Tag Archives: climbing coaching

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


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.

Strength Training to Improve Your Climbing: Lifts I Love (5) – Cable One-Arm Triceps Extension

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo Photography.

Photo courtesy of Louis Arevalo Photography.

Are you shorter than the average climber?

Struggle with mantling?

Have difficulty taking holds down past your shoulders?

If you answered yes to one or all of the above, consider adding this exercise or something similar to your (complete!) sport-specific strength-training program.

I love this lift because it has helped me tremendously in situations where I can’t quite make the reach in my pull-up range of motion, meaning I can bring the hold in question down to shoulder level, but I am still short of reaching the next hold. Having an increased ability to turn the pull into a press can be all the difference in the world in making or not making a move.

And while it’s indisputably true that it’s nice to have more reach much of the time in climbing, being stronger in this “turnover area” from pulling to pressing can help mitigate shorter climbers’ reach issues in many circumstances. In other words, the shorter you are (and the harder you climb), the more likely it is that you will see results from this lift in your climbing.

Case in point – a few years ago, I was walking some other climbers through a bunch of strength exercises, this one included. My 6’4” friend was horrified to discover how relatively “weak” he was in this motion, but it made complete sense to me – he hadn’t really needed to develop this ability for where he was in his climbing at the time. In other words, being able to press holds out wasn’t really holding him back yet.

As anyone improves their climbing ability up to a higher level, this strength development will become more and more helpful, no matter how tall the climber. There will be times when pressing a hold down farther will be key, even if you’re tall. Since one of the big ways in which climbs get harder is that the holds get farther apart, it’s a useful sport-specific strength to develop, even if you are 6’4”.

But if you’re 5’0” (or even 5’6”, like me), you’ll probably find it much more useful much earlier in your climbing development, enabling you to surmount more and more “reachy” moves with greater ease than those climbers of a similar stature who chose not to work on putting some strength work into their triceps.

Learn how to do it here: Cable One Arm Tricep Extension. For climbers, I recommend doing this with your palm facing down (pronated). This replicates the movement used in climbing more accurately.

Move of the Month 14: Dynamic Movement and Momentum

Using dynamic movement to swing out to hit a hold on this steep boulder problem.

Using dynamic movement to swing out to hit a hold on this steep boulder problem.

I used to hate dynos.

I liked the feeling of static control in my climbing – letting go of the rock was not something that was fun for me, and I just didn’t get the delight some other climbers took in leaping for the next hold, feet flying.

Now, I’d say that I like dynos, though I’m certainly not very good at them and probably never will be. That is okay – the fact that I actually enjoy them suffices.

Learning to utilize dynamic movement and momentum to your advantage in climbing can help you make moves easier, even if dynoing or moving dynamically seems harder to you right now. Taking the time to try to train yourself in this area might make a huge difference in your climbing ability. Rather than try to pick your way through an energy-sapping, strength-draining sequence using a whole bunch of moves and holds that other climbers bypass, what if you could just do the bigger move and be done with it?

That realization exactly is what pushed me into working to improve my ability to move dynamically (hint: getting stronger throughout my whole body via strength training helped me here, too; a few years back I also actually just worked on jumping straight up in the air off one foot and both feet for a few months to get myself used to jumping again, since it wasn’t something I did much of anymore). The result is that now, I always try to make the “standard dynamic beta” work for me (in other words, what I see most climbers do for a certain move or sequence), rather than try desperately to find a way through without using dynamic movement/momentum.

One of the best ways to visualize how to use momentum in climbing is to picture how kids swing across monkey bars – each time they want to move a hand forward, they’ll swing the body backward to generate momentum, and then use this momentum to propel the leading hand forward to the next bar. In climbing, though the movements tend to be more complex, the general concept is the same. If you’re moving dynamically toward a hold, it’s often smartest and most efficient to swing your body weight down and away from the hold you’re wishing to get to, generating propulsion toward the hold as your body swings in the exact opposite direction from the hold you’re headed toward.

Even more complex for many of us to learn, but just as effective, is linking a series of movements together with momentum, instead of stopping each climbing move before starting the next. Think about how uncoordinated and jerky a gymnast’s floor routine or a prima ballerina’s solo performance would appear if she did not link the movements and use the momentum from each previous movement to help propel the next movement. Similarly in climbing, it’s often more efficient and less sapping to harness the momentum generated from the previous move to drive you into the next move, and the next move, and the next move – until you hit a resting point, or a place where you do need to stop and set up for a specific move that doesn’t benefit from being driven by momentum from previous moves.

For specific dynos, one of the biggest things that helped me and still helps me to this day is to remember to push with my feet (and obviously my legs) – to remind myself that my legs are the coiled springs of energy that are driving me to the next holds, leaping off of the take-off holds with enough force to get my hand or hands to the target hold. Taking the attention away from my upper body and learning to really use my legs to drive this movement may seem obvious, but consciously reminding myself to do this over and over again definitely assisted me in learning to dyno more effectively.

For linked momentum-type movements, I have found that learning to be more relaxed through my body and letting the swings carry me just as I did as a little girl on the monkey bars – channeling that same sense of fluid movement – helped me get more comfortable with being less static. Note that being less static doesn’t necessary mean less in control – you can be very controlled with dynos and momentum, both. They’re not necessarily sloppy climbing techniques at all, though they certainly can be if you don’t use them with precision.

The sooner you can embrace dynamic movement and momentum as options in your sport climbing and bouldering repertoire, the better. Developing a higher level of comfort with this type of movement opens up a world of awesome climbing and bouldering moves that will otherwise remain partially or even totally unavailable.