The Fundamentals of Movement

Chev takes us through the golden rule of climbing that you never knew you never knew...

By Chevaan Patience

As discussed in our Training for Climbing post, climbing is inherently a movement-based sport; as such, you should always focus on climbing well and developing skill and good technique above just getting strong. To do this, you need some basic understanding of climbing movement and specialised skills that will help you on your journey. The next step, as usual, would be to practice and train these skills. 

In climbing, we have four points of contact on the wall (two hands and two feet; this obviously changes for climbers who do not have four limbs). When making moves on the wall we lose some of these contact points momentarily. Understanding how our centre of gravity and balance points are affected in these movements will help us set up for and successfully perform moves without losing balance and falling off. There is a lot to be explored with this topic, but today we’ll be focusing on a key principle of successful climbing: the cross-body rule.

In simple terms, the cross-body rule involves using opposing points of contact on the wall. In other words, when making a move with one hand, your body weight should be distributed between the hand that is staying stationary and its opposite leg. Check out the video below for a visual demonstration:

For example, if you are reaching for the next hold with your right hand, your weight should be predominantly spread between your left hand and right foot. If you were to put your weight on your left hand and left leg ,you would swing out left (or barn door) as you reached for the hold. 

While simple, the cross-body rule almost always proves itself true, and it can make a real difference in your climbing performance. Here are four movement techniques, along with some visual demonstrations (click on the pictures to make them bigger), that you can use to apply the cross-body rule and get the send:

1. Flag 

A flag is a technique wherein a foot is not being used to stand on a specific hold, but is rather pressed against the wall to help shift the centre of mass into the correct spot when making a move. This is a key part of the basic cross-body position, and is employed by the foot that is not bearing the majority of your weight, i.e. the free foot. There are three types of flags:

Side flag : free leg out to the side 

Rear flag : free leg crosses behind weight-bearing leg

Reverse inside flag: free leg crosses in front of the weight-bearing leg

Side flag
Rear flag

2. Heel Hook

Heel hooking is generally used for footholds that are too high to simply toe down on. The back of the heel is used with the foot in a plantar flexed position (toes pointed) to engage the hamstring, generating enough force to pull into and hold the foot there. It is also used to pull a climber towards a distant hold where a toe down might just slip off. Heel hooks are especially useful for steep climbing as they allow a climber to ‘hook’ onto the wall. When practising heel hooks, make sure to properly engage the muscles rather than simply placing the foot on the hold.

3. Toe Hook

The toe hook, widely regarded as my favourite climbing technique, is used in a similar manner to a heel hook in that it can be employed when a foothold is in a position or orientation that makes it unusable for a toe-down. The top of the foot is used to hold a foothold as the toe is strongly dorsiflexed (drawing the toes towards the shin). Toe hooks are also used when a climber needs to use their leg to pull them in a direction which might be unnatural. 

Heel hook
High heel hook
Toe hook

4. Kneebar 

A kneebar is often used to hold a position or to rest. The knee is placed under a ledge-type hold and the toe is plantar flexed powerfully to press the top of the thigh into the hold hard enough to take considerable weight off the hands. If the hold is not big enough for the full knee to fit underneath it comfortably, it’s referred to as a knee scum. Sometimes a knee pad (a piece of thick and durable fabric) can be used to reduce pain on the skin. If the foothold and ledge are big enough, the knee bar can be solid enough to fully release the hands from the wall and offer a proper rest mid-climb (this is one of Adam Ondra’s favourite tricks).

Knee scum (have fun scraping your knee skin off)

Once you’ve thoroughly schooled yourself on the above principle and techniques (Google is your best friend), start putting them into practice! Expand your skillset and refine your execution so that when a climb throws its many obstacles at you, you’re prepared to take them down. 

Happy sending!

Check out some more advanced techniques in this article from mountain veteran Alun Richardson.