I want to talk about the basics today. Basics as in basics of bouldering foot placement. It’s one of the most underrated aspects for many beginners.
When people start with bouldering, they usually focus on their hands only. If you’re rested and fresh, nailing a route is easy if you have solid upper body strength. And many gyms are very arm-focused too, as they have lots of overhanging routes with huge jugs to grab on the lower grades. But using only your arms will quickly wear you down, and the sight of beginners finishing their session early after 30 min with arm pump is a common one at any gym or crag.
Once beginners start to focus more on foot placement and leg technique, they feel very wobbly in the beginning. And they make many mistakes – sloppy footwork results in bad foot placement. Try to listen if someone climbs, and you’ll quickly notice if she is a master of foot placement. Silent, quick and elegant movement usually tells that someone knows how to use their feet while beginners are often loud and bang the main portion of their soles on the footholds.
I want to dedicate this complete post only to bouldering foot placement and the basics of proper foot placement. Many posts handle all the different topics of bouldering technique, but I think you cannot overrate and over practice footwork, especially if you want to improve your grades. Good foot placement will also save you lots of strength and energy in your arms. So, keep reading to learn how to build your bouldering on a solid foundation, feet first…:D
Put your shoes on and it’s go-time!
Why Is good foot placement important for bouldering?
Climbing and bouldering are very arm heavy sports. There is no way around it, top professional climbers you will see a certain type of athlete dominate, and they all have relatively strong upper bodies. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to be a bodybuilder for climbing, that kind of muscle mass is probably more impeding than helping, but compared to other sports, climbers have a relatively high amount of their (overall low body mass) concentrated in the upper body. Why this post then? Why do people tell you foot placement is so important and that it’s the most important aspect in bouldering? When I started bouldering most people told me that my foot placement was more important than what I did with my arms. Here is the answer: foot placement is so important because most people neglect it completely. And if we assume that 60% of bouldering is arms, then you still have 40% that comes down to leg and footwork.
But if you neglect them, you will always be 40% under your maximum ability. Your legs are the strongest muscles in your body by far, and leaving them out means you miss out on potential. Your legs are also much more enduring than your arms, as they are made for holding the majority of your body weight when you walk and stand. If you take walking, for example, your arms are more or less useless while your legs do the work – that’s why they are so strong. Every time you climb a stair, it’s like a little workout for your legs.
By learning correct foot placement and foot placement technique you can achieve your full potential.
Your legs have greater strength, power, and endurance than your arms. To see why that might be, consider the act of walking. While your arms dangle by your side for the entirety of a typical day (assuming it’s not a day filled with bouldering), your legs are carrying your entire body weight around — step after step after step, for thousands of steps each day. In case you don’t believe me yet, just compare the world records for the bench press and squat:
If you have a solid bouldering foot placement technique it will help you save strength and energy in your arms, while using your already strong legs.
There is a famous quote in Better Bouldering from John Sherman where he says that you should let the big muscles of the legs help you reach higher ground, while your arm muscles should actually only do positioning and balancing. I couldn’t add more to this, that’s what bouldering foot placement technique comes down to.
Bad foot placement means your upper body will wear down quickly, you will get forearm pump more often and faster, and your training session length will be shorter. Chances of injury for elbow and shoulder will also grow as you constantly run into the risk of overstressing the small shoulder muscles or elbow joints. Good foot placement will make you tackle harder problems, climb longer and progress faster. That’s why you should work on your footwork technique, and these basics of footwork placement will give you a good starting point.
Know the Different Areas in a Bouldering Shoe
Before we get into our techniques and drills, let’s talk shoes first. Good climbing shoes LINK are the one and only piece of gear that you really rely on when bouldering.
No matter what you think about them, they are your main contact point with the wall and as such you need to understand how they work. For beginners, climbing shoes look like a rubbery mess, but there is intelligence behind the design. If you know how to use which part of the shoe, your foot placement will become more efficient and better. Knowing what to use where will also help you develop a beta for onsighting a project or boulder too, and it’s important to build solid bouldering foot placement and technique.
This is the part where your toes touch the rock. When you climb, you should usually have your weight centered around this area, and try to avoid touching the wall with anything else. Exceptions are heel hooks and side edges. This part of the shoe is not only the most stable part of the shoe, it’s also the most precise area. And when you use it correctly, it allows you to easily pivot and adjust hips and feets. You can also stand on your tip-toes, which is great to keep balance. If you don’t use your toes you miss out on mobility and reach, and also face the risk of slipping. To understand the toe box, lets look at the thee different parts of it.
If you place the front part of your shoe on a hold, this is a frontstep. Frontsteps are the basic moves when bouldering, and mastering them is key to proper foot placement. With the front of your feet you can super precise. Pivoting is very easy when you front step. But there are some footholds, like thin edges for example, where front stepping is not the best idea. On these footholds, frontsteps have a very small shoe-to-rock area, and that makes it slippery. Being perpendicular to the wall is sometimes a problem too, as it pushes your hips away from the wall which makes you spend more energy to hold and limits potential reach. In these cases you should press hips against the wall and utilize the inner and outer edge of the toe box to gain more stable hold.
- Inner Edge
If you use the inner or outer edge of your climbing shoe this is called edging, read more the details of it here. Using the inner side of the shoe is a great way to get more contact area on to the rock and increase friction and hold on thin ledges and edges. It also opens your hips and helps you get the hip closer to the wall, which is good for preserving energy and maintaining hip mobility. Close hips are also good to have maximum reach. A disadvantage of this position is that you have less flexibility when maintaining this position, as it impacts your ability to pivot. Inside edging with both feet is called frog legging.
- Outer Edges of the Shoe
When you place the outer edge of the shoe on a foothold it uses your small toes. As they are smaller and not as strong as the big toes on the inside of your feet, this kind of edging is not as stable as inside edging. But this kind of foot placement can be used to perform the backstep. If you don’t know what backstepping is, watch the video down below.
The midsection of your shoe. Generally speaking, try to avoid using this section for footholds. The climbing shoes have rubber here mainly to protect your feet and when you do crack climbing or twisted moves between rocks where you need to lock yourself in position. For normal climbing, avoid using the main sole of the shoe as much as possible. If you watch someone climbing and she or he uses the midsection of the shoe, often with a lot of noise when placing feet, it’s a typical sign of poor foot placement technique.
This is the back end of your bouldering or climbing shoe. This part of your shoe is used for hooks. Hooks are important for certain moves, but not for stepping on to regular footholds. For most climbers, hooks become important once they reach certain grades of difficulty, as hooks usually require lots of leg strength, flexibility, and core stability.
8 Keys in Order to Build Superior Bouldering Foot Placement
You know which part of the foot to use for certain situations. But now you need to learn the basics needed to have a solid foot placement technique when climbing or bouldering. The aspects presented here are very important and you should keep them remembered. It’s also helpful to think about them before you start your training session to focus on them. My advice is to try and improve single aspects initially.
- Use your eyes and look before you place your feet
Look where you step. Before you do anything, always do a visual assessment if possible. Not only can you identify the quality and potential of a foothold, it will also help you to place your feet correctly. Both things are important.
a) Identify FootholdsWhen you try hard boulders or climbing routes, identifying a good foothold quick and effortless is priceless. If you cannot do it, you will find yourself in situations where you use a lot of energy just by holding yourself in position and searching for the next foothold. I know i messed up many problems and routes as a beginner because my eye was not trained to identify potential footholds. This skill is especially important when you climb outside, where there are no marked footholds. Good footholds are often hidden under other rock features, and assessing them in terms of weight placement and potential to support upwards movement is crucial.
b) Watch feet placement
Keep your eyes on the feet while you place them. It makes a huge difference for good foot placement in bouldering when you keep your eyes on your foot while you move it. Most beginners have only a quick glance at a foothold, and then carelessly slap their foot on it. And they usually pay for it by needing to readjust their feet. You should do it better: Move your feet as slow as necessary while watching them. Eye the exact point of the rock where you want your toes placed, and don’t look away until you place your foot. If you develop this careful attention, you will notice that you slip less and less with time, and soon you will be super confident and precise. You will also be quick once you get started with a route, as you find new footholds effectively and fast
- Be precise
When you place your feet, you should only need one try to do so. This means you place your foot exactly where it belongs at the first try. When you have precise foot placement, you save energy on stalls and re-positioning, as both cost a lot of arm energy. Think about it: While you fiddle around to have your feet placed right, all the energy comes from your arms while you hold yourself in position. And sometimes margin of error on small and thin edges is simply to small to be sloppy, and you take a fall if you mess it up. If you become precise, you will also become elegant and efficient.
- Place feet silently
When you place your feet while bouldering, they should make almost no noise. Noise usually means you had too much momentum and the rock stops your feet, which means you lack control over your movement. Lots of noise mean no control, no noise means good control. If you cannot execute a move fast without making a lot of noise, you need to work on control. Try to climb routes extra silent, even if it means to execute movement slower. Go and climb a lesser grade if needed, but work on that foot placement control. Once you become better and more controlled, you can work on execution speed again.
- Trust your feet and legs
There are many situations where you need to place enough weight on your foot in order to maintain a stable position. If you don’t trust your feet in these situations it will mean you take a fall. Most beginners don’t trust their feet because they are afraid they will slip and fall. And because they lack trust, they don’t place enough weight on their feet, which results in a fall. It’s a vicious circle. But you can break it, by going all in and putting some “blind” trust into your feet. After a while, you will extend your comfort zone easily by increasing the difficulty of the foothold step by step. Keep trying to step on footholds that you don’t tust in a controlled environment, where you gradually decrease the amount of energy of your arms while holding, and increase the placed weight until you have maximum weight on your toes.
- Climb with sticky feet
Sticky or glue feet means that you have the ability to place your feet without readjusting. It’s a consequence of being very precise, to a level where you can place your foot on a hold and it sits almost perfectly – without any readjusting. Constant readjusting burns up precious energy and endurance, and you can easily practice this skill by climbing boulders without adjusting the feet and trying to spend more time before you place your feet and trying to be precise.
- Proper hip movement
All climbing starts in your hip. It’s the single skill most people neglect, and for good foot placement you need good hip technique. Keep in mind to keep your hips as close to the wall as possible and to initiate movement with your hips.
- Grab holds actively with your feet
When you grip a hold with your hand you don’t just lay your hands on them and wait if it works out. You grab and squeeze (but don’t overgrip!). But when it comes to foot placement, many beginners passively place their feet on the foothold and are done with it. What you should do is actively step and grab a foothold with your feet. Activate your muscles, step on your tip-toes if needed and try to really hold and “draw” the hold with your feet. You will notice a big difference regarding the amount of energy needed from your arms to hold a position this way – the more you actively hold a foothold with your feet, the less energy is needed from your arms.
- Use the feet to propel upwards movement
Try to imagine you’re doing a super hard one legged squat when you actually progress vertically. Activate your leg muscles, and don’t just pull yourself up with your arms. Once you feel the burn in your leg muscles you know you are using them correctly.
8 Drills for building foot placement techniques fast
I put together some helpful drills to execute, to make learning proper foot placement easier for you. Include them when you do gym climbing sessions or outside. It doesn’t matter if you boulder or rock climb, they work for both.
1. Drill to train precise foot placement: Corks on Footholds
A great way to practice precision is the cork method. You pick a simple traverse on a nearly vertical or vertical wall and place wine corks on the footholds. Now your goal is to traverse and use the footholds with the cork laying on top of it, but doing it without kicking the cork of the foothold. This way you need to be very precise and gentle when you place your foot. Don’t worry if you are super slow, this is not about being fast. Remember the saying: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. It’s all about controlling the movement and being smooth.
2. Another Drill to train precise foot placement: One-time placement game
Climb some boulders with imaginary glue on your feet. Once you place your feet, you’re not allowed to adjust them. Try to find the right position at the first try, then commit for the foothold and continue.
3. Drill to train foot placement and body positioning: Tennis ball drill
This drill helps you train how you position yourself on the wall. You need 2 tennis balls and a slab wall. Now hold the 2 balls in your hands and climb the wall, without holding anything. You are allowed to place the ball with your fist for support. Remember to push on your feet to hold position on the slab. You can also use your fists for this drill if you have no tennis balls.
4. Drill for more calve strength: Tip-toeing
If you need more power in the calves and upper feet, deliberately train tip-toeing. Find a level surface and then press up from the ground to stand on the front part of your feet, if possible only the toes. Hold the position for some seconds, do 10 repetitions for 3 sets, wait a minute between the sets. If you build strength in these muscles, it will be much easier for you to maintain a balanced position on a tiny foothold.
5. Drill for switching feet: Warm up with traverse and switching feet
Find a traverse wall, and use it for warming up. While you traverse it, practice different styles of feet swapping. You can use the foot on top of other foot method or any other method. Some good tricks are shown in the video below.
6.Drill to learn trusting your feet: Tape on footholds (Only do in the gym!)
Put some shiny tape over footholds and then climb them. You will only be able to hold onto them if you put maximum pressure on your feet. This way you will build up confidence and trust in your foot placement, as the friction of the footholds is reduced. But don’t do this on difficult routes and don’t forget to completely remove the tape afterward. Please also refrain from this drill on natural rocks!
7. Drill for accuracy and tension: Toe-stabs
This drill improves both precision and tension in your feet. With you standing away, have a friend to point to a foothold near the ground. You can also chose it yourself. Then balance on one leg and try to touch the foothold with your other feet as quietly as possible.
8. Climb outside
Admitted, this is not really a drill that teaches you a certain part of foot placement. But it’s super important to keep climbing outside. Only there you need all the skills, including the vision to read the different foothold types. So go outside and climb on real rock!
How to Study other Climbers for Good Bouldering Foot Placement
Bouldering is a sport where you can learn from others. Reading about great foot placement is good, but watching good climbers is super important too. Next time you’re at your gym, watch some good climbers climbing and how they place and use their feet. You can also watch some videos of professional climbers. Adam Ondra and Alex Honnold are both super controlled climbers with great foot placement. Keep an eye out for these things when you watch other climbers or videos:
- Which part of the foot touches the rock
- How do they use their core and lower body to relieve their arms
- What are they doing with their eyes and head
- How long do they keep both eyes on the foot when they place it
- Are they adjusting the foot placement often?
- What are they doing with their hips to initiate movement?
- What kinds of rest positions do they use and how do they place their feet when resting?
- Which part of their foot touches the wall or rock
Foot placement is a basic skill, and like most basic skills it requires hours of training to mastering it. The good news: It’s a linear process, and even if you only spent 2 hours per week on dedicated foot placement training you will quickly notice gains in the difficulty of bouldering you can do. Training foot placement and footwork will make you a better boulderer and also transfer to sport and trad climbing. Don’t be like many beginner boulderers who only train their arms, but focus on your legs and feet too. Your legs are your strongest muscles, and they are a great tool that will save you energy and let you climb more difficult boulders.