What are the differences between bouldering and rock climbing? Which is harder? What should a beginner do to rock climb? And more!
Bouldering and rock climbing might seem very similar at first sight, but they’re actually quite different. They both use different techniques, safety gear, muscle groups, training regimes, and more. They even have distinct competitive scenes.
So, we’re here to help you understand the main difference between these two exciting disciplines.
What’s the Difference Between Bouldering vs Rock Climbing
As just mentioned, rock climbing and bouldering have many subtle differences, but the key difference between bouldering and climbing is quite simple: protection and climbing height.
Bouldering is a type of climbing where you climb rocks or problems close to the ground, and the climbing gear used is a type of protective mattress called a crash pad.
Rock climbing is a type of climbing where you climb rock climbing routes that are many meters high, and you use additional protective gear such as rope and a harness to stop a potentially deadly fall.
Indoor Rock Climbing vs Bouldering
Bouldering has gained immense popularity in the last couple of years because it’s very easy and accessible for new people interested in the sport to visit an indoor climbing facility, which, more commonly than not, focuses on bouldering.
However, one must not make the mistake of associating bouldering with an indoor climbing gym and rock climbing with the outdoors. Both rock climbing and bouldering are available for indoor and outdoor climbing, on rock and on plastic. And both are as standalone or intertwined as you wish.
As mentioned earlier, one of the key differences between rock climbing and bouldering is the use of a rope as a safety mechanism to stop climbers as they fall.
When climbing with the use of a rope, climbers usually do it in pairs: one as the climbing partner and the other as the belay partner.
Here’s how that works. The rock climber goes up the climbing route while attached to a rope while the other climber, the belayer, is at the other end of the rope, entirely focused on the safety of the one up top, granting this safety via a technique called belaying.
Free climbing is a form of rock climbing where the climber may use equipment such as ropes exclusively as a means of protection, not something to pull from or use to assist in their progress. This style in general is what most people nowadays think of when they hear the term “climbing”.
More specifically, free climbing includes several subdisciplines such as trad climbing, sport climbing, bouldering, and some forms of solo-climbing. But in fact, sport climbing is what most people nowadays think of when they hear the term ‘rock climbing.’ It is more endurance rock climbing.
Without going into much detail, here’s a rundown of the main roped climbing forms:
- Trad climbing is a type of roped climbing where there is no fixed gear on the wall, and temporary gear is placed by the climber to be removed as they go down.
- Sport climbing is a type of roped climbing where there is fixed gear on the wall, and the climber attaches additional safety gear to the gear already on the wall. Considered safer than traditional climbing.
Alpine climbing is usually not performed as free climbing, since extensive gear is used to ascend safely in this very dangerous sport. It is the culmination of aid climbing and ice climbing.
Other subtypes of free climbing where a rope is not used for protection include disciplines such as bouldering, deep-water solo, and free solo. And the main differences between these subdisciplines are jump height and what you fall into. However, we will focus on bouldering exclusively as it is, by far, the most popular and accessible to practice.
Bouldering consists of climbing typically short and more complex climbs without a rope and falling into a crash pad to stop you from hitting the ground. It is like puzzle solving rock climbing and strength rock climbing combined.
Bouldering routes, referred to as ‘problems’ in bouldering, are usually up to 4 or 5 meters tall, but when bouldering outdoors, it may also include climbing rocks of up to 8 meters or so in a subdiscipline called high ball, which basically means high boulder.
In climbing, as in many other sports, there is extensive terminology used to refer to safety gear, techniques, types of ascents, difficulty grading systems, and so on. Here, we will list some of the most important terms used in the different disciplines.
Rock climbing and bouldering are very competitive sports, and difficulty is used a lot to identify the technical and physical challenges of the climbs. However, due to the difference in disciplines, there are different grading systems used in each. Even within each discipline, there are different scales, and we’ll be sure to discuss the one most widely used.
Rock Climbing – French Scale
The French scale is the most widely used grading system throughout the world. As the name implies, it originated in Europe, but even climbers in other continents have adopted this scale to translate their local scale to this one, due to its universality.
There are 3 components in the French scale: number, letter, and sign. One example is 7a+.
- Number: The first term is the most important since it’s the most general and it numerically assigns difficulty in an increasing fashion. A climb graded 8 is harder than a climb graded 7
- Letter: The letter comes second in importance. It can be “a”, “b” or “c” and difficulty is also sequential in an increasing fashion.
- Sign: Finally, signage is basically used to give more detailed difficulty. It could be interpreted as “easy” or “hard” for the number-letter grade.
Rock Climbing Grades – Yosemite Decimal System
The Yosemite Decimal System, simply abbreviated as YDS, is another popular grading scale, mainly because it’s the one used in the United States. Just like the French scale, it consists of 3 components: class, difficulty, and letter. An example of the system is 5.10a.
- Class: The first term of the YDS is a number that goes from 1 to 5 and refers to the type of terrain being traversed in increasing difficulty or risk. Rock climbing is almost entirely of class 5, with the occasional lower class sections connecting class 5 climbs on a multi-pitch.
- Difficulty: In rock climbing, the first term will always be a 5 followed by the difficulty. This starts at 1 and goes all the way up to 15 as of today.
- Letter: Starting from 5.10 onward, grading gets a letter to add more detail. Similar to the French scale, letters go up in increasing difficulty, but the YDS goes from “a” to “d.”
Rock Climbing – Difficulty and conversion
The YDS and French scales can usually be converted into the other, and they line up quite well. As an approximate classification, we could say the following, but take into consideration that it is subjective:
- 5.7 to 5.9 YDS / 5a – 5c FR: Beginner climbers
- 5.10a to 5.11d YDS / 6a – 7a FR: Intermediate climbers
- 5.12a to 5.13b YDS / 7a+ – 8a FR: Advanced climbers
- 5.13c to 5.14c YDS / 8a+ – 8c+ FR: Expert climbers, probably national champions
- 5.14d to 5.15d YDS / 9a to 9c FR: Elite climbers, probably world champions
Bouldering Grades – Font Scale
The Font scale works just like the French scale but is used for bouldering instead of rock climbing. And it is very important to note that even if they are made up identically, the grades are not comparable between both disciplines.
A 7a in the French scale and 7a in the Font scale do not refer to the same difficulty. One is meant for rock climbing and the other for bouldering.
Bouldering – V-Scale
The V scale is a simple scale that simply goes from V0 upward and each level increases in difficulty. Once again, an approximated range for classification could look something like this.
- V0-V2: Beginner boulderers
- V3-V6: Intermediate boulderers
- V7-V9: Advanced boulderers
- V10-V13: Expert boulderers
- V14-V17: Elite boulderers
For reference, at the time of writing, only 1 or 3 routes of V17 difficulty have been climbed in the world (due to the controversy of the grading of “No Kpote Only”) and only 2 to 3 climbers (due to the same controversy) in the world have been able to climb them.
Luckily, there are grade conversion charts for everyone who needs some guidance translating between grading systems. The following is a grading conversion chart from mojagear.com, but you can find many others online in case your particular scale is not included in this one.
Many of the terms that are specific to a particular discipline are gear terms, so to avoid repetition, those will be included in a section further ahead specifically dedicated to gear. Some of the most important terms in rock climbing and bouldering include…
- Bolt: The metal anchor that is directly bolted into the rock or wall for protection.
- To clip: To clip your rope into the protective gear placed on the wall.
- Anchor: A set of chains that mark the end of a single pitch climb or a belay station for a multi-pitch climb.
- Single pitch: A climb that can be completed and lowered down from with a single use of the rope and belayed from the ground in its entirety.
- Multi-pitch: A climb that consists of multiple pitches and cannot be belayed from the ground all the way up. Belayer must also climb up to the next anchor to continue belaying from there.
- Belay: To hold the rope, using a safety device, in order to secure the climber and catch any potential fall.
- Take: Where the belayer takes in as much rope as possible to catch the climber or hold the climber’s body weight, allowing rest.
- Slack: Where the belayer takes out more rope to give the climber more freedom to go up or make a maneuver.
- Lead climbing: To set the rope as you go up the climb.
- Top rope climbing: To climb on a route that already has a rope going all the way up.
- Spot: The act of protecting the climber from a fall by guiding the climber, especially the head, into the crash pad in case of a fall.
- Top out: To climb up to the top of the boulder and ‘finish the climb’ rather than falling or jumping down.
- Mantle: A type of move that is usually required for topping out. Consists of getting from the vertical section to the horizontal top of a problem to top out.
- Sit start: Beginning a problem sitting on the ground rather than in a standing position.
- Dab: When your foot touches the ground or crash pad, invalidating the climb if climbing strictly.
Gear for Rock Climbers vs Boulderers
Rock Climbing Shoes vs Bouldering Shoes
While the same shoes can be used for both bouldering and rock climbing, there are some factors that might make a difference and would be good to take into consideration.
Tightness, aggressiveness, sole solidness, and heel are probably the factors that play the biggest role.
Rock climbing involves longer climbs, so you might want to pick shoes that aren’t extremely tight so that you can wear them while you climb long routes without pain, or at least with pain you can tolerate.
As for aggressiveness and heels, many climbers tend to go for slightly less aggressive shoes in comparison to boulderers and don’t require having a great shoe heel that much.
For climbing boulders, on the other hand, we tend to pick tighter shoes to give the best possible sensitivity and control, even if it means more pain, as we can wear their shoes on and off as they see fit to rest between climbs. The same goes for the sole – boulderers prefer flexible soles to allow more constricted movements even if it is more tiring in the long run.
And, you see, since boulderers climb a lot on roofs, edges, and generally steeper terrain, they tend to have more aggressive shoes and shoes with very adept heels. They are great for outdoor boulders.
For a more in-depth guide as to which shoes should you pick, we recommend you take a look at our recommendations of the Best Versatile Climbing Shoes and the Best Choices for Bouldering Shoes.
As for safety gear, there are huge differences in what rock climbers use and what boulderers use.
The list for boulderers is short and simple: crash pad. That’s right, the crash pad is the only piece of safety gear used by boulderers as all they need to do is simply fall from the rock a couple of centimeters or meters up and land on a soft surface.
As for rock climbers, the list is a bit longer. The following is a brief description of the most used gear.
- Helmet: used both by the belayer and the climber in case of a climber fall or a rockfall.
- Rope: used to provide safety to the climber in case of a fall.
- Harness: used to attach the rope to the climber’s waist and to hold additional gear.
- Quickdraws: used to connect the fixed bolts on the wall to the rope the climber is using.
- Belay device: used by the belayer to hold and handle the rope, stopping any fall.
- Personal anchor system: used to attach the climber or belayer to the anchor in order to make maneuvers without having your weight on the rope.
Bouldering vs Rock Climbing Body – Which Muscles Are Worked?
In terms of muscles, rock climbing and bouldering are very different disciplines.
For rock climbers, endurance is one of the main factors, so muscle endurance and energy efficiency are of utmost importance. Boulderers, on the other hand, rely on explosive power and agility much more than sport climbers.
So, as a general distinction, boulderers rely on fast-twitch muscles and rock climbers develop their slow-twitch muscles the most. And both types of muscle fiber are present on muscles throughout the body, so even if the same muscle groups are used, they’re being used differently.
However, some muscle groups are slightly more used in either of the disciplines.
Muscles Used in Both Types of Rock Climbing
- Upper body in general: The upper body is exercised in all forms of the sport. Shoulders, biceps, triceps, and pectorals are all used and developed heavily in all forms of climbing.
- However, boulderers will notice more bulk in this area due to fast-twitching muscles being more voluminous.
- Lower body: Our legs are our strongest muscles that hold our body most of the time, even more so than our arms.
Quite often, the upper body is being used to keep the climber on the wall, but the legs are the ones holding most of the weight.
- Rock climbers will tend to develop more muscle in the calves because vertical climbing involves stepping with the tip of the toe and pushing up.
- Core: body tension is crucial in all forms of climbing, and this is mainly achieved with the core.
- Once again, boulderers will use their core more than rock climbers, mainly because they climb on more inclined scenarios such as roofs.
Do I Need to Train Differently for Rock Climbing vs Bouldering?
Boulderers should focus on training to max their strength by hangboarding with added weight, trying difficult boulder problems, and trying some of the moves that are more common in bouldering, such as heel hooks, toe hooks, and mantles. Bouldering climbing techniques require more explosive power, and that should be trained.
Rock climbers should focus on training their endurance, like climbing up and down in laps, connecting one boulder problem after another, or focus on their hangboarding and fingerboarding by holding for longer times and on smaller holds rather than with more added weight.
However, they both benefit a lot from full-body training plans to enhance their climbing skills.
How to Get Started
Now, for either discipline, it’s recommended to start with proper instruction and in safe environments such as indoor facilities.
Bouldering is probably the easiest to get into. The increased availability of climbing gyms, combined with a lower need for investment in gear, makes bouldering the easiest and cheapest introduction into the world of climbing.
Not a lot of indoor facilities offer a top-roping climbing wall, so it might be difficult to enter the sport this way, depending on where you live.
However, even if all you have in your city is a bouldering gym, it’s very easy to start climbing as an indoor boulderer and befriend climbers that also go sport climbing, and eventually joining them once you’ve learned the basics since you could use their gear too.
In addition to friends, there are also many rock climbing courses focused on roped climbing introduction, more so than bouldering courses since there are more safety precautions, gear, and technique involved.
And finally, one recommendation that we would like to make to people who are just starting on either discipline is to take it slow and give the body proper rest.
During your first months, you should focus almost entirely on just climbing more and training your technique in order to enjoy it and become a better climber.
Techniques in Bouldering vs Rock Climbing
Bouldering – Spotting
In bouldering, safety is provided by crash pads and spotters.
The main role of the spotter consists of directing the climber towards the crash pad in case of a fall. Making sure that the head specifically doesn’t hit the ground should be the number one priority.
Another vital role of spotters is to move the crash pads towards where the climber would most likely fall. This is especially important with high boulders and when one or a few crash pads are being used, and the entirety of the problem is not being covered.
Rock Climbing – Belaying
In rock climbing, safety is provided by the rope, the different pieces of gear, and the belayer. Here, the belayer should focus entirely on the sport climber. Proper instruction should be sought before belaying someone since that person’s life will be in your hands, quite literally.
Simply put, belaying is performed by passing the rope through a belay device. It can be a simple ATC or a self-locking device. The ATC is one of the most basic and universal pieces of gear in all mountain sports, so it’s something that should be mastered, but self-locking devices are safer and preferred by most climbers.
In bouldering, you will do a lot more hooks, dynos, traverses, and mantles. You will be using much more explosive power as well.
In rock climbing, you will be climbing vertically more often than not, doing a lot more high foots, smearing, and learning how to be energy efficient and finding rests mid-way through a climb.
Injury Concerns and Risks for Both
Both bouldering and rock climbing have 2 main risks or dangers involved: risk of injury due to overuse and risk of accidents.
Injuries due to overuse are the most common, but luckily usually less severe. They’re caused mainly due to climbing without properly warming up and also overusing tendons and ligaments after they’ve already been exhausted.
Overuse bouldering injuries also occur mostly when bouldering indoors.
Accident injuries tend to be more severe, and they differ greatly by discipline.
Statistically speaking, you are more likely to get injured while bouldering than while rock climbing, but the damage is usually less severe.
Luckily, these types of injuries can be minimized or prevented using crash pads correctly and with proper spotting.
Rock climbing, on the other hand, has far greater risks of worse accidents happening, which is why it utilizes much more safety equipment. Even a small and controlled fall usually results in small scrapes, bumps, and bruises.
So, this is why we strongly recommend and encourage always following safety procedures and wearing a helmet whenever you’re in a climbing area, even if you’re not climbing.
Is Bouldering Harder Than Rock Climbing?
Bouldering is not objectively harder or easier than rock climbing. Each has its own challenges and different people might feel one discipline is easier than the other.
Bouldering might have more physically demanding individual moves, but sport climbing requires a lot more endurance and arguably mental fortitude due to the height factor that rock climbing requires.
Which is Better Bouldering or Rock Climbing?
There is no real answer to which is better between rock climbing and bouldering. Many people enjoy either one, and many other climbers enjoy both. I personally enjoy the bouldering environment more than the rock climbing environment because it is more interactive.
However, I also feel more engaged when rock climbing, as if “in the zone”, and I get greater satisfaction when I get to the anchor. So, it all comes down to personal preferences.
Does Bouldering Make You a Better Climber?
Without a doubt, bouldering makes you a better climber. The climbing disciplines are very interconnected, and bouldering is a way to practice and train. The same muscles and similar techniques are used in both sports. Also, bouldering prepares you for hard individual moves, which you will encounter in roped climbs.
How Long Does It Take To Get Good at Bouldering?
Difficulty and progress in bouldering are not linear; you might get good quickly at first, and then your progress can tend to slow down. If you consistently climb and train 2 or 3 times a week, you are sure to notice improvement of several grade jumps even within your first two to three months.
Which Is Better for Beginners?
Bouldering and rock climbing are two climbing disciplines that welcome beginners nicely. Rock climbing requires you to split your time between climbing and belaying, while bouldering lets you focus your session entirely on climbing. Mainly, for this reason, I believe bouldering is better for beginners.
Does Bouldering Help Rock Climbing?
Bouldering helps rock climbing a lot. Not only does bouldering help you practice and train to become a better climber all around, but it also helps the sport and the community as a whole.
For starters, bouldering is much more welcoming and accessible, and that’s why most people get into rock climbing through bouldering.
If you liked this you might also enjoy reading about the differences between static and dynamic climbing, and to make sure you train your body properly, check out what muscles are used in rock climbing and bouldering to design a training plan that fits your needs.
Alex is a computer scientist from Mexico currently studying a PhD on cancer genomics. He is a full-time researcher, a regular weekend warrior, and someone who enjoys sharing his thoughts through writing. He first started climbing at uni, where he fell in love with the beautiful places it took him. So, he promised himself he would someday experience the beauty of climbing and nature in every continent. Nowadays, after several years with this motivation in mind, school and work have taken Alex to 4 different continents already. This has given him the opportunity to make friends all over the world, experience different cultures and their communities, as well as the chance to listen all the stories these people have to share. Alex hopes these adventures will continue for many years, and is eager to share his experiences as a wandering climber.