Improving Toe Hooks for Climbing

By TH (TomHenry) David, PT, DPT

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We don’t talk much about ankles in climbing. We talk about pulleys, sick crimps, and that kid that just stomped your project. Well, I’m here to tell you that your ankles are important and that they are critical for toe hooking.

The interesting thing about toe-hooking is that it utilizes a set of muscles that aren’t typically loaded while climbing. Your calf muscles and toe flexor muscles are loaded every time you step onto a hold and keep your heel raised. But the muscles that bring your ankle and toes upward, specifically your anterior tibialis and toe extensor muscles, are really only used when lifting your foot to get to the next hold.

And then you toe hook! Suddenly, your anterior tibialis and toe extensors aren’t just carrying your foot against gravity, they’re pulling against a percentage of your body weight. And in order for the toe to hook and remain hooked, two things have to happen.

First, your ankle has to have enough range of motion to “hook.” Specifically, you have to be able to extend your toes and pull your ankle close enough towards you to “hook” the hold. Then, your anterior tibialis and toe extensor musculature have to be strong enough to maintain that position while they are loaded with part of your body weight.

So how can you get better at toe hooks? You can try these! It’s important to ensure you have enough range of motion. There’s a simple test you can try at home: the knee-to-wall test. This test measures how much dorsiflexion (toes coming upward towards you) your ankle has.

Knee-to-Wall Test

To perform this test, find a wall. No, a wall that doesn’t have climbing holds on it. Good. Next, get into a lunge position close to the wall. With your front foot, find the Goldilocks position where you can touch your knee to the wall, and your heel is just about to come off the ground.

Main performs a knee-to-wall toe hook test

If you can fit your hand sideways between your foot and the wall at this position, you have normal ankle ROM! Hooray! If you can’t, either your hands are big, or you could use some stretching.

Toe hook 2

Stretches for Toe Hook Climbing

Gastroc Stretch

(60 sec hold daily)

Toe hook 3

Soleus Stretch

(60 sec hold daily)

Toe hook 4

Now that your calf is loosened up, it’s time to strengthen your anterior tibialis and toe extensors!

Exercises for Toe Hook Climbing

Anterior Tibialis Strengthening w/ Backpack

(15 lifts)

Toe hook 5

At the crag? Don’t empty your backpack yet! Use that as a warm-up! Perform a set of 15 lifts.

Toe hook a tree!

 (3 sets x 10 sec each side)

Toe hook 6

The closer your stance leg gets to the tree, the more difficult the exercise becomes. Hold for 3 bouts of 10 seconds on each side.

Please reach out with questions or to further develop your climbing program!

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