Digging into Heel Hooks

JD Senter defying gravity on the Toadstool Traverse in Moe’s Valley.

Heel hooking is a versatile climbing technique that pops up everywhere outdoors. It provides a lot of stability and offers an alternate method for gaining upward movement when no ideal foot holds are available. Although climbers typically train their cores and upper bodies, this technique requires significant lower extremity (or shall I say…hock?) strength and flexibility.

JD is the king of heel hooks and can unlock any problem that lets him use one. I, on the other hand, am a heel hooking peasant. In preparation for my project that required a strong heel hook, I set my nerdy brain to dissecting the move to its mechanical components. Hopefully this breakdown helps you too!

Like any other stepping movement, a heel hook can be broken down into two phases: placement and weighting. Placement is the act of moving the thigh and foot to an optimal position. Weighting is the act of putting body weight through the leg. I will discuss ways to improve this technique based on the phase that presents the greatest challenge.

Placement Issues

JD Senter pulling into the wall on The Dead C in Pocketopia.

Difficulty keeping the body close to the wall: could suggest restricted hip range of motion or weak external rotators (or both). To address this, focus on activities that open the front of the hip without rotating or arching the spine. For improved flexibility during climbing, consider warming up with bodyweight sumo squats. To work on the strength and control, try something like fire hydrants.

Melanie Winsor with a high foot on Hair Trigger at the Happy Boulders. Photo: Daniel Winsor

Difficulty placing a hook at hip height or above: First, consider if a body position is possible that would make placing your hook easier. Aside from this, you may be lacking the abdominal control or hamstring flexibility to raise your thigh. The 3-way hanging jackknife is a very functional exercise, especially if you reach with one leg when moving to your right or left. Contrary to most exercises, this one is most effective when you move your lower spine. To protect yourself, make sure to perform this movement in slow, controlled manner, and to exhale while exerting yourself (rather than holding your breath).

Weighting Issues

Heel slides out of place: First, ensure that you found the best spot on the rock to cradle your heel. Otherwise, poor hip rotator control may be the culprit, causing your heel to roll out of that high-friction sweet spot. This group of muscles can be trained through various balance activities. Try this: single leg deadlifts, or single leg decline bridges. Again, make sure that you are not arching/flexing your spine, and that your hips always stay level.

Danny Winsor preparing to launch on Karma in the Happy Boulders. Photo: Melanie Winsor.

Difficulty pulling up onto the hooking leg: The hamstrings are the most important muscles for rocking onto your heel. To ensure that these muscles can pull regardless of your body position, focus on training them in a variety of positions and ranges of motion. Single leg decline bridges and rear foot elevated lunges are good options. Bonus points for relaxing out of an exercise position slowly – this eccentrically strengthens the hamstrings, which helps them better protect your knee ligaments, namely the ACL.

Author on Shiva Rising in Pocketopia. Photo: Daniel Winsor

This assessment is by no means exhaustive, and people vary as much as specific climbs do. If you have any questions or ideas for other ways to improve a heel hook, feel free to leave a comment. Otherwise, go forth and crush – hook, line, and sinker!


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