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Fancy Footwork and Leg Power Part 1

When you watch someone climb, it looks like the arms do all the work. However, that’s not the case. Your legs and feet are the critical limbs to use for working problems. Don’t believe me?

Here are a couple of reasons why they are essential:

  1. The leg muscles are more extensive and more robust so that they can do more work.
  2. The arms and fingers are more efficiently used (won’t get tired as quickly) and help increase the level of difficulty you want to send.

This post is the first in a three-part series focusing on why climbers need to develop proper foot and leg techniques.

Building leg and foot technique is just as important as arm technique. Why? Because legs and feet are frequently used as “third arms” to move through problems and routes. They’re super useful when moving up to grab a hold. Stability is a must for resting in-between moves. Plus, the arms themselves can only do so much while climbing before tiring out and come off the rock or holds.

Learning the Steps

Now let’s see what these feet can do. Your goal is to have the most area of contact between your foot and the rock. Also, placing the foot in a position where it won’t shift as you stand upon it. Shifting is terrible unless you are intentionally doing it. From author Peter Beal’s Bouldering Movement, Tactics and Problem Solving, he mentions 4 foot positions climbers need to know for approaching problems and routes.


Using both inside and outside edges for a purple problem.

There are two types of edging: inside and outside. Both are the most secure foot placements. The most common is inside edging. One uses the inside edge of the foot from the ball to the big toe. Then press onto the top edge of a hold or rock. Once placed, you can stand up on that spot without shifting or wobbling.

This type is what I first learned when starting to climb. Inside edging is a useful technique for beginners as they get the hang of footwork. Eventually, climbers will come across parts of problems where that won’t work and need to use a different technique.

Outside edging is using the outside edge of the foot to press on top of the hold or rock. One can turn the foot inward to use the outer edge. According to Eric J. Hörst, author of Learning to Climb Indoors, there’s a “sweet” spot near the side edge of the pinky toe that can help with leverage. For holds or edges that are farther apart, this kind type of edging works better for it. Outside edging is something to get used to and experiment with because it isn’t intuitive.

Both feet front-pointing to stay on a black problem.


Front toe-in placement is when the front of the shoe meets the foothold or pocket in the rock, and the heel sticks straight out. These kinds of footings are common to see on beginner routes and sometimes seen on problems. When standing on the hold, a climber uses more of the inside or outside edge, so they’re using more shoe rubber. The positioning requires a lot of calf muscle strength to sustain. Pockets are the best hold for this technique.


Smearing to keep my balance on a purple problem.

Sometimes there aren’t any good footholds on the wall. What’s a climber to do? Smearing on a hold or the surface would be the best bet. You place a toe just above the edge and press the shoe rubber against it at an angle, maximizing friction from the shoe to the edge. Either inward, outward, or toe-in smearing can make this happen. As long as the ankle is bent to place most of the shoe sole on the hold firmly as possible, it will stick.

This technique also works well with rounded holds. The friction helps keep the foot in position. There are times smearing can be done on a vertical wall too. I’ve had to do this on roped routes to keep my balance on harder ones. It’s not the most comfortable, but it has worked in my favor.

Rest Step

Resting feet on a big pink hold

Climbing can put a lot of stress and strain on the legs and feet, especially if standing on small hold or rocks for long periods. Taking what’s called a rest step will help the legs recover. An easy way to do this is placing a heel and stand with a straight leg on a medium to large hold or edge. If one can relax the calf muscles while doing this, it would be a significant relief. On harder problems or routes, one trick is having a foot toe-in on a hold then stack the other foot on top of it to create a rest step.

Use Those Legs

Since we now know the basic footwork, what are some ways our legs and feet can help further our climbing? Other techniques keep climbers on holds and rock or at least give them better stability until the next move. In a revised part two of Fancy Footwork and Leg Power, I’ll share some foot and leg movements that frequently help get through problems and give climbers a “leg up” in the process. Until next time, happy bouldering!