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A Guide For Climbers: Bouldering Drills 101

A Guide For Climbers: Bouldering Drills 101

Whether you are trying to “up” your bouldering game by adding bouldering drills into your climbing regimen or you want to switch up your bouldering training with new or different drills, here is your training guide to become a stronger climber.

Why Include Bouldering Drills In Your Climbing Regimen

Bouldering Drills aren’t for everyone. If you are happy with your current skill level and strength and you don’t want to become a better climber, then don’t do bouldering drills. As for everyone else, improving your climbing exercise regimen with bouldering drills is a great way to level up your climbing skills and physical health.  According to a study about the relationship between climbing ability and physiological responses to rock climbing, improved exercise regimen leads to increased time to exhaustion and an improvement in climbing performance.

How To Choose Which Drills To Add to Your Regimen

There are hundreds of bouldering drills and chances are your climbing friend has a list to share with you so there is no shortage of drills. But which ones should you implement into your bouldering training?

The first thing you should do is evaluate your current climbing strengths and weaknesses. One way you can do this is by trying climbs of different styles in a level below your current level and evaluate the key strengths needed for climbing. 

Key Strengths In Climbing

  • Strength: Hand, Forearm, Bicep, Shoulders, Legs and Core
  • Dynamic vs Static climbing
  • Endurance
  • Footwork Technique
  • Balance
  • Momentum
  • Flexibility
  • Different types of climbing holds – here is a climbing hold proficiency test that is easy to do and great for showing your strengths and weaknesses for different types of climbing holds.

Once you have evaluated your key strengths and weaknesses, find bouldering drills that complement them for your climbing training. There are many drills that focus on each key strengths, so try a few of them over the course of a few training sessions and find which one you like the most.

After you have been practicing the drills for a month-or-so, re-evaluate your climbing strengths and find bouldering drills that complement your key strengths and weaknesses.

Number of Drills Per Training Session

Your climbing goals should dictate how many drills to include in your training sessions. Keep in mind that some bouldering drills are more intense than others, so if your training session is difficult and tiresome, you probably don’t want to include more than one intense drill. Instead, you can include one or two lower intensity drills. Many climbers prefer pairing high-intensity trainings with low-intensity drills as breaks throughout the session. On the other hand, you can make a whole training session with just bouldering drills. 

Whatever intensity, frequency or amount of drills that you include in your training sessions, make sure that you don’t overuse any muscles and pay attention to how your body feels throughout the session. Try experimenting every week to find the sweet spot that leaves you tired, but able to recover by your next training session.

Don’t forget to warm-up

Prior to climbing, and especially before you start a bouldering drill, make sure that you warm-up. Many climbers on YouTube say that they don’t warm up, but warming up decreases the chances of getting injured and helps you climb harder. For example, warming-up gets blood flowing throughout your body which decreases the likelihood of getting pumped and results in being able to climb longer/more intense climbs.

7 Bouldering Drills

Professional climbers, trainers and everyone in between have their favorite drills, so here is an accumulation of some of the best drills that will help you with different aspects of climbing. Once you have evaluated your current strengths and weaknesses you can choose what drills you should focus on first. 

Below is a list of 7 drills from professional climbers, training books and some of my favorite drills. Each drill outlines the main climbing focus and the difficulty so that you can evaluate when to use them. I recommend trying out a couple of them to see what works best for you and make adjustments as needed.

1. Three Limb Climbing

Focus: Dynamic Climbing, Grip Strength, Footwork

Difficulty: Varies On Level

This bouldering drill is really fun and a great way to practice dynamic climbing. An interesting thing about this drill is that it helps with your grip strength and footwork at the same time, which isn’t commonly found in bouldering drills. The way this happens if that by removing a limb, the other three limbs have to work harder to compensate. 

For example, if you climb with both your hands and one of your feet, you have to grip harder when you are changing foothold because there isn’t anything to counterbalance the weight. At the same time, you have to focus on where your foot goes and if you don’t set the foot right, you fall.

How It’s Done

  1. Identify 3-5 routes/problems that are 1-3 levels below your climbing skill
  2. Choose a limb that you will not use for the duration of the routes/problems
  3. For the limb that you aren’t using, keep it at your side

Pro Tip:

There are three levels to this drill, so try them all out and decide what works best for your climbing skills and needs. 

  • Level 1: The limb you have chosen may touch the wall. It isn’t allowed to be on any climbing holds, but it can touch the climbing wall and can swing to help you get to the next hold.
  • Level 2: The limb you have chosen may only swing. It isn’t allowed to be on any climbing holds or touch the wall but you can swing it to help your momentum for each hold.
  • Level 3: The limb you have chosen must stay behind your body like a dead weight. You may not place it on any climbing hold, touch the wall, or swing it.

2. Downclimbing

Focus: Endurance, Footwork, Core Strength

Difficulty: Medium

Downclimbing is a great drill for bouldering because it focuses on many aspects of bouldering that may be neglected otherwise. In addition to doubling the length of a climbing route/problem, which is great for endurance, it also forces you to pay attention to where you place your feet before moving when you are coming down. In addition, if you are climbing on an inclined wall, it will usually force you to engage your core more than you would when you climb up.

How It’s Done

  1. Find climbs that are 1-2 levels below your current skill level
  2. Complete the climb and then instead of topping out, climb down the same way you climbed up
  3. Repeat on 5-7 different routes

Pro Tip:

Another variation of this drill is to climb up one route/problem and then while you are at the top of the climb, side climb to a different climb (preferably a grade higher) and downclimb that route.

3. 4x4s

Focus: Endurance, 

Difficulty: Hard

4x4s is a common interval bouldering exercise that is based on a high amount of climbs at a lower grade of intensity. Interval bouldering is incredibly powerful for helping you be able to do harder and longer climbs.

This study about the effect of interval bouldering on hanging and climbing time to exhaustion suggests that interval bouldering is a highly effective method to increase hanging and climbing time to exhaustion in competitive bouldering.

How It’s Done:

  1. Pick 4 boulder routes/problems that are 2-4 grades below your max. If V0 or V1 is your max, add feet or hands to your problems to make them easier (you want to be able to just finish the circuit) 
  2. Do all 4 routes/problems in a row without resting within 5-6 minutes (if the boulder problem includes a top-out, either choose a different route or climb down
  3. Jog to each problem to keep your heart rate up
  4. Rest 4 minutes between sets if your bouldering and repeat 4xs 

Pro Tip:

If you fall off before the halfway mark, try the problem again or start the route where you fell off. If you fall from more than halfway up, move onto the next route/problem.

4. Tennis Ball Climbing

Focus: Grip Strength, Footwork, Core Strength

Difficulty: Hard

Since the difficulty of this drill varies on the size of your hands, to make it more difficult or easy, adjust the size of the object that you are holding while climbing. I recently tried this drill and found it difficult because my hands hardly reached around the tennis ball. If you have smaller hands like me, then I suggest holding something smaller like a stress ball or golf ball to start.

You will find that while doing this drill, you have to depend on your feet and core to hold yourself in place, which is why in addition to your grip strength, it is great for footwork and core strength.

How It’s Done:

  1. Identify 3-5 climbs that are 1-3 levels below your climbing skill
  2. Climb each route with a tennis ball in each of your hands

Pro Tip:

Choose a specific type of climbing hold such as a crimp and for the duration of this drill, only do climbs that are mainly that type of climbing hold. If you don’t know what climbing hold to focus on, check out this climbing hold proficiency test to see where you need the most work.

5. Speed Climb

Focus: Dynamic Climbing, Momentum

Difficulty: Easy

This drill is not specific to speed climbing walls, this is for any bouldering problem. By focusing on the speed which you climb, you are forced to use dynamic moves and rely on your momentum. This bouldering drill is perfect for climbers like me who needs to work on dynamic moves requiring momentum.

How It’s Done:

  1. Identify 1-2 climbs that are a couple of levels below your skill
  2. Time how long it takes to complete your climb
  3. Repeat the each climb 4 more times (5xs total) while trying to increase speed each time.

6. Coin Holds 

Focus: Footwork 

Difficulty: Low

This drill from 99 boulders is a great exercise for footwork that is unique and can “liven-up” your climbing regimen. It does require a large area in the climbing gym that won’t be disturbed with other climbers, so it may be for the less crowded climbing gym.

How It’s Done

  1. In an empty part of the climbing wall, put coins on as many holds as possible that they won’t fall off.
  2. Begin bouldering using any handhold BUT only footholds with coins on them
  3. When you place your foot on the foothold, avoid knocking the coin off
  4. Repeat 10xs

Pro Tip:

If you knock a coin off, do five push-ups, put the coin back and start over

7. Lockoffs

Focus: Endurance, Arm Strength, Core Strength

Difficulty: Medium

This is a strength-focused exercise paired with endurance. You can, of course, go to the weight racks and build strength and endurance in that part of the gym, but like many climbers – building strength and endurance while climbing is preferred. 

How It’s Done

  1. Identify routes/problem that you have finished in the past and can finish consecutively 2-3 times
  2. Climb each route/problem while doing a full lockoff position each time you move your hands – bend your elbow completely and touch your shoulder to the new hand/handhold position

Pro Tip:

You can make this drill more difficult by doing climbing routes at a steeper incline

Conclusion

Every climber, no matter their level, can benefit from bouldering drills. The first step is to identify your climbing weaknesses and implement climbing drills that complement those weaknesses. If you don’t like a drill or find it too difficult, there are plenty of other drills for each climbing strength and it is worth trying a few different ones to see what works best.

Before your training session begins, warm up so that your blood flow is adequate for your training session. I included above, my favorite bouldering drills that cover many different climbing strengths. If you have a drill that you recommend and don’t see on the list, please send them through – I know I’m not the only one that would appreciate it.