The Fundamentals of Bouldering Footwork

Today, let’s talk fundamentals. And when I say fundamentals, I mean the most elemental aspect of bouldering training known to man: footwork.

Imagine yourself climbing a route. You easily stick each hand placement, your body feels fresh and strong, and you just nailed the crux. As you reach for the next handhold, your foot suddenly slips and you fall to the ground. You were so close to sending your project, but your footwork prevented you from doing so.

This story is no fantasy. Indeed, it’s something that happens to boulderers of every skill level, often every time they go bouldering. Mistakes made due to bad footwork can be incredibly frustrating — simply because these mistakes are preventable. When you make a mistake with your footwork that causes you to slip off the wall, you can only blame your sloppy self.

That’s why I’ve dedicated this entire post to bouldering footwork fundamentals. You can never practice your footwork too much — it doesn’t matter if you’re projecting V1s or V11s. If Yoda were ever to boulder (besides being the world’s greatest dynoer) he’d probably say something along the lines of, “footwork or no footwork, there is no ‘try’.” Your footwork will either help you excel as a climber, or it will be your Achilles heel (teehee).

Strap on your climbing shoes and let’s do this!

Why Is Footwork Even Important?

You may ask: why does everyone say footwork is so important? You’ve probably been told since day one of your bouldering journey that your footwork is actually more important than upper body strength. However, you still might not understand why that is, and that’s why I’m here.

Footwork is so darn important to bouldering for one simple reason: your legs are stronger than your arms, so proper footwork enables you to use more lower body and less upper body.

Your legs have greater strength, power, and endurance than your arms. To see why that might be, consider the act of walking. While your arms dangle by your side for the entirety of a typical day (assuming it’s not a day filled with bouldering), your legs are carrying your entire body weight around — step after step after step, for thousands of steps each day. In case you don’t believe me yet, just compare the world records for the bench press and squat:

And that’s just the squat record. People have recorded leg pressing over 2000 lbs (907 kg). But I digress because I think I’ve made my point: good bouldering footwork helps transfer the burden of weight from your relatively weak arms to your powerful and sturdy legs. Or, as John “Verm” Sherman says in his class book, Better Bouldering, “the most basic tenet of climbing movement is to let the big muscles of the legs propel the body upward while using the small, weaker arm muscles for balance and positioning.”

What this all means for you is that, with poor footwork, your upper body will tire quicker, your forearms will get pumped more frequently, and you won’t be able to boulder as long or hard as you like. You could even increase your chances of injury by constantly over-straining your upper body muscles. On the other hand — with proper footwork — you’ll be able to boulder longer, send more difficult routes, and become an all-around better boulderer. And isn’t that what we all want?

I think I’ve made my point on why footwork is important. Hopefully, you’re no longer confused, but enlightened and amazed.

The Anatomy of a Climbing Shoe

The different parts of a climbing shoe Before we get started learning about how to develop superb bouldering footwork, it helps to know a little bit about the gear we’re working with, i.e. our awesome climbing shoes. Whether you love ’em, hate ’em, or can’t wait to rip ’em off your feet after every climb, climbing shoes are our most crucial pieces of equipment. Knowing the different parts of your shoes is important to developing proper footwork. It helps you to better understand footwork terminology and more quickly interpret correct betas when on-sighting.

  • Toe Box. The most important part of the shoe; it is — as the name implies — the part that contains (boxes) your toes. With the exception of heel hooking (and the rarer exception of rand smearing), your toe box should be the only part of the shoe that touches the wall since 1) it is the most precise and stable part of the shoe, 2) it enables you to pivot and adjust your feet easily, 3) it allows you to stand on your tip-toes. Not using your toe box on footholds decreases your reach, limits your mobility, and increases your chances of slipping off. The toe box itself has three distinct sections:
    • Front. When you place the front part of your toe box on a foothold, it is called frontstepping. Frontstepping is the most basic foot placement, and it is also incredibly precise. It is also easy to pivot your foot when you frontstep. However, on thin footholds, the curved front edge of your toe box limits shoe-to-surface contact and increases your chance of slipping off. Additionally, your knees are naturally perpendicular to the wall when frontstepping. This means your hips will be distant from the wall which can limit your reach. To increase reach, you’ll need to press your hips against the wall by using the inner or outer edge of your toe box.
    • Inner Edge. Using the inner edge of your toe box on a hold is called instepping. Since the inner edge of your toe box is relatively straight compared to the front edge, Instepping is a useful way to increase shoe-to-surface contact on thin holds and decrease your chances of slipping off. Instepping also opens up your hips and allows you to press your body against the wall. Having your body close to the wall is crucial for slab climbing and for increasing reach. However, instepping limits your mobility significantly, especially if you instep with both feet (a technique known as “frog legging”).
    • Outer Edge. Placing the outer edge of your toe box on a foothold is called backstepping. Whereas instepping uses the side of your big toe, backstepping engages your three smaller toes. The outer edge of your toe box is slightly more curved than the inner edge, making backstepping less stable than instepping. Backstepping with one foot and instepping with the other is a useful technique for turning your hips into the wall in order to maximize your reach. Additionally, it’s also crucial to executing a proper drop knee.
  • Arch. The middle of the shoe between the heel and toe box. To put it simply, you should never put your arch on a foothold. Also, the arch of your foot should never be the part that you use to propel your body. Using your arch on a foothold is a telltale sign of poor footwork. Avoid it, capeesh?
  • Heel. The back end of the shoe that houses the heel of your foot. Used for heel hooking but not for stepping on regular footholds.

The 5 Keys to Developing Excellent Bouldering Footwork

Now that you finally understand WHY proper footwork is crucial to bouldering, it’s time to set the groundwork for what proper footwork looks like. There are FIVE key aspects to exceptional bouldering footwork which you should always keep in mind.

  1. Develop your VISION. You should always be using your eyes to help maneuver your feet. This applies in two situations.
    1. Identifying footholds quickly. You need to be able to quickly spot the next foothold when on the wall. An inability to do so will lead you to expend lots of energy simply holding yourself up, especially on overhung walls. And outdoors, where footholds aren’t so well-marked, you need to be able to rapidly assess the rock and determine where you can place your foot in order to support your weight.
    2. Watching where you place your feet. It’s amazing how many boulderers don’t look at where they place their feet. I used to play tennis and baseball, and in those sports coaches always told me to “keep my eye on the ball”. The same basic principle applies to bouldering footwork: keep your eyes on your feet when moving them. Many people look down to identify a foothold and then begin moving their foot to it. However, once their foot is close to the hold, they look away. Having excellent vision means watching the foothold the entire time you are moving your foot towards it, and not taking your eyes off the hold until your foot has successfully been placed on it. Developing this sort of vision will save you from many preventable slips and unnecessarily long stalls.
  2. Be EXACT. You should be able to place your foot exactly where it needs to go on the first try. Precision is another important way to reduce stall or hang time; imprecision wastes both time and energy. You should be able to control exactly where you put your feet, because sometimes the margin of error is too slim to be off-target.
  3. Shhh! Be SILENT! Your feet should make as little noise as possible when bouldering. Noise coming from your feet is an indication that you are not placing your feet precisely or with adequate control. Since sound is an indicator of how controlled you are with your foot placement, you should strive to have silent feet (AKA quiet feet) while bouldering.
  4. TRUST your feet. In bouldering, trusting your feet means believing they will not slip or fall of the wall when you put weight on them. Trust in those lower appendages will build over time, but you can help that trust develop by constantly pushing your comfort zone when it comes to footholds. This means placing weight on your feet even when you aren’t sure it will hold, and consistently trying footholds you didn’t think you could support your weight with.
  5. Have STICKY feet. Also called “glue feet”, to have sticky feet is to be able to place your foot on a hold and keep it there without readjusting. When your foot touches a hold, it should “stick” to the hold until you move your foot to another hold. Placing your foot on a hold and then picking it up again and putting it in another position wastes time and energy. It is an inefficient practice that drains your upper body strength — the very thing we’re trying to avoid by developing proper footwork!

There you are, the five keys to excellent bouldering footwork. Vision, Exactness, Silence, Trust, and Stickiness. If you take the first letter of each word, they form the acronym VESTS. In other words, when bouldering, don’t forget your VESTS! 🙂

Also, here are 10 drills you can use to improve your bouldering footwork.

Videos of Awesome Bouldering Footwork

Bouldering is such a visual sport that I couldn’t finish this post without including some video examples of awesome footwork. You could read all day about how to have proper footwork, and that’s helpful, but it’s also necessary that you observe the masters in action. You can do this either by watching videos or finding someone at your bouldering gym to watch and learn from. Here are a few things to look for when observing someone else’s footwork:

  • Which part of their foot touches the wall or rock
  • How they use their lower body to increase reach or take weight off their arms
  • Where their eyes are looking when they are moving their feet
  • How long they keep their eyes on their feet
  • How often they adjust their foot placement on a foothold

And now for the videos! Any high level climber will usually have spectacular footwork, but I’ve given you a few choice examples to mull over:

Are you a footwork ninja now or what??

Like any fundamental in any sport, mastery requires hours of dedicated practice. Focusing on your footwork will help you in improve all facets of bouldering (and other forms of climbing, as well). Boulderers often focus too much on their upper body strength without failing to consider how they’re using their feet. Since your legs are stronger than your arms, it pays off to spend time working on your footwork.

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About the Author:

Alex is the owner of 99Boulders and has been testing and reviewing outdoor gear since 2015. He was once an avid boulderer but has been sidelined indefinitely by a chronic wrist injury. To fill the gaping hole in his heart he's recently gotten into ultralight backpacking.