Improving footwork is something that all levels can work on. Even professional climbers sometimes admit to needing better footwork. Truthfully, people can get to high levels of climbing without having great footwork, but that doesn’t mean it is okay or helpful to ignore it. Having the right footwork can help you execute a higher level of moves, complete them smoothly, and save energy. While we might be highly impressed at the strength with which people can campus and cut feet, having smooth, efficient footwork makes for a climb that is beautiful and flawless to watch.
What can you do if your footwork is not so great?
First, try quiet foot drills. You will want to do this on your easy warm up climbs until it becomes natural and easier to work on at your limit. Before you move your foot, you want to look down and see where exactly you want that foot. Think about the next move you are making and where your foot should be to make that happen. Do you want the edge or toe of your foot? Do you want to be on the center of a hold, the side, flagging, or heel hooking. Once you make the decision, do not take your eyes off yet. Watch you foot move up and to that placement. Do it as quietly as you can. When people ignore their feet, you can often tell because of the nose it makes hitting the wall or the time it takes their foot to really get into place. If you are watching, your foot should smoothly land precisely where you wish to place it. This will be quiet because hitting the wall won’t be involved. Once your feet are where you want them, then move your hands and continue the process over again.
Chances are your warm up climb will not have complicated foot placement because after all you are doing something easy for you. You can, however, make them. Climb a jug filled V0 or 5.8 and skip holds or grab holds in ways that change your body positioning. (add a cross move, reach far left, etc) Get your feet working on easy holds, but harder movements. This should still feel easy enough to just be warming up, but it will get your brain working on where your feet go in different situations.
Remember, thinking up a whole list of things while you are at your limit, is really hard. You want to get things ingrained before so you naturally do them. In order to do that, you need to try out a lot of moves and a lot of positions prior to running into them for the first time, if possible.
You could also use foot drills with traversing a climbing wall. It doesn’t have to be an actual traverse. Just make one to the best of your ability. Start climbing and really think about where your feet are going. If you pick the right wall, there will be some hard spots mixed between easy spots. This will help you think before entering the harder parts. Try to think about where your feet need to be to get you from one point to the next in the best way. Traversing will put you into a lot of unusual moves because it wasn’t actual set or planned out. This can benefit you greatly.
When you are doing a tricky foot placement or one where you see a lot of feet options try them all to find what is best. You might fail, but that is okay. Think about what failed. Why didn’t it work when your body went into that position. Reflection is very important. When you do a move think about what worked or what didn’t. This will help you process what your body needs to make a move happen, and what messes it up. Your body is actually a lot smarter than you may think, and it works well to keep itself in balance. It knows where each part needs to be in order to maintain that balance and control. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons we don’t always know how to listen. Reflection will help you learn how to listen and understand. Then when you come to a new move, you can say my body will need to do this to keep in balance. One of the biggest times this happens is avoiding barn dooring. This is where your body will naturally swing a certain way to keep balance. There are foot placements that lessen or stop a barn door and knowing them can help you.
You want to reflect and think about your climbs. Not only will this help your understanding, but it will also keep you mentally engaged in climbing. Climbing is much more than just physical. You need to have your mind in the moment and processing.
Another tip is to watch others climb. I know this has been said so often. Especially by me, but it is true. If you watch people who are more advanced you can learn new moves. You can see what works. Now testing and reflection are important here. Sometimes people can do certain things because of different body types. You might see a person go to a hold and then when you do it you can’t. This could be because their span is much larger. For this reason it is important to watch all different people, to test, and then reflect. Also some people may be more advanced in climbing level but not technique. You want to start figuring out who is good to watch and who can climb similarly to you. To go with that same example, if you are 5’2″ watching someone who is 6’11” probably won’t help you much. If you are tiny and thin like Sasha Diguilian, watching someone who is really buff and made of muscle, won’t necessarily help you either because they are more likely to rely on that burly strength. However, a large sampling or some people similar to your style and shape, might help. Try climbing videos, watch friends, people watch at the gym. Just remember to also test and reflect because even if they look solid, it might not work for you.
Make sure you have the right shoes and they fit well. People are constantly asking for shoe advice, but the truth is we all have feet that are different shapes and sizes. A person might highly recommend their shoes, but you try them and they just don’t feel right. We all are going to like different shoes for different reasons. You must find the right one for you. When I first started climbing, I tried 5.10 sirens because everyone said 5.10 was the best company. I hated them. I felt like I couldn’t do anything. My feet slipped a lot because I couldn’t toe in with them. This is due in part to the fact that they are not aggressive, but also because I happen to like sensitive shoes. Not everyone does. However, for me a mad rock contact 2.0 or a la sportiva futura are the way to go. They are sensitive so I can feel everything. They are aggressive enough to toe in. They also fit my feet well. Mythos are another highly recommended shoe but for me there were lots of air bubbles and they didn’t fit.
You want a shoe that fits snug. Air bubbles anywhere are a bad sign. You also want a shoe that is uncomfortable, but not painful. You shouldn’t want to wear them all day long, but you also shouldn’t be crying when they are on your feet. It might take a lot of trying on to understand this, but once you find the right pair and size, you will understand this. Ask for help from a shoe expert, try a lot on, and try to pick shoes at a place where you can test them on a wall, or at least a place with a return policy that allows you to take them to the gym and try them out. Just because the serious climbers at your gym recommend one thing, doesn’t mean it will necessarily work. You need to find what works for you, even if it just happens to be a shoe that doesn’t get massive popularity.
Know the basic foot movements. A frontstep is when you point your foot into the wall and place your big toe directly onto the hold resulting in a squared off stance
This photo from climbing.com shows a front step. It is what the left foot is doing.
A backstep is when you bring your foot up like you would with a frontstep, but then rotate your hips so that your shoe’s outside edge in on the hold. This will cause your knee to drop a little and elevate your hips. To move out of it, you press your toe down and raise your ankle to make an upward movement using the power of your big toe.
The other basic foot placement is an instep. Externally rotate your hip, allowing you to use your big toe’s inside edge. Once you get your placement let your foot absorb the weight.
Get a friend to help you when you are practicing foot placement. When you do something wrong, have them stop you and make you work that move or start over until it is flawless. Sometimes we cannot notice subtle mistakes or habits we are picking up while in the climb. Having someone look out can help. Another great tip is to videotape yourself or have a friend do it. Then review how your climb looked. Look at your feet and what you did well or need to work on. You can do this with easy or hard climbs. Watch your videotapes, reflect, make decisions, and try the climb again. Keep videotaping them all so you can see where you are progressing, what still needs work, and what can be done differently. Try several different positions or feet and film them so you can reflect on where you looked most solid and what worked best.
Hopefully some of these tips worked. Let us know what you think and we can post the answers to any questions or make a new article to reflect some needs of the group.