It’s very common for those new to climbing to approach each rock climb they attempt as if climbing up a ladder. This actually makes sense, as climbing a ladder or a tree is probably the closest thing most people have done to rock climbing before they actually start rock climbing. When you climb a ladder, you tend to stay square to the ladder, positioning your hips parallel to the rungs, and stepping up each foot in turn after reaching up to grasp the next rung with your hands, often with bent arms, gripping the rung with your fingers.
When rock climbing, this ladder-like approach can be extremely limiting and draining, sapping your strength and endurance very quickly while also making holds that are well within your reach range seem much harder to get to than they actually are. Learning to keep your arms as straight as possible (both while resting and while climbing) is one part of the equation; I discussed the resting aspect of this in the previous Move of the Month entry, and I’ll elaborate on the straight-armed approach to making climbing movements in a future entry. But today’s focus is on the feet, and more specifically, integrating the backstep into your climbing footwork.
As covered in Move of the Month 1, your foot placements dictate the direction, efficiency and outcome of your climbing movement, making it imperative that you watch your feet connect with each intended foothold precisely, and that you start to develop an intuitive sense of foot placements, so you’re not restricted to trying to get your foot on the biggest hold possible, but rather, you’re looking for footholds that will enable you to advance on the climb with as little effort from your upper body as possible. This takes time and practice, of course – you’ll probably need lots of repetition and patient exploration of/experimentation with different options to develop an intuitive sense of efficient body positioning while climbing.
To expedite this learning process, the backstep is a technique that beginner climbers should start exploring and trying to integrate into their technical game as soon as they begin climbing. To perform a backstep, step on a climbing hold on the outer edge of your climbing shoe, the pinky toe side, as opposed to stepping on the inner edge (the big toe side). Sometimes when backstepping with one foot, the other foot will not be on a hold; you can often simply press it into the wall for extra balance or leverage as you rotate into the backstep. When you backstep, the hip of the backstepping foot often gets turned into the wall as well, taking you out of the straight-on, frontal positioning.
Backsteps of course won’t work for every climbing movement, but they tend to put the climber into a more straight-armed position AND to extend his or her reach, rendering holds that seemed out of range much more easily accessible with less effort. It can be confusing at first to coordinate this motion, so be patient with yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask other climbers to help you learn how and where to backstep – especially if you observe those other climbers backstepping a lot while they climb a particular route that you’re going to try. Watching others and then trying to replicate what they do is a fantastic way to speed up the development of technical skills like backstepping.
Unlearning ladder-style climbing once it’s engrained is more difficult than starting out climbing with the idea that you don’t need to be locked into facing the rock frontally for every climbing move. Even if it feels unnatural and confusing at first to try to backstep, don’t be afraid to experiment with this basic foot position, understanding that it will take time to sort out when it makes the most sense to use this type of foot placement versus standing on your inner (big toe) edge. Knowing when, where and how to backstep will add an element of efficiency to your technical climbing game, enabling you to climb harder routes without getting stronger just by allowing you to make more of the strength and endurance you possess right now.
This multipart series of articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!