As a sport that focuses heavily on upper body strength, it’s easy to overlook the value of good footwork and technique when bouldering. Perfecting efficient technique and precise footwork can be the difference between a problem feeling beyond your limit and getting to the top.
This blog post covers some key bouldering techniques and skills that you can master to quickly improve your climbing:
Techniques to improve your footwork
Feet are incredibly important tools when it comes to bouldering but all too often, climbers will overwork their arms and neglect their lower body when trying to scale a bouldering problem. Mastering new bouldering techniques to help you use your whole body to climb will go a long way in helping you to improve your performance on the wall.
Some important and useful techniques to know for using your feet are edging, toe-hooking, heel hooking and smearing:
Edging is a method used when bouldering whereby you step on a hold with the edge of your climbing shoe rather than your whole foot. This ensures greater precision and means that you can more accurately pinpoint the best part of the hold to use to make the next move. You can use the inside edge of the shoe or you can use the outside edge, depending on which direction you want to head in and which part of the foot will offer more stability when weighted.
Toe-hooking is a technique that can be used to reach a hold or or stop your feet from cutting loose on overhanging terrain. A good toe-hook relies on creating opposing force between two points by hooking your toe behind a volume or hold. By using the top of the toes or the rubber on the upper side of the shoe, you can balance or pull in a direction with greater strength than using downwards force. Toe hooks are generally regarded as a more advanced climbing movement because of the precise body tension needed to achieve a stable one.
Smearing is a technique used in bouldering where a climber relies on the rubber of their climbing shoe ‘smearing’ against the rock or the wall to maintain contact. Smearing is especially useful in slab climbing, for navigating volumes or outdoors when footholds become scarce. Good smearing technique is a test of balance and trust. It’s good practice to keep your heel low to maximise contact with the wall and put plenty of pressure on the smeared hold to ensure it doesn’t slip. Smearing is a technically challenging skill, but it is extremely useful for maximising available contact with the wall, especially in competition style bouldering.
Back stepping is a useful climbing technique for controlling your centre of gravity as you climb. As opposed to a regular step, where you make a move with your feet and your hips square to the wall, a backstep engages a twist of the body to bring you closer to the wall. As such, backstepping is a brilliant technique for reachy problems as it helps to elongate the body.
As back stepping helps you to move your hips closer to the wall, it’s also a really useful tool for making use of rests mid-climb and moving more efficiently over steep terrain. Back stepping is especially effective when used in conjunction with a flag. See below.
Flagging is a method used by climbers to counterbalance their weight when climbing in off balance positions. To flag effectively, you use the limb you’re not using to push off to shift your weight and balance. Flagging is most advantageous when you’re faced with off balance moves as it helps to stabilize your center of gravity. It can also help you to extend your reach, or prevent a barn door.
The word mantle evolved from early mountaineers climbing over shelves of rock that resembled the mantle of a fireplace. Think of exiting a swimming pool, but on rock! The technique requires a rather specific rock-over movement, making use of flexible hips and shoulder strength to pull up and push down simultaneously. Mantelling is usually used when topping out a bouldering problem.
Instead of using pulling strength alone to get over the top of a bouldering problem, a mantel will help you to top out by pressing with your palms to turn a pulling motion into a pressing motion. Once you have the appropriate height, you can bring a high toe or heel to help you rockover and stand up straight.
These are just a few helpful bouldering techniques that will help you improve your bouldering performance. Further basic and intermediate climbing and bouldering moves and positions can be found in our 7 bouldering and climbing moves for beginners blog post.
Of course, the best way to master them is to get out and practice them in real life - enjoy sitting proudly on top of the rocks you’ve scaled!