Ah, the dreaded toehook. You know what I mean––you come across a boulder problem in the gym that requires one, but you just can’t make it work. Your toe slips off every time, and you start questioning the rock climbing gods. Who invented this move anyway? Trust me, it took years of frustration and failure before I felt competent kicking in a reliable toehook. I want you to get there too. Read on and learn!
What It Is
Toehook (n) – A method of using the top of the toes or foot as the point of friction between the shoe and a climbing surface in order to balance or pull.
Toehooking is one of the more advanced climbing moves, and usually doesn’t come intuitively to climbers. Whether in the gym or outside, routes and problems involving toehooks are typically moderate or difficult in grade. Unless the feature you’re toehooking is massively incut, the move is often strenuous and fickle.
A toehook is typically used to keep the body tight against the climbing surface while executing a move. Given the difference in strength between legs and arms, an effective toehook also transfers a huge amount of the load-bearing duties from the upper body to the legs and core. Toehooks are not always necessary, but executing them well can greatly increase your muscular efficiency as a climber.
Let’s look at an example. In the photo above, Josh has the option of using a different left foothold (probably one below his head) to make the next move, but opts for the toehook instead. This keeps his body locked in close to the wall and helps de-load his right arm and shoulder, which would take the brunt of the force had he chosen a more typical foothold.
How To Do It
There are several steps to take to execute a toe-hook:
First you should work on the positioning of your foot. Any time you toe-hook, your goal should be to make a 90 degree angle between the top of your foot and the rest of your leg. Practice this in a relaxed sitting or standing position first. Use your ankle to raise your toes back towards your knee while straightening your leg––you should feel tension in your ankle, calf, hamstring, knee, and quad.
You must maintain rigidity throughout your toe-hooking leg (aka the “alpha” leg) throughout the movement. As soon as you relax the tension in your leg, even a little bit, that toe will release and you’ll be off the wall. Clearly, using proper form in the alpha leg is critical to a successful toe-hook. But equally important is figuring out the position of the “beta” leg.
Your secondary leg (i.e. the one not toe-hooking) is key to ensuring you stay balanced throughout the toe-hook. Typically, you want to place your foot somewhere below your center of gravity, and use it to push yourself through the move. In the video below, you can see that my right foot remains on a foothold beneath me until I’ve moved my left hand through the movement. The placement of the beta foot is critical––if it is too far from your center of gravity in either direction, you’ll be off-balance. If your beta foot is just above your toe-hook...you’re probably doing a bicycle.
Letting go of your toe-hook can be surprisingly complex––sometimes you’ll find yourself stretched out awkwardly, then sailing off the wall uncontrollably upon release. To ensure a smooth release, do one of two things: either,
To see an example of a toe-hook in action, check out the short beta video below:
Have you ever noticed the climbing shoes with excessive amounts of rubber on the top? Those kinds of shoes––usually “aggressive” slippers or velcro––are perfect for toe-hooking. Although you can sometimes get away with a toe-hook using lace-ups, obviously it’s going to be a little bit harder to make them stick!
For an idea of which shoes are great for toe-hooking, check out the following examples:
Again, mastering the toe-hook takes a lot of practice. To start, I recommend you find a boulder problem (or just a few well-placed holds) in the gym to practice. To get a feel for the body position required, try to lock yourself into the toe-hook. Choose some decent handholds, then set the toe-hook: place your alpha and beta legs and hold the position for as long as you can. When you start feeling comfortable toe-hooking with both legs, begin experimenting with hand movements, different beta foot positions, and worse toe placements.
In the video below, FrictionLabs Pro Paul Robinson climbs Lost in Space, a toe-hook dependent V12 in Rocky Mountain National Park. Learn from the master!