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Fancy Footwork and Leg Power Part 1

It appears in climbing that the arms do all the work and the legs are only secondary to them. Actually, the legs and feet are the primary parts to use for working problems. This is the first in a three-part series focusing on the need to develop good foot and leg techniques. Here are a couple of reasons why they are important:

  1. The leg muscles are larger and stronger so they can do most of the work.
  2. The arms and fingers won't tire out as fast and help increase the level of difficulty over time.

Building leg and foot technique is just as important as arm technique. Why? Because legs and feet are commonly used as “third arms” to move through problems and routes. They are super useful when moving upward 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.

On a personal note, when using physical strength to do a certain activity, I tend to use my arms more. I have more upper body strength than lower (or at least I think I do). So when climbing, it’s easy for me to be dependent on my arms to move upward. As I’ve been improving my climbing, that’s something I must be conscience of so I don’t fall back into that habit. Besides, like I said, the arms can only do so much.

Learning the Steps

Now let’s see what these feet can do. The goal is having the most area of contact between the foot and the rock. In addition, placing the foot in a position where it won’t shift as you stand up on it. Shifting is bad unless you are intentionally doing it. From Peter Beal’s Movement, Tactics and Problem Solving, there are 4 foot positions climbers need to know for approaching problems and routes:


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

Foot on small hold using the inner edge to stablize

This type is what I first learned when starting to climb. Inside edging is good 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 as one might gather 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 is 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.


Foot in toe-in position on foothold

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 footholds are common to see on beginner routes and sometimes seen on problems. When standing on the hold, a climber tries to use more of the inside or outside edge so more of the shoe rubber used. The positioning requires a lot of calf muscle strength to sustain. Pockets are the best hold for this use of technique.


Foot smearing on mid-sized sloper hold

Sometimes there are no good footholds on a problem. What’s a climber to do? Smearing on the hold or surface would be the best bet. It’s to place a toe just above the edge and pressing the shoe rubber against the edge at an angle. This maximizes the 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 as firmly as possible.

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 routes to keep my balance on harder routes. It’s not the most comfortable but it has worked in my favor.


One foot on top of the other while taking a rest step

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 of time. 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 big relief. On harder problems or routes, one trick is having one 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 know now the basic footwork, what are other ways our legs and feet help climbing better? There are additional techniques that keep climbers on holds and rock or at least give them better stability until he/she can make the next move. In part two of Fancy Footwork and Leg Power, I will share foot and leg movements frequently used to get through problems and a “leg up” in the process.