The Basics of Bouldering
Updated: Sep 15
Written by Gray O'Reilly
I had been climbing for two whole years before I touched a rope. Blasphemous, I know. But from the moment I stepped into the climbing gym, I felt the magnetic pull of indoor bouldering. It whispered to me, don’t worry, you won’t have to climb up so high if you climb over here. And so I went on my merry way in my pair of climbing shoes and trusty chalk bag, scaling the tiny twelve-foot walls over and over until my skin was so raw that I dreaded holding a pen the next day.
And as much as I loved the boulders, I found that I progressed slowly. Months passed and I continued to fall on the same grades. I didn’t feel like I was getting any stronger or any better at climbing, so I put my head down and hit the gym. That’s what you’re supposed to do right? Not exactly.
Over the years that followed I tried just about everything to see results in my climbing. Here’s what I learned:
Some Basics of Bouldering
Talk to other climbers in the climbing gym.
Without an experienced eye, it can be difficult to identify mistakes on the wall. On ropes, you could take, think through the move, try something, fail, try something different, fail, and take your time as you work each sequence. On boulders, there’s only one sequence. And it happens quick. Sure, you can hop off the problem and think over the beta from the ground. You can even skip a couple of moves to try the crux. But learning to boulder without talking to other climbers is like trying to pick out an outfit with no mirror: you only have the one, limited perspective. When you hop off the problem ask the climbers around you what they saw. Often times you will find that holds you thought were out of reach are actually well within reach. Another climber may identify where your feet ought to be or which direction you should turn. This is invaluable information as you can now identify these mistakes yourself as you climb.
Do not look at grades.
They will ruin you. If you’re interested in learning a bit more about climbing grades, check this out, but for the purpose of learning the basics of bouldering, grades simply cause bad climbing habits.
Climbing grades are rough estimations made by setters and forerunners. They climb the problems, then evaluate the problem by comparing the holds and movement to the thousands of other problems they’ve climbed. Then they make a guess. As standard as we like to pretend grades are, they just aren’t. Sometimes a V4 climbs more like a V6. Sometimes a V3 climbs more like a V1. And sometimes an agreed upon V5 is going to feel like a V9 to you and a V0 to someone else. Subjectivity is the nature of climbing. We have different bodies, strengths, weaknesses, and styles. So try not to cramp your own by worrying about grades.
Pull-ups will not make you a better climber.
You heard me! Pull-ups are a great exercise. They build lats, biceps, traps, and pecs and are the foundation of countless other climbing exercises. But at the end of the day, pull-ups are no substitute for climbing. This goes for all of the essential workouts: squats for leg day, sit-ups for core, bench press for pecs. Working through the first several months of climbing can be frustrating. Gains may not happen soon enough, you may experience your first plateau, and your skin will be raw and painful. Any combination of these things may lead a new climber to begin focusing on other workouts to improve their climbing. And while you will improve your base fitness level, you will see minimal, if any, results in your climbing. The best way to advance through the early stages of climbing? Climb. This does not mean to cut back on your base fitness. If you generally lift twice a week and climb twice a week, continue to do so! Simply do not substitute one of those climbing days for another lifting day and expect to see results in your climbing.
Watch other climbers.
That one really strong climber that crushes all of the crimpy V7s? Watch them climb. How do they position their body under the crimps? Are they closed crimping or open crimping? Watch their hips, and notice when they turn into and away from the wall. Like anything else, you can learn an awful lot by watching those who know what they are doing! And don’t be afraid to ask questions. “Hey, how did you reach that hold?” or “Yo, on this red one, how would you position your feet?” are more than acceptable questions in the gym. You are now a part of one of the most accepting communities you’ll ever find. We are all there to help one another out!
But don’t compare yourself to them.
I personally find this to be difficult, and I think a lot of other climbers do as well. As I said before, we all have different body types and styles and as such, climbing is a highly individualistic sport. I, for one, am 6′ 3″. I learned quickly that beta used by other climbers will almost definitely not work for me. And vice versa! So while we all come together to engage in this amazing expression of fitness and community, I urge you to keep this in the back of your mind: the only person judging your climbing is yourself. The rest of us are just watching!
So next time you come into the gym, maybe you’ll veer away from those big, tall walls with the ropes and find yourself in the bouldering section. Try out these tips to get started in bouldering!
Another crucial piece to bouldering, and climbing in general, is understanding the basics of footwork.