Steep Wall Techniques


When climbing steep walls there is a greater demand upon our upper body so they immediately feel more tiring. Climbing a steep (overhanging wall) requires a change in technique to the way we climb slabs or vertical walls to combat this effect.

insert picture of square on climbing 

The question that a climber must ask is how to become as efficient as possible in doing so conserving their energy for as long as possible. The answer is surprisingly simply, and is often referred to as Twisting. When a climber twists on a steep wall, their hips and therefore their centre of mass (the heavy bit) moves closer to the wall and hence is supported in a larger part by their feet.


To Twist is quite a counter intuitive action at first as it requires us to rethink the way we move. An example would be climbing a ladder – you do not twist, or the stairs – you do not twist. Infact their are many examples in climbing were twisting would generally not be beneficial such as Slabs or vertical walls, and as these are the walls we invarably learn upon we develop a ‘Square on’ climbing style. Unfortunately once confronted with a steeper wall this hard wired instinct is no longer desirable.’Twisting’ requires a powerful decision to be made by the brain to essentially overwrite years of learnt behaviour. This is why it often feels awkward and clunky to begin with.


When ever we need to learn a new skill/overwrite some an older skill it is best to start in an environment were practice can be repeated and perfected. Our aim is complete practise of the new move to essentially rewrite our operating system so it becomes instinctive. This is achieved best if each practise is perfect and often requires some form of feedback from the coach to keep improving and stop boredom and hence bad practice from taking place.

Bad Practice = Bad climbing!

Some years ago I started using a symmetrical drill as a way of achieving quality practice with athletes and have found it to be the gold standard in learning a new skill, we shall talk about how the skill is developed further and then transferred in a latter post.

The Drill Board allows you to copy and repeat a simple Twisting movement pattern many times, it also allows a coach or observer and highlight areas that could be worked on to create a greater degree of efficiency.



Practice is a very powerful tool, when done well! Unfortunately the same is true when done bad, meaning it is possible to practice and suffer a worsening perfomance!

Practice works very well when the mind is actively engaged, by this I mean you are thinking about what you are doing. If you attempt a 100reps, at some point you will have developed a ‘patch’ or a ‘coping statergy’ which will allow ‘auto pilot’ to kick. This means that you are no longer be steering your ship, tell tale signs are a deterioration of form, accuracy. I often notice that if the athlete starts talking about another subject or is listening in to a nearby conversation they are likely to be in auto pilot and therefore not achieving perfect practice. In this scenario we are no longer reach our learning max as dramatically less messages are being sent from the receptors to the brain on how the movement feels etc. In this case we could be overlaying more varied and poor code into our brains on how to complete this move, making us less likely to perform the movement well.

This why Feedback from a Coach is vital! simply repeating the move without any consideration of how to improve or what perfect might look like can be detrimental to the aim of perfect practice. A good coach will give insights into the subtle variations that will help squeeze out every bit of efficiency possible. And in doing so will keep the vital information flowing between receptors and brain allowing for a stronger code to  take over from the previous undesirable habits.

In fact most studies done on practise lead to a conclusion that small, concentrated sessions spread over a longer period (ideally with some external feedback i.e a coach) reap huge rewards longterm, compared to massed practice (were the participant simply repeats the task endless with no/little rest between attempts). There are some exceptions to this but in my experience using the drill board as a teaching method, quality of practise is far more important than quantity.


Why Twist?

As I have already commented twisting allows for your centre of mass to be closer to the wall and therefore supported to a greater degree than if square on (not twisted). but it allows for many more useful things as well.


insert image of hips closer to wall in twist than square on

  1. It allows a climber to keep their arms straight for longer/all of the move. Which should obviously be a desirable trait. This can be achieved by moving in an arc towards the hold.
  2. It allows the climber to use momentum (when hand holds allow) and thus gain all the advantages of flow!
  3. It Allows the climber to generate moving via the larger leg muscles instead of our tiny in comparison arm and back muscles.

Ok so you have some idea of what you are about to embark upon, here is how to do it. First off we need to get you in the correct starting position, it is worth noting that I typically call this move ‘Outside edge’. This is due to several moves incorporating the twisting technique. The name ‘Outside edge’ also leads to the biggest clue on how to do the move. Instead of putting your left foot on a foot hold to your left, twist and use your outside edge of your right foot.


The set position

Next the climber will need to lower their body into the ‘set position’ with their centre of mass over the foot, and the arm as straight as possible. Notice form the picture how the other leg adopts a position to encorage stability. Some climbers refer to this as a flag, I do not as later we shall see this leg does much more than a typical flag.

From here it is important to understand the how the moment is generated. Essentially in its easiest form (when the hand holds allow) the drive comes from the stabilising leg. so step one is to sway your hips across to this leg so it is slightly compressed, from here it is possible to drive your hips across your standing leg (the one on the hold). This leg can now provide the upwards thrust creating a nice arc towards our target hold.


Drive comes from the leg – notice the arm acting as a lever, not pulling

As this moment is taking place notice how the climbers body twists keeping your centre of mass close to the wall. The twist is along the entire body so the coach/observer should be able to see the hips and shoulder 90degrees to wall at near ant at the finish of the movement.


Once completed the climber should be able to step the stabilising leg through to the next foothold and repeat the movement. I find the mantra ‘Step through, kick out, GO’ a useful phase to help maintain pace and flow.

insert video of outside edge.

This movement pattern is the go to technique for climbing the vast majority of steep terrain, of course life is not that simple and we variety is what makes everything interesting. It is important to add variety in slow and considered manner to allow the climber time to reflect on the subtle changes that are required to deal with the new environment.

Look out for Steep wall Techniques 2 for the next step.