Move of the Month 15: The Heel Hook (Improve Your Climbing!)

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I used to not use heel hooks much beyond just setting my heel on a hold to take some weight off of my arms and hands.

The more steep rock I’ve climbed, the more this has changed.

Using heel hooks to rest is an awesome technique, for sure. It can provide your upper body with a much-needed respite. To do this, you simply place your heel on a hold when you’re resting and shaking out your arms and hands. If it alleviates the strain on your upper body more, it’s probably a good choice for resting. This is usually a fairly passive heel hook, meaning your leg muscles won’t be working hard in the heel hook. Of course, there has to be a solid hold available to heel hook to make this work for you!

There are times when a resting heel hook will be extremely stressful on your leg(s), though. This can happen if you’re wrapping a heel around a corner and digging into the rock (compressing) with that heel to get weight off your hands and arms and upper body. It can also happen more often on steep rock than vertical terrain – that the rest position is stressful on the legs, whether you’re heel hooking or not.

Using heel hooks to help advance your progress up the rock adds another dimension to this move – and it’s a great example of how having strong legs can help your climbing.

If you’re sitting and reading this, extend your leg out rest your heel on the floor. Now, press into that heel and notice how all the muscles on the back of your leg engage. Drag your heel along the floor toward you and feel the muscles you use to do this motion. Those are the muscles that you’ll engage to help leverage active heel hooks to your advantage, whether you’re actually pulling your way up higher on the rock with that leg motion, or holding the heel hook in one spot so that you can advance your hands up to higher holds.

I didn’t really get how to use my legs aggressively in heel hooks when I started my journey into the realm of steeper climbing. As I learned how to do this – how to really engage and pull with my legs – it has helped me enormously. I’ve concurrently worked to strengthen the muscles involved in this motion, not just to be better at it but also, to help me avoid injuring my leg muscles.

Climbers sometimes get hurt by trying to use active heel hooks and not having the leg strength for them. This can lead to hamstrings strains and tears, among other muscle issues. To help prevent this type of issue, strengthen the legs outside of climbing using movements that mimic this motion. Hamstrings curls are a great choice. You can start with Ball Leg Curls and switch to doing one leg at a time when two legs gets easy. As you advance, move into hamstrings curls. Note that deadlifts work hamstrings, too.

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