By Rachel Speer
Last time I wrote an article on skill drills, I talked about the benefits of dedicated practice. The foundation of skill practice should always be footwork.
The overly muscled boulder dude who crushes overhanging roof routes, but gets shut down hard by anything on the slab wall. The doubter tapping their foot countless times on the same foot chip, wondering if this time their foot will stick to the plastic. The brand new climber smearing against the wall completely missing the foothold they thought they were aiming for while they looked away for the next hand. All of them are missing the bedrock of all movement in climbing: good footwork.
Sloppy footwork is the bane of any climber’s career. Bad footwork can lead to injuries from overusing your arms and fingers because you don’t trust your feet. Learning solid footwork is essential to progressing through the grades. Novices and professionals alike benefit from practicing this skill. The best part of the recent Olympic games for me, with the addition of climbing, was watching those world class athletes warming up, doing some of these very footwork drills.
There are a vast multitude of options for training footwork. These skill drills that follow are some of my personal favorites, and I have seen the transformation of many athletes of varying skill levels as they practice deliberate care with their feet.
Smearing Pushes -
Smear against the wall with one foot while the other one is on a hold. Be sure to use both feet as equally as possible, pushing off the wall hard with the smearing foot. Switch whichever foot is smearing and which is on a hold with each move, if you can. Obviously this is easier on slabs or dihedrals, so I challenge you to move on to vertical walls once you have this movement dialed.
Silent Glue Feet -
This drill helps with accuracy. It forces you to slow down and place your feet accurately and solidly. Watch the foothold you plan to use. If you hear a noise as you place your foot, try again. As soon as you’ve placed your foot on that hold silently, it is frozen to it. You may not lift it up and try again for a more comfortable placement that feels more “solid”. Use it successfully or fall.
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Jibs Only -
If you never practice using the smallest, slopiest, least useable holds, you never get good at it. So, practice. Limit your foothold options to jibs, smears, empty bolt holes, etc. If you’re at a gym or on real rock, this is an easy one to do. If there is a worse option available, use it.
Weight Transfer -
Imagine a plank running between the soles of your feet. Center your hips over the platform for the best balance. Then shift your weight completely over each food, finding the optimal balance point before moving on. You should be able to slowly come to stand on one foot with the other one completely unweighted and be able to place it gently on your next choice of foothold. Repeat. Weight each foot absolutely completely before moving on.
Stutter Step -
For each hand movement you make, I want you to make three to four foot movements. This will significantly slow your upward progress, so be sure not to overgrip or you’ll drain your energy reserves quickly. As a bonus, this is a good drill do to while you’re working on endurance as well, just given how long you end up hanging on to the same holds while you’re shuffling your feet around. Also, don’t just tap those feet around at random, just wasting your time and getting fatigued. Rather, fully weight each foot and shift your center of gravity before moving on. If you have trouble grasping that concept, spend a few minutes on the Weight Transfer Drill before doing Stutter Step.
Tennis Ball Hands -
This one might get you some fun looks at the gym. On the plus side, though, if anyone says anything snarky, you have ready ammunition to lob at them. Hold tennis balls in your hands while you’re climbing. This limits how much you can use your hands and forces you to use your feet more effectively. If you don’t have tennis balls you can hold just about anything, or even ball up your hands to climb. Slab is where you want to live with this drill, so you don’t have to pull super hard anyway and your feet have a greater advantage.
Hang On Loosely -
A progression of Tennis Ball Hands, this sets the intention of using your hands less, rather than forcing it. With Hang On Loosely, you can more safely set yourself free on varying wall angles to practice, but you are still dependent on your feet. If you’re barely starting to fall off the handholds you’re using, you’re doing it right. Start this drill with big, nice, easy jugs. Progress to smaller holds as you get better and more confident. The goal of this drill is to make it second nature to weight your feet and climb with a loose grip, saving your precious and prone-to-fatigue-early forearm muscles.
No Hands -
Exactly what it sounds like. While you’re on a slab or a dihedral, attempt to climb using no handholds, though pushing against the walls is allowable. Avoid using holds with the hands unless you just can’t get around a particularly difficult spot… but challenge yourself to not give up and figure it out. This is also a fun drill to do when your hands are destroyed or you’re too pumped to use your arms anymore.
Combining drills like these is one of the best ways to break the monotony of time spent doing things like ARC training where you spend a considerable amount of time on the wall climbing in relatively easy terrain.
In general, though, like the Olympians warming up before competing, I find that the best time to work on these drills is while you’re warming up for your main climbing practice for the day. Getting your footwork in line to start with can make or break the rest of your session. Not only that, but the regular practice of a solid base of good foot contact with the rock makes it second nature, which is the entire point of the skill drill practice in the first place. Doing these on your warm up time ensures that you practice them several times a week, and they don’t take any extra time out of your day that you wouldn’t already be spending. Of course there are other footwork drills that you could be doing as well, these are just a few of my favorites.
Practice, dedicated practice, even if it makes you look ridiculous, is the best way to improve in a skill-based sport like climbing. Being strong means nothing if you can’t move well. Of course there’s a base level of strength required to do some things, I’m not arguing that. But how many 5.13 climbers do you know who can’t hang half as much on their harness on a 20mm edge as an overly muscled climber who struggles on 5.10? It's all about how you move, and how you practice, even on easy terrain…especially on easy terrain, where you can devote more brain power and focus to moving exceptionally well, to even further cement the best habits into your climbing.
ABOUT RACHEL SPEER
Rachel discovered rock climbing 15 years ago. She immediately fell in love with the sport and the way it pushed her both physically and mentally. Since that time, Rachel’s climbing career has taken her all over the country with experience in everything from multi-pitch trad climbing in Arizona – to the wondrous sport climbing at Shelf Road in Colorado – to endurance climbing in the annual 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell in Arkansas (24HHH). She is currently pursuing the NASM personal trainer and AMGA Single Pitch Instructor certifications.
After struggling early on with plateaus and overuse injuries early in her own climbing career, Rachel began researching solutions and discovered the many benefits of climbing specific training. An intensive regimen of self-study, research, and coursework on the subject allowed Rachel to begin rehabilitating her injuries and pushing past her plateaus. Seeing other climbers also struggling with similar issues, Rachel realized that she could help them too and this developed into a passion for assisting others with maintaining balance in the body while pushing ever higher for gains in strength and technique. Rachel put her passion into practice, opening a business in her local area to build training plans and offer coaching services to local athletes. In this position, she helped multiple clients of various ability levels to safely build strength and reach new heights in their climbing.
As Rachel’s coaching career developed, she realized that her passion for climbing training aligns directly with Climb Strong’s mission, energy, and approach for helping climbers improve performance while avoiding injury. Working now with Climb Strong as a coach Rachel is excited to continue pursuing her passion to help climbers progress through individualized training. Her favorite thing in the world is seeing people get stronger and crush their projects!