Climbing Techniques – Learning The Movements & Grips

Climbing is all about movement the more fluid and relaxed you are, the easier you will find it. Like other sports, it calls for certain patterns of movement – called engrams – to be learnt and practised. Engrams also form the basis of dancing, athletics and the martial arts, for example. The common element is that of establishing patterns of movement, which the body refers to automatically. The following need to be combined:

Technique – the efficient use of energy by means of balance and body positioning, and by using only the necessary muscle groups for any one move or set of moves in a pattern.

The mind game – being relaxed and confident about your climbing, and recognizing and making the most of your talents.

Power and strength – qualities that can be developed with time and effort.

Foot Techniques

Most climbing movement stems from the feet and legs, not the hands (try going up a flight of stairs on your hands!). By keeping the weight over the feet as much as possible, the climber gains advantage. Leaning too far into the rock reduces the grip on the feet, and leaning too far out has the same effect. Even under overhangs, clever use of the feet can take load off the arms.

FrictionSlabs are best climbed by smearing - keeping the largest possible area in contact with the rock.
Front PointingThe toe can be used on tiny edges, or forced into minuscule pockets in the rock.
Heel HooksThis is a valuable way to take the weight off the arms.
EdgingSmall protrusions can be stood on by using both the inside and outside edges of the boot.
Toe HookThis technique is largely used to maintain the climber's balance, and seldom to move upward, although it can take weight off the climber's hands.
Knee-BarsThese are valuable for rests or when clipping gear.
FlaggingThis is used to help the climber balance rather than to contribute to upward movement.
Foot SwitchesThe same hold, used first by one foot, and then the other, allows you to change the direction of movement, or to move one foot further along when traversing.
Drop-KneeThis technique gives opposing forces on the climber's feet, making full use of tiny sideways protrusions.
Stemming (Bridging)This is another technique that allows climbers to rest or to get support for upward moves from minute holds, often in an open-book crack.

Hand Techniques

The hands are far more agile and mobile that the feet. The ability of our fingers to spread apart, to curl and to fold, to pinch and squeeze, gives rise to a vast variety of possible combinations – almost as diverse as the range of possible holds!

Pinch GripSome holds allow for this, which can be preferable to side-pulling or crimping.
The Open HandIt is more tendon-friendly, but often less positive. It is more useful on larger holds.
Side-PullsThis hold can be maximised by leaning the body sideways away from the grip.
UnderclingsOften neglected, this is a most useful way to move upward. It is best to get your feet high.
The CrimpHere the fingers are bent to take hold of a small edge. The grip is strengthened if you fold your thumb over some of the fingers, but this is hard on the tendons.


Hand and finger jams can be painful, but they are often the best or the only way to tackle rock with vertical or horizontal cracks. Hand jams can be divided into fist jams and palm or hand jams. To use the jamming technique successfully, you need to strike a delicate balance between too much effort – a waste of energy leading to crunched knuckles – and too little effort – leading to shredded skin and a fall as the jam comes adrift.

Palm Jams (Hand Jams)By cupping your palm as you insert your hand into a crack, you can exert greater force. Use your thumb where it works best, either inside or outside the fingers. You can insert the hand 'thumb up' or 'thumb down'. The thumb down position, which feels quite awkward, is the most secure.
Fist JamsA clenched fist, with the thumb either on the inside or outside, can give a solid grip in a crack of the right width. Being tentative about a jam only causes more pain - so position your first and squeeze like crazy to ensure a secure fit.
StackingStacking your fingers, or placing several fingers one above the other in a small pocket in a vertical crack, can also give a secure grip.
Finger Jams (Finger Locks)For this kind of jam, fingers - from just the fingertips of two fingers to the full extent of all the fingers - may be fitted into a crack, and twisted to tighten the fit, if necessary.

Taping Fingers and Hands

In order to succeed in hand and finger jams, without shredding the skin too much, many climbers tape up either the finger joints (finger jams) or the hand, particularly the back (hand jams). A non-elastic (surgical) tape is best for the task.

When taping the hands, it is vital to do a neat job. First dry the hands thoroughly, and ensure the tape adheres properly at each stage. Layer tape over the back of the hand, fold non-elastic tape sticky-side out between the fingers, and avoid taping the palm of the hand. An additional band around the wrist and lower hand may be necessary to ensure that the tape stays in place.

Some Combined Techniques

Although hand and foot techniques can be discussed separately for convenience and clarity, they are mostly used in conjunction to achieve the final result.

Lay-BacksHere the hands are side-pulling, and the feet are either pushing against one edge of the crack or usually flat or smearing on some other surface. Lay-back techniques are often used in corners or cracks. Avoid placing the feet too high in a crack, as this puts more strain onto the arms. Rather use a series of short foot and hand moves to gain height. Establishing a good rhythm is important, as it helps fluidity of movement and it saves energy. Lay-backing techniques can be very tiring, and once again, a good rhythm helps, if the crack allows it. Once in a lay-back, it is difficult to get out of it, so ensure that you have enough energy in reserve to get to the rest point you're aiming for!
Mantle ShelvesThis, as the name suggests, is a technique for getting up onto a small platform, you push up with an arm and shoulder, with your feet often 'tapping' up the wall little by little until one or both end up near your hands. Often there is no good hand-hold above the shelf - so careful attention to balance is vital!
Stemming (Bridging)This involves both hands and feet, and can be a useful rest technique as well as a climbing tool.
ChimneyingThere are numerous ways to chimney, the least strenuous being the classic chimney, where the feet give most of the upward movement.
Body Twists (Twistlocks)In this manoeuvre, turn the upper body so that the arm closest to the rock 'locks off' that is, gives the other (outer) arm maximum extension ability.

Movement, Rhythm & Rest

Climbers talk about the ‘flow’ -suddenly everything comes together, and your body just flows up the rock. There is no easy explanation for why this suddenly happens one day, and on another, you feel like a clumsy Godzilla. Frequently, climbers cannot actually remember details of a fluid climb – it ‘just happens’. One of the world’s most consistent climbers, Catherine Destivelle, states that one can train for this ‘flow’. She attributes her performance to striving for a rhythm -she imagines herself dancing up the rock, looking only to her pattern of steps. This visualization is undoubtedly an important part of climbing, the ability to free your mind from the cares of the world, the day, the climb, and focus only on the next few instants. it is easy to forget to rest, and, more importantly, to breathe properly.

Most climbing is aerobic, that is, it is done slowly enough for the energy we need to be generated by burning (metabolising) the food in our bodies in the presence of oxygen. Sometimes it passes into the anaerobic phase, when we burn energy too fast for our bodies to supply oxygen to the muscle fibres, and the stored food has to be burned via another process, which occurs without oxygen. This process is less efficient, and creates lactic acid as a waste product. This collects in the muscles, slowing them down (being ‘pumped’ is the normal climbers’ term for this) and eventually causing stiffness or a cramp. In tense climbing situations, climbers can virtually forget to breathe, hastening the advent of the anaerobic phase. Be aware of your breathing keep it deep, and regular.


Resting, too, is vital – it allows you to catch up on breathing, to ‘shake out’ your muscles (jacking up your blood supply, and removing wastes as well as providing new oxygen and food) and to examine the route ahead. It also allows you to chalk up your fingers or hands often essential on slippery or smooth rock, or just to dry those sweaty palms. Chalking up at just the right time can make all of the difference.

Rest on a straight arm if possible to reduce muscle tension. By making use of knee bars, stems (bridges), drop-knees, heel hooks, constant hand-swaps, or a combination of these, you can take the weight off your arms. Constantly be on the lookout for rests, however marginal they may be.

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