Climbing Foot Techniques for intermediate climbers

Technique is the essence of climbing. It is thanks to the magic powers of movement that the skilful climber often out-performs the stronger climber. The quest to improve our technique is a life-long journey – there is no such thing as mastery and the best climbers always remain humble and open-minded. The scope for analysis is endless, with many elites feeling that they could write an entire book on the moves required for a single boulder problem. By striving to improve our technique not only will we be able to achieve harder climbs, we will gain greater enjoyment from experiencing true artistry in climbing.

Climbing Foot Techniques for intermediate climbers

How to improve your climbing technique

Most climbers find that in the early stages they learned new techniques quickly and soon built up a repertoire of the basic range of moves. However, many intermediates (those operating in the F6b+ – 7a or V3 – V5 range) feel that their technique starts to stagnate and they are unsure how to progress. Is it enough just to ‘go climbing’ and hope that our technique will improve? The problem with this approach is that we may be engraining bad habits as well as good ones. The answer comes from taking control and consciously steering our technique.

The aim is to consolidate and refine the moves we’ve learnt, so that we can spot the opportunity to use the right move at the right time and execute moves with greater efficiently, especially when under pressure. We must also be aware that some of the most important techniques are counter-intuitive, meaning that we don’t use them instinctively! A classic example would be twisting in with our hips and keeping our arms straight on overhangs – when the pressure is on, we often revert to climbing with our hips parallel and our arms too bent!


The key is to devote time and energy to dedicated technique practice

Start by identifying some weaker areas to focus on, then set some clear goals for making improvements. If you’re not sure how to go about this then ask a climbing partner to video you or better still, see a coach for some objective criticism. Set yourself some drills and practice them on easy ground (for example when warming up) and also on more difficult terrain.

Always read the route and plan your sequences in advance, then analyze your mistakes afterwards. Sometimes it can be worth re-climbing routes to see if you can correct mistakes. Another tactic is to try climbing faster or slower to see if you can unlock a more efficient movement style. Watch other climbers and discuss ‘beta’ (climbing moves and sequences). Above all, have fun and be creative - there is no magic formula for improving technique, so be prepared to experiment with new methods.


The role of footwork

Whilst climbing technique involves the entire body, many believe that footwork lies at the centre of things. It simply isn’t possible to perform a move with full efficiency if we start off with a poor foot placement. The more accurate you are with your feet, the less likely you will be to over-grip and the more energy you’ll save in your arms. When we see elite climbers in action, we note that they place their feet with control and accuracy, even when the climbing is very difficult. When the feet are placed well, this has the effect of improving our confidence, and no doubt, this is the goal!


Foot placement 

In your practice drills, make every foot placement ‘perfect’ using the following list of prompts. Treat this as if you are trying to perform a dance, with grace and precision. If it looks good it will be more efficient!


i) Silent

If you can hear your feet then this is a sign that your foot placements are rushed and inaccurate. To correct this, slow down as you approach the foothold and pause over it for a second before placing the toe. This may feel contrived and frustrating at first, but it represents the best correction you will ever make to your technique. If you set a rule that you’re not allowed to ‘bang’ your feet then this will also mean that you have to achieve perfect balance for each move. 


ii) No scuff                               

No climber likes to think that they drag their feet, but those tell-tale wear points on the tips of our shoes are the proof that we often slide our toes down the wall. Make a rule that you’re not aloud to touch the wall above the foothold.


iii) First time

Aim to make a clean, ‘first-time’ contact with every foothold and don’t allow yourself to ‘double-touch’.


iv) No test

If you place your foot with total precision on a small foothold then there is no need to keep testing it. This can be a nervous habit, which only serves to waste time and potentially, dislodge the foot-placement. One little, test is ok but try to avoid it!


v) Eye on the ball!

So many climbers will look up towards the next handhold, just at the crucial moment when their foot is making contact with a foothold. Always keep your eye on your foot until it is securely in position.


Specific footwork

i) Edging

Every climber knows this basic technique, but are you sure you always edge correctly? The classic mistake is to stand on the rounded, ‘middle part’ of the edge (ie: closer to the instep) and not the front, ‘toe part’, and this will feel less stable and you won’t be able to stand-up on point to gain extra reach. A general rule is that your foot should make a 45 degree angle to the wall. This also applies when using your outside edge, so make a conscious effort to turn your ankle outwards as you step through. Your shoes will need to be close-fitting and have good tension in the rand in order to provide the necessary support.


ii) Smearing

Smearing is all about developing trust in your feet as well as understanding when to do it and when to avoid it. Many climbers view smearing as a last resort and will always try to stand on a positive foothold in preference. However this often facilitates an off-balance or strenuous move and in many cases, it will be more efficient to smear. Pick a precise spot for your foot and maintain constant pressure as you execute the move. It is counter-intuitive to press hard on a tiny smear so you need to be confident and determined. Several small steps are nearly always preferable to one big one. Keep your heels down for maximum rubber contact and beware the temptation to lean in too far for perceived security, or to stand up on point for extra reach. Soft shoes with thin soles will provide more feel and sensitivity for smearing.


iii) Pockets

The key with pockets and thin slots is to rotate your foot so that you can point your toe inwards aggressively. This always feels harder when a pocket is far out to the side, but your toe will simply ping out if you don’t make the effort. Pointed, down-turned shoes will work well and choose the stiffer variety when prolonged support is required.


iv) Swapping feet

It’s good to try to minimize foot-swapping by planning your foot-sequence ahead, yet sometimes a foot-swap will be the best solution. Foot-swapping can feel awkward and clumsy if you simply ‘jump’ your feet off and onto the foothold. Instead, try to make this a smooth, precise and controlled operation. A good method is to pivot the first foot off the foothold and then slide the second foot into the space which is revealed. On wider footholds, try to save space by standing on the far side of the hold when positioning the first foot.


v) Drilling the feet on overhangs

When climbing on vertical walls with positive footholds, we tend to use our feet passively like a platform (in other words, we don’t use tension to maintain contact with the hold). However, if we do this on a steep overhang, especially when the footholds are poor, then our feet will ‘pop’ and we will swing off. Instead, we must tense our hamstrings, glutes, abdominal muscles and attempt to ‘drill’ our toes into the wall. This requires coordination and mental focus as the urge is always to focus too much on reaching the next handhold and less on maintaining contact with our feet. Down-turned shoes will enable you to dig in with your feet and use them like claws.


vi) Heel-hooking

A heel-hook can be used to lighten the load on your arms when climbing steep overhangs, as well as to gain traction when climbing on volumes, aretes and sloping features. When climbing roofs, position the heel high above you, preferably on a large, positive hold, then flag with the other leg by passing it behind you and dangling it at the balance point. Having gained initial height, the heel can then be repositioned as a toe. When heel-hooking on volumes or rounded features, try to identify the best place for the heel-hook beforehand, as it may be obscured from vision when you’re climbing. You must then pull with your hamstring to create a ‘counter-force’, to keep you pinned in to the wall. The angle of your foot is crucial. If you need to gain a significant amount of height then your foot will need to go through a full 180-degree rotation. Start with the toe pointing upwards, then rotate the foot so that the toe points outwards, and finally, so it points to downwards.

When performing ‘foot-to-hand’ heel-hooks, an awkward challenge is to get your fingers out of the way of your heel. This can be achieved either by shuffling them to one side, or on narrower holds, by spreading your thumb and fingers and then placing the heel in between them.  Another solution when heel-hooking large, wider features which are close to your body, is to place the heel-hook inside your hand and then to slide your hand out to make the reach. In selecting shoes for heel-hooking, make sure there is no dead-space in the heel, as this will cause the heel to slip and feel insecure. Most will favour heel-cups with full rubber coverage, which ensure rubber contact regardless of how the heel is placed. My personal favourite is La Sportiva’s ‘S-Heel’ system, which stabilizes the heel during extreme heel-hook moves.


vii) Toe-Hooking

Toe-hooks can be used in much the same way as heel-hooks, to lighten the load on overhangs or to cinch the body in to the wall when climbing aretes and prows. This is achieved by inserting the toe behind a large projecting feature and pulling with the shin muscle. The key is to engage the toe with conviction and to maintain constant tension during the move. On large features such as flakes, a ‘double toe-hook can be a great option. When climbing roofs, plan how you’re going to release the toe so as to avoid cutting loose and this is usually achieved by moving your feet in small steps and avoiding long reaches. Regarding shoes, enlarged rubber toe-patches have become standard on modern bouldering shoes and help significantly to improve contact.  


In conclusion, many climbers feel that they don’t really know how to make active improvements in their footwork, but if you practice focused drills then you will have a means of monitoring progress and making refinements, without the need for a coach. There will also be knock-on benefits in helping you avoid injury, by developing a more relaxed climbing style and in promoting ability to stay calm and focused mentally. The more frequently you practice, the more powerful the affect will be on your climbing!



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Author: Neil Gresham

British all-round climber, Neil Gresham has climbed 8c+ sport, E10 (8b+ XX) trad and WI7. He has been a La Sportiva ambassador since 1989 and has been coaching and writing training articles since 1993. He offers personalised training plans at






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