One of the biggest obstacles for beginning climbers to overcome is to learn to use their feet and legs for pushing their bodies up a rock face, rather than pulling with their hands, arms, and shoulders. How many times has a beginner heard the mantra "Use your feet!" from their mentor, but usually that novice climber doesn't know what that means. Climbing footwork is subtle, it's not something easily mastered, but with practice in an indoor gym and outside at your local cliff you can begin to master footwork and push your climbing to a higher level.
Push with Your Legs to Climb Higher
Most beginning climbers think about pulling themselves up with their arms when they are confronted with a difficult section. Just the other day I took a couple newbies climbing at Red Rock Canyon. As we hiked up the trail to the cliffs, the woman asked me, "Do I have to have a lot of upper body strength to do well climbing?" The answer was an emphatic "No!" But on the first route of the day, both climbers grabbed with their hands to pull upward, dragging their feet along behind as an afterthought.
Watch Your Feet Not Your Hands
The first thing you need to do is slow down. Take your time climbing. Most beginners get so hand-focused that the feet are forgotten. Experienced climbers always look down and find footholds before moving up on their arms. The more of your body's weight that you put on your legs, the less you have to strain your arms as you climb. Slow down, look around, and breathe.
Move Feet before Your Hands
The next time you're climbing, try to pay attention to your feet. If you have a handhold that is just out of reach, instead of trying to stand on your toes, try moving your feet up. Beginning climbers often get stretched out on the rock, almost lying against the face while trying to grab a high hold. Look for small footholds like edges and smears that are only 12 or so inches above your foot. Usually taking that short step will allow you to reach high to latch the jug.
Move from a Compact Position
Moving your feet before reaching with your hands also keeps your body in a compact position rather than being stretched out. In this compact posture you are able to keep your body weight centered over your feet and move from a power position.
Practice Your Foot Movements
Now, practice these foot movements at your local cliff or gym. Grab two handholds with your two hands and place your feet on edges. Next make two short steps, one with each foot, then reach to a higher handhold. Once you've mastered those short steps, practice making two foot movements with each foot before reaching a handhold. You will notice that stepping on higher footholds, even small holds, allows you to reach higher.
Learn to Use Different Kinds of Footholds
Okay, you're paying attention to your feet and you're reaching higher to better handholds. Next you need to work on how you use different footholds. One of the challenges of footwork as a beginning climber is learning how to stand on footholds, especially small ones; how to trust your feet on them; and how to move off the foothold without your foot slipping. Most beginners ignore small but good footholds, instead favoring big footholds, even if they are too high or off to the side of the line of ascent.
Footholds Come in Lots of Shapes and Sizes
Footholds come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and you use them in different ways. You smear your foot on smooth holds, letting the sticky rubber on the bottom of your rock shoes grip the rock surface. Other footholds are small edges that require decisions like "Should I use the outside edge, inside edge, or toe of my shoe to stand on that hold?"
First-Find a Foothold
The first thing is to find a foothold. As a beginner you need to learn to recognize a good foothold. Not all good footholds have to be big, they just have to work. Remember too that you are taking small steps, not big ones, so a small step is often an intermediate move between better footholds, it only needs to support you momentarily as you move up. Small steps take less power and energy than big high steps.
Decide how to Use a Foothold
Next, look at the foothold and decide how you might use it. Find its largest surface where you can get a maximum amount of shoe rubber. Look for bumps that could offer foot purchase. Smears often have ripples or irregularities in the rock surface that can grip. Also look for black rubber on the foothold from the rock shoes of previous climbers. Now place your foot on the best part of the hold and stand up.
Learn 3 Basic Foot Positions
Learn the three basic foot positions on footholds: smearing, edging, and toeing. Smearing is simply that-smearing or fractioning the smooth sole of your rock shoe on a smooth foothold. Friction between shoe and rock keeps you in place. When you edge, the edge or lip of your rock shoe grips the hold. You will use either the inside edge or the outside edge of your shoe on the hold. Most of the time you will use the inside edge. Toeing is when you use the toe of your shoe to stand on a hold or if you stick the toe into a pocket.
Practice Footwork in a Gym
Learn how to recognize and use footholds and then practice using the three foot positions. Practice using small footholds and figure out what works. If you're in a climbing gym, use big handholds and do bouldering traverses close to the ground. Put your feet on small holds, smear them on the gym wall, and use irregular parts of larger climbing holds for your feet. Experiment to see what holds work best and how much body weight your feet will support on tiny holds. Work at becoming comfortable on small footholds. Later you can take your new foothold awareness skills outside. You'll be surprised at how well you climb with better footwork.