Are legs and footwork holding you back from being a better climber?
By Abi Cotler
“Don’t forget, you have legs!”
It’s a common reminder when trying to encourage an inexperienced climber towards improvement. So often when just starting out, we think about going up so much that we wind up focusing everything in that direction: moving up, looking up, and relying almost solely on our hands and arms to basically do pull-ups the entire way—but don’t forget, you have legs!
The end result of this kind of climbing, especially for those just beginning to develop their climbing fitness, is to get pumped earlier than necessary and be a far less efficient climber overall. However, looking down—and remembering to depend on legs and footwork—could be the key you need to bump up your endurance, skill, and overall climbing progression.
This article features some important things to understand about why looking down is so crucial to becoming the best climber you can be.
Legs. They’re a lot mightier than arms. It makes sense! Your glutes, hamstrings, and quads are your biggest muscles and most of your weight is carried in your lower body, so they will have plenty more strength and power than your upper body..
Remember what your body already knows: your legs really are your go-to workhorses in terms of getting up a wall. Looking for ways to get them up high before reaching with your arms is a crucial progression technique.
Also, many climbers tend to aim for the next grade and perhaps push too hard at the risk of physical or mental wellbeing. We’ve all been there. But it’s important to develop a stable base—whatever your current level–before you can move forward. Looking down and thinking about using legs as much as possible are key for this stability. Repeating the mantra, “Get your feet high and stand up to the next hold,” can really help.
Mesa Rim climbing coach Alvaro Rangel suggests, “Looking down changes the mentality towards initiating upward movement starting with the lower body. Most people are too focused on initiating upwards movement with the arms. Think about using your arms as a means to get hips over the feet, and using the lower body to go up!”
Looking down while you climb also means emphasizing footwork—another huge key to good technique. According to Mesa Rim coach Mark Kattus, “You have to look down because feet placement is the most important thing to do for the next move!”
So much of climbing does depend on how you position yourself before you move: where your hips are, which way you’re facing, how you’re balanced on the wall. All of this is affected by the way you place your feet. As Rangel says, “Foot placements are generally more precise than hand placements. There are many different spots on a hold to place the foot and the best position depends from move to move (even if it is the same foot hold.)”
Kattus adds, “A good rule of thumb is to watch your foot until it is placed on the hold. A lot of people will locate their next foothold, but look away before placing their foot (usually looking for their next handhold). They place their foot blind, which usually means it’s placed imprecisely, they end up not trusting it, and inevitably rely on their upper body to compensate.”
I used to climb with a friend who mostly boulders, and her footwork was far superior to mine. After watching me fling my feet willy-nilly below me as I focused on my hands and arms to move me up, she taught me about the concept of “quiet feet.”
The noise, of course, is not the issue. But when you focus on placing your feet quiet and light you end up with careful and intentional foot placement and that sets you up in the best way possible for the next move. So, that, too, is a good refrain when trying to improve your ability to go up by looking down: “quiet feet!”
Putting it All Together
Together, feet and legs are one of the most overlooked aspects to becoming a better climber when you first start out. But they are key. A 2016 piece from RockandIce.com on technique echoes this advice, calling foot technique your most useful (and most misunderstood) tool:
The idea is to keep your weight pressed onto your feet. Beginners tend to hug the rock and/or grope too high for out-of-reach holds, making it hard for them to see and use their feet. An erect, athletic, in-balance posture is the ticket. Remember that your legs are stronger than your arms—take advantage of that. Practice your footwork and get used to lifting your weight with your lower body.
Any foothold you’ll encounter requires precision. If you just slap your shoes onto holds you’ll never hit the sweet spot and your feet will forever be slipping and slopping. It’s best to practice on easy routes, but always strive for precise and coordinated foot placements.
Remembering to look down while you try to go up will help you find the holds that could very well be the secret to making it to the top. It will help you stabilize your lower body, place your feet carefully, and use the strength you have in your legs to lift you higher without turning your arms to noodles before you even get to the second clip.