Practice Climbing Footwork at Indoor Gyms

8 Indoor Tips to Improve Your Outside Footwork

Chris Sharma, one of the best climbers in the world, competes in the 1999 X-Games in San Francisco.
Practice your footwork in gyms and learn to climb like Chris Sharma. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

If you climb and train on indoor walls in your local climbing gym or home wall in your garage, then your footwork can suffer since it's usually easier to climb with your arms rather than use your feet when you're inside. Likewise, if you learn to climb indoors then you probably don't pay as much attention to your footwork then if you started outside on a real rock cliff.

Indoor Footholds are Usually Big

The climbing footholds on indoor gym walls are usually large, have predictable surfaces for your hands and feet, and tend to project unnaturally from the wall.

In contrast, when you climb outside, many footholds, unless they are a big jug, tend to be subtle. Novice climbers often have a difficult time locating and using footholds outside when they are learning to climb.

Practice Foot Awareness Indoors

The good news is, however, that climbing in the great indoors does not have to wreck and ruin your footwork. The key is to pay attention to your feet when climbing on indoor walls and practice foot-specific movements to create foothold and foot awareness. Many footwork exercises are actually easier to practice indoors on an artificial wall. Indoor gyms are also a great place to practice body positions and other techniques used for difficult outdoor climbing.

8 Inside Tips for Outside Footwork

Here are a 8 inside tips to improve your climbing footwork on indoor walls:

  1. Do traversing boulder problems that are low to the ground on your gym's walls. Traversing moves naturally force you to use your feet creatively. Practice long steps to the side and high steps on high nearby footholds. Look for two holds that are close together so you can practice stepping through with the opposite foot; remember that it's best to usually bring the foot across the other one on the inside next to the wall rather than outside. You can also avoid using big footholds on the traverse, relying instead on small edges, the outside parts of a large hold, and even smearing your foot on bumps on the wall's surface.
  1. Just say NO! to bolted-on footholds. If you are climbing toprope routes, avoid using the footholds, especially on easy routes. Instead paste and smear your feet on the wall. Look for bumps and indents where you can only get the slightest purchase with your rock shoes.
  2. Once you place your foot on a hold, don't move it. One of the biggest footwork mistakes that novice climbers make is that they constantly will move and readjust their foot, looking for the perfect foothold or edge. That perfect edge, however, doesn't exist. By placing your foot and not moving it, you are forced to focus on the foot and standing stead on it. Any movement or change in pressure of your foot on the hold can cause you to slip.
  1. Focus on the feet. As you climb, keep your focus on your feet. Look for meager footholds and use them. Experiment with how you place your foot and how you can move off of a foothold. Practice using each foothold the way that you first placed your foot on it. If your foot placement is awkward and you fall off-you've learned something about using your feet.
  2. Remember to look at your foot until it is placed on the hold. Don't look away for the next handhold. Before moving your foot, look at the next hold and choose the best part of the hold for your foot. Then place your foot and move onto it. Concentrate 100% on your feet and climb easy routes to start.
  3. Have your spotter hold your foot in place. Sometimes on a tough boulder problem in the gym that is at your limit, usually an overhanging one, it's hard to keep your feet steady and in place on a hold. Ask a friend or your spotter to hold your foot in place on the hold as you practice moving on it. The spotter needs to hold the foot in place, not take any of your weight. Figure out how to bend your ankles and knees, shift your hips, or use heel hooks and foot cams to keep your foot in place. Once you are sticking the move with a little help, try it on your own without a spotter.
  1. Learn how to switch feet on footholds. When you are climbing steep routes, you have to shift and change your body position to be able to reach handholds. Your footwork in these circumstances is crucial. Practice foot switches on big holds to start, either placing your feet side-by-side or stopping across to the opposite side of the foothold. Also practice replacing one foot with the other on small insecure footholds by making a little hop to replace one foot with the other. As you climb a gym route or do a bouldering traverse, switch feet every few moves. Practice your foot changes so they are done quickly and efficiently. Remember that when your rock shoe is in the new position, don't move it around.
  2. If you have a home gym, place specific holds on the wall and mark them for boulder problems. Choose tricky foot sequences that you have to practice. At your local indoor gym, ask the routesetter if he can mark specific footholds for problems and routes to keep in interesting and difficult. These can be tough to figure out but once you are back outside climbing, you will thank yourself for making hard footwork problems.