There is a lot of opinions about bouldering out there, including my own and it got me wondering about the difficulty of bouldering for the average person, so I did some research.
Is bouldering hard? Bouldering requires a lot of strength in addition to technique and skills so it is considered very difficult. Even among climbers, bouldering is recognized as one of the most technically oriented and powerful move climbing discipline there is.
There are many levels for bouldering that make it accessible for beginners and advanced climbers, however, even the most beginner routes can be difficult for the average person. Even extremely strong people, such as CrossFit champions have a hard time climbing.
What Makes Bouldering Hard?
Bouldering can be a great way to get introduced to climbing because it requires minimum equipment (shoes and chalk) and you can do it at your local gym by yourself. However, it can be difficult, especially for those that aren’t already avid climbers.
There are many reasons bouldering is hard but most of the reasons are going to be subjective to your current strengths and weaknesses.
Bouldering Requires A Lot Of Strength
Bouldering requires strength in your entire body to make your way to the end of the route. This is because you are pulling your body up the wall. If you are 200 lbs then you have to use your arms and legs to get 200lbs up the wall.
For this reason, the strength and tone of a climber is different than your average strong-man. For example, if you weigh less, you have less to bring up the wall so it is ideal to build as much “useful” muscle and avoid bodybuilding so you don’t get heavier than your ability to lift.
Bouldering not only requires a lot of legs and arm strength but it also requires a lot of forearm and finger strength, which is unique compared to most activities.
Bouldering Requires Short But Powerful Moves
In bouldering, you make certain moves to get to the next handhold until you reach the top of the route. Most routes are short (less than 4 meters) but they require powerful moves.
Like mentioned before, you need to have a lot of strength. In addition, you need to be able to control that strength and make powerful moves.
For example, a popular move in bouldering is called a Dyno. Dynos are when you jump from one hold to the next, which not only requires strength but also coordination and control to complete the move.
These powerful moves frequently skyrocket a climber’s heart rate so it can only be maintained for a short period of time, similar to HITT workouts.
Bouldering Requires Technical Knowhow and Implementation
To make your way up a route, you need a specific skill and understanding of the technical side of climbing to make it to the top. These technical moves are easier when you are doing beginner climbs but the more advanced climbs have extremely advanced technical movements.
The technique can range from just knowing how to hold different handholds, to how to move your body weight and feet in a specific way to make the move.
Here are a few of the techniques common in bouldering:
- Flagging: This is when you place your foot out to either the inside or outside of the other foot to adjust where your center of balance is so that you can reach the next hold.
- Drop Knee: This is when you place your foot on a foothold that is usually closer to the height of your hip so you can leverage that foothold to get higher in the route using a lung-like movement.
- Smearing: This is when you press against the wall if there isn’t a foothold where you need one.
- Straight Arms: This is a technique used when you are climbing inverted routes to help you maintain as much strength in your arms as you can while you climb horizontally with your back facing the ground.
- Reading The Route/Beta: This technique is when you identify the moves you need to make for the climb before you get on the route so that you can spend more energy on making the moves instead of trying to figure out what the move is.
Bouldering Forces You To Problem Solve
Some people are better at problem-solving than others, but bouldering forces you to problem-solve if you want to make it to the top of the route.
Because we all have physical and technical limitations, bouldering requires you to identify what you can and can’t do while applying that to how you can complete the climb. For example, a climber that isn’t very good at jumping from one hold to another (dyno) can use their technical knowledge to make moves that are more static so they don’t have to jump.
In addition, climbing routes are made in a way that is frequently unclear about how to move your body through each challenge. Much of this problem solving is testing different ideas, and if you don’t have any more ideas, trying to problem-solve with other climbers that may or may not have been able to complete that route.
When You Fall, You Have To Start Over Again
One of the most difficult aspects for rock climbers, when they try bouldering, is that they can’t just take a break in the middle of a route to figure out and test different ways to get through the move.
If you fall, you fall and hit the ground. Meaning that not only do you have to worry about falling, but you also have to worry about climbing your way up to that point in the climb so that you can try a different technique or a different move to make it to the next part of the boulder.
This increases not only the physical stress you have while bouldering (because it is physically demanding) but you also have the mental stress to both overcome your fear of falling and problem-solve what to do next.
Is Bouldering Harder Than Rock Climbing?
All climbing disciplines are difficult, especially for the average person, but many people wonder if bouldering is harder than rock climbing.
For the beginning levels of bouldering and rock climbing, they are similar in difficulty, but for different reasons.
For example, bouldering at a lower level usually requires more technical understanding than beginner level rock climbing. On the other hand, rock climbing in beginner levels, as well as advanced levels, requires more endurance than bouldering because the routes are significantly longer (4 meters compared to 30+ meters).
As a climber gets more advanced, they will still find one discipline more difficult than the other but it is different for everyone, depending on what they train on the most.
Someone that trains primarily on bouldering is likely going to exceed at the technical aspects of climbing compared to someone that primarily does rock climbing. However, the person that primarily rock climbs will likely have the energy and endurance aspects of bouldering compared to someone that primarily boulders.
For a full breakdown of the differences between bouldering and rock climbing, including gear, physical challenges, mental challenges and the cultural differences, check out this post (Bouldering vs Climbing: Gear, Physical, Social and Mental Differences)
Bouldering falls are all ground falls, making it a dangerous sport. However, there are many safety considerations that climbers make while bouldering to decrease injury rates so that it can be as safe if not safer than any other activity (see football and cheerleading).
The most well-known difference between bouldering and rock climbing is that bouldering doesn’t use a rope and the routes are only 4 meters tall compared to the 30+ meters that rock climbing routes are.
What people often don’t know is that the social groups of boulders and climbers are often significantly different (within the climbing circles). This is likely because they have different physical and mental challenges associated with their discipline.