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Learn the Secrets Of Heel Hooks (For Beginners To Intermediates)

Heel hooking is a critical skill that you must master to realize your ultimate potential on the rock. Pro climbing coach Neil Gresham's nine tips will get you there.


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You won’t get far in a modern bouldering gym without heel-hooking! Whether it’s to turn the lip of a roof or compress your way up a steep, rounded prow, the applications of heel hooking are endless. Fundamentally, however, many climbers miss opportunities to heel-hook; after all we don’t tend to look up for footholds! Additionally, many climbers struggle with execution and this is usually because they underestimate the level of precision an effective heel hook requires. Often, the heel must be placed with the same accuracy as the toe, and a multitude of subtle body position variations come into play, and it always pays to read a problem or route first to spy potential opportunities to use your heels, saving time and energy when you climb.

HEEL-HOOKING APPLICATIONS

Roofs and steep terrain

When you’re powering up an overhanging wall or across a roof, a deft heel-hook on a large projecting foothold can turn an incredibly strenuous position into a virtual rest, as well as assisting with clips and moves. You can use your heel-hooking leg as a third arm to avoid cutting loose or even to pull your body up. A common sequence with roofs is to use a succession of heel-hooks along a horizontal break or shelf. When doing this, take care not to get too stretched or you will have no choice but to cut-loose. Instead, track your heel along as you move each hand. To turn the lip, bring a foot round to locate a heel-hook—in many cases it may help to use momentum to swing your legs up. Then flag with the other leg by dangling it at the balance point. Pull actively with the hamstring  to assist with upward progress, then reposition the heel as a toe to gain further height.

Volumes and slopers

Whether you are on steep or lower-angled-terrain, volumes and large slopers are always prime targets for heel-hooks. Sometimes with volumes it’s best to use a screw-on hold on the side or top face, while on others you should simply drag your heel against the flat surface. Try to identify the best place for the heel-hook beforehand, as it may be obscured from vision when you’re climbing.

The tops and sides of boulders

Few situations are more demoralizing than getting your hands on top of a boulder then being spat off unceremoniously. When the top of a problem or route is rounded and sloping, and especially when the rock is steeply undercut, the first priority is always to swing up a heel. This will enable you to re-group before the next step, which is usually to perform a heel-hook rock-over. Do this by simultaneously pulling on the heel and pushing with the lower-leg, and mantleshelving (pressing) with one or both arms. Use fluid momentum to save strength as you link these components together.

Compression heel-hooks

A crucial technique in modern bouldering is using the heel to create an opposing-force to prevent barn-dooring (swinging out) on prows or arêtes. This technique not only requires a great deal of coordination, but also strength in the hamstrings and bucket-loads of determination. The sensation of a slipping heel will cause many to quit, yet sometimes you may only need to change the angle of your foot by a few degrees and suddenly it works. The heel doesn’t have to feel totally secure for the move to work and it may only need to stick for a second or two to do the job.

The first step is to place your heel around the back of the target feature and take up the tension with your hamstring. In some cases there might be an obvious in-cut part of the feature to aim for. However, this may be too difficult to locate or it may throw you out of balance. In these cases, you’ll need to settle for a more sloping and marginal part of the feature. The caveat here is that you will need to be particularly precise with the angle of your foot and pull even harder with your hamstring. The trade-off can be delicate, so experiment with different positions for the heel.

If you’re not gaining much height during the move then it’s unlikely that your foot will need to change angle, so simply focus on holding the foot still during the move. However if you need to gain a significant amount of height then your foot will need to go through a full 180 degree rotation.

Foot angles for compression heel-hooks

Position 1: High heel – toe up

When the heel-hook is high above you, place it with the toe pointing upward.

Position 2:  Side heel – toe to the side

As you gain height, rotate the foot so the toe points outward to the side

Position 3: Low heel – toe down

Finally, when the heel-hook is lower down or at the end point of a big compression move, point the toe downward to maintain contact.

In some cases, you may even be able to use two opposing compression heels simultaneously to maintain position on a steep arête or prow. There’s endless scope for micro-variations in foot-angle for compression heel-hooks and it’s important to explore them. Additionally, focusing on drawing your hips towards the hold and using them to steer you into the best position.

Foot-to-hand heel-hooks

When you perform a foot-to-hand heel-hook, it can be an awkward challenge to get your fingers out of the way on the hold. Achieved this by shuffling your fingers to one side, or in the case of narrower holds, by spreading your thumb and fingers and then placing the heel in between. Alternatively, when heel-hooking broader features which are close to your body, place your leg over your arm and heel-hook inside your hand, then to slide your hand out to make the reach. 

Heel-toe cams

 A handy variation is to place the heel then to rotate the toe sideways so that it cams under a projecting feature and locks the foot into place. Heel-toes can be scary to execute, so ask for careful spotting when bouldering or if you’re leading then it helps to have a bolt clipped above you!

Shoe selection

Climbers have wildly differing views on the best shoes for heel-hooking, yet as a rule avoid dead-space in the heel. Most of us favor slim, close-fitting heel-cups with full rubber coverage to ensure rubber contact regardless of the angle of the heel. However, some climbers find these a bit rigid and prefer the softness and adaptability of heel-cups that are part rubber and part leather. 

Supportive training

In climbing, it’s always best if technique and strength progress approximately in unison as often a certain amount of strength is required to execute a particular technique. This holds true with heel-hooking and many climbers will benefit from doing supportive exercises for the hamstrings such as curls using resistance bands, suspension straps or a leg-curl machine. The main thrust is to do a simple routine regularly, say 2 or 3 times a week. Start off with high-rep sets (of, say, 20 to 30 reps) with low resistance and then gradually cut the reps and work toward low-rep sets for strength (say, 3 to 6 reps). Be aware that the hamstrings can be sensitive muscles for many, so don’t push too hard too soon and be sure to do supportive flexibility work. A mixture of dynamic and static stretches can work well. Above all, always warm up your hamstrings before trying a hard, compression heel-hook move, and a great exercise here is the Standing dynamic hamstring stretch. Stand up straight, bend one leg up and clasp the foot with the same hand. Now bring the leg out to the side and try to straighten it, keeping hold of the foot. Do reps in and out of the position.

Summary

Many climbers are weak at heel-hooking, especially on the dynamic, compression style. If you tend to go sport-climbing and avoid bouldering then you simply won’t gain sufficient heel-hooking practice. Modern bouldering gyms offer countless examples at all grades, so don’t delay and get involved. Keep an open mind and persevere, as this is a technique that you can’t manage without!