You’re pumping out on an overhung limestone sport route. The familiar symptoms of fatigue set in: wooden hands, wobbly Elvis legs, general panic at the thought of a long fall.
Calm down. Find a kneebar.
It might be just the thing you need to rest and recover—and send. Learn the basics of the kneebar below, then watch your climbing efficiency and creativity skyrocket.
What It Is
Kneebar (n): a positioning of the leg(s) between two points of contact—usually the toe and the thigh just above the kneecap—used to achieve static control and muscle recovery while climbing.
The kneebar might seem like a flashy circus trick. In reality, the kneebar is one of the most useful moves to know. An effective kneebar redirects a significant percentage of the load-bearing duties to your legs, allowing your arms to rest and find some extra energy. If you can find a solid single- or double-kneebar position, you can relax. This applies mostly to long sport routes, but also to lengthy boulder problems. Even the most insignificant kneebar can be the difference between failure and success.
Kneebars also increase your static efficiency. As you become more familiar with the kneebar position, you’ll start learning how to move your body within it—and out of it. Some kneebars allow you to swivel and contort your body to reach oddly placed holds. Some allow you to reach further than you otherwise could, a la the dropknee. Others are required to progress through the route. No matter how you move through the kneebar, your movement is static and controlled. Static climbing is efficient climbing.
But, just like the mantle technique I explained in this piece, the kneebar is not the most obvious move for the beginner climber. It isn’t the first—or even the fifth—thing a beginner should learn (please, do yourself a favor and start with the dropknee). Once you’ve learned the fundamental climbing techniques, however, the kneebar is a perfect project to take on as you shift to intermediate or advanced levels of climbing.
Avoid the Pain
Before I explain the technique, I should start with a warning. All climbing moves are dangerous—but any time you experiment with your knee, the risk goes up. I recommend avoiding the following situations when learning the technique:
How To Do It
Proper kneebar technique is actually pretty simple. Setting it up is easy; engaging and trusting the kneebar seems to be the most difficult part for most climbers to grasp. It consists of three basic parts:
First you have to find a place on the climb where it makes sense to kneebar. Because you need a relatively large surface area to push against with your knee, it’s generally easier to find kneebars on featured or porous rock types such as limestone, sandstone, certain types of granite, or the porphyritic syenite found in Hueco Tanks.
If you’re in the gym, look for large feature holds with properly spaced footholds. To determine what “properly spaced” means in this context, just estimate the length between the top of your knee and your big toe.
As I mentioned above, avoid using the bone of your kneecap to kneebar. Try to connect with the rock using the fleshy part of your lower quadriceps instead, just above the kneecap. You can also connect above that, all the way up the thigh.
Once you’ve found the kneebar placement, it’s time to engage the muscles that lock your body into place. Imagine doing a weighted heel raise. While digging your big toe into your chosen foothold, try to lift your heel toward the hold your knee (or thigh) is resting against. Flex everything—the arch of your foot, your calf, your quad, and your glutes. If you’re on a steep overhang, you need to stay extremely tight in the core as well.
A good kneebar is like a tripod. Ideally, you should have three points of contact with the rock: your knee, your dominant toe, and your free leg. When you lock in the kneebar, use your free leg to balance yourself. Experiment with your foot placement—look for ways to push yourself into a more balanced position; find a higher foot that lets you maintain balance while letting you reach further with your hand; etc. No matter where your free leg is, make sure it’s on the wall somewhere and keeping you stable.
Many climbers choose to wear a rubber kneepad to increase kneebar friction. There is a clear hierarchy of effectiveness when it comes to choosing the material with which you kneebar. Here it is:
Bare flesh: BADPants: OKAYKneepad: DIVINE POWERS
There may be an ethical debate somewhere in here, something about “cheating” or “being soft.” I’ll just say this: if it’s acceptable to use a climbing shoe, then kneepads shouldn’t be problematic either. So rig up your knees with rubber, if you so choose!
We want to know your thoughts on the kneebar! Leave us your comments, insights, and any advice we missed in the comments.
I’ll be back next week with another move to teach! I’ll give you a hint—it rhymes with “tricycle.”