So what is bouldering and what can it do for you?
Bouldering involves climbing relatively short sections of a cliff or indoor walls usually less than 4 meters high. Because falling from this height doesn’t usually result in death, boulderers can free themselves from using a climbing rope and harness and concentrate solely on maximum gymnastic difficulty. Getting to the top of the cliff is not the issue – bouldering has more to do with exploring one’s personal physical limits than “summiting”.
Boulder problems vary enormously in style and length from single or no move problems (“Dead hangs” where the challenge is to hang from some minuscule hold) to long traverses. There are generally two grading systems used for boulder problems worldwide: the American “V” system and the French system. Short straight up problems where success is reliant on power are usually distinguished and graded slightly differently to long traversing problems where power-endurance plays a greater part. It is very difficult to compare these two styles of boulder problems as they require two very different types of physical strength: power and power-endurance. It’s even more difficult to compare the grades of boulder problems to the grades of climbs and any comparison will only be a rough approximation.
Safety and Injury Prevention
To the uninitiated, bouldering may appear to present little risk of injury. Due to the high intensity of bouldering, this is far from the truth.
Finger and Shoulder Injuries
Both acute finger and shoulder injuries are a common result of attempting short, intense boulder problems at one’s physical limit. The best way to avoid finger and shoulder injuries is to gradually increase the intensity of your bouldering over a extended period – preferably a number of years. This way slow growing tendons have time to adapt to the stresses imposed by bouldering. Warming up carefully also plays a huge part in preventing injuries of this type.
As there are no ropes used to stop boulderers in mid-flight every fall while bouldering is potentially a ground fall. It is remarkable the amount of damage you can do to ankles, wrists and your backside when falling from a height of only one or two meters. To be able to explore one’s physical limits, which is one of the main attractions of bouldering, it is necessary to attempt moves that will often result in a fall. As it is difficult to risk falling if the outcome is likely to result in injury, the precautions taken to avoid injury in bouldering play a huge part in exploring your personal physical limits.
There are a number of precautions boulders take to avoid hitting the ground. Firstly crash pads are laid below the problem in roughly the place you expect to land. There are crash pads available on the market or you can make your own from sections of 3-6 inch thick, dense, closed cell foam wrapped in a durable cover. The other precaution is to boulder with a partner – besides making bouldering more fun it makes it safer as you can take it in turns to “spot” each other.
What Should a Spotter Do in Bouldering?
The job of the “spotter” is to protect the climber’s head, break their fall and guide his or her body to the best available landing. A good spotter will catch you whenever you explode off unexpectedly whereas a bad spotter will help you up after you have hit the ground! When spotting it is generally best to catch your partners backside or hips, close to their center of gravity, and guide them to a predetermined landing site. I find if I concentrate on the position and movement of their center of gravity (just above the waist) rather than focusing on how the person is bouldering, I am more likely to spot correctly.
Bouldering and Training
Many people boulder because they enjoy bouldering others use it to train for other aspects of climbing such as sports climbing. The beauty of using bouldering as training for climbing is it is very climbing specific unlike lifting weights or compassing that build strength and power separately from a climbing technique. Bouldering is also very versatile – you can vary your bouldering programme to achieve any climbing goal, whether it’s to become a great boulder or to climb long sustained routes out on the cliff. The majority of people use bouldering to achieve strength gains.
The principles for strength training for climbing are very similar to those of weight training where to build strength you use a large weight (80-100% of your maximum lift) and lift it a few times and to build power-endurance through weight training you lift a lighter weight (50-80% max lift) many times.
Bouldering works the same way if you try a short boulder problem with 0-8 moves close to your maximum effort you will be working your maximum climbing strength (or power) whereas if you work a longer problem where the moves aren’t quite as hard (again 50-80% of your maximum effort) but there are more of them (say 8 to 25) this will help develop power-endurance. Fifty to 65 move problems may work endurance or power endurance depending on your level of fitness and the intensity of the moves you are performing (less than 50% max is sometimes used to define endurance).
Power, power endurance and endurance (being able to recover on larger holds so you can complete subsequent moves) all contribute to becoming a well-rounded climber. However, power and power-endurance play the biggest part in the harder sports routes.
If you can’t do the moves on a route then there is no way you will ever get up that route! It follows then that the stronger you are, the more chance you have of doing any particular move or route.
If your maximum strength increases then the moves you can perform on your power-endurance problems (or routes) before you pump out will also increase.
Being able to do harder moves or boulder problems is, therefore, a very important part of climbing harder routes. However, bouldering by itself will not guarantee you will climb harder. What makes climbing so interesting is it is more than just strength. Often people who can do very hard boulder problems are not overly good at climbing routes. There are two reasons for this. Climbing short powerful problems doesn’t make you very fit and people often neglect training for longer distances (power-endurance and endurance) so they are not physically able to hang on for long periods. Also solely completing short hard problems doesn’t teach you how to link a large number of successive moves together. This requires the ability to make a large number of technical decisions quickly, in an often physically stressed situation. If you want to climb longer routes it’s very important to include long boulder problems or long routes in your training.
Tailoring you bouldering to your goal
Goals are enormously varied, but here is an example of how you may use bouldering to achieve a particular goal. You may have been working on a steep, 15m, Grade 20 sport climb in the Blue Mountains and you find that you’re always running out of juice about 5 meters from the top.
Your goal is to complete this horror show within 4 months! You train twice a week at your local climbing gym. Count the number of hand movements the route requires. It will probably be around 30-35 for a 15m route. One of your training days should be devoted to training your power and the other day to training power-endurance or endurance.
On the first day devise, with a few friends, a problem that you find desperate but could conceive completing eventually. You’ll need to try a few different hard problems or you’ll be bored senseless!
On the other training-day devise a 35-40 move bouldering circuit (slightly longer than your route). You should be able to complete the circuit. Complete this circuit 4 -5 time with the appropriate rest in between (10-15 minutes). Make sure you remember the circuit and the duration of the rest.
After a number of weeks or months, the amount of rest you require will decrease. When the rest diminishes to 5 minutes then increase the difficulty of the circuit. In a few months, the route at the crag will seem like a walk in the park. At least that the theory!