Knowing how to heel hook can mean the difference between sending a V4+ and falling.
If you have been climbing for a while, or even if you have just started, you must have noticed that only using your arms and upper body when climbing will not take you very far. It’s unsustainable, it tires you out, and it doesn’t help you climb higher grades.
So if you are wondering how to improve your climbing technique, the answer is, by using climbing techniques that focus on footwork, like the heel hook technique. When you learn how to use the legs and arms in unison, you will be able to climb harder and more efficiently, and it will make climbing easier for you.
We will look specifically at the heel hooking technique, explain how to heel hook, and why it is so important. We will also give climbing tips on heel hooking and share common mistakes climbers do when using or learning this technique. Finally, we will recommend some tutorial videos on youtube.
What is Heel Hooking?
Heel hooking is a climbing technique where you place your heel on a hold that is higher up and that you can’t reach easily with your toes, and pull with your hamstrings and core to lift your body upwards. It relieves weight from the arms, and it can even allow you to rest.
You can also execute it by hooking the heel below the waist level, around wall corners, to increase your balance and stability.
Having heel hooking in your technique repertoire will give you more movement options when climbing and help you climb routes that seemed impossible before. It’s especially useful in overhangs where good footwork is crucial to avoid tiring out your arms and upper body, as it helps maintain endurance to complete a climb.
Why Heel Hooking is Important in Climbing
The heel is a part of the foot that beginners are usually unaware of its use. Even intermediate climbers may underuse it. But the heel hook technique is a technique incredibly useful not just in bouldering, but also in sport climbing.
Here are some of the reasons why heel hooking is an essential technique to master:
- The leg that is heel hooking acts like an extra arm to pull in with, but with stronger muscles. Being able to use the foot and leg to pull relieves weight from the arms and upper body. The heel hook can carry much more weight than regular stepping, as it offers more leverage.
- Fewer muscle groups have to be engaged to perform the move. Your hamstrings, muscles that are stronger than your arm muscles and calves, take most of the responsibility in delivering the movement.
- Using the heel hook offers stability to the whole body, and you can climb with more control. Because you climb more statically, your body is less prone to swinging away from the wall.
- You are conserving energy by avoiding unnecessary movements and using less strength from your upper body.
- The heel is closer to the center of the body than the toes. Therefore it’s easier to place the heel on a hold you are already holding with your hand.
- You will encounter routes, especially steeper ones, where for some moves heel hook will be the only technique that will help you move on and get you closer to the next handhold. Some footholds are only accessible by using a heel hook. We will look at specific examples later on.
- The heel hooking technique can also be used as a way to rest on the wall. By hooking your foot, it can be used as a third arm, pulling off the wall, so you can let go of one arm to rest or chalk up.
How to Practice Heel Hooking Effectively in Climbing
To become effective in using the heel hooking technique in climbing, you need to learn how to execute it, as well as when and where to use it. So let’s dive in!
When to Use the Heel Hooking Technique
When to use the heel hook technique (over other footwork techniques) will be dictated by your body position and the holds you have around you.
Here are some occasions where heel hooking is ideal:
- When a foothold is too high up. Very often, it is the hold you are still holding with your hand, which is quite difficult to step on with your toes. Placing your heel on it is much more accessible and requires less flexibility.
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- When you have no footholds at leg level
- When the angle and direction of a hold are such that it faces away from you and it makes it challenging to get your toes on it.
More specifically, according to the route you are climbing, you can use hook your heel:
- On jugs, hole-like holds.
- In overhangs, to stabilize the body and prevent swinging
- Around aretes – side of the wall, mostly to help you stay balanced
- On the underside or lips of roofs
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The most common use of a heel hook you will see both indoors and outdoors is for turning the lip of a roof. So placing the heel just after the overhang part of the wall, to help with the taxing move of pulling your body weight over the roof.
In general, you can place your heel on holds around your waist level, wherever the size and position of the hold allow it. If you are climbing outdoors, make sure the spot on the rock you chose to heel hook can support you.
The reason the heel hook is so highly esteemed is that there are occasions where it is your only option to progress on the route. For example, if a hold is around the corner of the wall and if the hold is facing completely away from you, or if a hold is too high up for you to place your toes on it and you have no other available footholds.
As always, it’s good to read the route before climbing to identify spots where using a heel hook will make your climbing more effective.
How to Execute the Heel Hook
Place as much of the heel on or around a hold. By pointing the toes outward, you can use some of the side area of the heel for more contact with the wall. Engage your heel and pull in with it to bring your hips close to the wall.
Keep pulling with the heel and the arm of the same side to maintain tension and stability in the body while you are reaching for the next hold.
It’s essential to engage the foot, as it helps you bring the hips closer to the wall, thus transferring more weight to the heel hooking foot.
Other Uses of the Heel Hooking Technique
A heel hook can also be used to perform a rock-over, where you completely transfer your weight from one foot to the other, to reach with the arm of the same side as the heel hooking foot. In this case, it helps to turn your toes outwards and start pointing them downwards to roll your heel. This helps to lock in the heel’s position and shift your weight to that foot.
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You can also use a heel hook to rest your arms or chalk up. Finding a secure spot for your heel, it supports some of your weight while you shake out your arms to recover. This can also help you find your balance before moving on to the next move.
Removing the Heel Hook
When you remove the heel hook, there will be a sudden release of tension that may bring you out of balance, so make sure your other foot is placed in a way that will support you for a smooth transition of your weight. Keeping your core engaged also helps in maintaining your stability and staying close to the wall.
Heel Hook Technique Tips for Rock Climbing Beginners and Intermediates
The most important factors that will determine if your heel hooking is effective is technique and body positioning. Luckily, these can be improved by practicing!
Let’s look at some climbing tips you can apply when practicing to improve your technique:
Foot and Body Positioning
- It’s essential to be accurate with the placement of your heel and look at where you hook it to make sure it’s secure. Experiment to find the optimal positioning in different situations and to avoid injury in your foot or leg.
- Don’t rely solely on your hamstrings to pull yourself upwards. Turn your toes to point outwards and place more of the side of the heel on the hold. This way, you can drive the movement with your hips and use your glutes along with your hamstrings. This also helps in supporting more of your body weight and relieving the arms, and gives you more control.
- Be aware of the movements that set you up for placing your heel hook. The position of the leg that is not hooking is also important and can determine your balance and if the heel hook will stay in place. It needs to be in a position where the center of gravity gives more pull to the heel hook.
- Add weight to your heel gradually to prevent injury by shock loading it. Don’t push on it with your maximum strength at once.
- We can’t stretch enough the importance of engaging your heel and leg. That is the only way for the heel hook climbing to work to your advantage and to actually take off some weight from your arms while pulling you upwards.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles to increase your body stability and control. Engaging your core will help you keep your heel in place. For the technique to be effective, you need to maintain tension in the body through the whole movement.
Warming up and Flexibility
- Hip flexibility is crucial in increasing your options as to where and how high you can place your heel to perform the heel hook technique. A great way to open your hips is by practicing specific yoga poses.
- Stretching will give you more flexibility, thus more options in heel hooking.
- Warm up your legs and especially your hamstrings before climbing to avoid any muscle strain.
- Make sure your shoes fit properly and are hugging your heel without leaving any space for your heel to move around. You should tighten your laces properly before trying heel hooking.
- Your climbing shoes should have a good layer of rubber in the heel to give you a larger surface area for hooking and more friction. A larger surface area on the heel will also give you more range of body movement.
- You can heel hook both with the back area of the heel and with the side of the heel. It’s good to know where your shoe offers more friction.
Combination of Climbing Techniques
Heel hook can also be used along with the flagging technique, especially in extreme cases where the placement of the heel is quite high up. Right after you pull your body up with your heel and arms, the other foot can cross behind the heel hooking leg to provide you with more balance and keep you close to the wall. Flagging in lead climbing is also a useful technique, and when applicable, can be combined with heel hooking to provide you with additional stability and control while you clip.
For more details on flagging, check out our article on how to flag in climbing.
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Common Heel Hook Mistakes
- Not engaging your heel or not keeping it engaged throughout the movement. Hooking the heel and being passive is not enough. If you don’t engage your heel after you hook it, your upper body will keep doing all the work, and you will not be taking advantage of the technique.
- Trying to heel hook on a hold that is too small for the whole heel to be placed efficiently on it.
- If you keep climbing upwards and not remove your heel hook, eventually it will be too far from your center of gravity, and there will be more risk for it to slip off and you to swing away from the wall.
- In certain situations, if you don’t turn your toes outwards after you place the heel hook, your hamstrings will be overly stressed, and it will be much harder to pull yourself up. On the other hand, if you often turn your leg outwards but don’t have the hip flexibility for it, you may injure your knee.
- Not leaving enough space for your heel on a hold you are using with your hand and crushing your fingers. By route reading and deciding where you will use a heel hook, you can grip on a hold in a way that your heel also fits.
Helpful Heel Hook Tutorials on YouTube
Short and sweet, Neil Gresham’s masterclass goes over the use of heel hooks:
A longer guide on hooks, going over the benefits of the heel hooking technique and where to use it:
A tutorial discussing active and passive heel hooks:
A short, concise summary on when and how to use the heel hook technique:
A tutorial talking more about the positioning of the heel and safety while heel hooking:
Wrapping Things Up: Final Things to Remember for Heel Hooking to Climb Harder and Smarter
In the beginning, it may be challenging to know in which situations you can go for heel hook climbing, but once you start getting the hang of it, you will wonder how you could climb without it. It’s an essential technique that will help you climb more efficiently and progress to higher grades.
To wrap things up, let’s go over some key points on how to heel hook:
- Heel hooking is essential in overhang routes and roofs. Some routes cannot be completed without using a heel hook. Use it when you can’t reach a hold with your toes or around wall corners.
- By heel hooking, you relieve weight off of your arms, and you can even take a short rest.
- Keep your heel, hamstrings, glutes, and core engaged throughout the whole movement.
- Be mindful of how you position your heel and point your toes outwards to use the side of your heel.
- Your shoes can affect the effectiveness of your heel hook.
- Work on your ankle and hip flexibility to increase your range of movement and prevent injuries.
By using climbing techniques that focus on footwork, like the heel hook technique, you can climb harder and more efficiently, while conserving energy.
We hope these climbing tips on heel hooking have given you some answers on how to improve your climbing technique. When you start using it efficiently, we promise you will see tremendous progress.
If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like our other climbing tips here.