attention to the way a holds supposed to be used, you'll find that routes almost set themselves. In practical terms, having the right holds for the right terrain is a matter of experience. An experienced setter can look at the wall they're setting on, look at the holds available, and know which will be suitable for the difficulty and style of route they need to set.
Tip for new setters: Before selecting holds for your route, look around the gym and find a route of similar grade and style to the one you're supposed to be setting, take note of the holds. How positive they are, how big the feet are, etc. - let this guide your selection.
2. Don't Overthink The Sequence
A movement that is intuitive, is a move that you execute without thought. It's the first thing your reactions tell you to do. You find your body positioned in such a way that it simply leads on to the next sequence organically.
With this in mind: if a route is the product of overthinking, then it's going to climb like that. It will feel complex, stop and start, and thought-provoking. This isn't always a bad thing - but it isn't flow. Keep your sequences simple. Save the 360 spin, lead with your feet, toe hook moves for your next comp boulder.
When you're setting, visualise yourself in the body position that the climber would be in at that point in the route. What feels natural to do next? If you're having a hard time visualising, pull onto the wall and see where the route naturally leads. The first movement you make is likely to be the most intuitive. Obviously, setting like this requires good climbing instincts. This is when becoming a better climber will definitely help you to set better routes.
Tip for new setters: When you're visualising the next movement, or pulling onto the wall to see where the route naturally leads, don't only think about hand movements. Often, and especially if the climber is in a long, stretched out position, the next natural movement is to walk up their feet, before moving off the current hand holds. Add a couple feet, pull into that position, and then think about the hand movement.
3. No Cruxes
Cruxes break a climber's rhythm. They force a change in pace, and often a change in effort. Putting a hard boulder problem in the middle of an otherwise consistent, flowing route, is like jogging along the seaside, and being suddenly forced into sprinting a 40 yard dash, or hurdling over a falling tree. It breaks your flow.
A route that flows will be consistently difficult. As alluded to earlier, consistent difficulty is often a matter of hold choice. If you're setting on a vertical wall with a mix of crimps and jugs, and you find yourself half way up the route and you've only got the crimps left, well, you're going to have a hard time maintaining the difficulty of the route you've started. Make your life easier by selecting the appropriate holds before you start jumaring (or scissor lifting if you're lucky).
To be clear, when we're talking about cruxes, where talking about movements that are significantly harder than the rest of the route. Like, a 5.10c move on an otherwise 5.10a, It's not as though every need movement need be exactly the same difficulty - that's not possible.
Tip for new setters: Forerunning is the best time to identify unwanted cruxes. If an individual movement or sequence is clearly identified as being too hard, don't be precious with the move - even if it's nice. Make the necessary changes, preferably just by rotating or moving pieces. This is more time efficient and less likely to ruin other movements than adding holds.