It’s Not All About the Arms: Footwork 101

Most women I encounter are put off by rock climbing because they believe they don’t have the upper body strength to climb. This week’s edition of BB sets the record straight: ladies, it’s not all about the arms when it comes to climbing.

Jeanne workin' it on the wall

Jeanne workin’ it on the wall

Climbing is both strength and technique dependent. It’s true that if you do not have a minimum level of strength already, or you are not maintaining the strength that you do have, it may be important to do strengthening exercises. But (with a capital ‘B’), although upper-body strength and endurance are important for climbing, overall body tension, balance, flexibility, footwork, and core strength matter, too. Your core muscles — primarily your abdominals and erector spinae — are the glue that holds your body together, transferring force from your upper body to your lower body as you transition through various body positions on the climbing wall.

Now let’s get back this ‘arm strength only’ myth that we’re about to bust. Fact: your legs are far stronger than your arms. Climbing with your legs more than your arms will save you lots of energy and prevent your arms from getting pumped (that hardening, pulsing feeling in your forearms).

I’ve done some of the legwork (ha!) in putting together a list of some basic footwork techniques to get you started:

Backstepping: outside edging on a foothold that is behind you while climbing a move with your side to the wall.

Edging: using the inside of the foot to stand on a foothold.

Flagging: a climbing technique in which one foot is crossed behind the other to avoid barn-dooring and to improve balance.

Heel hook: the use of the heel on a hold, usually near chest level, to aid in pulling and balance.

Smearing: when you place your foot directly on the rock or wall.

Smearing up the overhanging wall

Smearing up the overhanging wall


Foot smearing: the right kind of smear campaign

Toe hook: hooking your toe on the rock. Toe hooks are most common on arêtes and with underclings.

Drop knee (one of my faves!): an exaggerated backstep in which one knee is dropped toward the ground with the other pointing up, great for overhanging rock.


Drop knees,not bombs

Foot switch: a technique used to replace one foot with the other foot. It is best accomplished by slowly replacing the foot and without jumping.

Hand-foot-match: placing your hand and foot on the same hold at the same time.

High step (recommended for intermediate+ climbers): a technique to use with a high foot placement.


High feet and straight arms on the overhanging wall are a recipe for cave crushing

Now all you have to do is get your feet working! Here are some additional Bouldering Babes beta (tips) to keep your feet steady on the walls:

  • Visualize your route before you start. Climbing is just as much psychological as it is physical, and knowing where you will go beforehand will help improve your climb.
  • Relax. Don’t rush. Take your time and focus on doing the routes correctly with good form, rather than quickly.
  • Don’t stress if you don’t get it the first time. You will eventually achieve it, and you will be all the more badass.
  • Breathe right. Breathe from your diaphragm. It will keep you more relaxed.

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