Move of the Month 10: Smearing (Improve Your Climbing)

Smearing with my right foot and maximizing surface area so that I can step through with my left.

Smearing with my right foot and maximizing surface area so that I can step through with my left.

If you can master the art of smearing in climbing, virtually any part of the rock can become a foothold for you. In other words, you are free from having to only use the obvious (or less obvious) bigger footholds that might be not in the right balance spot for you. This is not to say that smearing will work in every circumstance when the rock does not present you with an ideal foot placement – it won’t – but developing comfort with smears will liberate your footwork much in the same way that developing comfort with flagging/dropping a foot will (another move of the month topic coming up) will. Integrate these two techniques and develop a high level of comfort with them, and you will find yourself climbing with much more steadiness and ease.

So what is smearing? Smearing often involves using a part of the rock that is not really a hold – meaning not an edge or a pocket or a ledge or a sloper and so forth – as a foot placement. However, you can also actually smear with part of your foot on a rock feature — like a divet, pebble, dish, or sloper — for greater purchase rather than trying to only use the feature by itself. When you smear, you create friction between your shoe and the rock, most often trying to maximize surface area contact between shoe and rock without making for awkward movement, since the point of smearing is to make for easier movement, of course. Smearing involves having a sound sense of just how much pressure to deliver to the smear – too much, and your foot will likely pop off, too little, and you won’t get to where you’re going.

To start practicing smearing, I suggest finding or creating a traverse in a climbing or bouldering gym that is low to the ground with lots of big holds. Instead of using footholds, use just the wall for your feet as you traverse on the big holds back and forth. This exercise will help you develop a sense of how to position your feet and how much pressure to put into each smear to get you to the next hold while avoiding popping off.

As you develop more and more comfort with not using specified footholds – with smearing – you will likely find yourself starting to find better body positions on routes both indoors and outside. Instead of forcing yourself into awkward and contorted positions when faced with a dearth of footholds, you will feel greater comfort in simply using a portion of the rock as a foothold that enables you to be in a less strenuous and more balanced body position. Combine this with a high level of comfort in not having both feet on the rock all the time, and you will be well on your way to cultivating a greater sense of overall freedom and flow in your climbing.

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