Rock Climbing Techniques

Climbing Technique 101: Sticking to the Rock

Rock climbing doesn’t have a rule book like other sports. You don’t need to circle the bases in one direction, go straight from the first green to the second tee, or stay on a set of specified runs. Usually your goal is simply to go from the bottom of a cliff to the top. There are routes but they typically just provide an idea of the difficulty in that general area on the cliff. No one forces you to follow the route, or tells you where exactly to put your feet and hands to climb it. That freedom leaves climbers to discover what works and what’s the most fun for them. And while there’s no perfect sequence of moves to get up a climb, climbers have long figured out a handful of common techniques that help them stay connected to the rock face—and move up it efficiently to best conserve energy for the climbing ahead. So while these aren’t law (and that’s part of the beauty of climbing), the right climbing technique is always worth knowing.


Think about climbing the monkey bars as a kid: moving with only your arms (and horizontally at that) burns you out fast. For that reason, most of the upward motion a climber achieves ideally comes from their legs. Having “solid feet” and keeping them in a place where you stay balanced makes everything else easier. There are two primary ways to use your feet (which, remember, are in rubber-soled climbing shoes):

  • Edging: This is probably what you think of as climbing. Using the edge of your shoes (most often on the inside of your toes, but it depends where you’re headed) to pick out a small surface to step up (push down) on. 
  • Smearing: That rubber is sticky. For less-than-vertical walls that are mainly featureless (we call these “slabs”), using the bottom of your foot to seemingly “smear” the rubber of your shoes on the rock might be the best way to find good feet. You’re taking advantage of the friction between your shoes and the rock to keep you there, so get as much of your climbing shoes in contact with the rock as possible. 
  • Toe-Jams: Crack climbing is a little more advanced. Climbers tend to either love it or hate it, but it requires its own set of techniques. One popular one involves sliding your toes into a tightening crack at a sideways angle (so they’re narrow) then standing up, widening the foot and wedging toes tightly in the rock. Get why some people aren’t big fans of this style?

Your feet are your foundation, so finding solid holds in the direction you want to move is critical. You’ll want to keep your body weight roughly centered over your feet, otherwise you’ll tip off of them. And relax on your feet: Standing up with your heels above your toes will not only exhaust your calves and ankles, but you’ll have less rubber in contact with the rock than you would with your heels just slightly below your toes. 

Staying Balanced

Balance starts at your feet but is the primary purpose of your hands while rock climbing. Your arms mostly work to keep your upper body (and most of your mass) attached to the rock for your legs to push up. There are a handful of different ways to grip onto the rock, depending on the hold:

  • Crimp: Best for small holds and edges where you can really only fit your fingertips. Your knuckles partially close, allowing you to push down on the rock with the pads of your fingertips. 
  • Open-Hand: Like smearing but for your hands. Create as much friction as possible by opening your hand and pushing down into the rock. 
  • Pinch: Like a crimp or open-hand, but you have some rock on the underside to pinch your thumb into as well. 
  • Hand-Jams: Similar to Toe-Jams, you’re sliding your hand into a crack flat then tensing it, curling your fingers, or even making a fist to take up as much room in the crack as possible. Use tape to protect your hands for these. 

Your hips are also a critical piece of staying balanced. Think about keeping them over your feet and close to the rock. On less-steep cliffs, climbers have a tendency to stand closer to vertical, but you’re only giving your arms more work. Another trick to keeping your arms in the game (they’re typically the first thing that tires out or gets “pumped”) is keeping them straight. If you don’t have a reason to, don’t bend them, and just let yourself hang off them slightly. That’s easier if your hips are closer to the rock. And if you find a good place to rest, shake out your arms and/or take some weight off your calves, use it before you keep going higher. It’s not a race!

Common Climbing Moves

Putting all those different hand and foot techniques to work, there are a handful of regularly used moves that can be useful in certain situations. Focus on how they are all aimed at keeping you balanced, even in potentially awkward situations. 

  • Stemming: If you’re climbing in a corner or anywhere where there are two different “planes” of a cliff, you can use your hands and especially feet on each. The key is to balance the pressure you’re putting on both, keeping you centered. 
  • Layback: Another “opposition” move involving you hanging off your hands in one direction (staying close to the wall) and your feet pushing you into your hands. This is commonly used for crack climbs. 
  • Mantle: At the top of a cliff, you often run out of places to put your hands but still need to get your feet up and over the edge. Lean in and push your hands down until you can get the edge near or below your hips (think: climbing out of a swimming pool).
  • Back Step: A common one that you might not even realize you’re using. Rather than squaring your hips to the wall and using the inside of both feet, you’ll put one hip against the wall and use the outside of the foot closest to the rock, usually putting it back behind your body, again keeping your body balanced between your feet. This is a handy way to take a rest. 
  • Undercling: When you use your hand on the underside of a hold and pull up on it. If you do it right, you’ll feel your body get “sucked” into the rock. These are helpful before moving your feet higher. 

All that said, there is no right or wrong way to rock climb. Climbing’s freedom is what makes it a favorite for so many people. But sticking to the basic tenets of balance and footwork will go a long way toward keeping you moving up, one hold at a time. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.