As a coach and climber of almost 12 years, I’ve developed a very visceral reaction to the sight of bad footwork. Honestly, nothing grinds my gears more than watching a climber stomp their way up a route using the sides of their feet and waddling side to side like a penguin. Every athlete has heard a coach or two yell, “Stay on your toes!” Why do people treat climbing differently?
Good footwork is a skill that must be carefully cultivated. While it’s not always the most fun or flashy technique to develop, it is arguably the most helpful to upping your climbing game. You may be able to do muscle-ups and dead hang on crimps, but if you can’t stand on your feet, your project will remain unsent.
Here are six tips you can use to develop better footwork.
Don’t use the sides of your feet—like ever. Even when you’re backstepping or inside- flagging, your big toe should be the main contact point. Using your toes will allow you to pull yourself into the wall or pivot when necessary. You will also be able to match or switch feet on small footholds. If using the sides of your feet proves to be a hard habit to break, try this trick: cut a tennis ball in half and, without covering the toe box, tape each half to the end of your shoes. With the tennis ball halves attached, climbing with the sides of your feet will be impossible.
Engage your toes. Look at the angle you’re climbing on. As a general rule, for steep climbs, your toes should be engaged and your heel should be up. The muscles you would engage to draw a line in the sand are the same muscles that should be engaged while on high-angle climbs. To develop this skill, try attaching resistance bands to the back part of your shoe. Have a partner grab each resistance band while you’re climbing and see if they can pull your feet off. This exercise will help you learn how to better engage the muscles needed to keep your feet on the wall.
For low-angle climbs, drop your heel and spread your toes. This will allow you to get more surface area on slabby terrain. Practice on volumes or slopey jibs to develop this skill. Remember to keep your hips into the wall to prevent yourself from slipping out. Play around and try matching your feet on small holds. This will help you develop precision and confidence when it comes game time.
Use “quiet feet.” Quiet feet means you’re intentional and delicate with your foot movements. One of the biggest mistakes new climbers make is looking up before they’ve actually placed their foot down, and so their foot scrapes the wall before it lands on the hold. Tracking your foot movement with your eyes all the way to the foothold will ensure you don’t miss, slip or stomp. If necessary, “squish the bug,” with the bug being the foothold, to ensure your toes are where you want them to be. If quiet feet proves to be a challenge, try adding poker chips to footholds and see if you can climb without knocking the chips off. Don’t have poker chips? Use bottle caps, coins or corks.
Fit your shoes correctly. It’s always important to bring the right weaponry to the battlefield. Wearing terrain-appropriate shoes will help you make precise foot movements and improve self-confidence. Check out the article in this issue for tips about picking the right shoe. Also, though it may seem tempting, don’t wear socks with your climbing shoes. Climbing shoes are designed to help you feel the holds and wall surfaces!
Find the best part of the hold. All climbers feel around for the best part of a handhold, but often just plop their foot down on a hold. Especially if it’s a volume or a larger hold, think about the specific part of the hold you are going to stand on and why. It’s all about intentionality.