The Three T’s: Footwork Basics

posted by dpm on 01/11/2014

No matter how much arm strength you possess, you’ll need expert footwork to climb at your limit. Alli Rainey stands on the tiniest of edges on F’d in the A (5.14a) at Ten Sleep, Wyoming. Photo: Mike Williams 


If footwork represents an area that you need to work on, taking an efficient, step-by-step approach can help you progress more quickly than just having the general idea of “my footwork isn’t good.” Improving your understanding and execution of efficient footwork basics for sport climbing and bouldering can make a marked difference in your performance. By intelligently implementing one, two, or a combination of all three of the “T’s” covered below, you should be able to punch up your footwork to a higher level in a relatively short period of time.

The tactical portion of the article explains key strategic decisions you can make in relation to the topic to support and improve your execution of the technique or movement in question.

Thetechnicalportion of the article discusses the climbing movement/technique in question, including general guidelines for how to utilize the technique or movement efficiently and exercise(s) that you can practice until you have sufficiently mastered the topic at hand. Practice makes perfect, and repetition is the key to mastery.

The training portion of the article gives you outside-of-climbing training methods you can use to improve your ability to utilize the movement/technique, should you need them.

Tactical:Removing your climbing shoes should be the first thing you want to do when you get down from a difficult sport climbing effort. You should want to take them off because they’re uncomfortable to wear walking around, belaying, or hanging out between burns. For bouldering, if you’re wearing the right shoes, you’ll most likely want to at least pop the heels off in between attempts, or after every few attempts.

Start your footwork off on the right foot (literally!) by choosing well-fitted climbing shoes appropriate to your climbing style. If your focus is hard (for you) sport climbing and bouldering, as this article assumes, then you’re doing yourself an extreme disservice if you purchase a pair of comfy, all-around climbing shoes that you can wear all day, or with socks, or both. The toe of your climbing shoes should not curve upward; you sacrifice serious power and edging potential if your shoe no longer holds your toes flat or turned down/bent inside the shoe. You don’t need to jump straight into the deep-end, either; there’s no need to grab the most aggressive, tight-fitting, downturned, flexible climbing shoes right out the gate – unless they feel great to you, of course.

What you should look for, in your first pair of climbing shoes – or first appropriately fitted and sized pair of climbing shoes –  is a snug fit, ideally with no air pockets, or places where the inside of the shoe does not make contact with your foot at all times. The shape of the shoe should be as close to the shape of your foot as possible. Try to find a knowledgeable salesperson who knows how to fit climbing shoes to help you figure out how much to downsize from your street-shoe size. Most sport climbers and boulderers downsize anywhere from half a size to two sizes.

Generally speaking, leather shoes with less rubber will stretch more than synthetic shoes and/or shoes with more rubber, so you’ll want to downsize more to account for this. Climbing shoes will stretch and mold to your feet as you break them in, meaning that if they’re very comfortable right out of the box, you may find that they’re floppy and less precise after a week or two of use. It’s also great to try on shoes at a store that has a climbing wall so that you can feel how they actually perform when you climb, rather than walking around in them.

Technical:Once you have a pair of well-fitted climbing shoes, knowing how to use them most effectively should be the focus of your technical efforts. Where and how you place your feet impacts every aspect of every climbing move you make – unless you’re campusing all the time! A common user error is to utilize mainly the balls of the climbing shoes in an effort to maximize surface contact with the rock. However, this method is extremely limiting, as it reduces the precision and power of your footwork. It also severely decreases the types of footholds you can use, since you can’t edge on tiny dime edges very effectively with the balls of your feet. Imagine a dancer trying to perform graceful movements while staying only on the balls of her feet versus lifting through her toes, and you get a good visual of the clumsiness of movement that comes with relying on the balls of your feet to provide support and power through your feet and legs to the rest of your body.

The majority of climbing foot placements require you to use the inner edge of your big toe for the most precise, efficient and maneuverable execution of movement. Your shoe should support this placement (again, shoes with upturned toes will hinder this placement), helping your foot to hold this position as you press up through your leg and propel movement through your entire body from this powerful point of contact. Secondarily, the outer edge of your shoe, along the line of the rest of your toes, is similarly utilized when you backstep.

Use disciplined, intentional and conscious repetition to drill this technique until it becomes second nature to place your feet this way. Focus on deliberate and quiet foot placements, making no noise as you watch your toe (or toes) connect accurately with the intended foothold. Make sure you watch until your foot is placed where you want it; it’s very common for climbers to look away at the last second and miss the precise connection they intended. Slow it down, if you need to. Work on looking down and adjusting your foot placement(s) after each time you move a hand – it’s also quite common to get overly focused on the next handhold(s), forgetting to look for the footholds that will help you get there.

Training:If you find it difficult to stand on and press through your big toes/other toes as described above, you might benefit from doing some simple resistance training exercises outside of climbing to help you more quickly strengthen your feet and calves than you would by simply climbing. Test yourself by standing on the ground, and then pressing up with both feet to stand on your toes. If you feel wobbly or unsteady in this position, or you can’t hold it with ease for several seconds, this is your starting exercise. Twice a week, do three sets of 10 to 15 presses up to tiptoes, holding each press for one to five breaths. Increase the difficulty by doing this on a stair, holding onto a sturdy rail for balance as needed. Drop your heels down as far as you can, then press up to tiptoes, then back down for one rep. For greater intensity, you can hold a dumbbell in each hand or wear a weight vest while you do this exercise. Once you’re strong enough to press out and hold positions using your toes effectively on small footholds, it’s likely that simply climbing will be enough for you to maintain this level of required strength – so long as you climb regularly, of course.