Outdoor Bouldering as Training

Bouldering is arguably the best all-around training method since it can produce improvement in all three areas of the performance triad (physical, technical, mental). Without the constraints of belaying and placing gear, bouldering allows you to narrow your focus onto the mission of climbing the hardest moves you are capable of doing. What’s more, steep boulder problems are a boon for developing upper body power as well as the vital core muscles of the torso. Add the camaraderie of a few friends and bouldering becomes one of the most gratifying training and climbing experiences.

physical-lantz-horstOn the flip side, bouldering as training does have some limitations. The technical difficulties of a given problem may prevent you from climbing until muscular failure (which is ideal for strength training). Furthermore, the wide range of different finger positions typically used in sending a boulder problem means it’s unlikely you will ever train a single grip position to failure. Of course, most of these “flaws” can be addressed in designing indoor boulder problems that isolate a specific grip, move, or arm position. The goal of this article, however, is to promote the many advantages of bouldering in the great outdoors. Let’s get started!

As a rule of thumb, consider outdoor bouldering as a valid method for training upper body power, technique, and a variety of mental attributes including tenacity, focus and the “killer instinct.” Begin each bouldering session with a purpose whether it be to work just a few hard routes (train power and maximum strength), send a slew of more moderate routes (train anaerobic endurance), or climb specific routes that will train known technical and physical weaknesses (skills practice). Each approach is equally valid though most climbers go bouldering with the first purpose, of working maximal routes, in mind–these individuals would definitely benefit from greater diversity in their bouldering sessions.

Another key distinction for maximizing the “training effect” of time spent bouldering outside is to focus on quality over quantity. Beating yourself up with a rapid-fire succession of attempts (and failures) on a problem or thrashing up a large number of known routes can be ounterproductive. With this approach, you won’t perform at your best on most routes, you’ll tend to “hard-wire” inefficient moves, and risk getting injured. Instead, force yourself to rest more than you think you need to, and attempt each problem with the goal putting out your best effort (physically, mentally and technically). As a rough rule of thumb, rest for three minutes between attempts of short bouldering problems (6 hand moves or less), five minutes for medium-length problems (7 to 15 hand movements), and ten minutes (or more) between attempts at super long problems.

Finally, keep the session reasonable in length so as to not dig yourself too deep a hole to recover from (or risk injury). Two to four hours of bouldering (using the above rest guidelines) is plenty, although more advanced climbers may benefit with a brief period of additional strength training (fingerboard, weighted pull-ups, or a few laps on the campus board) afterwards.

Copyright 2009 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.