Basics of Footwork
Updated: Jan 20
Precise and thoughtful footwork can make or break tough moves on the wall. Whether bouldering, sport, trad, ice, or even alpine climbing, climbers are always concerned with their feet. While a foundation of a strong core and upper body is crucial for climbers, nothing will elevate your climbing like strong footwork.
Good footwork will be painful at first. Much like a pointe dancer does not simply start out by dancing full songs on her tippy-toes, you will not be edging and toe hooking on day one. But there are some useful techniques that can elevate your climbing and will stick with you throughout your entire climbing career.
So what do I mean by “footwork?” Clearly, your feet work. So you’ve nailed the first step. Climbing footwork refers to the thoughtful placement and usage of one’s feet when climbing. Slapping your feet onto holds as you climb, much like one would climb a ladder, is a big no-no in the climbing world. Feet should be precise and quiet when placed, and then utilized for maximum power and reach. How do we do that? Check out these different footwork techniques!
“What the HECK am I supposed to do with those tiny foot holds?”
We call these “foot chips” and they are pretty tough to maneuver on! You certainly won’t be able to in your tennis shoes but with a pair of climbing shoes, you will be able to do what we call edging. Edging is the process of placing the inside of your toes flat against the wall in order to maximize the amount of contact you make with the foot chip. Notice here how I push my heel into the wall ever so slightly to make sure I have as much contact as possible with the hold. As I move off of the foot chip, I am curling my toes down in my shoes to almost tug on the hold and this allows me to step up and over the tiny foot chip. Edging allows us to use holds that don’t even look possible to step on!
Need your foot on a hold that your other foot is currently occupying? Sounds like you need Foot Swap!
Swapping feet is the process of removing one foot off of a hold and replace it with the other foot. Whether you need your left foot onto reach the next hold or your right foot on balance yourself, foot swapping is integral to have in your footwork arsenal. Foot swapping on holds with room enough only for one foot can be tricky! To do so, place the foot that is currently off of the hold on top of the foot on the hold. Point your toes down so that you are almost spear-heading for the hold. Quickly remove the bottom foot so that the top foot lands directly onto the hold. This may take a few tries to nail down. I suggest finding a place on the wall to practice this a couple of times each time you get into the gym.
“Wait, there’s no hold here . . .”
If this is the case, you may have to do what is called smearing! Smearing is when you use the natural, usually flat, features of the wall as a weight bearing foot hold. If you do not place your weight on the foot, you are merely flagging, which is an advanced body positioning technique. Because we generally smear on mostly flat surfaces, the goal of a smear is to maximize contact with the wall. To do this, place your toes on the wall and bring your heel downward to increase the amount of friction against the wall. While smearing may tear apart your shoes, sometimes it is the crucial beta (or tip) that you need to get through a problem (especially on slab walls)!
Not a dumb question! Actually, an excellent question. One way to do this is by throwing a heel hook. Heel hooking is when you position your foot against a hold in order to pull in order to create an oppositional force that keeps you in place and allows for more reach and freedom of hand placement. Setting a bomber heel hook takes more than glomming your foot onto a hold though. You want to position your heel so that when you pull, you are pulling in the direction that maximizes the oppositional forces. Notice here that I place the heel in a way that allows me to pull in towards my body. This locks me into place and frees up my right hand so I can reach the finish hold. You won’t always pull in, however. Sometimes you will pull downward and occasionally you may even pull upwards with a heel.
Another crucial piece of the heel hook is engagement. Often times climber will place their heel appropriately on a hold but fail to engage the heel which causes them to fall. Placing the heel is only the first part. Engaging the heel is the active pulling that creates the tension that keeps you on the wall. Next time your project has a heel hook in it, be thoughtful with your placement and use of it to see the best results.
“Okay, I want to heel hook but I can’t reach my heel around.”
Toe hook time! Toe hooks are similar to heel hooks with one crucial difference. . . you don’t use your heel. Instead of your heel, a toe hook uses your toes to create the oppositional force that keeps you on the wall. Toe hooks can be tricky to spot and can occasionally be used in place of a heel hook depending on height and climbing style. To toe hook, place your foot behind the hold with the tops of your toes up against it. Flex your foot towards you to engage the toe hook and lock you into place. Like a heel hook, this will provide you with reach and freedom of hand placement.
Something to keep in mind for toe hooking is the toll that it takes on your shoes. Some shoes have three straps on top and are not optimal for toe hooking. In fact, triple strap shoes will break easily if you toe hook enough times on them. The best toe hooking shoes have rubber wrapping the entire toe box to create a sticky, flat surface to pull on.
Bonus Footwork Technique!
Here we see what is called a bicycle. Biking is when you place one foot on top of a hold and press down, then toe hook with the other foot to create an oppositional force that keeps your feet steady on the wall. While this is a more advanced footwork technique, it is pretty rad to show all of the different ways footwork can be utilized to pull difficult moves!
One great way to practice footwork in the gym is called The Silent Traverse exercise. Find a long stretch of wall with good hand holds and traverse back and forth for 5-10 minutes. Try your best to make zero noise with your feet. This will force you to think about every foot placement and swap as well as force you to engage each and every foot placement in order to remain quiet!