Climbers often talk about asymmetry when comparing climbing shoes, but what does it mean exactly? Ultimately climbing shoe brands use this word to help climbers understand the overall shape of the shoe to make it easier to know what kind of climbing style the shoe will excel at. It can also help set expectations about how comfortable a climbing shoe will be.

Below we’ll discuss the benefits and drawbacks of more or less asymmetry and what it means for the overall performance and comfort of a climbing shoe.

Foot Symmetry (or Asymmetry)

The symmetry of a shoe refers to the overall ‘turn inward’ of the toebox from the heel to the big toe. Essentially, the further away from the centerline of the show the toes are, the more asymmetric a shoe is. Asymmetry is intended to over exaggerate the natural curve of the foot to orient the toes into a more powerful muscular position.

Climbing Shoe Asymmetry
Shoes with moderate to high asymmetry offer greater power focused to the big toe for standing on small holds and features.

All shoes have some amount of asymmetry, this is because human feet generally aren’t symmetrical. A shoe with low to moderate asymmetry closely approximates our foot shape, making for a more comfortable fit for standing naturally. On the other end of the spectrum, a shoe with high asymmetry is less comfortable to stand in, but transmits more power from the muscles of our feet toward our toes.

High Asymmetry and Power

To achieve this power, shoes with higher asymmetry are tensioned greater around the toes (across the side, front, or top of the toebox) to focus all of the muscles of your forefoot to your biggest toe. Sort of like taking all your toes and turning them into a single super-toe. Having all of your muscles focused into a tiny place allows for extremely technical footwork, standing on tiny holds, and controlling balance with larger muscle groups like your calves, thighs, and glutes. Shoes with less asymmetry generally allow more power to spread to the rest of the toes for wider stances, and a stiffer and usually less sensitive but more supportive midsole is used to spread weight more evenly.

When a shoe curves ‘inward’ towards the big toe, it pulls our toes together and concentrates muscle tension at the tip of the toe box. This is particularly helpful for standing on your toes on small holds and features like crystals and edges, or ‘toeing in’ to pockets in steep terrain.

This all adds up to a shoe that is designed to drive the power and weight of your body onto your big toe, making an asymmetric shoe ideal for any type of climbing where you need to focus raw power down to a small, specific place: toeing tiny crimps, edges, or pockets, or even when climbing very thin cracks that require intense lieback technique instead of jamming.

Higher Asymmetry Shoe Examples

Shoes with high asymmetry are typically built for performance over comfort. Having your toes forcibly angled inward for longer than a couple tries on a boulder or a single pitch of climbing is typically going to result in some amount of discomfort, especially when you put the full weight of your body onto such a small area. This is not the type of shoe that is built for you to stand around in.

Highly Asymmetric Shoes are Good for:

  • Steep climbing
  • Standing on your toes on small edges
  • Toeing pockets
  • Lying back on thin cracks

Low Asymmetry and Comfort

As mentioned above, more symmetrical shoes are closer approximations to the natural shape of the average human foot. When we stand barefoot, our big toes and little toes are on average the same distance from the centerline of our foot, providing the balance to stand. When a shoe is more symmetrical like this, the randing around the toe box has less tension across the toes, allowing for a feel that is closer to a snug sneaker.

A well-fit symmetrical shoe should still be close-fitting to perform well in climbing. The difference is that the tension of the shoe is less focused at the big toe, allowing for more even pressure to be applied by all the toes. Because the toe tension is more spread out, shoes with more symmetry are great for large features, volumes and slabs, or jamming cracks; all situations that utilize balanced support from all of the toes at once.

This also makes them ideal for longer multi pitch climbs where standing and belaying from ledges for long periods is common. Low asymmetry shoes are often described as a good ‘trad shoe’ because traditional climbing often involves foot jamming cracks and longer days with multiple pitches of climbing.

Low Asymmetric Shoes are Good for:

  • Slab climbing
  • Standing on your whole foot on large features
  • Jamming your feet in cracks
  • Standing around for long periods in the gym or on ledges

Lower Asymmetry Shoe Examples

Bottom Line on Asymmetry

Higher asymmetry is when power is directed to the big toe in particular. Unfortunately this comes at a cost of being significantly less comfortable. These are high-end specialty shoes for steep and overhanging climbing.

Medium asymmetry is a balance of comfort and distributed power. Usually called all-around shoes – they can manage most climbing styles and grades adequately.

Lower asymmetry is more comfort focused as power is distributed throughout the foot. Historically called beginner shoes, as it’s helpful to have the entire foot supported as you build the unique climbing foot muscles. These shoes are specialty shoes in their own right and are used to climb the hardest slab/crack routes in the world.

Our Best Advice for Climbing Shoes

Go to shoe demos and try on ALL THE SHOES. Ideally, try climbing the same routes in them so you can get a sense of how they fit and perform. Note how they fit: are there pressure points, is there a gap? Pick what fits and feels right to you. If there’s a spot on a shoe that’s nagging you and you’re not quite sure if it’s right, keep trying on shoes, til you wonder with excitement, “is this shoe perfect?!” After trying on a ton of shoes, and feeling some not quite work, trust your intuition.