Believe it or not but you don’t need to be that strong to be a good climber. Having strength is no doubt helpful. But having good footwork is even more important.
Climbing technique is 90% about footwork. And good footwork is 90% about creating or maintaining balance.
Which foot should you push with? When should you flag? When should you look for heel or toe hooks? Which foothold shall I use? It all comes back to what is the best way to maintain balance.
What does it mean to have good footwork?
Good footwork can be a complicated topic but at its core means anything that you do with the lower half of your body (ie, legs and feet) to create or maintain balance.
What is balance in climbing? Believe it or not, it is the same as balance when standing in the ground. If you are reaching to your right, you need to counterbalance something on your left to keep balance. The most basic and stable footwork technique to maintain balance is called a backstep.
In the 1st gif below, the person is demonstrating the basics of a backstep by reaching to the right and counterbalancing with his left leg/foot.
If you are going to take away one thing from this article, you should remember this backstep since it is the most stable footwork to use. And usually, since easier climbs have many footholds, this technique will likely be available to use.
More advanced footwork techniques
As you progress to harder climbs, the setters won’t give you convenient footholds to use. And in some cases, you will not be able to use the backstep mentioned above. In such case, you may need to consider the following: 1) flag, and 2) heel or toe hooks.
In the 2nd gif below, the person is reaching to his left but instead of counterbalancing with his right (as you would expect from a backstep) he counterbalances with his left foot (this is called a flag). So a flag is when you counterbalance with the same side foot as the hand you are reaching with. If you are reaching with your right, you flag with your right foot. And vice versa.
If you cannot counterbalance with your feet (neither backstep nor flag is available), then you will need to use a toe or heel hook to prevent an imbalance. A heel or toe hook doesn’t create balance instead it prevents imbalance.
What are the benefits of good footwork?
When balanced, the climber puts most of their weight on their legs and feet rather than their arms and hands. Not only are legs and feet much stronger but they are used to being used all the time thus have more endurance. Too much strain on arms and hands quickly leads to fatigue and a pump.
The other benefit to good footwork is that you avoid the dreaded barndoor (see gif below), which is one of the most widely used techniques by setters to make climbers fall. The barndoor is the result of making an imbalanced move (ie, wrong footwork) and causes your hips and body to fly away from the wall.
There are a few ways that setters can make climbs harder. Some of the ways include using holds that are hard to grip and making climbs that are more dynamic. But the weapon of choice for setters has increasingly been to force climbers out of balance (in other words, force a barndoor). Good footwork is meant to keep you in balance.
What is the secret to perfect footwork in one simple sentence?
On every more, you must either push, hook, or flag with your leading foot. Your leading foot is the same side as your reaching hand. So if you are reaching with your right hand, then your leading foot is your right foot. And vice versa. Beginners should always try to push with their leading foot. There are generally enough footholds on a beginner climb to accomplish this.
The best way for beginners to improve in climbing is through improving technique. And the best way to improve technique is to improve your footwork. Through good footwork, you can bear most of the burden on your legs and feet which makes strength in your arms and hands less important. Try these tips above and see if it improves your climbing.
The gifs used above comes from a Neil Greshams video series on YouTube, which I consider a great source of climbing technique.