Footwork Drills To Improve Your Bouldering

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In many previous posts we have highlighted the importance of footwork - the fundamental skill of climbing - but how can you train to improve your footwork? This post will introduce you to foot positions and four basic footwork drills, recommended by E2 climber, occasional free-soloist and Vertical Limit regular Dave Comer to improve your bouldering.

Why is footwork important?

It seems all of your climbing peers are saying that your footwork is actually more important than your upper-body strength. But why?

Footwork is so important for one simple reason: your legs are far stronger and can cope with far more endurance than your arms. The act of climbing is to push/pull your entire body weight up the wall - not many of us can hold up our entire body weight for long using our arms (ie - pull-ups on a bar) but we all use our legs to hold up and carry our entire body weight every day, by standing and walking.

Good bouldering footwork transfers your body’s weight from your arms to your legs. With poor footwork, your upper body will tire quicker and poor footwork may also lead to injury - just think of all the joints involved when pulling upwards using your arms. Pulling with your arms engages your fingers, shoulders and core muscles. Beginners are more likely to risk injuries to their finger joints and shoulders as we don’t tend to strain our fingers and shoulders in everyday life so the joints are not used to it. Pushing off with your legs only engages the muscles in your legs, so there’s no knock-on effect for the rest of your body.

Footwork is more than just placing your feet on holds and goes beyond the concept of using your legs more than your arms. It’s an art in itself.

Let’s start by looking at various foot positions

Only the front part of your foot should be in contact with the wall or holds, rather than your whole foot (except in the case of heel-hooks, which we will come back to later). This is because the front of your foot (from the tip of your toes up to the arch) is the strongest and most stable part of your foot.

Never place the arch of your foot on a hold. The arch is the weakest, most vulnerable part of your foot. In everyday life, the arch of your foot barely comes into contact with the ground while standing or walking, so it hardly bears any weight. Using the arch of your foot to stand on a hold or push off is not only bad technique, but it’ll likely hurt too.

Frontstepping

Frontstepping

Front of the foot - “Frontstepping”

Frontstepping, using the base of your foot, is precise, easy to pivot from and allows you to easily transition to standing on tip-toes.

However, using the front of your foot can limit your reach as the natural body position for frontstepping moves your hips to their furthest point from the wall (directly opposite) - so if you want to keep your hips close to the wall some leaning and twisting of your hips is involved. Frontstepping can also increase the chance that your foot will slip on small holds.

Instepping (left foot)

Instepping (left foot)

Inside edge - “Instepping”

Instepping uses the side of your big toe. This position increases shoe-to-surface contact on smaller holds and thus decreases your chances of slipping off of them. This position also naturally moves your hips closer to the wall, increasing stability. However, using the inside of your foot is awkward and limits your mobility.

Backstepping (right foot)

Backstepping (right foot)

Outside edge - “Backstepping”

Backstepping uses your three smaller toes. Your shoe will be slightly more curved on the outer edge than the inner edge, which means backstepping is less stable than instepping. However, backstepping with one foot and instepping with the other is the way to execute a proper drop knee and can also be a useful technique to turn your hips into the wall and gain more reach. For explanation and demonstration of a drop knee see our previous post on advanced bouldering tips.

In the images below, Dave is instepping (left foot) and backstepping (right foot). Click on the images for a closer look!

Heels and Toes

Your heel is only used for heel-hooking and you shouldn’t use your heel to stand on regular holds. For more on heel hooking see our previous post.

Toe-hooks, where you use the top of your big toe to grip a hold, can be useful on overhangs and using your foot to replace your hand on a hold that is hard to reach. For a full explanation and video demonstration of toe-hooks click here.

Four basic drills to practice footwork

Silent feet

“Silent feet” sounds like a strange game, but the amount of noise from your feet while climbing is actually one of the biggest indicators of how good your footwork is. Noise is an indicator that you are not placing your feet precisely or in a controlled way, so you should aim to have “silent feet” and to place your feet on holds with as little noise as possible.

No adjustments allowed

This is the climber’s version of the ‘trust exercise’ where you lean back and someone catches you, but you’re playing against yourself.

In bouldering, it’s important to trust your feet. This is an odd concept for beginners, and beginner’s reliance on their arms often comes from not trusting their feet - ie. believing that your feet will not hold your weight and you’ll slip off if you don’t also hold on with your hands. The problem with not trusting your feet is that you will often over-exert your arms and tire your upper body unnecessarily which can shorten your bouldering session. Trust in your feet will build over time, but you can help it along by putting weight on your feet as soon as you place them with no adjustments. It also forces you to be precise with your foot placements.

It’s a good one because on tricky routes there is sometimes a limited amount of time to move your foot before the strain of holding your body in place becomes too much, causing you to slip or fall. Being more precise means you don’t have to faff around with your foot placement.

No hands balance

Climb a slab route without touching any holds. This one really tests your footwork. You can place your hand against the wall, but not on a hold. You are allowed to “rainbow” - use holds of any colour.

When climbing outside, occasionally there’s nowhere for your hand to grip so it’s good practice to develop your footwork so you don’t get stuck on real rock. Also, propelling your body up a slab route requires more power so its best to get into the habit of using your legs more and relying on your footwork.

Dave doing the No-Hands Climbing challenge!

Smearing

Smearing

Smearing

The term “smearing” refers to placing your foot against the wall of an indoor route (but not on a hold). It’s not as cheating as it sounds: when climbing outside on real rock, climbers will use the technique often. Rocks like granite or grit stone are incredibly grippy, it’s possible to get enough friction between the rock and your shoe to be able to hold your foot against it. The technique is used when one of your feet has no place to go, or when the reach to the next foothold is too high. Smearing is a quick move - it’s used to push off the wall to get extra momentum to reach the next hold. The objective is to get as much rubber on the sole of your foot in contact with the wall as possible, and the more pressure you apply, the better it sticks.

Could your footwork use some improvement? Try out these four simple drills at Vertical Limit, and join the friendliest climbing community in Worcester.

Photos/videos: Georgina Bull // Climber/model: David Comer