One of the most useful moves in climbing, the kneebar happens when you cam your foot and the top of your knee/thigh between two rock surfaces. It can provide a much-needed rest or help you through a crux without using a lot of upper-body strength. You can find good kneebars on vertical and horizontal terrain. Below, we’ve compiled suggestions for subtle nuances in technique, pressure, and body position from kneebar queen Heather Weidner, who has used these methods to send 5.13s and 5.14s throughout the West.
Finding and Setting Up
A successful kneebar relies on the tension created by pressing down on a foothold with your toes, which in turn pushes the top of your knee/bottom of your thigh into another surface. The foothold can be anything from a smear to a ledge, but the thigh-side hold must have enough surface area to provide substantial friction for the larger, less dexterous knee. Of course, the length of your leg will affect how much effort is required; sometimes you can simply slot your leg in the space between holds, and other times you’ll need to flex your calf and press up into it.
The best kneebar allows the climber to drop both hands and hang hands-free, especially if you can floss both knees into one spot. Other times, the knee will be barely pressed into the rock—it’s then considered more of a knee scum—which takes off a bit of body weight, providing a slight rest or setting the climber up for the next move.
“Kneebars are going to be slightly different for everyone, and it takes awhile—just like any skill—to find potential kneebars,” says Weidner. Experimenting with different footholds, knee positions, foot angles, and hip height, or using the opposite leg, can transform a kneebar from seemingly impossible to incredibly solid. To gain more length, you can always point your toes. To shorten the length, try rocking onto your foot more and angling your tibia to one side or another. In extreme situations, you might be able to stack your feet or place your hand between your knee and the rock, but both options can make the next move more difficult.
“I look for flat surfaces at a variety of angles,” says Weidner. “Whether or not a kneebar is possible depends largely on if there is a toehold to push against, opposite a flat surface. Kneebars can be vertical, horizontal, over your head, and anything in between.” Practice makes perfect, so continue experimenting to figure out what works.
Resting, Moving, and Exiting
Kneebars provide two different opportunities: resting and moving. To rest, the climber should flex her calf muscle and push hard into the kneebar. While this may create a leg pump and work the core, it will refresh swollen forearms. In some cases, the climber needs only to sag his hips and slot his thigh into the kneebar, similar to how a nut slots into a constriction. Kneebarring can be a game of sacrificing strength in one part of the body for recovery in another. “It takes practice to be able to relax in a kneebar, just like it does shaking out on handholds. Focus on applying just enough force from your toe to your thigh to stay in, just like you would to hang on your hands without releasing your grip,” says Weidner.
To move, flag your opposite, non-kneebar leg against the wall. This offers counterpressure to the kneebar, so your bodyweight has somewhere to go when you release the kneebar, without swinging out wildly. Placing the opposite foot on a secure foothold can improve a kneebar and help you reach higher holds.
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Whether you’re climbing or resting, you will need to eventually exit the kneebar, which can be the hardest part—involving, says Weidner, a lot of core. “It depends on the body position, but often while coming out of a kneebar rest, I tighten my core and make sure I know exactly where my feet need to go to avoid having my whole body swing out,” she says. Flex the abdominal muscles, toe in hard on whatever footholds are there, and pull down hard on your hands. Walking the feet to higher footholds can reduce the size of the foot cut. This requires significant core tension, and pulling up a little so your back muscles are engaged and your arms are bent can help keep your midsection tight and reduce the swing.
Because you will be relying on friction between your knee and the rock, what you wear can affect your performance. Different kneebars require different types of equipment.
Shorts or a bare leg can work on easy kneebars where the holds provide a lot of surface area or an edge to give greater purchase, though thicker denim pants will help you save leg skin if the rock is abrasive. Moreover, bare skin and pant material lack the friction necessary for more technical kneebars.
For more technical kneebars (smaller holds, fine-tuned body position, etc.), wear a kneepad over bare skin—a pad on top of pants will slide, so wear shorts or pants you can roll up above the kneepad. “I recommend wearing stretchy capris that you can pull up your thighs, or shorts. If it’s cold, leg warmers work well with this method, and you look like a rock star,” says professional climber and kneebar master Heather Weidner. The developers of the blocky terrain at California’s Jailhouse Rock are credited with first using sticky-rubber kneepads in the early 1990s. These kneepads actually go over the lower thigh (slightly above the knee) and come in two basic varieties: strap-ons and sleeves. Strap-on pads have adjustable buckles and easy on–easy off, so they’re great for bouldering. Sleeves, often made of neoprene, are lighter and offer more sensitivity because of the thinner design; these feel more like a second skin and are excellent for highly technical knee trickery. However, it is harder to customize fit with a sleeve, so it is helpful to duct tape and/or use spray adhesive to keep them in place. “If you want to attempt a technical kneebar—meaning a tricky bar or scum that’s not super obvious or engulfs your entire leg—you need to think of the pad as being a part of your leg. It can’t move at all,” says Weidner. “As soon as it slips a few millimeters, it is not going to work.” To prevent slippage, pull on the kneepad so the bottom edge sits just above the top of your knee. Make at least two continuous wraps of duct tape around the top of the pad and then around your thigh. When it’s hot and you’re sweaty, duct tape might not be enough. Try applying spray adhesive (like Tuf-Skin) directly on the skin, and then use duct tape. Taking the pad off can be painful, so consider shaving your leg in the area.