Essential Skills: Rock Climbing Footwork

Improve your rock climbing technique and efficiency with these seven tips.

Strength matters in climbing, but the truth is that good technique, not big muscles, is often the secret to success on harder routes. The foundation of good technique? Footwork. 

Footwork is critical because no matter how jacked your biceps are, your legs will always be stronger. The best way to climb harder is to learn how to use them. With proper rock climbing footwork, you’ll be able to shift your balance seamlessly, pull your center of gravity closer to the wall to take the strain off your arms, and leverage powerful leg muscles to reach higher with less effort. The result: Faster, smarter, more efficient climbing.

Use these tips to master good footwork.

1. Move Your Feet First

When you’re starting out, it can be tempting to focus on your hands as you grab for one hold after another. But if your feet aren’t keeping pace, it won’t be long before you find yourself doing one-armed pull ups and running out of steam. Instead, practice looking down. Move your feet one at a time before you move your hands.  

2. Step With Your Toes

Good rock climbing footwork is all about finding ways to maximize your reach. The best way to do that? Stand on your tiptoes. Even on big footholds, avoid placing your whole foot on the hold. Instead, step with the inside of your big toe, a sweet spot that will help you maintain precision and maximize reach while keeping your hips—your center of gravity—close to the wall.

3. Keep Quiet Feet

Every second you spend scooting or shuffling your feet is a second spent hanging from your arms with the fatigue clock ticking. To maximize your efficiency, practice placing your toes exactly where you want them the first time. (Bonus: This will also make your climbing shoes last longer.)  When you hear scuffling or scraping, think of it as a reminder to focus. 

5. Flag for Balance

“Flagging a foot” means sticking a leg out to counterbalance a big lateral reach. If you’re reaching high and to the right, for example, swinging your left foot left can keep you from pitching sideways. This can take some practice to get right: Pick a route, and try to incorporate as many flags as you can until it feels natural.

6. Don’t Be Afraid to Smear

If there’s not a foothold exactly where you want it, you can “smear,” or paste the toes and ball of your foot against the surface of the rock, relying on the friction to hold you in place. It can be hard to generate a ton of upward force from a smear, but it’s extremely useful as an intermediate move to help you bump a hand or foot to a better spot. 

7. Press Hard

Quick physics lesson: The more downward force, the greater the friction. When footholds get small or slippery, driving hard through your foot can give you better purchase. This is especially true on slab climbs (routes where the wall is slightly less than vertical), which are famous for tiny depressions, bumps, and other barely-there footholds. On a slab climb, the more surface-area contact between rubber and rock, the more likely you are to stick. To get that kind of pressure, keep your shoulders back and your weight over your toes (think about keeping your body perpendicular to the earth, rather than leaning forward). Then paste your foot, press hard, and stand up with intention.

8. Use Your Whole Foot

Using the inside of your big toe should generally be your default, but there are plenty of occasions for alternative footwork. Here are some handy tricks:


If you can’t quite get your toes on a high foothold, consider latching it with your heel instead. A favorite move for shorter climbers, heel-hooks can help you pull your hips into the wall and gain serious reach. 


On steeps, consider hooking the odd hold with the top of your foot to keep from swinging off the wall. Popular among boulderers, toe-hooks are usually reserved for more advanced terrain.

Foot Jams

Jamming is a must-know technique for trad (“traditional”) climbing. If you encounter a hand- or fist-size crack on-route, turn your foot to the side, stick it in the crack, and then twist your knee up and in so that your shin is parallel to the crack. This cams your foot in place securely enough to stand up on it.

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.