Get a grip: rock climbing shoes and exercises for summer fun

If you love nothing better than hanging off a rock face by your fingertips, this article is for you!

In fact, the first thing you’ll probably say is that you don’t hang off your hands because modern climbing is not an upper body sport. It is all about your feet, and how you place them.

“The most basic tenet of climbing movement is to let the big muscles of the legs propel the body upward while using the small, weaker arm muscles for balance and positioning.”

John “Verm” Sherman, in his book “Better Bouldering”

The #1 rookie mistake is to place the middle of your foot onto a hold, like you would on a ladder. This will actually restrict the range of movement in your foot, and will often result in slipping . That’s why climbing shoes are constructed in a very specific way, to enable you to use your feet and toes to build your footwork skills.

Anatomy of a climbing shoe

One of the most important parts of climbing is that you are able to feel the holds beneath your toes. So modern climbing shoes are made from thin materials so they are sensitive, combined with extremely grippy soles to keep your foot where you put it. They are also incredibly light – a pair of Scarpa Booster shoes, from example, weight just 490grams a pair. (Yes, a pair.)

A modern climbing shoe is divided three main sections:

  • toe box
  • arch
  • heel

All three areas of a climbing shoe are used in climbing, but it’s the toe box area that is doing the work. As bouldering website 99 Boulders says:

“Your toe box should be the only part of the shoe that touches the wall since

1) it is the most precise and stable part of the shoe,

2) it enables you to pivot and adjust your feet easily,

3) it allows you to stand on your tip-toes.

Not using your toe box on footholds decreases your reach, limits your mobility, and increases your chances of slipping off.” (2)

Using your toe box

The toe box has three key areas:

  • front – using this is called frontstepping
  • inside edge – using this is called unstepping
  • outside edge using this is known as backstepping

That’s why climbing instructor Tom from Lattice Training calls it the powerpoint in your foot, as he explains in this video:

Curved climbing shoes

Finally, modern rock climbing and bouldering shoes are often curved, helping you plant your foothold using your big toe without the shoe constricting your natural foot flex. A shoe’s curvature (aka downturn or aggression) also enables you to pivot on the hold and shift your weight without slipping.

As climbing instructor Tess Bell explains:

“Approach each foothold like you would press an elevator button. As soon as you plant your toe, press into that foot and make your next move. Try not to readjust once you’ve planted. This skill will help you become far more efficient so that you can climb longer and feel better afterward.”

Rehabilitation from climbing injuries

At Hunt Footcare, we’re not just here to treat injuries! We can advise you on ways to keep your feet strong and healthy for climbing. If you do injure yourself, our sports injury rehabilitation team team can help you recover from a foot or leg injury. With our expert advice, treatment and physical therapy, you can recover and get back on the wall with confidence. See our sports injury rehabilitation page for more details.

Time to strengthen your feet

Throughout the year, we see patients who have injured themselves when climbing, either through poor footwork or tearing ligaments due to a slip or minor fall.

One of the ways to prevent this kind of slipping is to work on strengthening your feet, and in particular, building the strength in your big toe. This is the toe that does most of the work, so it pays to build strength and flexibility at every opportunity. Luckily, many exercises can be done as you go about daily tasks, even when sitting (or better, standing) at a desk.

Call us here at Hunt Footcare to make an appointment, and we’ll advise on the most suitable exercises for you and your particular feet. It’s always best to consult an expert podiatrist especially if you have had past climbing injuries or other issues with your feet.

To give you an idea of the types of feet strengthening exercise that can improve your climbing technique, check out this video. Physiotherapist Jessie takes you through four foot strengthening exercises that you can do anywhere anytime, although you might want to stand on a soft, non-slip mat. As Jessie says, start slowly and gently, with just a few repetitions, as these can be very tiring.

Hunt Footcare – here to help

Call us to make an appointment at one of our three local foot clinics in Ontario.

• Stratford foot clinic
Ingersoll footcare clinic
London footcare clinic

Published On: July 19, 2021