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Bouldering vs Climbing: training, skills, strength, grades,

Bouldering vs Climbing: training, skills, strength, grades,

Bouldering and climbing are both climbing disciplines and there are many differences. This article outlines the differences in the gear the physical demand, cultural/social and mental differences that separate the two.

The most noticeable difference between the two is the height that you climb.

Bouldering is a type of rock climbing that doesn’t require a rope or harness because you only climb up to 12-15 feet. Rock climbing requires a rope and harness and you frequently climb more than 30 feet off the ground.

If you have been rock climbing or bouldering recently and wondered if the other type of climbing discipline is worth trying or which one is the best, then this article will provide you with what you need to know so you can decide on your own.

There are multiple types of climbing disciplines but this article breaks down the differences between rope-dependent disciplines (climbing) and non-rope climbing (bouldering).

Since everyone has their own preferences and goals in climbing, which discipline is best is completely subjective so here is in-depth details to help you decide if it is worth cross-training or trying out the other discipline.

What Is Bouldering

Bouldering is a climbing discipline that doesn’t require a harness or climbing rope to climb safely. Bouldering routes are typically 15 feet high or shorter. Since there isn’t a rope to catch climbers if they fall, all falls result in hitting the ground so a pad is used to soften the impact. Bouldering is becoming more and more popular as world tournaments become more popular and when bouldering debuts in the world Olympics, it will get even more popularity. 

The goal of bouldering is to reach the top of a climb, indoors or outdoors. In indoor bouldering, you use the same color handholds to reach the top. The challenge is not using other colored handholds to get through the climbing problem.

What Is Rock Climbing

Bouldering is a type of rock climbing that doesn’t require a rope or harness because you only climb up to 12-15 feet. Rock climbing requires a rope and harness and you frequently climb more than 30 meters off the ground. However, height isn’t the only difference. 

Though this article outlines the difference in gear between the two climbing disciplines, it also goes into the physical, cultural and mental differences that separate the two. 

Pros and Cons for Rock Climbing and Bouldering

Deciding which climbing discipline is the best between rope-dependent and rope-free climbing is completely subjective and depends on your goals and preferences. With that in mind, here is a quick summary of the key pros and cons for each to help you decide which one is best for you. 

For more details about the differences between climbing and bouldering, continue reading below.

Rock Climbing Pros

  • You can climb for long periods of time without being bothered by other climbers because the routes are so high
  • You will likely have access to more outdoor climbs than bouldering has
  • Climbing gear can usually fit in a backpack so it doesn’t take up a lot of space
  • Most climbing gear is travel-friendly, so you can bring your gear with you when you go on vacation overseas
  • Rock climbing can be done year-round indoors and outdoors
  • Since there is a rope to catch climbers if they fall, climbers can choose to get back on the wall to climb without starting over (unless you are in a competition where that isn’t allowed)

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Rock Climbing Cons

  • You need a climbing buddy/belayer to go rock climbing safely. This means that you have to coordinate times with another person and you may be limited in when you can climb
  • Rock climbing is endurance oriented so by only rock climbing, you will likely struggle with advanced techniques
  • Rock climbing requires a lot more heavy gear than bouldering does

Bouldering Pros

  • You can do bouldering indoors without a spotter, meaning you can climb all by yourself without organizing and coordinating times to climb with another person
  • There is less gear to carry outdoor bouldering

Bouldering Cons

  • Bouldering doesn’t teach endurance, as well as rock climbing, does
  • Though you don’t have as much/as heavy gear as rock climbing, you still have to haul up a large mat, which can be a pain to carry and is large to store
  • Climbing mats are large so they don’t travel well and you won’t be able to take it with you on vacation overseas
  • All falls result in hitting the ground and starting over from the beginning

Different Climbing Grades

Climbing grades represent the different levels of climbs. This helps climbers distinguish between easier and harder climbs as well as helps them track their performance progress. Bouldering and rock climbing grading scales are different because the goals of the climbs are different. For example, bouldering requires explosive energy for a short period of time that is technique focused. In comparison, rock climbing uses a steady amount of energy for a long period of time that is endurance-focused. 

Each type of climbing discipline has a US-based grading scale and an international grading scale originating from the French. Here are the different grading scales for each discipline.

Bouldering Grades

Bouldering grades are a little different than rock climbing. Like the grading system in rock climbing, however, there is a different grading scale in the US than there is everywhere else. Here are the two grading scales for bouldering.

V-Scale

Bouldering grades are a little different than climbing grading in the US. For example, instead of the YDS grading scale, bouldering uses a the V-Scale, short for Vermin and named after a famous Hueco Tanks climber. The V scale runs from V0-V17 – here is the typical breakdown of the level of climbing required for each grade.

  • V0-V2: Beginners Level Climbing
  • V3-V6: Intermediate Level Climbing
  • V7-V9: Advanced Level Climbing
  • V10-V13: Pro Level Climbing
  • V14-V17: 0.01% Level Climbing

Font Scale

The Font.scale is the international climbing scale for bouldering. It works in the same way that the French scale works in rock climbing. There are the same three parts to the grading system. For example, 7a+ can be broken into 7 – a – +. However, this grading goes from 4-9 instead of 1-9.

  • 7- stands for the difficulty of the climb, which can be on a scale of 4-9
  • A – stands for the degree of difficulty within the number scale of the first part of the grading system, which can be a, b or c
  • + – is additional difficulty for the a-c grading part of the scale, which can be + or -. The + means that it is on a more difficult side of that part of the grading scale. For example, 7a+ is more difficult than 7a and 7a-

Rock Climbing Grades

Grading scales differ in rock climbing than they do in bouldering. However, like in bouldering, there is a different grading scale in the US than there is everywhere else. Here is the US and international grading scales for rock climbing:

YDS

In the US, rock climbing is graded in the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). There are a few YDS grades scattered among the french grades around the world. There are three parts to the grading system. For example, 5.10a can be broken into 3 parts, 5 – 10 – a.

5 – stands for the class of the climb. Classes are on a scale of 1-5. Class 1 represents a flat hike whereas Class 5 represents dangerous and requires a rope.

10 – is the second part of the YDS grade, which refers to the difficulty of the climb. a – is the third part of the grading level. There can be a-d at the end of the grading, which represents additional difficulty within the standard 2-15. Here is the typical breakdown of the level of climbing required for each grade.

  • 5.2-5.9: Beginners Level Climbing
  • 5.10a-5.11d: Intermediate Level Climbing
  • 5.12a-5.13d: Advanced Level Climbing
  • 5.14a-5.15c: Expert Level Climbing

French Scale

The French scale is the most common grading scale used in the world of rock climbing. Even people in the US frequently learn the french scale to be familiar with grading scales when watching climbing videos or taking climbing trips. Like the YDS scale, there are three parts to the grading system. For example, 7a+ can be broken into 7 – a – +

  • 7- stands for the difficulty of the climb, which can be on a scale of 1-9
  • A – stands for the degree of difficulty within the number scale of the first part of the grading system, which can be a, b or c
  • + – is additional difficulty for the a-c grading part of the scale, which can be + or -. The + means that it is on a more difficult side of that part of the grading scale. For example, 7a+ is more difficult than 7a and 7a-

The two grading systems generally line up well and can be compared pretty easy.

Muscles Building In Bouldering vs Rock Climbing

Bouldering and rock climbing are two completely different disciplines. If you compare it to running, bouldering is like a sprint and climbing is like a marathon. This distinction is not only relevant to the distance of climbing, but also in the type of muscle and training that you get from it. 

For example, bouldering requires more explosive movements so your agility and explosiveness will be stronger in bouldering. Rock climbing, on the other hand, requires you to have more endurance, so energy conservation and muscle endurance are stronger in those that focus training in rock climbing. In addition to endurance and explosive movements, climbing builds strength and muscles a little differently.

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Muscles In Rock Climbing

  • Calves: Every time you place your toe on a climbing hold and push up, you are using your calves. Compared to bouldering, calves are more likely to be engaged because they are easier to engage when going straight up compared to climbing inclined walls

Muscles In Bouldering

  • Abdomen: Compared to rock climbing, bouldering usually requires more abdomen work. This is likely because bouldering is usually more inclined so you have to engage your abs to stay on the wall and keep your hips against the wall
  • Forearms: Studies about the effect of rock climbing on health frequently note increased strength of forearms and attribute it to a major part of the grip in climbing, especially in bouldering 

Muscles in Both Climbing and Bouldering

  • Upper Body: Many climbers associate climbing with upper-body exercising because there are many upper body muscles worked. Here are the main upper body muscles used in climbing:
    • Deltoids: The Anterior Deltoids are an important muscle in pulling your body up while climbing and is one of the most dominant muscles used by climbers 
    • Biceps: Not surprisingly, the effort of pulling yourself up with your arms is a bicep heavy exercise 
    • Triceps: Just like biceps are used to pull yourself up, so are triceps. This is probably why climbers are notoriously great at pull-ups, which is also a tricep heavy exercise 
    • Pecs (Pectoralis Major/Minor): The chest muscles are major muscles used for pulling down. Climbers frequently recognize pectoral definition after continued climbing training 
  • Core: Your core is a huge powerhouse for climbing. Without your core muscles, you wouldn’t be able to make the necessary movements for climbing. Here are the main core muscles used in climbing:
    • Lats (Latissimus Dorsi): Lats are what allows you to pull down. When you climb, you are constantly pulling and building your lats
  • Lower Body: A frequently under-rated part of climbing by spectators, but your lower body is a huge part of getting up the wall and climbers have reported increased strength and muscle definition. Here are the main lower body muscles used in climbing:
    • Glutes: Your glutes are the bridge to your legs and they get used more than climbers realize
    • Thighs: Though climbing is frequently considered an upper-body heavy exercise, your thighs can be one of the most used muscles while climbing 

Techniques In Bouldering Vs Rock Climbing

Climbing technique includes footwork, balance, body composition and how to be more efficient with your climbing. Technique is an important part of all climbing disciplines and though the technique in bouldering can be applied to rock climbing, there is a distinction between the most commonly used techniques. This is because bouldering and rock climbing have different requirements for the climb. For example, bouldering has a smaller amount of moves, but they are more difficult to complete. In comparison, energy conservation techniques are more practiced in rock climbing because it is an endurance-based climbing discipline. By using a skilled/practiced technique, you will be able to complete the climbing problem easier. 

Common Techniques for Bouldering

All of these techniques can be used in rock climbing, but they are most commonly used in bouldering.

  • Balance: 
    • Pushing: You can create counter pressure by pushing your foot in the opposite direction
    • Pulling: You can create counter pressure by pulling with your hand or with a heel hook/toe hook
    • Leaning: You can lean your body weight in any direction by moving your hips to create a counterbalance

Common Techniques for Rock Climbing

All of these techniques can be used in bouldering, but they are most commonly used in rock climbing.

  • Straight arms: Keeping your arms straight is an energy conservation tactic so you can continue climbing for long distances
  • Rest when you can: When you find a hold that is easy to hold onto or foot placement that allows you to rest, then do so. Conserving your energy and renewing your energy with resting will help you get through more difficult parts of the climbing route

Common Techniques for both Bouldering and Climbing

  • Footwork:
    • Edging: Edging is when you use the edge of your shoe to step on the climbing hold 
    • Smearing: Smearing is when you use the wall instead of a foothold when a foothold isn’t available 
  • Hips:
    • Hip Direction: Many beginner climbers square their hips to the wall because it can feel stable, however, it can push you away from the wall and stress hip-flexor muscles so learning to move your hips in different directions will help with the flow 
    • Hip Distance from the Wall: By keeping your hips closer to the wall, you will be able to keep your center of balance closer to the wall and thus over your feet making it easier to rely on your leg muscles
  • Using your Eyes:
    • Look at each foothold and watch your foot placement for the best coordination outcomes
    • Look at each hold and watch your hand placement for best coordination outcomes
  • Flagging: This is a way to counterbalance before making a move by moving your foot like a cat’s tail 

Gear For Bouldering vs Rock Climbing

Common Gear for Both Bouldering and Rock Climbing

Rock climbing and bouldering share a lot of the same gear. Here is a general list of gear that are shared in both disciplines:

  • Climbing Shoes: Though you can climb without shoes, climbing shoes make climbing much easier. One of the biggest benefits of climbing shoes is that they allow you to use small holds for your feet that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to use 
  • Climbing Chalk: Another piece of equipment that is for both indoor and outdoor bouldering is climbing chalk. Though this isn’t a required “tool” for climbing, it is helpful and recommended. Climbing chalk has been proven to help climbers stay on holds longer 
  • Climbing Brush: Climbing brushes are used to clean off holds so that they are easier to grip. Brushes are usually an artificial-horsehair-type brush but I have recently learned that a lot of climbers use toothbrushes. This tool is usually for more advanced climbs and you probably don’t need one for beginner bouldering

Gear Specific to Bouldering

Compared to other types of climbing, bouldering requires the least amount of gear. In addition, any gear you need is usually available for rent at climbing gyms or at local climbing outlets. Unlike a rope or harness, bouldering gear is usually ok to use second-hand, though, if you like climbing and plan to do it a lot, investing in new gear can help with the longevity of your gear. Here is the gear that is specific for bouldering:

  • Safety Mat: Because all falls in bouldering results in hitting the ground, mats are used to soften the impact. Most indoor climbing gyms are equipped with extensive mats to surround the area, but there are portable mats that you can bring to outdoor boulders for safety as well

Gear Specific to Rock Climbing

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Rock climbing requires a lot more safety gear compared to bouldering. This is because there is more safety gear that is required for the extended/high climbs. If you want a full list of gear climbers bring outdoor climbing check out this article (37 Things Serious Climbers Bring With Them To The Mountains)

  • Harness: Possibly the most important gear for a climber, harnesses are what keeps climbers safely attached to the rope so they don’t hit the ground when they fall 
  • Belay & Rappel Devices: The belay/rappel device is a small device that clips to a belayers harness and control the rope. Here is my favorite belay device
  • Carabiners: Carabiners are a specialized metal loop with a spring-loaded gate that connects things together. There are multiple types of carabiners in rock climbing such as screw-gate locking, auto-locking and non-locking carabiners 
  • Quickdraws: Quickdraws are a common device that has two carabiners connected with a semi-rigid material. The quickdraws are used to run the rope through and connect to the anchors 
  • Rope: the climbing rope is the main safety component in rock climbing. Without the climbing rope, there wouldn’t be anything to prevent the climber from hitting the ground if they fall 
  • Helmet: Climbing helmets protect belayers and climbers from falling rocks or falling gear. Unlike skating helmets or biking helmets, climbing helmets are made specifically for protecting the top of the head and don’t usually have protection on the side or back of the head. In addition, climbing helmets are commonly very light so that you can move your head and neck freely without resistance

Other Differences Between Climbing and Bouldering

Aside from the items listed above, there are a couple of other differences between the two climbing disciplines that should be noted. For example, in bouldering and rock climbing you don’t usually climb alone, you have a climbing partner. Each of the climbing partners have key differences, which are outlined below. 

Bouldering – Spotting

Bouldering doesn’t have ropes and harnesses so every fall results in a ground impact. To mitigate the risk of injury, boulderers use spotters. Spotters are people who are on the ground while you climb that help make sure when you fall, that you land on the mats and feet first. Spotting is usually only done while outdoor climbing because indoor bouldering gyms usually have substantial mats around the entire fall zone. This is also something that doesn’t exist in rock climbing because rock climbing has a harness/rope/belayer.

Rock Climbing – Belaying

Unlike bouldering, rock climbing uses a rope and harness to keep you safe from hitting the ground if you fall. However, the rope and harness would be useless if it wasn’t for the belayer. A belayer is a person that manages the rope and uses a belay device to stop the rope from moving if you fall, and thus, keeping you from hitting the ground. This action/job in climbing is called belaying.

Train In Both

Bouldering and rock climbing are both types of climbing and they have a lot in common, but they are also different disciplines.

Compared to running, bouldering is more of a sprint and requires more explosive abilities including agility.

In comparison, rock climbing is more like a marathon that requires additional endurance and energy conservation. Because these climbing disciplines are so different, it is recommended to train in both disciplines.

By training in both, you can get the benefits of explosive agility and additional endurance capabilities.

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