Move of the Month 12: Using Your Legs in Sport Climbing and Bouldering

Getting ready to move dynamically, sinking down and away so that my legs are bent and ready to push up off of the holds explosively.

Getting ready to move dynamically, sinking down and away so that my legs are bent and ready to push up off of the holds explosively.

It’s actually rather easy to forget about your feet and legs entirely when you’re rock climbing – especially once you’ve placed a foot on a foothold and you’re focused on getting to the next handhold. I’ve discussed a number of different aspects of footwork in previous articles – Eyes on Your Feet, Backstepping, Smearing, High Stepping, and Flagging, to mention a few. And you know about straight-arming both climbing moves and climbing rests already, too.

But what about your legs? What should they be doing most of the time while you climb?

Legs are often neglected and virtually shunned by rock climbers as having much, if anything, to do with assisting in climbing prowess (though if you’re into slab climbing, this is more obviously not true and you know it!). And it’s a reality that some mutant-strength sport climbers and boulderers can get along at a pretty high level by virtually letting their legs (and feet) flop along behind them like two somewhat useless deadweights as they monkey-muscle their way up the rock.

And yet, even in the twiggiest of legs lies a repository of muscle strength that can be harnessed to the climber’s advantage in most climbing movements, aiding in more efficient and effective progress.

In fact, one of the observations I often make when watching others climb – especially newer climbers – is a lack of full engagement of leg potential. The climber will place their feet, and then attempt to pull themselves with their arms toward the next hold, rather than starting this movement by pushing or pressing up from their feet through their legs.

This becomes even more of an issue when a climber attempts to integrate dynamic movement, whether we’re talking momentum or full dynos or deadpoints – neglect engaging the legs (and the core), and your chances of routine success in executing these types of movements becomes far smaller.

The classic illustration for this is exactly how I used to attempt to dyno, pulling myself up as close as possible to the desired hold – consequently straightening my legs most or all of the way in the process – and then flinging a hand hopelessly at it while my body collapsed away from the wall.

Yes, if you’re deadpointing, you may indeed pull up and lock off like this, and then pop for the next hold – but you will mostly likely be engaging your legs and your core actively to help hold you in position when you fire for it.

And if you’re actually dynoing (jumping so that both feet leave the wall in order to allow you to catch the next hold), you’ll find that driving with your legs explosively is almost always imperative, and that “coiling the springs” is generally more effective than trying to pogo hop off of two straightened legs and bent arms.

I’ll discuss dynos in depth more in another Move of the Month – for this article, it’s enough to simply note that stronger, more powerful legs can be helpful here (note I’m not saying huge, bodybuilder legs!).

Sticking the hold, my right foot toes in on the rock as I connect to help create body tension.

Sticking the hold, my right foot toes in on the rock as I connect to help create body tension.

Where else can leg muscles assist in climbing? In actively pulling yourself over onto footholds – not with your arms but with leg muscles, in heel hooks and toehooks (another article upcoming), in pressing out high steps, in helping to hold body tension (especially on steep rock), and in generally just alleviating some of the load on the upper body – which is desirable, as the upper body tends to be the culprit in some way, shape or form more often than not in sport climbing situations where fatigue leads to failure to execute.

Legs can get pumped climbing, too, for sure, but it’s much less common for a heinous leg pump to lead to falling off than it is for a heinous forearm pump leading to the same. Ditto for being unable to execute a powerful move – more often (but not always) it’s from something lacking in the upper body than the legs. By shuttling as much of the effort as you can into your legs when you climb, you’ll be able to maximize precious and generally more limited upper-body muscle performance.

If you know or suspect that your legs are not up to par in terms of strength for climbing, deadlifts (discussed in the last Lifts I Love article) are a great exercise to explore – not only will they help strengthen your legs but also, they will help strengthen your core for improved body tension overall. Other climbing-relevant leg strengthening exercises include calf raises and hamstrings curls.

In addition to strengthening legs, it’s key to work on integrating active and intelligent engagement of your legs in all of your climbing efforts. While you might have to start to do this by consciously engaging leg muscles, with training, this engagement will become more and more natural and not require your conscious attention.

Making these larger limbs work to your advantage as much as you can will help you keep your upper body muscles relatively fresh for as long as possible.

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