Learn the art of the most popular discipline in climbing. Includes tips on safety, minimizing your impact, and spotting.
Bouldering is climbing distilled to just you and the move in front of you. Either you do the move and the next one and the next one, or you fall to the ground and start from scratch. Bouldering’s simplicity—you don’t even need a partner—might be why it is so popular. Its challenge could be another: You can try moves at your physical and mental limits, limits which are difficult to push on a cliff where you have the complexities of the rope, gear and the mental baggage that comes with being a hundred, or thousands, of feet off the deck.
“Bouldering” implies that you perform the activity outside on boulders, and indeed that is how bouldering began, and being outside with the birds chirping can be a big part of what motivates you, but the fact is, most climbers will boulder indoors in a gym. Gyms are readily available, even in Florida where there aren’t any real boulders, and the indoor weather is always perfect. Indoor bouldering is also an energetic social scene, where you can learn moves and technique and strategies from more experienced boulderers. That last point isn’t a small one.
Regardless of whether you boulder indoors or outside, the techniques, the “hows” are the same.
Much of what you’ve studied in this guide applies to bouldering. The moves you studied in the Technique chapter, for example, apply to bouldering. You train for bouldering much the same as you train for roped routes, but focusing more on power than endurance since most boulder problems are fewer than a dozen moves.
Bouldering does have techniques specific to the small blocks. Read on and learn.
The best bouldering style is to begin a problem with your feet (or rear) on a bouldering pad and climb up. Much of the time this is how you will indeed climb these small rocks.
Other times, the problem will just be too difficult, and you’ll need help. You’ll need to delve into bouldering’s dark arts.
Stacking pads—pads can be stacked two or three feet high—to get extra reach from the ground is one way to reach a hold and figure out how to grip it, or to skip the lower moves so you arrive at the upper moves with full power. Once you have the moves figured or even “wired,” you can remove the pad stack and do the problem for real.
Another technique is to get “weight off.” Instead of climbing the move and having to hold your entire body weight on a move you can’t figure out, have a partner push up against the small of your back or your rear end to unweight you. The amount of anti- gravity you need will vary. Simply tell your partner to push more, or less. Ahh, that’s just right.
Or, you might get boosted or use a friend’s bent knee to get into position or past a move you are too tired or too weak to otherwise do.
Practicing with a boost or weight off will help you dial in the moves. Do the problem once, or even a hundred times using a bit of help and eventually you will be sending the moves without any help, which is of course the goal.
Boosting, weight off and pad stacks are also helpful for brushing caked-up or grimy holds that you can’t reach. Leaning over from the top of the boulder is another trick for cleaning, or just feeling out, a problem’s upper holds. Most serious boulderers, though, will carry a specialized cleaning stick, three-feet or more of conduit pipe with a toothbrush taped or strapped to the end. The hollow pipe is also useful for giving a brushed hold a final blast of air, blow-gun style, to remove the final bit of offensive chalk or dust.
Bouldering is a high-risk activity. Performing well while avoiding injury is both an art and a science. It’s not just about warming up, but getting your tactics right and developing a feel for when to push and when to back off. Use these tips as a checklist to ensure that you’re doing everything in your power to stay injury-free.
Warm-up. Note the three crucial stages for any climbing warm-up. 1. Raise heart rate and body temperature. 2. Combine easy climbing with mobility exercises (focus on the arms). 3. Build up the difficulty slowly.
Know your level. Never attempt sessions beyond your experience level. Junior climbers should always reduce volume and intensity of bouldering during growth spurts. Parents and coaches should monitor growth with a growth chart.
Observe protocol for falling and landing. It’s not just elbows, shoulders and finger tendons that are at risk from bouldering. Be aware of other climbers when you are committing to a hard move, learn how to effectively pre-pad the landing and arrange your spotters, and always be mindful of how and where you will land.
Warm up progressively. Don’t get on hard projects too soon. Instead do several problems at each grade level. Alternate between different wall angles, and rest longer be- tween problems as the difficulty increases (e.g.: 1 minute between V0s, 2 minutes be- tween V1s, 3 minutes between V3s, etc.). Do not allow a pump to build. Climb for at least 45 minutes before trying a hard project.
Rest sufficiently between attempts. Don’t thrash away at projects. A rule of thumb is to rest 1 minute for every hand move completed. Take a 10- to 15-minute break every 30 minutes to help you to sustain productivity and avoid injury. Stretch your legs during breaks, but do not stretch your arms. Warm up again after breaks of longer than 15 minutes.
Use skill before force. Use rest periods to review your sequences and consider the subtleties of the moves rather than just trying to pull harder with each attempt.
Move on and switch styles. Avoid working the same project for longer than 30 minutes. Move on and try something else on a different angle and with a different style of holds.
High risk holds and moves. It’s important to develop versatile strength and skill for bouldering, so you shouldn’t shy away from high-risk moves unless you have good reason, such as a specific injury. However, an extra degree of caution is required. Make sure you are fully warmed up, but still feeling strong and fresh. Have a “test go” first to pre-load your tendons without trying 100 percent.
Beware of: pockets, especially split-finger combinations, underclings, or sidepulls, which may subject the fingers to torsional forces. The safest grip is the open-hand. Also watch for shouldery moves and big dynos.
Emphasize quality. Always train when feeling fresh and recovered. Never boulder after doing hard routes and never flail at the end of the session.
Don’t overtrain! Beginners should train an average of 2 to 3 days a week, intermediates 3 to 4 times, and advanced climbers up to 5 times a week. (This includes other forms of training such as routes, fingerboard, campus board, etc.)
Build a base! Hard bouldering can be dangerous if you don’t have a strong upper body. A supportive weight-training and core-conditioning program can help provide crucial base strength. Seek appropriate advice, but don’t overdo it—aim to build strength without excessive muscle bulk.
Warm down. Finish sessions with very easy climbing followed by a quick pulse-raiser and some gentle static stretching.
You don’t have to boulder with a pad, but everyone does and you should, too. Every time you fall off a boulder you hit the ground. It might seem counterintuitive, but falling off a boulder problem is more damaging to your body than falling off a roped route, where you have the rope to absorb the impact. Many older boulderers have bad ankles, knees and necks from the repeated poundings their bodies took when they hit the ground and either missed the pad or didn’t have a pad. Even the accumulative effect of years of falling onto a pad can give you lifelong pains.
Shorter term you are most likely to sprain or break an ankle by rolling it on the edge of a pad. Arrange your pad so you will fall onto its middle away from the edges, and if you are using multiple pads, arrange them so there are no gaps between them. If you stack pads, strategically fit them like a jigsaw puzzle so they present as few exposed edges as possible.
When a pad covers a rock or drop-off, mark it on your pad with chalk so you know to avoid landing on that particular spot.
But not even a fat, chalk-marked pad will help if you miss it. Ask a spotter to move the pad as you climb, and when you are alone, don’t simply chuck your pad at the start of the problem and reef away.
Most likely the crux isn’t the butt start, but higher and/or to the side. Instead of wasting your pad at the beginning (use a thin “starter” pad or a swatch of carpet to keep you off the dirt), carefully visualize where you are most likely to land, and set the pad there.
Exceptions abound, and you’ll need to assess the risk for each problem, and place your pad where it will do the most good. For example, when a back-breaking rock juts out of the ground you’ll probably want to pad it even though the move above it isn’t cruxy. Fill in potholes under your pad with clothes or a pack, or, if the hole is a sump or you need to level a hillside, fold a pad in half and place it under a second pad. Building a level landing zone is as critical—it’s easy to snap an ankle or stumble when you land on a sloping pad.
Knowing how to spot, like knowing how to belay, is mission critical. Know what to expect from your spotter, and know how to spot yourself. Don’t expect your spotter to magically snatch you out of the air and gently set you on your feet. Your falling body can, in just a few feet, generate a force many times its weight.
Rather than catch you, a spotter’s job is to set you straight so you land feet first, and to shove you away from obstacles or onto the pad. The spotter is most effective when he hooks you under your armpits or pushes your upper torso. A spotter may also redirect your fall by body slamming into you. Sounds violent, and it is, but it beats the alternative. Many spotters use a hip clamp, which will keep the climber from falling backwards once he’s hit the pad, but doesn’t really work to right someone who is falling cockeyed.
If you are the spotter, stand far enough back so you won’t get kicked or slugged in the chops. Avoid jamming your thumbs by tucking them into your palms.
There are two types of falls, those that you can control and those that you can’t. When a foot or hand just blows off the rock, or a hold breaks, you’ll only have a millisecond to react. Rather than rag-doll onto the ground, use your airtime to get your feet under you. Our inner gyroscopes will help us right ourselves and reduce the risk of a knee-wrenching tumble.
When you fall because you let go, you’ll naturally land on your feet, but you may need to push off the rock, adjusting your trajectory to avoid an obstacle. When you hit the pad, don’t land on just one leg or straight legged or you could blow your ACL. If the fall is long and you hit the pad hard, buckle your knees, then collapse your torso and use your hands and arms as the final shock absorbers. Bend your elbows to avoid jamming them.
As important as it is to fall on your feet, some moves, such as heel-hooks, cause you to helicopter off the rock. Before you commit to a heel-hook, especially one that’s higher than your waist, think about the fall. If a hand pops, will you be able to release the heel in time to get your feet under you? Do you have a spotter who can grab your hips or armpits and set you on your feet? Unless you are positive you can stick the next move, set the hook lightly so you can instantly release it, or avoid the hook and try a different sequence. Intentionally avoiding a heel-hook usually makes a problem harder, but the fall safer. On highballs, avoid heel-hooks and other fancy foot moves altogether, and climb perpendicular to the ground, feet straight under you.
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