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Keep Your Feet On! 11 Tension Drills.

What the heck is tension? Here's what it is and how to train it.

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You set up for the move using low, slopey footholds. The next hold is a palm-sized sloper just a foot up and right. After a moment’s pause, you go for it, squeezing the left hand with all your might. Amazingly, your right hand makes contact! But as your right foot comes off, so does your body, again.

Functionally, tension is the ability to resist gravity by stabilizing muscle groups in the body. 

Keeping your feet on the wall and engaged, being able to properly counterbalance through moves, and the ability to immobilize sections of the body when only one limb needs to move: those are examples of proper tension in climbing. The skill is strength- and technique-based, which means you must be both strong and practiced. 

Many climbers believe tension is solely created by a strong core. That is, however, a misconception. Picture the scenario described above. What muscles must stay tight? Your core, lower back, hips, glutes, hamstrings, and even your calves and toes. 

So how do you train tension? Below, find on- and off-the-wall exercises to help you develop and apply tension in your climbing. 

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On-the-Wall Drills

Slopey Feet Only!

Duration: 1 minute on, 1 minute off

Repetitions: 10

Sets: 1

Climb on a slightly overhung wall using good handholds and slopey footholds. It’s important to keep your feet on the wall and your toes engaged.

Low-foot Traverse

Duration: 1 minute on, 1 minute off

Repetitions: 10

Sets: 1

For this exercise, traverse back and forth on a wall using only low feet, maintaining an extended position on the wall. The focus here, again, is to keep your feet on the wall. Bonus points if you use slopey feet!

Cat-Cows

Duration: 10 seconds cow, 10 seconds cat

Repetitions: 3 cows and 3 cats (for a total of one minute)

Sets: 4 (two per side)

For this exercise, you will climb on a slightly overhung wall. Using good holds, start with your right foot high and the left low, but in a relaxed position. Picture a beach ball balanced on top of your tummy. Your spine should be rounded like a cat. Then, pull into the wall, so that your left shoulder touches or hovers near the left hand hold. Your right hip should be in an “up” position close to the wall and your right knee will be pointing to the right. This is the cow stance. Hold for 10 seconds and then relax for one repetition. This drill might seem strange, but, in an overexaggerated way, it teaches you to engage your core, hips, back, and toes while moving between holds.

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Drop-Knee Reaches

Repetitions: 10

Sets: 1

Again, on a slightly overhung wall, start in a position with good hand- and footholds. This time, your feet may be level with each other or slightly off-set. Reaching up and right with your right hand while dropping your right knee down and inwards. Focus on really pushing through your toes and making the movement fluid and synched. Reset back to neutral and try it on the other side. This is, again, an over-exaggerated way of practicing tension. It teaches you to better counterbalance on the wall to reach further while maintaining stability. 

Same-Side Reaches

Repetitions: 10

Sets: 1

Same as the Drop-Knee Reaches, but this time, take your right foot off the foothold and allow it to dangle or smear on the wall. Then pop your right hand up to another hold. You’ll want to focus on stabilizing the left-side of your body so that it remains fixed to the wall. Switch sides after each reach. 

Here, the author pulls on one side of her body (her right side) in order to bump her left hand. (Photo: Jeff Rueppel)

Off-the-Wall Exercises

Heel Drags

Repetitions: 20

Sets: 3

For this exercise, you will need an exercise ball or sliders. Lie down on the floor and place your heels on the ball or on the sliders. Practice dragging the ball or sliders towards you and then pushing away, keeping your back flat and your glutes engaged. This exercise, while great for heel hooking, will also help you strengthen your glutes and hamstrings.

Possible Modifications: To make this exercise harder, hover one foot in the air and only perform the heel drag with one leg. Be sure to maintain a flat back. 

Toe Drags

Repetitions: 10

Sets: 3

For this exercise, you will need a slidey surface and a light weight plate. With your climbing shoes on, practice toeing into the edge of the plate and dragging it towards you. Push it away and repeat the toe drag. This will help you pull with your feet while climbing on a steep wall.

TRX Extensions

Repetitions: 9 (if alternating between each type of extension)

Sets: 3

For this exercise, you will need TRX bands or rings. Holding the handles or rings, walk out to a distance that feels good to you. (You may have to play around a bit to find the right range, but walking further away from where the bands are hung will make the exercise easier, while taking fewer steps out will increase the difficulty.) Facing the floor and beginning in an extended push-up position, push the rings or handles out so that your body makes an “I” shape. Be sure to also push through your toes while keeping your core engaged. Return to the starting position. You can push out with your arms at a 45-degree angle to make “Y” with your body, or even at a 90-degree angle to make a “T.” For that reason, this exercise is often referred to as “I’s, Y’s, and T’s.” I’d recommend alternating between each position for each rep. This exercise will help you feel more comfortable in extended positions and, if you focus on pushing through your toes, will help you keep your feet on the wall.

Possible Modifications: Rather than going back to the start position after each extension, try swooping in one continuous motion from the “I” to the “T.”

The “I” position.

The “T” position.

Extended Plank

Duration: 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off

Repetitions: 3

Sets: 3

Begin in a high plank position. Walk or slide your feet back, so that your body is extended. It’s important to keep your back flat and your core engaged. Like the TRX Extensions, this will help you maintain tension when in extended positions.

Possible Modifications: This exercise could also be performed with an ab wheel, although you may wish to do it from your knees. Alternatively, make the exercise easier by spreading your legs out so that they are in a wide stance.

Plank Taps

Repetitions: 20

Sets: 3

From a low plank position, practice tapping various spots on the ground with your toes and fingers. Rotate through each limb and focus on not moving or shifting the rest of your body while you execute each tap. This will help you maintain stability on the wall, particularly when it’s important that you keep certain parts of your body still while other parts move.

Possible Modifications: Also try this exercise with elevated feet. You may wish to simply hover the limb that you are moving up and out rather than tapping it to a spot. 

Reverse Plank

Duration: 45 seconds on, 15 seconds off

Repetitions: 3

Sets: 3

Start laying with your back down. Then prop yourself up with your elbows and go into a plank position (stomach up). Like with a normal plank, it’s important to engage your core and maintain a flat back. This will help you develop your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. 

Possible Modifications: Prop your feet up on a crash pad or low stool to increase the difficulty. You could also try this exercise from a high-plank position.

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