Knowing how to backstep is crucial when you’re progressing your technique from beginner climber to intermediate or advanced levels.
When you started climbing, especially if you didn’t have someone to teach you, you probably always faced the wall, with bent knees and arms, and tried to climb the wall as you would a ladder. Using just brute force would then result in pumped arms and exhaustion after only a couple of moves.
If you are wondering how to improve your climbing technique, one of the first climbing techniques you should look at is backstepping. It will make your climbing more efficient and help you conserve energy.
We will look at what backstepping is, what its advantages are, and we will also share some climbing tips to help you practice backstepping efficiently to improve your overall climbing technique.
What is Backstepping?
Backstepping is essentially a footwork technique, but of course, it involves and affects the whole body.
If you were not to use any climbing techniques, you would probably have a frontal body position, and always step with the inside edge of your foot. In backstepping, rather than stepping with the big toe first, you step with the outside edge of your foot, so the pinky toe goes first.
Stepping with the external edge of the shoe causes the pelvis to turn to the side, and the knee of the same leg to drop slightly.
So instead of having squared hips, facing the wall, your hips end up facing to the side, with one hip closer to the wall than the other. Your knees and toes are also roughly facing the same side. The exact direction they are pointing towards depends on where the hand hold you are reaching for is located.
Read on for more details on the mechanics of backstepping.
Why Backstepping is Important in Climbing
Your initial instinct when you first started climbing was probably stepping with the inside edge of your shoe and pulling yourself up with your arms, all the way to the end of the route.
Backstepping is one of the first techniques you learn when you start climbing. If you have been to the climbing gym with an experienced climber, they probably told you to step more with the outside edge of your shoe instead and use your feet more.
As the wall surface becomes steeper, it’s more difficult to keep more weight on our legs and feet, and we rely on the weaker muscles of the arms to pull ourselves, so they become tired faster.
- Backstepping helps us keep our center of gravity close to the wall, an essential point in making our climbing technique more efficient, especially in overhangs. Drawing the body into the wall helps to transfer weight from the hands and arms to the footholds and legs.
- The position of the body resulting from backstepping supports us in using stronger muscles of the body than the arms, like the lats (latissimus dorsi), abs, and hamstrings. That is partly because it compels us to keep the arms straight.
- When backstepping, we need less strength and hip flexibility to stay close to the wall than when we have a frontal body position. When our hips are squared, we also need more flexibility to reach the next footholds and lift our body upwards.
- When in a backstepping position, our hips end up higher, and we can reach further with our arm so that we can go for the next hand hold with more control.
Another reason we can reach higher is that the backstepping foot is directly below us, and the knee is rotated inwards, so we can push on the foot more to elate our body upwards.
- In overhangs and in longer reaching moves, where you want to drive directly upwards with some momentum, backstepping will keep you from swinging away from the wall.
In general, backstepping can help us conserve a lot of energy, and at times it can determine if we can perform a certain move and finish a route.
How to Practice Your Backstep
Let’s look at a simple scenario where your next move is to reach a hand hold with your right hand. To backstep, place the outside edge of your right foot at a hold below or at the back of your body and turn the right hip towards the wall. Then push with the backstepping (right) foot and reach with the right arm.
If you are backstepping again from that position, similarly, you will step with the outside of your left foot, turn the outside of your left hip towards the wall and reach up with your left arm.
Good positioning of the feet is crucial for this move. Because the backstepping foot is right underneath you, you can get so much push from it that will drive you to reach higher with your arm, while using minimal strength.
The other foot is usually stepping with the big toe, with the internal side of the shoe. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to be stepping on a hold. It can also be extended to the opposite side of the reaching arm for counterbalance, just touching the wall.
Don’t go directly on a very steep overhang to start practicing backstepping. Start from a wall that is just past vertical, and then go progressively to steeper surfaces as you begin to feel more comfortable with the movement.
It’s useful to analyze how you performed the movement in routes within your ability and find ways to improve it before you try it out in more challenging routes.
A good place to backstep is on side pulls. Because of the orientation of a side pull, it can feel more natural to the body to face sideways and pull against the hold with the whole body and a straight arm.
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It’s also helpful to backstep when going for a pinch hold. That is because you are only grabbing the pinch with your thumb and fingers on either side of the hold.
Ideally, you want to minimize the weight being pulled by your hand holding the pinch. If you are at a frontal body position, your arms hold more weight, and you will get tired faster or even lose your grip. If, however you bring one hip close to the wall in a backstepping position, it’s easier to keep hold of the pinch as your feet support more weight, and less muscle engagement is required of your arms.
For similar reasons, it can also be applied when crimping, increasing your efficiency and endurance that are crucial when dealing with small holds, especially in longer routes.
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It’s easy to practice backstepping both when bouldering and sport climbing, especially indoors. But if you want to focus on nailing this technique, just stick to the bouldering area, find a route with side pulls, and experiment. Many of the easier problems have holds placed in a way that it’s convenient to apply backstepping on them.
Backstep Technique Tips for Rock Climbing Beginners and Intermediates
So let’s look at some more specific climbing tips on the backstepping technique.
- Backstepping is more useful in overhangs rather than vertical walls and slabs. If you try backstepping on a slab, you’ll notice that your hip and thigh that is closer to the wall is actually pushing your body away from the wall, making it more challenging to place your weight on your feet.
- Keep your arms straight during the movement. This can help for most of your body weight to be supported by your lats and prolong your forearm endurance during the climb.
- Press down with the foot that backsteps so that you don’t need to pull too much with your hands. The backstepping foot should not be placed too far from your body line because you won’t be able to push as much on it.
- The torso, core muscles, and lats need to be significantly strong to support the backstepping technique effectively.
- Make sure your shoes fit you well. If they are too big or if there is dead space, stepping with the outside edge will not be stable.
Common Backstepping Mistakes
We mentioned when it’s appropriate to use backstepping. Still, the best way is to practice and see for yourself in which situations it works best, and just get used to controlling your body weight and pushing yourself upwards while paying more attention to your footwork.
There are some mistakes you may fall prey to that can make the backstepping approach less effective and even affect your safety:
1. Not paying attention to how you are placing your foot on the rock. You should always look down at the foot you are stepping with, make sure you know where you positioned it and only then move on.
So in backstepping, If you place the outside edge of your shoe properly, you will have more stability and control. Then it will be easier for you to push on that foot to reach for the next hand hold, no matter if you are going for a dynamic or static movement.
Seeing where exactly you have stepped also sets your mind at ease and gives you more confidence.
2. Backstepping in lead climbing can give you some trouble if you are not careful. If, as you backstep, the rope ends up behind your leg and you fall while you are above your protection, the rope may get caught in your leg and flip your body upside down.
You should always take care to have the rope between your body and the rock, hanging directly from your harness to your most recent clip, and keep your legs out of the way.
3. Not planning your moves at all. Backstepping is very useful in many situations, but if you get into a backstepping position without having any idea what hand hold you are going for next, the move will probably be wasted, or you will end up in an uncomfortable position.
When you don’t read the route at all and just start climbing tends to make your feet indecisive, moving them around too much, thus wasting energy and tiring your muscles.
So try to spot any opportunities for backstepping in your next couple of moves while you’re taking a rest. If you are bouldering, especially indoors, it’s quite straightforward to spot where you can try out backstepping moves, so try to read your route.
You can decide, for example, which foothold you are going to step on with the outside edge of your foot, and which hand hold you are going to be reaching for.
And remember that backstepping works best in overhangs, but in general, where you will place your hips will depend on the climb and your body. In some slab problems, you will be pushed away from the wall if it’s not an appropriate place to backstep.
Helpful Backstepping Tutorials on YouTube
You will get a clearer picture of what we talked about if you see backstepping in action in different examples, as well as when it’s useful to apply it. You will then feel more comfortable trying it out on your own. So check out some of the following tutorials for more on how to backstep.
The following video is a really good introduction to the backstepping technique. It explains what it is, how it can make your climbing more efficient and gives specific examples.
Neil Greshams’ masterclass on outside edge stepping:
A simple and clear demonstration on how to backstep and work on your technique if you are a beginner:
A great explanation of when to use the outside and when the inside edge of your shoe:
A very brief explanation of what backstepping is, at the beginning of this video:
Wrapping Things Up: Final Things to Remember for Backstepping to Climb Harder and Smarter
You must have realized by now that if you want to climb harder, you have to improve your climbing technique and not just rely on strength. And we have justified backstepping as an essential technique to do just that.
To wrap things up, here are some of the most important things we talked about concerning the backstepping technique:
- Backstepping is crucial when climbing overhangs or going for bigger moves. It’s also useful when reaching for side pulls and pinches
- By turning the hips to the side, your body stays closer to the wall, preventing you from swinging
- More body weight is supported by the stronger leg muscles and lats rather than the arms
- Backstepping makes it easier to push yourself upwards and elongates your reach
- Keep your arms straight to gain momentum
- The backstepping approach is overall probably the most energy-efficient climbing technique
- Keep your eyes on your backstepping foot while you step, to ensure its proper placement and stability
- Route reading is important in being decisive and avoiding too much moving around of the feet and wasting energy
To become a better climber and climb harder routes, you don’t necessarily need to become stronger. You need to learn how to make the most out of your current levels of strength and endurance by climbing in a smart and controlled style.
No matter if you are a beginner or intermediate climber, backstepping is definitely a technique you need to master to up your climbing game.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like our other climbing tips here.
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