How to Improve Bouldering Skills and Technique

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I’ve been climbing for awhile now and I’ve always enjoyed bouldering problems. To me, I enjoy the shorter routes filled with very technical moves that come with bouldering. I’ve observed my peers improving on top-rope, especially transitioning into 5.10a/b and above grades, by getting on boulder problems. It makes sense because the focus is more on the technique, rather than the pure muscle endurance that sometimes comes with climbing top-rope.

Here are “tips” I have found most useful in my personal training:

Build up Skin Strength! 

My buddy tells me I need to grow callouses like a garden, not to tape up and certainly don’t pick on callouses. (Yes, I have a picking problem) I also started out taping fingers because my skin was coming off… but apparently this is not the best solution to build “skin strength”.

I learned to build up those callouses on “easy” grade boulders doing circuit climbs (climb up/down 1 Vb/V0 boulder then without feet touching the ground, get onto the next accessible vb/v0 boulder route and repeat until grip strength is exhausted.) Sometimes the phrase “No pain no gain” is the best way to describe it.

Now, I only tape up when my skin is healing from a nasty flapper injury and the new skin is just too soft and raw to risk being torn again. Otherwise, I try to avoid taping my hands.

2. Teach your body placement and the 3 point of contact rule

While me and my peers are sometimes eager to jump right onto more technical boulder problems, It is beneficial to incorporate more send-able problems adding but each time focusing on making each climb EFFORTLESS AND CONTROLLED. It’s amazing how making your moves more static, instead of trying to muscle through every move, can change your abilities on the wall. Also, integrate climbing down the route after topping the route.

The key to this is to focus on having 3 points of contact on the wall for as many moves as possible, whether this is both feet + 1 hand or 1 foot+ 2 hands etc.

Pro climber Sasha Digiulian also recommended beginners to work on mastered problems, but make each climb more and more effortless, as a way to learn the best placement for your body. There are many routes that incorporate certain moves to achieve success. While, there are no “rules” how to climb a route, a nicely placed heel-hook, for example, can sometimes be the difference between sending the route, and landing on your butt. Speaking of practice, most climbers make the mistake of spending their entire session working on difficult problems, and once they’ve sent them, they never return. This is the equivalent of a basketball player making a shot once, or a dancer getting through a routine once and then never trying it again. The only way to master movement is by repeating problems and routes that you’ve already done. A lot. Changing your goal from sending a problem to mastering a problem will lead to faster technique and movement skills acquisition.

Udo Neumann, the head coach for the German climbing team, said the same thing: “Find something difficult and repeat it until it becomes easy…. If you can do it perfect every time, then it’s not hard enough for you.”

Take a moment to study the problem before you climb on

I see competition climbers do this at the world cup level, and we do it ourselves when trying to map out a difficult new problem. Study the route and then visualize how  you can send the route. This seems to be a non-tip but most people just hop on. And I’ve been guilty of this many times. After a few failures, usually you’ll find yourself looking at the route and doing this as second nature. It’s a good idea to make this a habit as a way to mentally prepare and figure out your own approach according to body type. One of the mistakes people make while bouldering/training is to try to take what works for someone else, as a template for your own training. You may risk injuring yourself because you may be following what is best for someone else’s body type or climbing style. If you’re a shorter climber, you may eventually need to learn to do more dynamic moves. There are different perks for every body type. Take everything you see and hear, and try to use pieces that go along with your climbing style and preferences. The beauty of climbing is the freedom you are allowed. There are no rules, just get to the top of the route.

Warm up

Let’s face it: climbing IS a dangerous sport. I have been in the gym multiple times when a climber has fallen and broke an ankle and had to wait till the paramedics came in.

If you’re an absolute beginner, you need to warm up properly. Warm up your entire body (jump rope, running in place, etc) then warm up specific joints especially wrist and elbows (golfer’s elbow is very common among climbers when they begin to tackle harder problems). When we go to the gym, we pick out a couple very easy routes and climb them very leisurely and controlled before moving on to the more difficult routes. This pumps blood into the muscles and definitely seems to help prevent injuries.

I like these types of warm ups because it focuses the ranges of motion that I actually use in my own climbing, while not being very strenuous. Also, you can traverse (climb across walls). I do these as part of warming up, but having learned my lesson a few times, but warming up the entire body with specific motions as well as warming up via climbing is ideal.

Strength Training

Unless you’re rather out of shape, your time should not be spent on climbing specific training, such as hang boards, campus boards, etc.. Believe it or not, being too strong at the beginning can be detrimental to your eventual progress. One guy I used to climb with trained as a bodybuilder and was remarkably strong. Initially he progressed rapidly, and could power through technical parts of the route, simply because he could muscle his was through. But after about a year he started plateauing and had difficulty doing the harder problems. He had so much power early on that he relied on strength and static motion, when the problems started getting harder and holds further apart, he found herself unable to complete them. It was much harder to break his bad habits after they already formed, than it would have been to slow down at the beginning and focus more on movement and less on progressing through the grades. That being said, there is a certain level of fitness that is required to learning movements. If you can’t do at least 5 pull-ups or hold a plank position for at least 30 seconds then it may be best to spend a short amount of time at the end of every climbing session to work on these things. Also, become conscious of how much of your session is actually spent climbing vs. socializing and hanging out. I know many climbers (especially boulderers) who are frustrated by a lack of progress but spend less than a quarter of their climbing time actually climbing. Don’t get me wrong, the friendships and advice you get from fellow climbers are extremely valuable. But when you’re at the rock wall trying to get better, treat it as a training session.

Make Goals and Plans

One of the most important things is to create a plan and goals. Initially the plan doesn’t have to be very complicated or detailed. Start with planning on which days you’ll climb and for how long, and make a goal of sending a certain number of problems per day. As soon as you can, try setting some long term goals. When I first started climbing I was lucky to have friends who encouraged me to do just this, and who did it themselves. I wrote down several goals for my climbing- climb 5.14, send V13, and things like that. These early goals helped me look beyond the current route, project, or season and focus on the things that would help me improve the most. It was a pretty cool experience when, after years of training and routes, I walked into my room and checked the last box on that list.

There are no shortcuts

This is probably the biggest thing most climbers need to realize- there are no magic solutions to becoming a better climber. Truth of the matter is it takes work to climb hard. Lots and lots of work. But in the end its worth the price. Many people look at stronger climbers and talk about ‘genetic freaks’, very few look at accomplished climbers and talk about how much work went into getting where they are. Most of us climbing hard grades have been at it for a long time, with thousands of routes and problems under our belt.

The last thing is: Enjoy it! Climbing is fun, and sometimes its easy to lose track of that in the midst of training and trying new problems.

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