Climb your way to fitness and cross-train for other sports whilst spending more time in the great outdoors. Matt Maynard provides the low-down on bouldering in Britain: where to go, what to know and how to get stuck in
Rock climbing should be fun. It’s also a great way to keep fit, whilst taking you to spectacular places. Bouldering leaves the roped climbers tied up in knots and concentrates more on the action. The climbs are sometimes as short as just two metres in height and crash mats are used to protect against falls.
Indoor climbers will be pleased to discover that nobody changes the holds every week and new climbers will quickly find out that it’s also a great source of strength and conditioning to complement other sports. With these thoughts in mind, Outdoor Fitness teamed up with professional climber Ben Heason to help you get outside and get your boulder on!
WHERE CAN I BOULDER?
If you live in a big city, it’s likely there’s an indoor climbing wall closer to you than an outdoor bouldering spot. However, you may be surprised to find just how close your nearest crag really is.
- Search online for your nearest climbing club.
- Explore guidebooks at your nearest climbing shop (see guidebook suggestion).
- Scour the filterable database ukclimbing. com/logbook for your local crag.
- Ask at the climbing wall where everyone disappears to at the weekend.
- Reach out with a “Lifts and Partners” post at ukclimbing.com/forums
Heason says: “Many climbers use urban features such as stone bridges to practice on. Obviously, these must be safe and legal but with some imagination, man-made structures can provide an extremely convenient and really fun venue for practice outdoors.”
WHAT KIT DO I NEED?
A pair of trainers are all you will need for your first bouldering trip. As you progress, however, you will want to invest in a pair of Rock Boots. These are tight fitting and do not have tread. The soles are made of a special rubber compound that moulds slightly to the rock, providing excellent grip. Boulderers also use chalk to keep their hands dry and increase friction with the rock. A bouldering pad can be reassuring to have under you when bouldering, but is not an excuse for taking more risks. They can seem cumbersome to lug about but they fold up for storage and have rucksack straps for carrying. (See Beginner’s Kit List)
ROCK BOOT CHOICE
Try a size smaller than normal, they should be tight but comfortable. Your toes should be butted up against the end of the shoe. I’d suggest you try them on in the climbing shop rather than buying online. Be a kid again and try Velcro fasteners.
Heason says: “As you gain more experience, I’d recommend having two pairs of boots for different types of climbing. A more comfortably fitting pair for warming-up and for easier climbing and a tighter fitting pair for when you’re climbing near to your limit – every little helps.”
WHAT DO I CLIMB?
Most climbing spots will involve a pulse-raising walk to the crag. Accompany this with some dynamic stretching. For the first 20 minutes of climbing as you continue to warm-up, concentrate on making all the moves feel easy and not trying so hard that you might fall off. Forget the guidebook and try climbing a traversing line along the bottom of the crag.
Bouldering doesn’t just happen on boulders. It could be just the first 3 metres of the crag. It is common that even the easiest problems in a guidebook are too difficult for a first trip. Approach any section that looks climbable, ensuring you can walk down if you do top out. Explore the rock, experimenting with how you need to grip it or move your bodyweight to make best use of the potential holds.
Top Tips for Topping Out
- Push with your legs on the footholds, rather than pulling with your arms.
- Experiment with using different edges of your shoe against the rock.
- Always clean your shoes before climbing.
- Existing chalk on hand holds, or rubber marks on footholds provide clues.
- Watch other climbers climb the same problem.
Heason says: “Consider choosing a project at your local crag. This could be a line of holds that suit your strengths or a part of the rock that has aesthetic appeal. Try it a few times each time you go. Memorise the best hand and foot placements to save time during your attempt and ensure sure you take rests. It will all start to feel easier as your muscles adapt to the moves and the holds.”
WHAT IF I FALL OFF?
It is best to always step-off, or jump off the boulder in control. Even with a bouldering pad it can be dangerous to fall out of control from any height. Try to even out the surface under the bouldering pad. Ideally you will have a friend spotting you.
Top Spotting Tips: You are not catching. You are guiding the fall. Protect the climbers back, neck and head. Stand attentively, close to the rock, with your arms fully raised.
Heason says: “If possible, practice spotting at an indoor bouldering wall, where the consequences of bad spotting will likely be less severe. When you’re spotting someone who’s on a hard move, or if they’re getting quite high up, reassure them by telling them ‘I’ve got you!’ It can help a lot.”
HOW DO I GET BETTER?
Going bouldering will of course improve your bouldering. However, some focused training will bring additional improvements.
Heason says: “Technique can be improved outdoors by repeating problems. I concentrate on this especially when warming-up. When you feel more comfortable on a problem, try eliminating holds. On a gentle angled problem, try eliminating one or both hands, to improve confidence in footwork. For steep climbing you will need to develop strength in your fingers. I recommend using a fingerboard – a resin or wooden block of varying sized holds, mounted above a door in your house. Beast Maker is a good wooden brand that is kind on the skin and they have lots of training ideas on their website, beastmaker.co.uk”
WILL MY OVERALL FITNESS IMPROVE?
Bouldering uses some very particular muscle groups and tendons that are otherwise infrequently used. There is however a lot of overlap with other sports and bouldering can make for a great substitute strength and conditioning session in the gym.
Biceps, triceps, shoulder muscles and back muscles are all worked vigorously during steep bouldering. Bouldering is therefore excellent training for upper body intensive sports. The best boulderers however, are not sporting “Arnie sized” pecs and biceps on stick thin legs. Upward propulsion should actually mainly come from your lower limbs. Your calves are firing each time you stand on your toes to look for the next hold. Your quads will also be used powerfully when you step up onto the next hold. Cyclists or runners have a head start here, and shouldn’t worry they are missing a workout each time they head to the crag.
Heason says: “I do conditioning work such as crunches, lunges and held plank core exercises. These, along with press-ups, pull-ups and dumbbell work will really improve your bouldering and shouldn’t be neglected.“
About Ben Heason: During his 17 years as a professional climber, Ben has made over 10,000 climbs in 30 different countries. He is renowned for his bold ascents and remote expeditions. In 2005 he free-climbed Angel Falls in Venezuela, the world’s highest waterfall. He now gives motivational talks to corporate organisations and schools around the world.
More info, benheason.com