When your upper body feels maxed out, look to your feet. Great footwork makes climbing hard routes and boulders less strenuous! Learn an effective practice strategy to improve your climbing footwork and movement skill.

(This article was originally published in October of 2019, but good footwork never fails to boost climbing ability.)

Many climbers find that, as they approach their limit in climbing, their footwork deteriorates. This bad habit usually makes itself clear through unnecessary noise and fumbling in the lower body as your feet scramble for position. If this sounds familiar to you, then make this your new mantra:

“When the going gets tough, focus on the feet!”

Remind yourself to look down at your feet every time the pump escalates on a tough boulder problem or route.

Due to the proximity of the eyes to the hands, it’s natural to find yourself hyper-fixated on your hands at the expense of your feet. However, the key to unlocking crux sequences often lies in more effective use of the feet. Consider how often you’ve succumbed to the pump and fallen suddenly, only to realize in retrospect that you missed a critical foot hold that would have allowed you to save enough energy to keep going.

Footwork for Climbing Efficiency

Improving your foot-focus takes self-awareness and plenty of practice. For starters, ask your belayer to yell up at you to look for feet as you begin struggling on a route. The same thing goes in the gym or while bouldering. The more attention you can intentionally redirect toward finding the best footholds and lower body positions, the more automatic it will become in the future.

On difficult routes, some climbers even leave a small chalk tickmark just above a critical foot hold as visual cue. This practice is quite effective when climbing fast is essential. Even so, you need to remember to look down in the first place so the tickmark catches your eye! (Side note: Please don’t go overboard on tickmarks⁠—just mark the most vital, easy-to-miss footholds. Be sure to brush off your tickmarks when you’re done on the route.)

Tweak Logan Canyon - Jon Horst

Optimal foot beta and precision placement is a huge difference-maker on steep, powerful routes.

Practice Your Foot-Finding Skills

Here’s a great drill for developing foot-focus called “target practice.”

Pick a technical route, either indoors or outside, that’s about one full number grade below your onsight ability. Attempt to toprope the entire climb with a sustained, steady focus fixed on your feet. With each placement, identify the best part of the hold. Then, with laser focus, place your toe onto the best part of the hold without taking your eyes off of your foot, like hitting the bull’s eye of the target.

As you practice, strive to develop a kinesthetic feel of the foot placement as you shift weight onto the hold⁠. The goal here is to sense the quality of the placement so you know how it feels in your body, not just how it looks from the outside. Try to keep your foot completely still as you reposition your center of gravity and press off the hold. Meanwhile, infuse as little focus as possible into other areas such as reading the route ahead, getting the hand beta perfect, etc. Focus on the mission at hand: training footwork. Your overall performance on the route doesn’t matter right now. Feel free to rest on the rope in order to practice a specific move, and nevermind if you happen to fall along the way. Better footwork will come back around to improve all aspects of your climbing.

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