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Quit Floundering—Turn Your Feet Into Precision Instruments With These 10 Tips

The best climbers aren't always the strongest, they have the best technique. In this first installment of our new Quick Hits series, pro coach Neil Gresham teaches maximizing footholds.


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TECHNIQUE QUICK HITS

PART 1: MAXIMIZING THE TOE

Thankfully there is so much more to climbing than pure strength. While we see endless videos displaying incredible feats of climbing strength, the best climbers aren’t always the strongest. The case in point being Adam Ondra, who was unable to do a one-arm lock-off when he onsighted his first 5.14c (8c+). That’s because strong climbers have a habit of draining the tank too quickly, while the climber with better technique will nearly always shine through.

In this “Quick Hits” series—the first of which you are reading now— we’re going to examine different components of technique under the microscope. The articles will work individually for trouble-shooting weaknesses, or comprehensively as a guide to the full range of climbing techniques. We’re starting with footwork and will move on to look at handholds, then movement skills and specific techniques for slabs, vertical walls and overhangs. If you’re climbing between V2 and V6 (or 5.9 to 5.12a) then you stand to benefit. While some of the tips may be revision, if you can plug one knowledge gap then this could turn a key and unlock a major weakness.

10 Key Toe Moves

1) Edging

Every climber knows this basic technique, but do you always edge correctly? The classic mistake is to stand on the rounded, middle part of your shoe edge (ie: closer to the instep) and not the front, toe part. Edging off the middle is less stable and you won’t be able to stand-up on point to gain extra reach. For beginners this fault will be obvious, but for intermediates it may be subtle. Try to line the edge of the shoe up to the profile of the foothold, like a ruler; however, beware placing your foot parallel to the wall, so that your ankle makes contact. In general, your foot should make a 45-degree angle with the wall. If the rock edge is pointing diagonally downward then bring your foot high over it and point your toe aggressively downward, or if it points diagonally upward then drop your heel. A stiffer shoe will benefit beginners or those who need support for long, sustained edging routes. However, for bouldering, a softer, high-tension shoe may suffice.

2) Outside edging

You often use the outside edge of your shoe when lay-backing, utilizing side-pulls or when stepping through on an on an overhang to obtain balance. We’ll look at the required body-positions in a separate article, but here, looking purely at footwork, again, the key is to use the front/toe part of the edge of your shoe, rather than the side/middle part. Again, this requires you to turn your heel outward slightly as you step through to create a 45-degree angle to the wall, rather than presenting your foot parallel. Many climbers get this right when inside-edging but wrong when outside-edging!

3) Smearing

Smearing is all about developing trust in your feet as well as understanding when to do it and when to avoid it. Many climbers view smearing as a last resort and will always try to stand on a positive foothold in preference; however, this may facilitate an off-balance or strenuous move. The dilemma is always whether to smear in the best position or on the best (or most in-cut) part of a feature. There’s no fixed rule here, but you should always consider both options. Be super-accurate when aiming for tiny blemishes. If your foot is a millimetre out, this may make the difference between success and failure.

Keep the heel low and avoid or minimize testing foot placements, as this can develop into a nervous habit. Maintain constant, even pressure as you move. and focus on transferring your weight smoothly from foot-to-foot. It is counter-intuitive to press hard on a tiny smear but if you are too tentative you will lose crucial friction. Several small steps are usually preferable to one big one. Beware the temptation to lean in too far for perceived security, or to stand up on point for extra reach. Soft shoes with a high-tension rand will combine optimum support with a good level of feel and sensitivity.

4) Smedging

For tiny edges that barely constitute footholds, and which are irregular in profile, the best technique is to use the front part of the toe and to half-smear-half-edge. The aim is to compress the rubber so it adapts to the contours of the hold. Compared to standard edging, the smedging foot will usually be more perpendicular to the wall and the heel may be a fraction lower. This tactic can be useful on the smallest screw-on holds, or for tiny polished features on rock.

5) Pockets and slots

With pockets, avoid simply poking your toe in at the angle that feels easiest. Lean back to scan the hold then rotate your foot and point your toe aggressively into the deepest part. This always feels harder when a pocket or slot is far out to the side, but your toe may ping out if you don’t make the effort. With larger pockets and breaks it may be tempting to cram your entire foot in for security, but this may restrict your movement and a toe’s-worth should be more than sufficient. Down-turned shoes with pointed toes will work well and go for something stiffer if the climbing requires prolonged support.

6) Drilling the toe on overhangs

When you use small, poor footholds on a steep overhang, it’s not enough just to stand passively. Instead, you must tense your hamstrings, glutes, abs and lower back to create tension in your entire body to drive the foot onto the hold. Imagine yourself drilling your toe through the wall. Our instinct is often to focus too much on catching the target handhold, whereas for success, we must focus simultaneously on making the foot stick. Down-turned shoes will help you maintain tension and use your feet like claws.

7) Paddling with the feet

If we spy a large foothold out to the side then this may allow us to pull our body in closer to the wall or steer ourselves in the required direction. On volumes or large features, the entire sole of the foot can be placed flat, and on smaller holds, the tip of the toe will be used. The key is to engage the hamstring and pull. Down-turned shoes will provide an advantage.

8) Pivoting

Pivoting on your feet will facilitate a freer, more fluid climbing style, especially when traversing, swapping feet, back-stepping, or performing drop-knees. Of course, you can simply remove your foot and replace it using the outside edge, but this is never as neat or efficient. Try to anticipate the pivot and save sufficient space on the foothold by standing on the near side, so that you can swivel onto your outside edge. If you don’t do this then you’ll spin off the far side.

9) Swapping feet 

Aim to avoid swapping-feet excessively, however, sometimes this technique provides the best option, especially when footholds are limited. Don’t jump-and-clump and instead turn the move into a smooth, precise and controlled operation using one of two popular methods. The pivot method is to roll one foot off the side of the foothold and slide the other foot from the side into the free space. The ballerina method is to adopt a dancers’ pliet position, with knees turned out, then to hover your toe, pointing downward over the weighted foot, and then quickly but carefully, to roll this out and make the switch. Be quick and accurate at the point when you make the switch to minimise the time you spend with less weight on your feet. On larger footholds, get into the habit of saving space on the inside corner, in case you need to make a foot-change; however, don’t do this on small footholds.

10) Back-stepping

A great tip to avoid foot-swapping or generally getting your feet tangled is to step back around (or outside) your weighted foot. To do this well, you will need to pivot on one or both feet in order to make fluid transitions from foot to foot. This can be a useful technique to use to obtain balance when shaking out and transferring weight from arm to arm.

Summary

The toe should always be regarded as a precision instrument and not a battering ram! The key to improving any aspect of technique is to perform regular practice drills on easy ground, for example during warm-ups, where you focus on specific details, and then to attempt to maintain form on harder terrain.