Many new climbers focus on building strength—repping pull-ups, hang board routines, and maybe the occasional campusing exercises. It is important to note, though, that there is often a disconnect between becoming a stronger climber and becoming a better climber. And better climbing—regardless of strength—comes from footwork.
Anatomy of the shoe
Modern climbing shoes are designed to be used in a specific manner to best assist the climber along various terrains.
The inside and outside edges of the shoes are best used for rigid and thin footholds. Proper edging with one’s shoe will enable a climber to stand on footholds far thinner than many new climbers would expect.
The toe point is used for pockets or slight indentations in the rock face.
On slab terrain (where there are relatively few features and the climbing technique is friction-based) the key is to apply as much surface area of the shoe to the rock as possible. Accompany this with sufficient foot pressure to increase friction and holding power.
Even the heel of a shoe can be used for heel-hooking, which in effect is using one’s heel in the manner of another hand to provide support and stability to the climber.
Movement with intent
Watch any professional climber and you will notice deliberate planning and intention with each foot placement. Footwork must not be an afterthought to the next handhold, but instead a well-executed sequence that works in harmony with the next handhold. Watching this video of Lynn Hill, you will notice her deliberation with every foot movement. In fact, many climbs require greater attention to footwork than to the handholds.
In your own practice, focus on delicacy and precision. As an exercise, practice silent footwork while climbing. Avoid kicking or stabbing at footholds and place your toes as gently and as quietly as possible.
Hip positioning with footwork
As a new climber, it is easy to mistake which foot should be used on which foothold, and the proper method may be counterintuitive.
Footwork ties in with hip positioning, and as a general rule of thumb it is best to place the hip of the hand you will next be reaching with against the wall. As an example, a high right handhold will be most efficiently reached by placing the right hip close to the wall. Ideally, this positioning creates a relatively straight line from the climber’s right foot through his or her right hip and up to his right hands.
The next left handhold will likely require a 180° shift in hip positioning, as the left foot is then used to reach the left handhold. This will soon result in fluid body transitions while your hips remain tight into the wall (unlike the common beginner form of climbing with arms straight in front and the butt out as if on a ladder).
Flagging and stemming
Flagging is the technique of extending a leg for counterbalance during a move. For example, if going for a handhold that is far out to the left, place your left hip against the wall during the move and consider placing your right leg far out to the right of your body to counterbalance the movement. While flagging, the foot (the right foot in this example) can be either pressed against the wall (no footholds necessary) or in midair depending on the position.
Stemming is when a climber has footholds on both sides of his or her body, and applies counter-pressure to gain leverage. This is demonstrated in the picture to the right.
Footwork is hard. It takes practice, consistency, and a drive for excellence. However, prioritize footwork and proper positioning, and watch yourself become a more controlled, balanced, and efficient climber.