10 Drills to Improve Your Bouldering Footwork

Bouldering footwork drills After writing about the fundamentals of bouldering footwork, I wanted to write another post on how to actually improve your bouldering footwork.

So, without further ado, here are 10 bouldering footwork drills you can use to improve your climbing technique.

Many of these can be done indoors or outdoors.

1. Coin Holds

For this drill, rummage through your change jar and grab 15 coins. Then, head to your bouldering gym (with the coins!) at a time when there are likely to be few people there (I’ve found that on the weekends right when the gym opens are the lowest-traffic times).

Find an empty part of the wall and put the coins on as many footholds as possible. Place them on any part of the footholds where they won’t fall off.

Once the coins are in place, hop on the wall and begin bouldering using any handhold BUT only footholds with coins on them.

Here’s the catch:

When you place your foot on a foothold, try to avoid knocking the coin off. If you do knock the coin off, jump down and do five push-ups. Then, put the coin back where it was and start over.

Do this for 10 minutes (or until you can’t do any more push-ups :), whichever comes first).

2. Silent Feet (AKA Quiet Feet)

Find an empty wall where you can climb around uninterrupted. Hop on it and start bouldering using any holds.

However, when you move a foot and place it on a new foothold, place it so softly that it makes no noise. You should not be able to hear your feet touch the wall — they should be silent.

If your foot does make an audible noise, then move it back to the previous foothold and try again. If your foot doesn’t make any noise, then continue with the drill.

Do this for 20 different footholds.

Mentally take note of how much you have to focus on your feet and foot placement in order to successfully execute this drill. Many boulderers uphold this as one of the best footwork drills since it forces you to focus so hard on your footwork.

3. Sticky Feet (AKA Glue Feet)

When bouldering, you want to be able to move your foot to the perfect spot on the very first try without unnecessarily consuming energy through stalling or adjusting your feet.

In other words, you want to be able to place your foot on a hold and have it “stick” to the hold. That’s the competency this drill targets.

Identify four routes which are two to three grades below your max (so if you climb V4s find some V1s and V2s). Rather than climb “rainbow” (using any holds), this time start climbing the routes as you normally would.

However, when you move a foot to a new hold, the instant it touches the foothold you are not allowed to move it. You shouldn’t readjust it or pick it up and place it down again (you are allowed to pivot on it, though). If you do, then move your foot back to the previous hold and try again.

Do this for four different routes.

4. Foothold Stare

It’s difficult to know where to place your foot if you aren’t looking at the foothold. However, many boulderers often do just that — take their eyes off the foothold before their foot is even on it!

It sounds crazy, but if you pay attention to where you’re looking when climbing you’ll realize it’s true. Our eyes tend to look away from the foothold when our foot is close to it, leading to shoddy foot placement.

You can combat this bad habit and improve your footwork vision with this drill. Start by identifying four routes which are two to three grades below your max. Start bouldering the routes, and each time you go to move a foot, stare at the foothold you are moving it to. Then, once you place your foot on the foothold, keep staring at it for an additional three seconds.

Once you’ve counted to three, you can then look away from the hold and continue bouldering.

Do this for four different routes.

This drill will seem incredibly slow and mundane, but it helps you form the habit of directing your focus to the footholds and your feet when you are moving them.

5. Traversing

Traverse (i.e. climb sideways along) the bouldering wall (usually done on the slab or vert portions of the wall) while focusing on reducing the amount of upper body energy you exert. Use your feet to maneuver your body so your legs generate the majority of the force.

If you traverse well, you should not be pumped (i.e. have tired forearms that are hard to the touch rather than easy to squeeze) at the end of the traverse.

Oftentimes a bouldering gym will have a designated traverse route. However, if they don’t, find a section of the wall that is 30-40 feet long and climb horizontally along it using any holds.

Traverse the wall three times. Try to use less upper body with each traverse.

6. Downclimbing

Identify four routes that are two to three grades below your max.

Climb each route two times and, instead of jumping off once you reach the top, downclimb the route.

Letting your feet lead the way forces you to focus much more on your footwork. Do not use any extra handholds or footholds when downclimbing, and try to downclimb to the point where you can touch the mat with your feet without jumping off.

To make this a little more challenging, try to downclimb all the way back to your starting position.

7. Edward Tennis Ball Hands

Take two tennis balls with you to the bouldering gym. Find a slab (<90 degrees) section of the wall. Hold one tennis ball in each hand and hop on the wall. Boulder while holding the tennis balls in your hands.

Use any foothold, and — as for your hands — only touch the tennis balls to the wall itself; DO NOT touch them to handholds. In order to do this successfully, you will have to instep with both feet to open up your hips. Then, you will need to be precise with your footwork to ensure you don’t slip off or lose your balance.

Edward Tennis Ball Hands is a great way to build core muscles and develop balance. It’s also surprisingly fun and it has a hilarious name.

Do this drill for 10 minutes.

8. No-hands Slab

When you have mastered Edward Tennis Ball Hands you can move on to this drill.

Find a slab section of the wall. Start climbing it without using your hands and see how high you can get using only footholds. Use any footholds you want, and do not grab onto handholds or press your hands against the wall itself — your hands should not touch anything during this drill.

Do this for 10 minutes.

For an extra challenge, try to climb the designated slab routes only using your feet. Even V0s are tough when you can’t use your hands!

9. Toe Stab

After all these on-the-wall drills and exercises, I thought I’d throw in a drill that can be done off the wall.

Begin by standing in front of the bouldering wall while wearing your climbing shoes. Stand about two feet back from the wall (you can increase or decrease this distance based on your leg length — find a distance which works for you).

Balance on one leg and “stab” at footholds with your raised leg by placing your big toe on them quietly and precisely. It should feel like you’re poking your toes at the holds.

Do this 20 times with each foot, and try to stay balanced for the entire duration of the drill.

To make this more challenging, trying stabbing your raised foot at difficult-to-reach footholds, such as ones that require you to execute a highstep or balance precariously on your one planted foot.

10. Boulder Outside

Bouldering outside is one of the greatest ways to improve your footwork.

Outside footholds are oftentimes thin, smooth, wet, or nonexistent compared to their indoor counterparts. It’s easy to develop sloppy footwork when you always climb indoors because the footholds are more forgiving.

For a real footwork challenge, go outdoors to a favorite or new bouldering spot and just boulder. The rock will naturally force you to focus on your footwork since the price for not doing so is lots of slippage and — maybe — some pain.

Do this “drill” for as long as you want :).

Routines to Improve Your Footwork

These drills can be done individually, but I thought I’d include some routines that will target specific competencies.

Recall that bouldering footwork is all about VESTS: Vision, Exactness, Stickiness, Trust, and Silence. Each of the components is crucial to expert footwork, and the drills mentioned above all target different competencies. You need to practice all the aspects of proper footwork in order to become a well-rounded boulderer.

Here are some routines you can do at your bouldering gym to develop each of these competencies:

  1. VISION Routine (~30 min)
    1. Sticky feet — 4 different routes that are 2-3 grades below your max
    2. Foothold Stare — 4 different routes that are 2-3 grades below your max
    3. Traversing — 3 traverses
    4. Downclimbing — 4 different routes that are 2-3 grades below your max
  2. EXACTNESS/PRECISION Routine (~30 min)
    1. Coin Holds — 30 foot placements
    2. Silent Feet — 4 different routes that are 2-3 grades below your max
    3. Sticky Feet — 4 different routes that are 2-3 grades below your max
    4. Toe Stab — 20 stabs with each foot
  3. STICKINESS Routine (~25 min)
    1. Sticky Feet — 4 different routes that are 2-3 grades below your max
    2. Edward Tennis Ball Hands — drill for 10 minutes
    3. Toe Stab — 20 stabs with each foot
  4. TRUST Routine (25-35 min)
    1. Coin Holds — 30 foot placements
    2. Downclimbing — 4 different routes that are 2-3 grades below your max
    3. Edward Tennis Ball Hands — drill for 10 minutes
    4. (Optional) No-hands Slab — drill for 10 minutes
  5. SILENCE Routine (~20 min)
    1. Silent Feet — 4 different routes that are 2-3 grades below your max
    2. Foothold Stare — 4 different routes that are 2-3 grades below your max
    3. Toe Stab — 20 stabs with each foot

Some Final Reminders

Developing footwork takes time and dedication. You won’t see instantaneous results, but building the habit now will yield innumerable benefits later in your bouldering career.

Whenever you’re at your gym, watch the top boulderers and pay special attention to their footwork. Simple observation will help you understand what good footwork looks like. you’ll also notice how critical precise and strategic footwork is for more advanced boulder problems.

Get up and out! I mentioned it already, but I’ll repeat it here: one of the best (and most fun) ways to improve your bouldering footwork is by bouldering outdoors. Real rock is not as forgiving with its footholds as a bouldering gym, so the technicality of the problems forces you to be spot-on with your feet.

Lastly, these routines might not be the most exciting things in the world for you, but — then again — working on the fundamentals is never very fun. However, footwork is crucial to performing well as a boulderer, so neglect it at your own risk. If you dedicate just an hour per week to improving your footwork — for example, 30 minutes of each bouldering session after you are too tired to continue projecting — you will slowly but surely develop the skills needed to reach the next level.

Now you possess the knowledge about what makes good bouldering footwork and understand the drills and exercises you can do to develop it. You have no more excuses NOT to be improving your bouldering footwork! I have a challenge to encourage you to get started: build up the habit of good footwork by choosing ONE of these drills (I recommend Silent Feet) and trying it out next time you go to the gym. Notice how much attention you give to your footwork while doing the exercise, and you’ll quickly realize the benefits these drills can have. For now, though, I’ve done all I can do; it’s up to you to take the initiative and put these drills to the test!


Photo Credit: Academy students practicing drills (modified)

About the Author:

Alex is the owner of 99Boulders and has been blogging about the outdoors for over two years. When he isn’t working on the site, he can be found backpacking around South America or at the bouldering gym using his 6’5″ wingspan to skip all the hard holds.

  • searayman

    Shout out to the Naval Academy Midshipman in the picture!