Looking to up your climbing technique? Knowing how to flag is a good place to start.
When you start climbing, you usually rely on pulling yourself up with your arms and not paying too much attention to what your feet are doing. But just pulling strength and brute force won’t help you climb harder.
So if you are wondering how to improve your climbing technique, and especially your balance, learning how to flag in climbing will definitely help you. Flagging is one of the most useful climbing techniques. It’s actually one of the first ones you will learn as a beginner, along with backstepping.
We will go over what flagging is and different ways to practice it, its advantages, and climbing tips. Finally, we will look at common mistakes climbers do when flagging and recommend some tutorial videos.
What is Flagging? Rear Flag vs. Side Flag vs. Reverse Inside Flag
Flagging is a technique mostly used when you have to rely on holds that are all on the same side of your body. It helps you maintain your balance and conserve energy. It’s ideal when you only have one foothold, since it involves utilizing the hanging leg to maintain your balance.
So imagine you have a foothold for your right leg, and you are reaching for a hand hold with your right hand.
If you don’t do anything with your left leg, your body will be brought out of balance as you are leaning to the right and may swing open to the left side. This is called a barn door.
Flagging is when you use that free leg as counterbalance by extending it to the side to transfer your center of gravity to the center. So, in this case, the left leg would extend to the left while the right arm extends to the right.
The side flag is used more often when you have the opposite foot and hand on the wall and extend your free leg to the side, without crossing your legs. In this case, usually, the hips also turn to the side, and one hip comes closer to the wall.
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The rear or outside flag is when you cross the free leg behind the leg that is on the wall. At the same time, you are reaching with the arm of the same side as the flagging leg. Crossing the leg behind is preferred when the foothold is higher up. The hips are still square, facing the wall, so this is the most challenging version of flagging since you can’t push as much on the non-flagging, or active foot.
The reverse inside flag is when the free leg crosses in front of the other leg. This is usually preferred if the foothold you are going for is lower down. It’s also more useful on overhangs when you want to keep your hips turned more to the side and bring one hip close to the wall.
In all the cases, the flagging leg has to be straight and extended at the right level to act as counterbalance.
In many cases, it helps if you think of the flagging leg acting as an extension of the reaching arm, drawing a straight line.
Why Flagging is Important in Climbing
As with any climbing technique that focuses on footwork, flagging helps to relieve weight from the arms and transfer it to the feet and stronger leg and abdominal muscles. Flagging does this by shifting your center of gravity towards the side of your body that is stable on the wall (the hand that is not reaching and the foot that is not flagging).
- Shifting your weight to align your center of gravity with the line coming up from your active foot will increase your balance and make that foot much more stable, less prone to slipping. It will also be able to support more weight, alleviating some from your arms.
- Conserving energy by using the feet more will increase your endurance and help you climb for longer without getting pumped. You also lose less energy because flagging enables you to climb more statically, reducing dynamic movements.
- Flagging is the only way to prevent barn door, as it offers counterbalance.
- The barn door happens when your contact with the wall is the hand and foot of the same side, and your body swings open to the side while you’re going for the next move.
- Flagging makes reaching to the side for a hold easier, minimizing energy expenditure.
- Maintaining balance while you climb is crucial for having stability while you reach for the next holds. If you don’t have balance, too much strain will be put on your arms to keep you on the wall, and you also run more risk of falling.
- On overhangs, and steeper climbs in general, flagging gives you stability as it helps you to stay closer to the wall and prevents you from swinging. However, in some cases, drop kneeing will help you pull your pelvis even closer to the wall.
- Flagging in lead climbing is extremely useful. You don’t want to fall out of balance while you are clipping, so you can use flagging to stabilize yourself before you clip.
Flagging vs. Backstepping
When the holds are not in the ideal position for you to use the outside edge of your foot to backstep, you are forced to swap your feet continuously. But by doing that, you spend too much energy, and sometimes the foothold is not secure enough for a swap.
Even though backstepping will, in many cases, make a move easier and more comfortable because the hips are closer to the wall, if you have to keep swapping your feet, it’s more efficient to use flagging instead. To flag, you can keep the inside edge of your shoe on the wall and extend the other leg to the side or cross it, touching the wall for stability.
So even though each separate move with the same holds might be easier to do with backstepping instead of flagging, flagging is overall more time-efficient and conserves energy, as it will not require any foot swapping.
How to Practice Flagging Effectively in Climbing
Some of the factors that will determine how and when you will flag are:
- Location and orientation of footholds and handholds
- What kind of holds they are, and how good they are
- Body position
- Where you want to go next
To practice flagging, firstly try it on routes you can already climb and are comfortable for you. That way, you will be able to explore the movement and get used to performing it.
Where to Practice Flagging
Flagging can be practiced both on vertical walls and on steeper routes. On vertical walls, it requires more balance and keeping your body tight, especially if the holds are smaller.
On overhangs or steeper routes, it’s a great technique to keep you closer to the wall, but you need to really engage your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and feet to make the most out of the technique.
However, keep in mind that whether you will use flagging, backstepping, or just execute the move with your hips facing the wall is situation dependent.
You may have two available footholds, and the angle of one foothold is such that it’s more comfortable to backstep. If you need to swap your feet two or three times, then it would be better to flag it so that you only make one move. If you are at a very steep overhang, maybe drop kneeing will work better to keep you close to the wall.
It really depends on what you are climbing, the wall angle, and the available holds, among other factors. So the best way to learn is to experiment, maybe on a system wall. Notice what works better in each case, as well as with your body.
Rear Flag and Reverse Inside Flag
Imagine you are at an overhang, both hands and left foot on the wall. You want to let go of the right hand to reach for the next hold. However, if you do that, your body is prone to swing open to the side, or you will have to spend more energy to stay stable.
As soon as you remove your right hand, you are hanging from your left hand and pushing with the left foot. Therefore, all your body weight is hanging towards the right.
In this case, the way to use flagging to maintain your balance and prevent swinging is to extend the free right leg towards the left side to act as a counterbalance.
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Now imagine you are holding with your right hand, and you have a foothold for your left foot. You are balancing while trying to reach a hold with your left hand. As you lean to the left, all the weight of your upper body is transferred to the left.
If you keep going, your body will come out of balance, and you will either fall or not manage to reach the hold.
So, in this case, if you side flag by extending your right leg to the right side, forming a straight diagonal line with the reaching left arm, it will keep you in balance and extend your arms reach.
Flagging Technique Tips for Rock Climbing Beginners and Intermediates
So after going over how to flag in climbing, let’s look at some more specific climbing tips on the flagging technique.
- When you extend the flagging leg, you can also push the wall (smear) with your flagging foot for more stability. However, this may not be available on overhangs.
- Sometimes, to get the ideal flagging position, you may need to swap your feet.
- You can practice extending your arm and the opposite leg while standing, to see at which point you find your balance. This is shown in Neil Gresham’s masterclass, linked in the next section on recommended tutorials.
- The more you push on the active foot (the non-flagging leg), the easier the move becomes, and you can reach further with your arm. To be able to push more, you need to be more stable and have found the ideal positioning of the body to achieve balance. The foot that is on the wall can push with its inside edge.
- The arms should remain straight during the movement. This can help for most of your body weight to be supported by your lats and legs and prolong your forearm endurance during the climb.
- You need to keep the flagging leg as straight and engaged as possible. Otherwise, it may bring you out of balance.
- Strengthening your hip flexors and ankles will help you be more engaged and stable while flagging. Flexibility is also important to be able to modify how you flag according to where you need to place your leg for it to act as an effective counterbalance. It also enables you to hold a flagging move for longer.
Common Flagging Mistakes
- Extending the wrong leg. If you are side flagging (leg extends to the side without crossing the other leg), the leg should extend towards the opposite side of where you are reaching with your arm. So if you are reaching to the right, your body will turn left, and the left leg will extend to the side. Then you will be able to reach to the right without your flagging leg obstructing the move.
- Not straightening and not engaging the flagging leg enough. If your flagging leg is bent or relaxed, you will not make the most out of the technique, and it may even bring you out of balance. Your smear should be active, the foot pressing down on the wall.
- Pulling with the arm and then pushing with the active (non-flagging) foot. These motions should happen simultaneously. If you first pull with the arm, you defeat the purpose of using the flagging technique as all the load goes to the arm rather than being supported by the feet.
- Not pulling your hips close to the wall. For the flagging technique to be effective, you need to engage your core and pelvis, and actually pull your hip close to the wall, bringing your center of gravity over your non-flagging foot. In this position, your arms can remain quite relaxed. If you don’t bring your hip in, and your pelvis hangs away from the wall, you will spend all your energy pulling with your arms to stay on the wall.
Helpful Flagging Tutorials on YouTube
Insightful as ever, Neil Gresham’s masterclass, explaining what flagging is, along with examples:
A short, basic introduction to flagging:
A great comparison of flagging to backstepping and front-facing climbing:
A short showcase of simple flagging movements:
Comparison of backstepping and flagging with great examples:
Wrapping Things Up: Final Things to Remember for Flagging to Climb Harder and Smarter
To climb harder, you need to work on your climbing technique. And the best way to do that is to improve your footwork by working on climbing techniques like flagging.
Practicing flagging is tied to understanding how to shift your center of gravity to your benefit, and it’s especially useful in overhangs.
The main advantages of flagging are:
- Prevents swinging
- Extends arm reach
- Improves balance
There are three types of flagging, in all of which the flagging leg needs to be extended:
- Side flag (leg to the side, without crossing)
- Rear flag (leg crosses behind the other leg)
- Reverse inside flag (leg crosses in front of the other leg)
For the flagging method to be effective, you should:
- Straighten and engage the flagging leg
- Smear with the flagging foot
- Push with the non-flagging foot as it supports most of your weight
- Keep your arms straight
- Find the correct body positioning to shift your center of gravity
Even if other climbing techniques make isolated moves more comfortable, overall, flagging is probably the most efficient climbing technique in terms of time and energy.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like our other climbing tips here.