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How to: use indoor walls to improve your outdoor climbing - Part One

Do your main climbing goals involve outdoor rock routes or boulders?

If so, then these articles are for you, covering lots of clever ways we can maximise our time spent on indoor climbing walls, so that the skills we develop are really transferable on to rock.

This summary covers the main points from a Womens Climbing Symposium webinar that I delivered in March 2021.

There’s a YouTube recording too (link here), but sometimes it’s helpful to scroll through a written article.


Why put more thought in to how you climb and practise indoors?

Reason 1: Be smart as well as strong.

Many of us have spent time during lockdowns getting stronger, and indoor training facilities are great for building strength and fitness. However, climbing is very much a skills-based sport; and outdoor climbing in particular demands really good decision making, lots of experience on poor and small footholds, and lots of nuance, adaptability, precision, and tactics. Have you experienced the frustrations of knowing you are fitter and stronger indoors, but still feeling very much knocked back on the rock?! Read on to see how you can practise climbing smart as well as strong.

Reason 2: Specificity is key.

Indoor climbing has evolved to become almost a sport in it’s own right. We see lots of dynamic, coordinated movements, big moves and large, spaced footholds, which is often very different to the style and demands of outdoor rock climbs. Don’t get me wrong, I love this style of climbing too! It’s great to have fun at the wall with friends, work on lots of really creative moves, and improve that style of climbing. However, if what you are practising indoors isn’t really that specific to the demands of your outdoor climbs, then those skills won’t be as transferable and beneficial to your outdoor climbing.

Photo: Alun Richardson


Three key pointers to consider first...

Number 1: Practise vs Performance

Have a clear separation between the two. Sometimes when we climb indoors, we assume we should always be able to succeed at our ‘usual’ grades, or be improving our grades all the time. Constantly having a performance mindset leads us to always stick with our most comfortable and successful area of our climbing, rate ourselves against what grades we feel we ‘should’ be succeeding at, and feel crap if we don’t perform well that session. Have specific sessions, or parts of sessions, where you are very much in ‘practise’ mode. Repeat, refine, fall off, work your weaknesses, experiment and practise movement. Getting to the top or matching your grade are irrelevant during these practise sessions; claim the successes as all the little things you have learned, improved at and practised.

Number 2: Don’t be afraid to do things differently to others you see at the wall

There are trends in climbing walls. Trends in clothing, training, language and setting styles, which have evolved over the years and will keep evolving. You don’t need to copy what you see everyone else doing at the wall. If you know that practicing certain movement drills will improve your climbing, then do it! If you know that using rainbow footholds will improve your decision making and efficient climbing outdoors, then do it! You may even find that others see how you approach your sessions and want to join in too.

Number 3: Climbing is about being creative and experimenting

The rules are guidelines, grades are subjective, and climbing should be fun! Enjoy creating challenges, experimenting with what your body can do, and enjoying the process; easier said than done, and I enjoy ticking grades as much as anyone!


Two of my five top tips for using indoor walls to train for outdoor climbing

Top tip number 1: Use small footholds

How do you feel about little limestone nubbins, gritstone smears and slopey rails?!

Do you find yourself using phrases like: ‘I can’t use that!’, ‘there are literally no footholds!’ or ‘ahh these feet are so polished!’ ?!

Do you take a long time committing to footholds, and try every other possible sequence first? Would you rather get your feet above your head than commit to poor footholds?

Of course we all think and say these things from time to time, but if the above really resonates with you as a significant chunk of your outdoor climbing experiences, then practising with small or poor footholds will make a real difference to your outdoor climbing.

Outdoor footholds are much smaller, harder to use, and harder to spot than indoor footholds. They demand more precision, nuance, confidence and experience.

The benefits of spending a good proportion of your training time on small or poor footholds?

  • You’ll be more confident, familiar and relaxed when climbing outdoors

  • You’ll hesitate less and commit to sequences quicker

  • You will do less high steps, and therefore minimise strenuous moves

  • You’ll develop better body tension and precision that is crucial for outdoor climbing

….all resulting in better, more efficient rock climbing without necessarily being any stronger!

But how?!

Get creative

  • If you can, choose to use screw ons and ‘old school’ resin features on the wall, and if you own a home wall, put small footholds on, or turn your larger footholds sideways or upside down. Set problems or circuits with good footholds at first, and then work the same problems with worse feet

  • Try full routes or problems with one foot smearing while the other is on a foothold, and experiment with trying to put as much pressure through the smearing foot as possible

  • Try ‘hands off’ or ‘palms only’ challenges on slabs or corners, and experiment with what you can stand on on slabs with no hands.


  • Experimenting with scrunching your toes in your shoes or wearing tighter shoes

  • Using your feet like you use your hands: pushing, pulling, pressing, clawing, dropping heels, pointing toes etc.

Top tip number 2: Use rainbow footholds

But that’s cheating!

If your session is about performance, climbing the hardest routes or boulders you can, and claiming grades….then yes, using rainbow footholds is cheating! However, if your session is about improving your outdoor climbing and working on certain techniques…then rainbow footholds are definitely not cheating.

Outdoor routes and boulders offer numerous foothold choices, and choosing from so many foothold options on a route or boulder can waste a lot of time and crucial energy. If you find yourself taking a long time to work out which footholds to use, and waving your big toe in the air for ages as you decide, then spending time on rainbow footholds indoors may really help to improve your outdoor climbing.

Practising on rainbow footholds helps you improve at choosing the best positioned footholds for your size and climbing style. It’s also a great way of allowing you to repeat specific movements or technique drills, and encourages ‘2 feet on’ climbing...helping to save crucial energy for that powerful crux.

How to apply this:

  • Use handholds of a specific colour, but anything for feet. Aim to make the route or boulder as easy as you possibly can, based on where you put your feet and how you use them

  • Remember that this may slow you down at first as there are a lot more foot options to choose from! But as you repeat and practise, your decision making will improve and you will become a lot more fluid

  • Try sticking to ‘2 feet touching the wall for every hand move’ ….trying to take as much weight off your arms for every move


I'll share my remaining three top tips in Part Two...looking at pacing, rests and wall angle/climbing style.

For now, the walls are open, the rocks are dry, and lockdown is easing...enjoy!

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