When you walk into a climbing gym, you’ll notice that there are two sizes of walls: short and tall.
The shorter walls usually have thick padding underneath them, and are meant for bouldering. On the tall ones, you might see ropes or small metal clips dangling down. Those are for roped climbing. Some gyms are bouldering-only, meaning they strictly have shorter walls.
Whether you are not a fan of heights, or simply appreciate the ease of walking right up to a wall and climbing it without having to deal with a bunch of ropes and gear, bouldering is a great sport to get into.
In this article, we answer all your questions about bouldering and provide some helpful tips for getting on the fast-track to climbing like a champion.
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Bouldering 101 ~ Answers to Common Questions
What Is Bouldering?
Simply put, bouldering is a form of rock climbing short routes (problems) which does not require the uses of a harness and rope for protection, rather a large mattress like cushion (crash pad).
For a more in-depth intro to bouldering, check out out our what is bouldering guide.
What are the benefits of bouldering?
Like all forms of rock climbing, bouldering has many great mental and physical benefits:
- It is great for your upper body strength, finger strength, and cardiovascular health
- Engages your mind, as you figure out different ways to ascend up the wall
- Increases your flexibility and agility
- Can be a very social sport, as it includes a wonderful and supportive community who share the same passion
How do I go indoor climbing and bouldering for the first time?
Many cities have climbing gyms, which are big facilities with walls that have hand- and foot- holds and imitate climbing on real rock.
Climbing gyms often have rental gear and beginner classes for new visitors.
Bouldering is really quick and easy to learn. Just show up to the gym in athletic clothing and the staff will help get you started!
How does bouldering at the climbing gym work, and what is a “boulder problem”?
At the gym, designated “route setters” secure different shaped holds in a certain sequence going up the wall to make a unique path for climbing. Like a vertical puzzle to play on and figure out.
On roped climbs, that path is called a route. On the shorter walls protected by mats, that path is called a boulder problem.
The objective of bouldering is to climb up the wall using a specific set of marked holds, and reach the final hold without falling.
If you do fall off, you drop onto the mats.
The walls are short enough that you should not get injured when you fall, as long as you know how to fall properly…
What is the Grading Scale for Bouldering?
Every boulder problem has a particular level of difficulty (aka. “grade”), usually displayed next to the starting holds.
Bouldering has its own unique grading scale. It starts at V0, and increases in number – V1, V2, V3, and so on…all the way to V17 – as the difficulty increases.
Don’t worry about the “V” too much; it’s just a reference to the person who invented the grading scale, John Sherman, aka “Vermin”.
Beginner-level grades range from V0 to V4.
What is the difference between bouldering and rope climbing?
The main difference between bouldering and rock climbing is their gear requirements.
While bouldering, you do not need to use a rope or harness, and you can even climb by yourself. Mats are already secured to the ground underneath every climbing wall in the gym, so you don’t need to bring your own.
Rock climbs (aka rope climbs or rope routes), on the other hand, are so tall that you need to tie into a rope for protection if you fall. You must also have a partner to pull the rope tight while you climb.
Both rope routes and boulder problems are put up by route setters and utilize the same sorts of holds. They also share the same objective: to get to the top of the climbing wall (or the “finish hold”) using a certain route without falling.
You also need special climbing shoes to do either one.
But…believe it or not, indoor bouldering is still an entirely separate sport from indoor rope climbing.
This is because it requires more explosive physical strength, whereas rope climbing requires more endurance.
Since boulder walls are shorter than rope climbing walls, boulder problems have to make up for the lack of height by incorporating more physically demanding movements.
In this sense, sprints are to bouldering as long-distance running is to rope climbing.
This does not mean rope routes do not have difficult movements. The harder the grade of a rope route, the more difficult movements there are on it. They are just more likely to be spaced out by stretches of more relaxed climbing.
Which is better for beginners, bouldering or rock climbing?
Generally, bouldering is better for beginners.
Bouldering is often less expensive than roped climbing, requires less equipment, can be done alone, and is easy to walk right up to and start doing without much instruction. Some gyms are even bouldering-only.
The lack of technical gear involved allows you to focus more on the act of climbing versus worrying about knots and devices.
That being said, because the movement tends to be more challenging on boulder problems than rope routes, it can potentially be harder to get used to and excel at.
How Often Should You Climb as a Beginner?
If you’ve enrolled in a gym membership and are ready to commit to training more consistently, you should climb no more than three times a week (spread out over the course of the week).
This can be a challenge; a lot of people who start climbing immediately become obsessed!
As your body gets acclimated to the unique physical demands of climbing, you need enough rest days to recover. Although it might seem hard to believe, resting makes you a stronger. It also helps prevent injuries.
I’m super psyched on indoor bouldering and want my own gear. What should I buy?
Most climbing gyms have rental options for equipment. It is a good idea to wear rentals a few times until you know you are committed to the sport.
Once you are ready to purchase your own gear, you will need:
Regardless of what style of climbing you want to do, you also need chalk. It helps reduce the pesky moisture on your hands from causing you to slip off of holds.
You simply rub a small amount of chalk onto your hands until they are coated well, then climb!
Rope climbers wear small bags around their waist, so it can always be accessible to them on the wall. Since boulderers do not need it to be on them at all times, they sometimes buy a much larger bag, called a “chalk bucket”..
A chalk bucket sits on the ground and has a wide opening, so you can easily reach in and apply some.
There are also many different sorts of chalk you can buy, some arguably better than others.
Want best bang for your buck? Buy some Frank Endo Block Gym Chalk in bulk.
Have fancier tastes? Friction Labs is a premier option, albeit not too much higher performing than Frank Endo.
With Covid-19, many gyms do not allow loose chalk anymore. Instead, they might require liquid chalk. If this is the case in your gym, get a bottle of Mammut Liquid Chalk 200ml .
Going indoor bouldering your first few times can feel a little intimidating, just like participating in a soccer match without knowing any of the rules.
Most gyms have the same rules, but be sure to review them any time you visit a new location.
Understanding the etiquette will help reduce your anxiety over making the wrong moves and getting in the way of other climbers.
In a gym, there are a limited number of boulder problems – and sometimes, there can be a lot of climbers.
Before approaching the wall to climb, make sure no one else is already on their way.
If someone else is on the wall, stay out of the landing zone (the area in which they could fall to the ground) until they have finished and walked away.
Sometimes, there could even be an entire group of climbers attempting a problem. Don’t be afraid to ask if there is a line and wait for your turn. Or, find another one to try until it clears out.
Note: Hogging problems for long periods of time is not cool. If you fail an attempt but want to try again, step away for a moment and look around. Check and see if anyone else wants to try it before you get back on.
A lot of boulder problems can get very close together, or even intersect.
If someone is on a boulder problem on the same wall as the one you are interested in climbing, look at the path that that person’s problem is following. If it ends up anywhere close to yours, or the landing zones are the same, wait until they are finished.
You never want to be in anyone’s way while they’re climbing. Nor do you want to risk falling on each other. Tripping on someone else can cause a sprained or broken ankle!
Likewise, do not walk underneath any climber who is on the wall- even if they look like they won’t fall. Walk around the area or wait until they are finished.
Don’t Give or Take Unwanted Spray
Picture this: you’re climbing a boulder problem, but keep having difficulty pulling a certain move. Some random person who’s been watching you struggle comes up and tells you what they did to complete the problem – like using a certain hold for your right foot.
You may either appreciate their unsolicited advice (aka. “spray”), or feel frustrated because it spoiled your process of figuring out the problem. After all, there is great fun and satisfaction in trying to learn how to make a move by your intuition alone.
Whether you liked it or not, it’s best to tell people to not spray unless you ask them for it.
You yourself should also never give someone unsolicited advice on how to climb a route.
In most cases, spraying is disrespectful. Instead, ask someone if they would like your advice or don’t give it at all.
Be Mindful of Chalk
Most people have loose chalk in their bags. Its powdery consistency makes it super easy to cause messes.
If you plan on taking a short break from bouldering, be sure to close your chalk bag nice and tight.
Also, don’t leave your bag sitting in spots where people could fall or step on it. The ensuing powdery explosion is never pleasant for fellow climbers, your fast-declining amount of chalk, or the gym’s cleaning crew.
In bouldering, a “spotter” stands nearly underneath the climber and helps direct their fall if they come off the wall.
The pads underneath boulder problems in climbing gyms are usually so thick and so well-dispersed that spotting is unnecessary. It’s much more critical to spot your climber while bouldering outdoors.
Indoors, on occasion, there can be taller boulder problems or boulder problems with awkward fall potential that warrant having a spotter.
If you do end up spotting, make sure you learn how to do so correctly beforehand.
Remember: when spotting, you are not trying to catch the climber. You are merely guiding them.
Ask your climbing gym if they provide any instruction or clinics on spotting. Otherwise, this video is a good start:
Many sports have unique jargon that is difficult to understand if you’re not a participant. Bouldering is one of such sports.
In particular, special lingo is useful in communicating with others about problems – such as what kind of movement needs to be used to complete them successfully and the types of holds they have.
General Rock Climbing Terms
There are three words that refer to successfully climbing boulder problems:
- To “send” a means to reach the finish hold without falling, after more than one attempt.
- To “flash” is to send the problem on your first attempt.
- To “onsight” a boulder problem is to send it on your first attempt, without having watched someone else do it or hearing advice on how to do it.
The objective of bouldering is to send the problems. But when you are getting on more and more difficult grades, you are less likely to do so.
When you have to give a problem multiple attempts in order to figure out how you can execute the movements without falling, you are “projecting”. The boulder problem becomes your “project”.
Projecting is an essential part of indoor climbing. It is how you make progress and climb increasingly harder problems.
The particular sequence of body movements and holds you must grab to send a problem is called the “beta”. Every problem has unique beta, and might even also have multiple ways of reaching the finish hold.
Keep in mind: the way you climb a problem may not be the same as someone else with different physical attributes and abilities.
Terms for Types of Rock Climbing Holds
Boulder problems and rock climbing routes in general also have multiple types of holds: slopers, crimps, jugs, pinches, sidepulls, underclings, pockets, and volumes.
Watch these videos to learn what they are and how to recognize their differences:
Get Strong Fast: Beginner Bouldering Tips for Training
If you are excited about bouldering and want to accelerate your progress on harder grades, you need to train.
The best way to get strong at indoor climbing is to climb a lot. Climb all the V0’s in your gym until you’ve sent them all. Once those are completed, do the same for V1’s, then V2’s, and so on.
Once you’re comfortable with climbing V0’s and V1’s, find ways to maximize your productivity each time you go to the gym.
The Pyramid Method
A common training method for climbing is to structure each session like a pyramid.
Start with the easiest grade you can climb, V0. Do four of those.
Then, climb three V1’s, two V2’s, and shoot for one V3.
You can alter these numbers to suit your abilities. The hardest grade you can potentially send is always at the top, as the last problem you get on.
Obviously you can decrease or increase the number of problems you do in the pyramid, but the goal is to do a significant amount of the easier ones and less of the harder.
Building a large, solid foundation of easier problems is essential to developing basic skills, like improving your strength and technique. You will need such strength and skills to tackle harder graded problems.
Another way to get stronger at bouldering is to put in effort on harder problems that are almost within your reach.
The process of projecting can be a pain in the butt, but it’s the only way to send problems.
A project may take you three attempts or forty. The important thing is that you never give up.
(Although, sometimes it can be healthy to walk away from your project for a few sessions to explore other things, and then come back to it with a fresh perspective.)
On every attempt, try to figure out the beta that suits you until you eventually can send. Focus on using your feet, and grabbing holds in different ways. You may only reach the next hold each time you try, but you’ll eventually reach the finish!
It might also help to have other friends at a similar level as you to work the project with, so you can see how they climb it. Seeing their beta – what hands and feet they use, and how they angle their body – may inspire you with the technique you need to finish a climb.
Stretching & Cross-Training
A lot of critical work for improving your climbing performance happens off the wall.
If you do not already eat well, exercise, stretch consistently, and listen to your body, it’s never too late to start!
Stretching and doing exercises besides climbing can prevent injuries and help you break through plateaus by building strength. Meanwhile, getting proper nutrition improves your muscle recovery and growth.
*A climbing “plateau” occurs when you are stuck on a certain grade level for a long time, unable to send anything harder.
Here are some quick tips to get started:
- Develop a routine of doing active stretches before your climbing session, and passive stretches afterwards
- Enroll in a yoga or pilates class. Many indoor climbing gyms offer these on-site!
- Focus on doing pull-ups and abdominal exercises
- Learn how to use a foam-roller
- Learn how to use a hangboard properly and do easy workouts that target your finger and grip strength
Start Off Climbing Strong By Avoiding Common Mistakes
As a beginner climber, you will have a natural tendency to climb boulders…
- With your arms bent, cranking overly hard on every handhold,
- While never looking down at your foot placements, and
- Keeping your hips squared and pulled out away from the wall, as you normally do when climbing a ladder
If you can, try to avoid doing all of these things – they make climbing much harder and cause undue strain to your muscles and joints.
To practice good technique:
- Keep your arms almost straight, with elbows slightly bent; almost as though you’re hanging your weight on your bones more than your muscles. Only bend and crank on your arms when making a big move.
- Look down more, inspecting the wall to find good foot placements; footwork is essential to climbing efficiently and effectively.
- Use your most important muscle: your mind! Constantly think ahead about the next move and the next hold, which is where you will put your hands and feet.
- Don’t grip so hard. Every new climber tends to over grip the holds out of determination and fear of falling. However, when you grip hard, your muscles tire faster and you become more at-risk of injuring a finger.
- Pull your hips in closer to the wall, with your knees facing to the side instead of forward; when reaching for a hold, keep your hip against the wall that is on the same side as the hand you are reaching with.
The most common mistakes in climbing are those that result in injury.
Shoulder injuries and finger injuries are some of the most frequently seen injuries in climbing. These types of injuries can keep you off the wall for months as you rest and recover.
To avoid injuries while bouldering, make sure you warm up properly.
Also, take breaks between attempts on your project and know when to stop for the day.
Learning how to listen to your body is super important. If you are climbing a boulder problem that causes you to put your body in a risky position, don’t do it. For example, it might have a shoulder-intensive move that almost feels as if it could cause you to sprain your rotator cuff.
Let’s face it, falling is a part of bouldering. If you’re trying hard on a problem, you’re bound to come off unexpectedly at some point.
However, if you finish a problem, you should always try to down-climb to get back to the ground. It’s not as cool or fast as jumping off the wall, but it reduces your risk of a bad landing. And there is never anything cool or fast about having to take time off from climbing due to injury.
For those unexpected falls, always remember: there is an art to it.
Watch that video we linked above on how to fall properly and pay attention to the gym staff when they instruct you on your first visit. Develop good falling technique early on.
Although it may seem impossibly, you can still get injured on those cushy gym mats – even from a fall just a few feet off the ground. A rolled ankle is a show-stopper to your bouldering fun!
Overly Tight Climbing Shoes
Wearing climbing shoes that fit too tight can cause enough pain to ruin your bouldering experience.
Never let anyone tell you that your climbing shoe should fit so small that it hurts. Painful shoes will not make your climbing better, no matter what level you climb at.
When you go to purchase your first pair, spend time trying them on in person to find the best one for you.
The Most Important Tip of All
Have a blast!
Climbing is one of the most exciting, gratifying, and addicting sports out there.
Although climbing is not a team sport, its community is one of the best. Don’t be afraid to make friends with other climbers at the gym and work problems together. Perhaps you might even take the foray into outdoor climbing on real rock ! (Link to What is Bouldering? Article).
Many gyms offer classes, clinics, and social events that are great opportunities to learn more, improve your skills, and meet other passionate climbers like you.
Going to the climbing gym for your first time may very well be your first step on a wonderful journey into the world of bouldering.
Anyone, no matter who they are, can experience the sport and dedicate themselves to getting better at it.
One of the nicest things about bouldering is the clear path of progress. Each grade level is a step up, and you are almost guaranteed to achieve each one if you just put in the work.
Now, you should be equipped with the necessary knowledge to start sending!
Melissa is a full time van-living outdoor enthusiast hailed from Florida. After deciding to spend her freshman summer of college living out of a tent to work and climb in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, her life changed forever. She found her way to El Potrero Chico, Mexico in the winters, where she fell in love with travel and community. Post-graduation, she drove from Florida to Alaska to experience its world-class backpacking, then worked her way back south to explore climbing spots throughout the western U.S.
Meeting countless amazing people, hearing their stories, and learning the histories and struggles of local areas through minimalist travel, climbing, and hiking has inspired her to share these experiences with others. Her passions include improving intersectional access to the outdoors and responsible environmental stewardship.