Mastering the Art of the Stem Rock Climbing Technique

Stem climbing technique

Rock climbing often requires using a combination of techniques to ascend challenging routes, test your balance, and push your limits. One essential skill that every climber should have in their repertoire is stemming - the ability to create oppositional pressure between hands and feet to achieve stability on the wall. Though it may seem straightforward, proper stemming technique makes a world of difference in conserving energy on long climbs and tackling overhung or "off-vertical" routes.

What is Stemming?

Stemming refers to using your hands and feet simultaneously to press outward against two opposing rock surfaces. This counterforce creates friction and takes weight off your limbs, allowing short rests without relying solely on grip strength. Typically, stemming involves pressing laterally across corners, in between walls, or on multiple features at once.

Proper stemming relies heavily on using the legs rather than solely the arms. Engaging your muscular lower body not only helps take the strain off the upper body, but generates significant pressing power to stabilize your position. Meanwhile, the positioning of the hands and arms helps balance the body and transfer weight onto the legs. When performed correctly, stemming allows a climber to relax the grip for a few moments, shake out tired muscles, reposition gear, or scope the route above.

Why is Stemming Beneficial To Develop as a Climber?

Investing time to hone stemming fundamentals can pay huge dividends for climbers of every ability level. Here are some of the key benefits:

  • Conserves energy for long routes: Stemming allows periodic “no hands” rests to provide grip relief without sacrificing secure stance. This helps maintain forearm strength and endurance on multi-pitch climbs.
  • Enables climbing steep terrain: Creating oppositional tension allows tackling severely overhung or roof routes that cannot be climbed statically. Flagging a foot out further increases reach on steep terrain.
  • Improves overall technique: Learning correct leg placement, arm positioning, and weight transfer develops key climbing movement patterns overtime.
  • Boosts balance control: Stemming engages both sides of the body equally, improving intrinsic stability muscles, shoulder stability and sideways-movement control.
how to stem

Whether topping out a challenging bouldering problem or pulling roof moves on sport lead, having solid stemming abilities is a huge asset for climbers of all ages and fitness levels. Even novice climbers should view it as an essential skill, right up there with crucial techniques like belaying.

How to Execute Correct Stemming Climbing Technique

Proper stemming is equal parts art and science. It requires finding optimal body positioning while applying the right vector forces through the limbs. Follow these key technique tips:

Prime Leg and Foot Placement

  • Turn feet 90 degrees perpendicular to hips
  • Push heels/toes straight down into wall
  • Flag outside foot out for extended reach
  • Bend knees to maximize friction

Activate the Core

  • Keep hips inward to increase leg drive
  • Maintain straight rigid torso
  • Engage core muscles for stability

Utilize Strategic Arm Placement

  • Straighten arms with even pressure
  • Adjust angle for comfort and leverage
  • Lightly adduct arms to create friction

Transfer Body Weight Onto Feet

  • Drive majority of weight through engaged legs
  • Maintain balance over center of feet
  • Keep shoulders stacked over hips

The exact hand and foot placement depends greatly upon the climbing terrain, but the same principles apply. Always keep the majority of pressing force grounded into the legs while relying on the arms mainly for balance.

Helpful Stemming Drills

While climbing, pay attention to times when you encounter corners, cracks, or other features enabling outward pressure. Consciously think “stem” – engage your legs, straighten arms, and transfer weight. Over time, this will translate to instinctive technique.

Dedicated stemming drills are also tremendously helpful. Here are some to practice:

  • Wall Leans: Stand sideways, press into wall with foot and opposite hand for 30 seconds. Repeat other side.
  • Overhung Traversing: Side-stem traverse along an overhung section, shuffling feet and hands after each move. Focus on precise leg/footwork placement.
  • Off-Vertical Flagging: On a slightly overhung route, flag outside foot out with each move. Concentrate on keeping hips into the wall.

I also recommend stepping back periodically in class and observing other climbers’ stemming technique. Notice instances of proper positioning versus imbalance. This helps engrain fundamental patterns to apply yourself.

Finally, don’t underestimate the impact consistent climbing has on technique. The more vertical terrain you cover, the more instinctual essential skills like stemming become overtime. Sign up for climbing classes like top rope technique to engrain sound fundamentals.

Common Stemming Errors

While learning correct stemming can take considerable practice, also be cautious of these common mistakes:

  • Failure to engage legs: Supporting weight mostly through straight arms rather than leg drive against the wall. Causes pump and fatigue.
  • Too much arm tension: Gripping too forcefully with the hands instead of relying on skeletal structure for support. Causes forearm burnout.
  • Poor footwork: Neglecting precise foot placement and hip positioning in favor of hasty arm movements. Reduces friction and control.
  • Forgotten breathing: Holding breath rather than breathing deeply. Causes oxygen deficit and impacts stamina.
  • Rushed position shifting: Hurried transitions between stem positions without re-establishing solid base of support. Increases risk of slips or falls.

Remain focused on fundamental body positioning over rushing upward progress. Smooth, graceful transitions between balanced stemming stances prevent wasted effort and energy.


In Summary

Whether climbing a diversion crack, stemming up a corner, or posting out on overhung rock, proper stemming equates to easier climbing. This important technique deserves dedication comparable to grip training or pull-ups. Mastery pays dividends for years given the myriad situations requiring lateral stability on the rock face.

Next time you head to the climbing gym or local crag, consciously focus on effective stemming as you train. Strive to climb not only with verticality but laterally as well, accessing new trajectories for your hands and feet. Purposeful practice makes integrating this skill second nature when you encounter stemming opportunities on rock.

As legendary climber John Long once said, “Your best climbs are the ones where you use the least amount of energy – not the most.” Nowhere does this ring more true than for efficient stemming technique.

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