I love bouldering, it’s the perfect training for hard climbs. If you want to become a stronger climber, doing more bouldering is the surefire bullet to do it. And you can do it in a gym during wintertime with your friends. Plus it’s a boatload of fun. Why does it work? You become a stronger climber and also better at climbing by climbing more and harder. Bouldering is the essence of the hardest parts of climbing. It puts focus on these skills without bothering with belaying, gear and other safety-related skills. Bouldering challenges your body with complex requirements – also in terms of which muscles it uses. When you start out you will feel soreness in parts of your body you never even knew existed.
It makes little sense to practice these muscles with isolated strength exercises, like as exercising biceps with dumbbells. The more similar the training is to real climbing movements, the better it works.
If you are a beginner – just focus on bouldering. You won’t need much more for the first two years. But keep a few things in mind: How to successfully set training incentives, what good recovery looks like, and what aspects of training should be included. That way you can do intensive training loads while still recovering and becoming stronger and not injured.
Training stimuli and super compensation
In order for the body to become stronger and not stagnant, you must regularly set a training stimulus that exceeds your current capabilities. Otherwise, the muscles have no reason to get stronger.
Therefore you have to regularly try “too heavy” bouldering and movements so that your muscles get the signal that they have to develop more power (“training stimulus”). If you keep setting the same stimulus you won’t progress. Worst case scenario you become even weaker: Because most climbers are technically becoming better in the long run, their power sometimes even goes down.
To get stronger, it is necessary to try harder moves than you can already.
Another way to set meaningful training stimuli is variety: Other exercises, trying a different gym or training volume and changes in intensity. Try something different at least every few weeks or at least add something new to your program.
After setting training stimuli, your body then needs a certain amount of time to adapt to the load and build up the required strength – this happens in the regeneration phase after the exercise. To recover well and gain strength your body needs enough sleep, a balanced diet and low stress (in other areas of life).
You will become stronger during your rest periods.
Regeneration and breaks
Without adequate rest periods, it is not possible to build up strength. Reasonable breaks are different for different people. Beginners recover faster from a hard-felt workout than an advanced climber because advanced climbers can take stronger stimuli, and the “repair” will cost their body more energy.
Another important factor is the fact that different power-delivery systems of the muscles take different lengths to recover. Glycogen, the main fuel of the muscles, replenishes within 24 to 48 hours. However, cell damage that occurs as a micro-trauma during hard training may take up to a week or more to be repaired.
A good rule of thumb is to get to know your body well and to respect its signals.
Do you feel well rested after the last boulder session? Or are your fingers and arms still sore? Are you feeling fit and motivated again?
Advanced climbers and experienced trainers can go bouldering with some residual fatigue left, but it is also crucial to regularly take some light units. After a few hard training sessions, you can even take a longer break, so that your body can recover well and repair the accumulated micro-damage. If you don’t, you risk training overload in the long-run.
Why easy sessions are important
Although heavy sessions are important, light units have their place as well. For example, fluid movements, technique consolidation, and stamina work best in longer, lighter sessions.
Stamina is also important for boulderers. I know the routes are short, but stamina works for between the boulders too. More stamina means faster improvement between routes and this ultimately makes you climb more in a session. And climbing more means climbing better in the long run.
I recently learned that a measurement of the average bouldering times in the World Cup has shown that “on-sight” climbs are a question of strength-endurance rather than of maximum-force because they can take up to a minute. For beginners and advanced users with less than two years of climbing experience, it is important to develop your blood vessels to supply your forearms with blood.
Having good capillaries allows for intense metabolism in the muscles and will directly improve your performance. Sufficient capillarization also helps to prevent sore forearms and pumping, as well as helps your muscles to build up more strength. Sounds good right? So, keep doing longer, 20- to 40-minute sessions with low intensity (ie below the surge limit). You can do this even as an advanced climber to make sure your muscular metabolism stays up.
If you stop making progress
If bouldering alone doesn’t make you better anymore, you need to make a targeted program to become a stronger climber. Climbers mainly want to improve their relative strength in relation to body weight. Therefore, absolute muscle growth, as is useful in power sports such as weight lifting, is not really that useful for you.
But for your grip strength, hypertrophy training (hypertrophy = muscle growth) is useful, especially for beginners and advanced, because the finger muscles are usually not very pronounced and won’t be really trained by a general fitness regimen.
There are different physical constitutions, genetic predispositions, and individual life situations, as well as a big difference between beginners and experts. So your exercise plans must be individually designed to work.
Bouldering training – what, how and why?
The focus in boulder training is on finger strength, upper body strength, and body tension. Fingers hold your body on the wall – but only when the rest of the body holds the tension.
As these aspects are interconnected they can be trained together in bouldering. Your overall fitness will be that of your weakest link. If you fail you will fail with your weakest link, so improving weaknesses is very important to make you an overall better climber.
Grip and finger training for bouldering
You will gain finger strength from bouldering on small handles, or from interval hanging on the fingerboard. But keep in mind to train to hang with activated shoulders and core while minimizing any movement. Your fingers should be halfway open or hanging completely open.
Only train your fingers when you are recovered and still fresh.
To prevent injuries to the fingers, it makes sense to make them strong. Strong fingers are less injury prone and they will also allow you to hold holds longer. Win-win. Finger training under controlled conditions, like a campus board, allows great strength gains without straining the ligaments and tendons of the fingers as much as a similar training stimulus would in pure bouldering.
As a beginner, you train your finger power mainly by bouldering so keep practicing easy holds and don’t overdo it. Finger injuries suck and take a relatively long time to heal up.
A short session (10 minutes warm up, then 15 minutes training) on the board once or twice a week can significantly improve your finger strength.
Call to Action
Go bouldering 1-2 per week for the next four weeks and tell me how that has worked out for you. I promise you – you will see a major difference in how you climb!
Make sure to read the guide to find good places to climb too.