Climb harder with stronger … toes?! A feet-first approach to training
Big-toe strength isn’t just handy for occasional slab climbing—we need it, and calf strength, for everything, from knee bars to molding or wrapping our feet around holds.
If you want strong fingers or arms, go online, and you’ll be bombarded with methods and protocols, from bouldering to campus-boarding, from max-hangs to repeaters. The choices are endless, and climbers eat this stuff up.
Forgive me for raising my hand and saying, “Wait a second—aren’t we supposed to be using our toes? To … take the weight off our arms?”
Yes, as any wall gets steeper, we’ll always need more upper-body strength, but the mark of any good climber is being able to use his or her feet to compensate. This ability is linked intrinsically to technique—selecting the right footholds at the right time and generally moving well, but there is also a strength element to footwork. It is an element most climbers tend to ignore.
Sure, in the past you may have found yourself doing a few cursory sets of calf-raises in the weeks or days prior to a slab-climbing trip, but let’s be honest, have you ever really looked into “toe training” in any depth or stuck with the exercises long enough to experience benefits?
We all tend to assume that the reason to spend money on climbing shoes is so they can stand on footholds for us. Thus, if we want more edging support we should simply buy stiffer shoes, right? Wrong.
The picture is more complicated. What if we want to experience the superior sensitivity of a soft shoe or the “bounce” from a stretchy shoe, yet we still need to stand on small edges? Or when we need a strenuous knee-bar rest, which strains our toes, maybe insanely? Big-toe strength isn’t just handy for the occasional bit of slab climbing—we need it for everything. But before we dive into the routines, let’s look at the biomechanical functioning of the toe during climbing.
The big toe is four times bigger than the other toes and attaches to more muscles because it needs to bear far more weight and produce more power. Unlike the other toes, it has two rather than three joints, which allows for extra strength and stability. The big toe is effectively splinted, bunched together with other toes in the front of a climbing shoe to achieve a higher collective level of power, yet it still takes the vast majority of the load. The functioning of the big toe has a secondary effect on the other 33 joints in the foot; on the connective tissue, which maintains the arch of the foot (the plantar fascia); and on the kinetic chain of muscles that leads from the calves to the knee, hip and lower back. If the big toe is either weak, lacking in mobility or restricted by a tight or poorly fitting climbing shoe, it can restrict muscles across the connective chain in our legs and hips. This effect may, in turn, contribute to a less fluid and efficient climbing style and an over-reliance on the arms. The big toe is a highly specialized joint, and the brain can respond to any stress or pain signals by restricting its movements. Additionally, the big toe itself needs to be supported by strong calves, which hold the foot in tension when we push upwards on a foothold.
The first and most obvious step toward strengthening your big toes for climbing is to start training at the gym in softer shoes. Climbers who do this simply have stronger toes and can dial into a broader range of footwork tricks, such as wrapping your feet around features and molding them to the holds. Out on the crag, we should also consider how our choice of shoes will influence the degree to which our big toes are supported. Clearly, a softer shoe will give less support and thus allow the toe to bend upwards, and so will a loose-fitting shoe. Yet the flip side is that a shoe that is either excessively stiff or tight is likely to immobilize certain foot muscles and affect our technique, as well as hurt our feet and generally spoil our day!
A further dilemma relates to down-turned shoes, which may help to keep the big toe in a more powerful position and enable us to pull with our feet on overhanging terrain. Yet on long vertical pitches, the downward-pointing toe-position may become uncomfortable and fatiguing. Additionally, some climbers with low arches or long big or even second toes (Morton’s Toe) find that aggressively down-turned shoes simply don’t fit, and they will get better performance from a flatter shoe, even on steep ground. Aim to choose the shoes that work with our feet and enhance our toe strength in a given situation, on specific terrain. Consider a wide range of factors and accept that ultimately the choice will involve a compromise.
Before you even consider strengthening, check that your big toe has a decent range of motion. When unrestricted by climbing shoes, it should be able to perform extension and flexion (bend up and down) between an angle range of approximately 40 and 90 degrees. A lesser range of motion can strain the plantar fascia and also the calf muscles, causing tightness, which in severe (though highly unusual) cases could lead to referred hip and back pain. To assess, simply lift your big toe up and then curl it back down, while standing up or sitting down. If the range is narrow—for example, the toe bends back or curls down less than two inches from the neutral position—then practice this drill regularly, such as every time you put on or take off your shoes, to improve mobility.
In compiling strengthening routines, we can draw on research in running, physiotherapy, and rehabilitation. It is useful to include movements for specific strengthening of the big toe and plantar fascia, also mobility exercises and calf-strengthening. The selection given below is fairly complete; it’s unlikely that you will need to include more unless you have a major weakness or are recovering from an injury.
Three times a week is the optimum for practice. With these drills, seek to gain greater awareness of your big-toe movements by really connecting your mind to the toes and the muscles involved in their use. For example, when performing calf-raises, as you lift your heels, feel the pressure traveling through your big toes and the tension in your calves, be aware of your overall balance, and try to move smoothly and steadily. Try visualizing yourself in a climbing situation, standing on a small foothold and applying full power with the big toe. This will also help to keep the psych levels up, as, let’s face it, this training might not be the most exciting you’ve ever done!
From a standing position, curl and bend your toes downwards on one foot. Ease your weight onto this foot by raising the heel slightly and lifting the other foot off the floor. Hold for 15-20 seconds, and repeat 4-6 times each side. If you experience any pain, assist with the other foot to reduce the load.
Stand with your feet together, looking straight ahead. Lift all your toes up as far as you can, hold for 8-10 seconds, then move them back down. Repeat 10-15 times. This exercise will promote plantar fascia strengthening as well as toe mobility.
This exercise will improve toe range-of-movement and strengthen the plantar fascia. Crouch down onto the balls of your feet and put your hands flat on the floor in front of you. Lean forward so that your knees descend as close as possible towards the floor without touching it. Hold for 8-10 seconds, then sit back again. Repeat 10-15 times.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, raise up on to your tiptoes, and drop down again. Rely on your big toes and don’t roll onto the outsides of your feet. Do sets of 10-15 reps at a steady speed (3-4 seconds per rep), and for strength, you can add weight to a weight belt, subject to your ability level. For endurance, do 25-30 reps at a slower speed (6-8 secs per rep).
Britain’s Neil Gresham has made first ascents at 8c+ and established the recent top-grade Lake District trad route Lexicon (E11 (5.14X). He has been a training author since the mid-1990s and was one of the pioneers in performance coaching for climbing.