Unlock The Secret Power of Toe Hooks To Elevate Your Climbing

Knowing the tricks and training techniques for toe hooking can be a game changer.

Photo: Jan Novak

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 You’re powering through a roof and you see that jug, forget about your feet, launch for it at full-stretch, then suddenly you’re stranded and staring headlong at a massive swing. Page one of overhanging climbing is to keep your feet on and toe-hooks may serve a similar function to heel-hooks for lightening the load. There will be some situations where both toe-hooks or heel-hooks are viable and others when only one or the other will work. The classic toe-hook only scenario is on a roof when there’s a large undercut flake below you that you can snag with a toe to prevent your feet from swinging off. Toe-hooks also have broad applications on less-steep, featured terrain, such as ramps, arêtes and the sides of boulders. Toe hooks are one of those techniques that climbers either love or hate and many will develop chronic toe-hook phobias and settle for alternatives that are way less efficient. Fundamentally, as with heel-hooks, the most common mistake with toe hooks is to miss chances to use them because they lie outside the field of vision, for example, around the sides of boulders. Not only do you have to be skillful to use toe hooks, but you need to keep the radar on too!

Toe-hooks on overhangs

It’s not just your arms and fingers you’ll be saving by toe-hooking on an overhang, you will massively reduce the amount of core tension that is required. Before making a reach, scan below you for undercuts or features that will lend themselves to a toe-hook, then engage the toe with total conviction, flex the foot and maintain constant tension by pulling with your shin muscle. The key part is to force the toe to stick willfully. If you are the slightest bit tentative then your foot will creep open and it will slip out. The more sloping the feature you are toe-hooking, the harder you will have to pull with your shin muscles to get it to stick. Many climbers find that their shin muscles aren’t strong enough to hold single toe-hooks and in which case, the double toe-hook can be a great option on large features or when two undercut holds are available. 

Releasing toe-hooks

A key tactic is planning how you’re going to take the toe out in order to avoid cutting loose,nd the answer usually comes from trying to build your feet in small steps, rather than making big ones. It takes experience to get this right on the flash, and you may need to experiment by working different sequences. In some cases, having used a toe-hook there will be no option other than to cut loose, simply because there are no alternative footholds. If this is the case then try taking one foot off first, dangling it below you and then to tensing all your core muscles in order to deaden the swing.

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Clamping is when you stand on the top of the foothold you’re toe hooking with the other foot and then squeeze to maintain contact. In many cases, this will make it easier to keep the toe-hook in place (as it places less demands on shin strength). It also provides a fantastic option to assist releasing from a toe-hook and also to move between multiple toe-hooks in a roof. Clamping may only be possible on larger holds, with a more incut and positive topside. It can be tricky to decide which toe to place under the foothold and which to place on top. With your feet one way round on a clamp, the reach may feel easier but the release will feel harder, whereas if you place your feet the other way round, the opposite will be the case. On easier clamp moves, it’s unlikely to be a deal breaker but on harder moves this line of investigation may makes all the difference, so be sure to try both options. With frequent practice, the technique becomes more intuitive as you gain a better understanding of the mechanics.

Turning the lip

When crossing a large roof it often pays to invert and go out feet first. Snag a high toe hook round the lip and then track your body back round. The purpose of this is to lighten the load on your arms and avoid the problems associated with your feet swinging off which occur when you go out hands first. Clearly there’s scope for getting in a tangle so practice before using this on a trad route or in a comp!

Heel-toe camming

A further refinement is to cam your heel against the vertical wall below a toe-hook in the back of a roof, in order to partly jam-in the toe. Clearly this requires the target hold to be positioned in exactly the right place, but it’s one of those techniques that can save the day.

Toe-hooks on less steep terrain

The classic use for toe-hooks on less-steep terrain is when following a sloping ramp in order to reduce the load on your arms and make it feel easier to hold. Simply swing the toe up onto the feature and ‘track’ it along as you shuffle your hands up, resisting the temptation to get stretched out too far. Many will default to heel-hooking but a toe-hook may provide a superior option. Another application is to avoid barn-dooring on arêtes and a well-placed toe-hook may enable you to pause and clip or chalk-up in a position, where otherwise you would have been completely off-balance. 

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Compression toe-hooking

Sometimes a toe-hook can be used to assist progression on arêtes or rounded prows, as opposed to merely using them for balance or releasing a hand. This technique involves pulling hard on the toe and yarding up into the move, while  compressing (pulling inwards) with the opposing arm. When toe-hooking on a tiny or sloping feature this will require that extra level of accuracy, not to mention extra pull from the shin muscle and overall body tension. 

Shoe notes

Enlarged rubber toe-patches have become a standard on modern bouldering shoes and are essential for gaining purchase on a marginal or sloping features. For clamping, a down-turned shoe may offer superior performance to a flat shoe.

Supportive training and drills

Some people seem to have disproportionately weak shin muscles, whereas others appear to have been born with wire cables in their shins. Genetics and sporting background both play a role but the good news is that anyone can strengthen their shins with supportive training. Simply hang from a bar with your toes, using a hand for support if necessary. For example, do 3 or 4 sets of 6 to 15 seconds, but make sure you use a crash-pad and right yourself before the point of failure, and have a spotter!

While strengthening exercises are useful, the best training is always to practice toe-hooking on the wall. A good drill is to climb around on a roof on a bouldering wall using any holds and to see how many toe-hooks you can find and how long you can hold them for. Toe-hooking is one of those techniques that suddenly switches on, so keep the faith and keep trying!

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