Introduction to Climbing Footwork
Updated: Apr 2
Trust your feet. Oof. If these three words strung together can cause a cringy flashback of your bouldering buddy yelling at you to "trust your feet" as you are seconds away from cheese-grating down the slab, you're in the right place. Your footwork on the wall plays a massive role in your climbing performance, from using the right part of your shoe to understanding efficiency and, finally, trusting your feet.
Climbing Shoes and Footwork
Believe it or not, climbing shoe manufacturing companies design with intent. That means every inch of rubber and non-rubber is on your shoe for a reason. Every climber should be standing on the "toe box." The toe box is defined by the shoe section where your toes sit. Why? Because pressing into your feet where your toes lie gives you the most control and force. Within the toe box, there are two places on your shoe that you'll want to utilize the most. The first is the point. The point is evident in aggressive shoes and softer in neutral shoes. The point of your climbing shoes is where your big toe should be on the inside. Because your big toe is the most robust, the fact is where you should be focusing on placing your foot, especially on the tiny footholds that only have enough space for the point of your shoe! Climbing shoes are designed with extra layers of rubber on the point since it is the spot that gets the most wear and tear.
Now that we understand how to utilize our climbing shoes appropriately, let's discuss efficiency. Efficient climbing looks smooth and controlled because the climber uses just enough energy to stay on the wall. It's about finding that balance between trying hard enough to stick every move but not trying too hard to the point of early-onset exhaustion. There are a lot of tactics climbers use to minimize energy expended on the wall, but let's discuss how to do so with your feet.
If you've spent much time in a climbing gym, you've probably seen a boulderer with massive biceps bouldering and cutting feet on almost every move. They're strong, but strength can only take you so far. They would likely climb much harder if they intentionally placed their feet on every hold and pushed through their toes as they moved their hands up the wall. It's easy to lose sight of what your feet are doing on the wall since a large part of every climber's focus goes to hand placement. But, consciously putting more weight on your feet on every foothold can ease the strain on your upper body. That is efficient. The more energy you can save in your upper body by holding much weight in your feet, the longer you can last on the wall.
Try It Out!
Next time at the gym, pick a boulder problem on a slight overhang. Climb it once, purposely cutting feet every time you move a hand to the next hold. Once completed, note how tired you feel. Is your heartbeat higher? Are you breathing heavily? Then, climb it again, and push your feet into every foothold as you move each hand to the next hold. Now note how tired you feel again, and ask yourself which one felt easier. You'll be surprised to realize how much easier the second go felt, especially in your upper body.
Trusting Your Feet
The final essential footwork tip is trusting your feet. Maybe you already do because you haven't had a scary foot slip that spikes your adrenaline and leaves you on edge for the remainder of your climbing session. Or maybe you don't but know you need to since those three words haunt the inside of your head every time you climb. Trust your feet. Whatever your relationship is with sketchy footholds, the secret behind trusting your feet.
The less you trust your feet, the more likely you are to slip. As ironic as it is, it's true. And this is why. When you have confidence that your foot will not fall, you subconsciously put more weight into that foot. The more pressure there is between your shoe rubber and the foothold, creates increased friction, which causes the two surfaces to stick together. When you are timid about using your feet and not pressing your weight into them, there is hardly any friction between your shoe rubber and the foothold. And your chances of staying on that foothold decrease significantly.
Using your feet to your advantage is easier said than done and takes lots of practice and awareness. But now that you know the why behind many footwork mysteries, you have the tools to take your climbing to the next level!