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I started to enjoy rock climbing quite a lot, but I realize that my flexibility leaves much to be desired. One of my problems is that I cannot seem to lift my leg as high as I'd like to in order to step onto a relatively high foothold.

I don't believe that this is a stretching issue, because when I lie on the ground and use my hands to pull my knee up to my chest, I don't feel the typical stretching sensation that I get when doing "real" stretches.

Therefore, I don't really know what I could do to increase that leg-lifting height.

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I don't feel competent enough to write a full answer, but I believe this is still a flexibility issue - check the differences between a static stretch (holding a position, maybe with the help of outside force) and a dynamic stretch (controlled movement throughout the full range of motion). Lifting legs when climbing is dynamic in nature; lying on the ground and pulling with your hands is static. Nice website on this: link –  VPeric Apr 20 '13 at 11:48
    
Once you've placed a foot on a high hold, do you have issues rocking over onto it without your hips pushing you off the wall, or are your problems just with getting the foot on the hold in the first place? For me they always go hand & hand, and the answers below (developing stronger lliopsas) wouldn't fully improve my ability to use high footholds. –  DavidR Apr 22 '13 at 21:45
    
I totally agree with @VPeric - that stretch you mention doing is good, but it really just stretches your glutes, I think. You'll also need flexible hamstrings and hip flexors for good high stepping. Look at these stretches: nicros.com/training/articles/… –  DavidR Apr 22 '13 at 21:49

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High stepping in rock climbing

To high step, you need to lift your knee high, but also rotate your hip out and then possibly extend the high foot from that rotated position. This is going to require developing dynamic flexibility / mobility in your glutes, hip flexors, and hamstrings.

This image illustrates a fairly advanced high-step: high step.

What stretches to do

The stretch that the OP mentions (laying on ground, pulling knee to chest) is a good start, but that only stretches the glutes, and not the other muscles. That limits the range of movement you're working to a single plane (and doesn't help with rotating the hip out, or extending the foot).

I've had good luck doing the following stretches:

  • froggies
  • chair stretches
  • "ATG" squat - a deep bodyweight squat with an upright posture

The Nicros website has a good resource on the first two of those stretches: Nicros stretching.

I can't find a great link about "ATG Squats". I have one from T-Nation that is full of blather and posturing and light on tips, but better than nothing. Here.

Leg strength and high stepping

I've also found that basic strength in a squatting position is helpful to fully execute a high-step. When I started climbing, my legs were pretty weak, and when I'd place a high foot, I often wouldn't have the strength to rock onto it and stand up. Sometimes this felt like a flexibility problem (my hip won't "let me" transition to the foot), but (for me) was actually a strength problem (my body thought my high leg was too weak to bear the load of my full bodyweight). I started doing a combination of bodyweight squats and (light, by most people's standards) back squats, and as the weight I was squatting got closer to my bodyweight, my high-stepping became noticeably smoother. Your mileage may vary.

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I don't have any references for dynamic versions of the stretches I mention. Are there any out there (stretches or mobility drills) I could list (or start doing myself) that might help develop better dynamic range in the muscle groups I mention (froggies and chair stretches), with bodyweight / "leg weight"? –  DavidR Apr 24 '13 at 19:21
    
The cable leg raise other people mention seems to focus narrowly on one plane of motion, where the challenge in high stepping is as much about rotating your hips out and then possibly extending the foot from that rotated position. But I'm not an expert on this subject (just an ordinary climber). –  DavidR Apr 24 '13 at 19:26
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As far as strength is concerned, pistols (one-legged squats) are probably a good idea. They closely correspond to the amount of force you need (you shouldn't really be pulling with your arms when climbing) and the balance component can only be an advantage for climbers. Anecdotally, I've been able to do pistols since forever and this kind of move is easier for me than for my peers. –  VPeric Apr 24 '13 at 19:46
    
For stretches, check out this link. In particular, the knee lift and the crescent stretches. –  VPeric Apr 24 '13 at 20:08

A good way to increase your leg lifting height is to use ankle weights. Legs carry a massive proportion of your body weight (on the average person). Train the muscles involved in lifting your legs.

By using a light ankle weight (around 1.5kg) and lifting your knee to its highest possible position. Rinse and repeat performing 10-12 repetitions on each leg. Modify the repetitions to your own ability. The weight can be increased with heavier ankle weights over time.

If you don't own ankle weights you could use a cable resistance machine at the gym. With a fitting that goes just round your ankle above your trainer. Again this involves lifting your knee up and slowly back to the ground. Make sure to start on a very low weight.

I train this way with ankle weights to improve the stability and strength of my kicks in martial arts. Holding my knee high before the kick is released (front kick).

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Are you sure this has any carryover to climbing? –  VPeric Apr 20 '13 at 11:40
    
gregepperson.com/… This is a picture of what the guy's trying to do. The lead foot goes high, but also the hip opens out to the side (usually). It needs to be a slow, precise movement, or the lower foot will get knocked off the lower foothold. Its as much about developing flexibility in the hamstrings, hip flexors, and glutes as anything –  DavidR Apr 22 '13 at 22:15

It's hard to say without seeing your movements, but I'd say you probably want to strengthen your Iliopsas and Psoas muscles.

Various types of leg rises will help do that. Check out the Hip Flexors section on this page.

What we did in one of my kick-boxing classes was a lot simpler though and I found it to be effective. While standing, just lift one knee as high up as you can (keeping back straight) and hold it there for 10-20seconds (or as long as you can).

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