Footwork Drills, by Simon Rawlinson

Ok, so the Winter Crucible started this weekend and we have set a whole new load of blocs and the chief job of our route setters this month was to test your footwork skills! My job is to give you a bit of guidance as to what you can do next time you come down to help improve your footwork.

Now even the seasoned pros amongst you should know by now, that no matter how good you think your footwork is you can still improve! My first set of drills are all about challenging yourself. They make you take on a task that is more challenging than what you do normally, with the idea that with a bit of perseverance you’ll end up with the footwork of a Euro wizard (I am referring to all those old timers you see in Europe warming up on your projects with ease and grace). But this isn’t just a one off, “do it for a month and expect miracles training regime”, your skills will need fine tuning at the beginning of each session and this is exactly the sort of thing you need to do to improve.

Why do we want good footwork?

Simple really – we don’t want our upper bodies to take a greater load than required.

Get the right shoes for the right job and make sure they fit!

Before we start you need to understand how important having the right shoe and its fit is, to your footwork. Your climbing shoe is actually one of the only pieces of equipment that will make a difference to how well you climb. Its fit and its design will play a huge role in how well you perform. There’s loads to cover when it comes to fitting shoes, too much to talk about now, but simple things like not having baggy shoes that will hinder your ability to stand on smaller foot holds is so important.  And knowing what shoe is right for your body shape; I consider myself a heavier climber at almost 13 stone. Compared to a 7 stone junior, I cannot get away with the 2mm of rubber you sometimes see on high performance shoes.  Rubber that is too thin can hinder your ability to stand on small edges causing your upper body to take a greater load than required, just the same as a baggy pair of shoes might.

On the other hand a softer shoe allows for better smearing. All these options and considerations mean you need to try a few different styles out and find what works for you not just what the latest trend is. A really simple top tip is to go along to boot demos and actually try out different models. Just but bear in mind that you may be trying on a shoe that’s been battered by the general public! This leads into another point of consideration. How worn are your shoes? If you climb in stiff shoes once the mid sole breaks down the performance will be much the same as a soft shoe – time to replace them! The list of considerations goes on……

Know the parts of your feet

A lot of climbers in the early days used just about any part of their foot on a hold. These days modern shoes have gone through rigorous design and testing to increase performance through the toes, so let’s start by using the main areas that the shoe was designed for!

Your climbing shoe has two edges;

  1. The inside edge which runs alongside your big toe and is typically used in front on climbing found on slabs and vertical walls as well as the fierce type of front on climbing found on steep walls.
  2. Your outside edge runs along from your middle big toe to your little toe and is critical for lay backing or climbing steep walls via a twisting technique.

I will point out at this point your shoe can be used in many ways and actually some of the best blocs require you to consider breaking the rules and using all sorts of wackiness, from heel hooks to toe hooks – but they’re for another day.

Climbing shoe map

Climbing shoe map

Now you’ve got a bit of knowledge, what do you need to do next time you’re at Boulders?

Next time you come in, do you;

  1. Go and chat for 10mins to all your buddies, drink tea then start attempting to crush stuff, or…
  2. Warm up properly i.e. cardio-mobility-progressive climbing, or…
  3. (A little bit of 1, before doing 2 and allowing the crushing to commence?)

If you care about improving your performance today and in the long term, the answer needs to be 2 (or 3!).

Let’s say you believe me, you’ve decided to take the plunge and give this a go. This chart gives you a framework to your session. If you start incorporating this into your sessions on a regular basis it will filter through into your climbing and the next time you’re faced with a small foothold you will hopefully have better tools to deal with it more smoothly and efficiently.

Activity Timing Points
Cardio warm up 5-10mins Skipping or light jog.
Mobility 5mins Aim to improve range of movement.
Traversing 10mins Concentrate on accuracy and precision of foot placements. Increase the difficulty as you improve. See notes below for some pointers.
Foot swaps 5mins Test yourself in various foot swaps in a variety of terrains. Increase the difficulty as you improve. See below for some suggestions.
Easy blocs/circuit board Progressive into your session Maintain focus on good form whilst the climbing is not taxing. Use blocs you are familiar with to allow you to be at ease and concentrate on this new concept.
Attempt comp blocs 1-2hrs Try the blocs in a logical order and give them 100%. Falling due to a missed foot hold is a no, no!


The aim here is to place your desired part of your foot on a target hold with precision – first time. Ideally, once you’ve placed your foot, it will not need to move from this position until the climbing move is complete.

Start off by putting your climbing shoes on! So many people warm up in their trainers and miss out on an opportunity to hone and improve their skills. Now for a few laps, just go with the flow. You are still warming up so you will miss a few holds and you’ll nail a few. Just remember we’re just getting into the right mental zone so don’t be harsh on yourself.

Once you feel ready. Start by slowing down and maintaining your focus all the way across the traverse wall, use larger foot holds and simply aim to get your inside edge to land on the desired hold first time every time in exactly the right place; don’t worry too much about the size of the handholds. Once you’ve got this, simply test yourself on smaller and smaller footholds. Still going well? Try speeding up or moving to a steeper wall or use higher and lower footholds and basically mix it up. If you keep increasing the challenge and consistently doing this as part of your warm up, over time you will keep improving.

Foot swaps

Time to practice some foot swaps. Try drilling each of these foot swaps as part of a continuation to an extended warm up. As you get better increase the difficulty as you did on the traverse wall.

  1. The hop. The Basic foot swap that most climbers use as their default setting by simply hopping from one foot to another, this can be quick and efficient with practise. Or an absolute disaster if you miss. Consider how big the hold is, do you need to swap or could you match? Consider which way the 2nd foot needs to be positioned so it’s ready for the next move and so that it won’t require extra adjustment after the placement.
  2. The switch. By rolling one foot off the hold as you roll the other foot on it is possible to swap feet with out the risk of the hop. This does require practice and a huge amount of attention to detail throughout the move.
  3. The tablecloth. Essentially stand on your foot and whip the lower foot out! A slightly risky variation of the switch, but nice and fast which can be useful in dynamic or fast paced sequences.
  4. Matching. Big holds allow room for both feet, consider using a single hold as two independent holds to eliminate the swap. Consider where you are going next so your 2nd foot placement is already in the go position and requires no additional movement. Some holds have multiple areas that can be used as foot holds. This again allows the swap to be eliminated but consider which part you use first, if one area is above the other and you use the top first is it harder to place your second foot ‘blind’ underneath!
  5. The smear. Often overlooked by indoor climbers is the ability to use what isn’t there. Outside we do this all the time instead of hopping we walk our feet around the hold by using other small irregularities in the rock – indoors we can simply smear our feet above the hold replacing the desired foot back on the original foot hold. This works great on slabs or volumes and even on vertical walls when the handholds are relatively positive.

Easy blocs/circuit board

Your fingers should be feeling pretty warm by now and you’ll feel yourself moving more freely. The next part of your extended warm up will take you off the traverse and into areas that you should be familiar and comfortable with. For many of us that could be onto one of the easier circuits. The important thing is that you do not climb anywhere near your limit, it’s vital that you continue to concentrate on perfection of form, not physically pushing yourselves. Now instead of swinging around on big holds, build up the layers that contribute to climbing at your best, in this case your footwork.  Start with accurate and deliberate foot placements in what should be familiar territory,  but by linking sequences and good movement patterns. If the terrain is steep techniques such as twisting and drop knees should become your focus, if you’re on the vertical wall concentrate on weight transfer techniques such as rock overs.

All of this should be done on easy routes or blocs, the territory should be familiar to you at this stage. Try some routes or blocs you have done before but do them better and strive for footwork perfection!

Attempting the comp blocs with perfect footwork

When you’re totally warm and your mind is focused in a good footwork Zen-like state of mind, it’s time to attempt new problems at your maximum.

You will only ever get one go at flashing a bloc (doing it first time with no practice), which is why it scores the most points and is held in the highest regard by climbers the world over as the best style of ascent (I am aware of on-sighting before you email in, let’s keep it simple here!). With this in mind give it your best, 100%. Anything less will result in a fail on harder terrain. Personally I don’t mind failing. Actually I am aware that if I am not failing its unlikely I am trying hard enough, but it’s what I am failing at, that matters. We want our footwork to improve so let’s get every placement perfect, every foot swap should be deliberate and executed with all our concentration. Falling because I couldn’t hold on is very different to falling because I missed a foothold, both need rectifying, but in different ways. In this instance, concentrate on the feet and don’t let your footwork be the reason you fail.

Almost every climber I have ever met could get better at simply applying a greater degree of focus to their footwork – give this a try and keep going with it, you will be surprised at the results.

If you’ve got any questions about the article or about footwork please ask away below.

If you like what you’ve read here and think you might benefit from some 121 coaching, you can sign up for some lessons with me at Boulders.

Next month we’re looking at opposing forces. That means volumes and lots of them!