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Climbing techniques

climbing techniques

Footholds and basics climbing techniques

A foothold is a rock ledge able to bear your weight on its vertical axis and large enough for your foot to push on it in a mainly downward direction.
Almost all small ledges that can be used as handholds can also be used as footholds but only a trained skill in using footholds will allow you to exploit the smallest of them. climbing techniques

The type of shoe used plays a key role in how your feet can be used differently and creatively when climbing. High-grip soles and the shoe’s shape are important factors in determining the climber’s technique. When the pressure exerted on the shoe sole and the angle between the shoe and the rock is correct, footholds even the size of a matchstick head will still hold you!

On small and fleeting footholds the most effective part of the sole is the inner edge of the big toe. Often the rock shape prevents this foot position so you must “point into” the face with your toes, which requires greater strength in toes and calf-muscles as the force is applied from a disadvantageous angle. The technique of front-on footholds is used mainly on limestone routes in shallow pockets.
As the foot is much larger than fingers, the scope for ‘wedging’ is restricted, so feet can only exploit twisting-in and lever techniques.

Sloping footholds (used with the smearing technique) are exploited more effectively when you try to bring as much of the high-friction sole surface as possible into contact with the rock. climbing techniques

In traditional climbing technique, the legs were used only for supporting and for pushing the body upwards, an approach that today’s “extreme” climbers have fairly and squarely abandoned. With the high difficulty levels achieved, the legs have come into their own with a very broad scope of active performance moves with:

  • heel pushing and pulling (heel-hook).
  • upper part of the foot pulling (toe-hook).


The specific use of these techniques comes well within a more evolved period of climbing.

From horizontal to vertical

In today’s climbing, movement is seen as a flowing extension and evolution of walking. We must focus on both the shifting of our weight (i.e. our ‘centre of gravity’ conceived as an imaginary point inside the pelvis), and on the thrust of our legs. We also have to learn how to separate the movement of the pelvis from that of our feet – an essential step towards succeeding in retaining our balance when moving from one hold to the next.
Putting weight properly on a foot-hold is about seeking and finding balance on the hold and exerting the right thrust on it with our foot. This will let us move our pelvis (centre of gravity) upwards by pushing with our leg. If we don’t yet need to raise our pelvis, putting weight on the foot-hold entails shifting some weight onto the leg while still keeping balance. All of the notes above apply equally to when we are using the “smearing” technique.
“Isolating” the pelvis is about moving the pelvis independently of our torso. This is usually performed when we use four holds (hand- and foot-) but it also applies to when we use only one foot-hold and the opposite hand-hold. climbing techniques
The pelvis movement allows us to optimally adjust the weight we put on our foot-holds, especially when using the front part of the foot. The pelvis movement actually lets us move our body’s weight precisely over the vertical footholds to help take the strain off our arms.
Learning and training is facilitated by repetition and performing these movements slowly, with exercises and repeated upward moves, on an easy climbing route.
On the easy, inclined climbing pitches, several small steps are the general solution while on overhanging routes it is better to lengthen – and reduce the number of – our steps in order to speed up the moves and reduce the strain time for the arms on these tough sections. As to vertical pitches, these come within either the former or latter case depending on the route’s characteristics. climbing techniques

  • balance
  • balance


Except for the case of overhanging sections, where we cannot “hover” our centre of gravity over footholds due to the overhang, when we have our feet on footholds, we must try to keep our pelvis as vertically over them as possible.
Beginners must acquire familiarity with this principle on the easy, inclined walls because these routes tend to make one instinctively “lie down” on the wall. In doing so, the error is to move our centre of gravity away from its ideal position, which is instead directly above the foot-holds.
The larger the foot-holds, the more beginners tend to put as much of their shoes onto them. Instead, also when the foot-hold offers more space, we must still use only the forefoot and avoid using the foot arch and heel.
When the ledge is narrower, we must try to use the instep point of the shoe and the joint connecting the big toe with the metatarsal.
In a more advanced stage of learning, we can also use the external part of the foot, close to the little toe.

For holes and small foot-holds, we will use the shoe point (first phalanx of the big toe). In general, we must learn to keep our heels low and not above the ledge level.
We must therefore train our toes so as to avoid raising the heel when placing our shoe tips. This training is necessary especially for very small foot-holds at advanced levels, as the worse we are at using our toes, the more we have to keep our heels raised. And the higher our heel, the lower our stability and the more our calf muscles have to work, with sometimes uncontrollable tremors. This position also reduces the ability to shift the pelvis, which will overwork our hand grip and forearms.
To sum up, the correct position of the foot allows our weight to be properly borne by the rock. This is one of the most important aspects of climbing and is in fact the one that demonstrates expertise more than all the others.
As to footwork when smearing, here the lack of a horizontal ledge means we must place our feet on a steep ‘wave’ or a smooth vertical piece of rock in order to fully exploit our shoe’s grip. Unlike the case of using horizontal holds (where the optimal position is vertically on the hold), the smearing technique involves moving the pelvis out away from the wall to increase the potential grip of our feet. Here, the pressure that allows our soles to grip the rock is the force exerted perpendicular to the contact surface. This is of course only possible if we can pull hard on our hand-holds.

When our hands must use the smearing technique too, we can achieve balance by moving our pelvis to above the contact surface of our feet, but when the sole grip is not enough to hold us, we must distribute our weight among all the holds we are using.
To learn to feel our shoe-grip limit, it is good practice to climb low walls or boulders. climbing techniques
It is especially important to learn the correct position of the body when foot-smearing and using hand-holds. You should therefore practice feeling the “limit grip point” of your shoes when using them for smearing to acquire the right sensitivity. This is precisely what allows us to take some strain off our forearms, whatever the position of our hands on the rock. climbing techniques

The skilled use of smearing technique is undoubtedly a very challenging training goal. While is relatively simple to learn how to place and accurately put weight on your feet on foot-holds, among the most complex skills in climbing are instead those of enhancing our sensitivity in feeling our shoe-grip limit when smearing, and learning to find the exact position of our pelvis in these situations. climbing techniques

By kind concession of Paolo Caruso, Alpine Guide and author of the book from which I have taken much of this text: “Progressione su Roccia” by Paolo Caruso
Technical – teaching texts Collegio Nazionale Guide Alpine – National Committee of Italian Alpine Guides

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