The Beginner’s Guide To Bouldering

Looking to get into bouldering but don’t know where to start? We’ll cover everything from essential kit through to improving grip strength.

If you’re looking for an intense physical workout, coupled with an enjoyable activity, bouldering is for you.

Bouldering is low level climbing that doesn’t rely on ropes. Although many boulderers go climbing as a group, the lack of need for ropes and someone to belay means this is a type of climbing that you can do all on your own.

In the next 10 minutes, we’re going to cover everything you need to know in our Beginners Guide To Bouldering.

We’ll cover:

The Essential Bouldering Gear List

Before you start bouldering, there’s some essential gear you are going to need.

#1 – Climbing Shoes

Cost: $40-100 

Although there are specific shoes designed for bouldering, any climbing shoes are going to be suitable for a beginner.

If you plan to boulder outdoors, then you’ll need to go for a stiffer shoe. But, as most people starting bouldering tend to stick to indoor climbing walls, any indoor climbing shoe will be fine.

The more sensitive the feel through the shoe, the better you’ll be able to judge your next move. And, that’s why buying a shoe that’s manufactured using the slip-lasted technique is going to be the best.

Essentially, this manufacturing process allows the sole to be durable but thin, so you get maximum feel through your feet.

A few of the top brands in this space include Scarpa, Red Chilli, FiveTen, Viper, Evolv and La Spotiva.

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#2 – Bouldering Landing Pad

Cost: $80-200 

If you skip to our “where to go bouldering” section, you’ll see some resources to find your local climbing walls.

It’s worth ringing around and asking which walls provide crash pads. Some provide them for free, some will rent them on a per session basis.

If you plan to go bouldering outdoors, or your local climbing wall doesn’t have crash pads, you’ll need to get one.

There’s a range of crash pads on the market from Black Diamond, Mad Rock and Petzl.

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#3 – Chalk & Chalk Bag

$15-30 

When you go bouldering, you’ll find your hands get a little sweaty. And, this can make grabbing your next hold incredibly difficult.

You’ll have to tighten your grip and that means you’ll only be able to climb for a brief period before your hands start aching.

Chalk is a way to combat sweat on your hands and increase your grip.

If you do incredibly short climbs, you’ll be ok with chalk in a bucket, and chalk up your hands after every climb. But, for the cost difference, it’s much better to carry your chalk in your bag so you can chalk up on the climb.

There’s no real brand preference here. A chalk and bag combination should cost less than $30.

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#4 – Breathable T-Shirt

Cost: $20-40 

Bouldering is a lot more physically demanding than many people think. And, that means you’re about to get sweaty. A great way to combat this is to wear clothing that is breathable.

First on the list is a breathable tee. I use an Under Armour technical t-shirt (it’s designed for running). It’s lightweight and highly breathable. And, it’s a lot cheaper than the equivalent from high-end climbing brands like La-Sportiva.

#5 – Climbing Shorts

Cost: $40-100 

Like your tee, you’ll want some breathable shorts to keep you cool. But, you’ll need them to not restrict your movement and, a place to hook on your chalk bag.

An excellent choice is the La Sportiva Belay shorts, but they are pricey at around $99. There are plenty of budget options available if they’re out of budget.

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Where To Go Bouldering

Now you’ve got your bouldering gear, the next step is to check out your local climbing walls. Not all climbing walls will also have a bouldering wall, so be sure to check that out first.

Finding Bouldering Spots In The UK

UK Climbing has a map of all the best UK climbing spots. Check them out here.

Finding Bouldering Spots In The USA

Bob The Boulderer’s website has an interactive map that covers climbing spots in the USA and beyond. Check it out here.

7 Bouldering Tips & Techniques For New Boulderers

So, you’ve grabbed some gear and you know where all your local bouldering spots are. Now, read our tips and techniques for bouldering beginners to improve your technical ability quickly.

#1 – Always Warm Up

You’re going to be putting strain on parts of your body that have never worked this hard in your lifetime. If you don’t warm up correctly, you’re going to be aching like crazy, but you’ll also risk damaging muscles and ligaments.

Stretching

Get all your muscles and joints moving to start pumping blood around your body. Then, slowly stretch your legs, arms, shoulders and don’t forget to stretch your wrists, fingers and elbows; they’ll be under a lot of pressure when you start your climb.

The Warm Up Climb

Don’t jump onto a high-grade bouldering route straight off the bat. Warm up by climbing one of the easiest routes first and working your way up. Having a quick rest before each climb will allow oxygen to flow to your muscles ready for when you hit the big climb.

#2 – Take Notice Of Other Climbers

Climbing walls will have regulars, and there’s a good chance that they know what they are doing.

Take note of their general stance, but if there’s a problem you are struggling with, take note of how they solve it. There’s a good chance your posture and technique is what’s letting you down, rather than your overall strength.

#3 – Improve Your Balance

A lot of boulderers build up to that one problem that they are struggling with. When they get to it, they put in so much effort, they forget stance and balance. So, even if they initially make the next hold, they are off balance and fall.

So, you don’t want to be lunging towards the next hold. Make sure you are balanced before leaving your current hold, and prepare to be balanced when you reach the next one. Bouldering isn’t about speed, but instead, about control.

#4 – Think Ahead

And, the best way to be balanced, is to plan ahead. Think about how you need to alter your body position for the next hold, and don’t get caught out by how difficult the hold might be. Plan each foot and hand hold individually and work out how they tie together; before you leave your current hold.

If what you planned didn’t work, skip back to watching other climbers and see what they do differently to help to achieve that next step.

#5 – Bouldering Safely

Be aware of other climbers. So, don’t walk in the falling zone of another boulderer. Likewise, check your falling zone before going for your next hold. There might be an inexperienced climber or a child walking below you, not aware that you have the potential to fall.

And, when you do fall. Make sure you do it in a way that spreads the impact, so bend your knees.

#6 – Improve Quickly

The wonderful thing about weaknesses is that they allow us to develop as climbers quickly. Decide what your weaknesses are and hit them head on.

For most people starting bouldering, this will be two things; core and grip strength. Grip and core exercises are things you can do in your spare time, and you’ll see a noticeable difference by doing these exercises just a couple of times a week.

More on that later.

#7 – Circuit Climbing To Improve Technical Skill

There’s a lot of climbers that fool themselves. They climb attempting a higher-grade wall than they usually climb at. Eventually, they perfect it. But, all that time spent is wasted. They are not suddenly a higher-grade climber, they’ve only conquered one wall at that level.

They’d have been much better spending their time climbing circuits at a lower level that offer a range of technical challenges. They’d be building up strength in different areas of the body and learning new technical skills. This will make the transition to any higher-grade wall easier.

So, where you can, climb circuits with as many technical challenges in it as possible.

How To Fall Bouldering

Falling is inevitable when climbing. If you don’t make your next hold, there’s a good chance you’re going down. Try not to push yourself above and beyond your limits so that when you fall, you’re not in control. Learn to fall before you go for any big problems. 

Where You Should Land

The first few falls will feel surreal, which is why we’d suggest keeping problems well within your comfort zone.

Where possible, you want to be able to jump to a landing, rather than fall. Falling is unavoidable once the problems get harder, but at this stage, you should be able to cut your losses and jump, rather than fall.

The floors might be padded, and you might have a spotter with a mat, but if you fall awkwardly, it can still hurt!

Setting Up Landing Areas

This is particularly important if you plan to go bouldering outdoors. Sharp rocks, or hidden debris under the dirt can really hurt if you land on them.

In a climbing gym, these hazards are usually limited to the odd water bottle, and making sure the bouldering mat is in the right place.

But, your falling area needs to be bigger than a jumping area. You’ll have no real precision when falling. Make sure any bottles (and people) are clear every time you go for your next hold.

How To Land

If you’ve been fortunate enough to jump rather than fall, then try and land in a relaxed state, where you can bend your knees to take away some of the impact. If you don’t bend your knees, you could cause some severe damage.

And, if you have the chance before you jump, check there are not climbers passing by that you might hit on landing, or at least shout for them to move.

The All-Important Spotter

Even though bouldering is climbing at low-level, you may be angled towards the floor on more than one occasion. And, that means there’s a chance you could fall on your back.

If you climb alone, it’s worth sticking to the easier routes, as falling on your back is never fun.

Ideally, you’ll have a spotter. They’ll check you’re safe when you climb, and you’ll do the same for them.

On difficult holds and problems, they’ll raise their hands just underneath you to brace you in a fall. And, as you move between easier holds, they’ll grab the mat and move it to the most likely place you’ll fall.

And, having a spotter isn’t just good for safety. Two climbers tackling the same problems will have different strengths and weaknesses. You’ll find that you both progress quickly with a partner as you can share tips with each other.

Essential Bouldering Workouts For Core, Finger And Grip Strength

There’s one thing you’re going to notice when you go bouldering for the first time; you’re not strong enough.

I used to go to the gym once a week, and considered myself to be fit and strong. But apparently, fit and climbing fit are two different things. There were certain holds I couldn’t manage because of my core, others because of my grip strength and within 3-4 reasonable climbs, I simply couldn’t hold on.

Then, I started doing core, finger and overall grip exercises and it made a huge difference. I didn’t suddenly become a better climber, but I was able to get to holds I couldn’t before, and climb for longer.

So, I’d highly recommend when you’re not climbing, to be doing exercises that help with your core, grip and finger strength.

Don’t feel like you have to do everything listed below, maybe just focus on your most obvious weaknesses to start with.

Exercises To Improve Finger And Grip Strength

There’s three handy devices I used to improve finger and grip strength. Not just for climbing either, my riding motocross relies on a similar level of strength in the hands and forearms, so it’s a 2-in-1 benefit for me.

Hand Grip Strengthener

A cheap and simple device that works on tension. And, the great thing about this is you don’t even need to gear up to improve grip and finger strength.

If you’re going for overall grip strength, hold the grip strengthener exactly how feels natural (with your whole hand). However, for finger strength, try and hold it with the tips of your fingers.

Depending on how stiff your grip strengthener is, you might need to start at the base of your fingers, and then slowly move it up to your fingertips over the space of a few weeks.

Powerball

The Powerball is a more rounded workout for your fingers, hands and wrists. Unlike the grip strengthener it’s not a simple in and out motion, so you can get to work on every single muscle. 

Like the grip strengthener though, this is a 5-minute workout (one hand at a time) when your going for a walk, or even watching TV.

If you really go for it with the Powerball, and do a 20-30 minute workout, it’s worth having a day or two off. It can really put some pressure on the muscles in your hands, and those muscles need some time to recover to become stronger.

Wrist Curls

Once you’ve worked directly on the hands and fingers, the next step to improving grip is strengthening your forearms. And, wrist curls are the best way to do this.

All you’ll need is a small dumbbell. Lie your arms on your legs whilst sitting down. Make sure your wrists overhang. Starting horizontal, drop your wrist 90 degrees, and then lift them back horizontal.

That’s one rep. Try and do 10-12 in a set and 2-3 sets. If you can do more than this, there’s a good chance the dumbbell isn’t heavy enough.

Reverse wrist curls will work on a different part of the forearm. Lay your arms palms up and horizontal. Curl your wrist to 90 degrees and back to being horizontal again. That’s a rep.

The forearms are an important part of the body when it comes to climbing. On-the-wall climbing is a great way to work them out, and wrist curls are a good forearm exercise for days when you just can’t make it to the gym. They help strengthen the wrists, too.

You can find cheap dumbbells by clicking the link below.

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Improving Core Strength For Climbing

So far, we’ve been doing simple exercises that you don’t even need to leave your chair to do. But, for most people starting bouldering, it’s going to make an enormous difference.

If you still feel your body is holding you back, there’s a good chance it’s because of your lack of core strength. 

Push-Ups

Push ups are simple, easy and they help to improve your upper body and core strength.

Doing push-ups regularly can help to build up your core; fast!

Pull Ups

When you combine push ups and pull ups, you’ll be working the majority of muscles that you’ll use on every climb. Obviously, you’re going to need a pull up bar to make this happen.

Leg Lifts

If you are struggling with strength in your lower back or abdominal muscles, leg lifts are the exercise for you.

Lie down on your back. Lift your legs up 6-8 inches. Hold them there. Lower them, and repeat. The longer you can hold your legs up and the more controlled you are on the way down, the better your core strength is.

Once you’ve done this for a few weeks, practice lowering your legs, but not letting them touch the floor.

The Plank

If you approach any personal trainer wanting to work on core body strength, they’re going to make you do the plank.

Essentially, you will get your body similar to that of the push up position, with a straight back and your arms at 90 degrees (i.e. elbows on the floor).

For the first 10-20 seconds, it feels pointless. If it’s your first time, after 30-45 seconds you’ll start to feel a burn and by 60, your back will start to droop. You need to force yourself to hold the straight back and 90-degree arm position, as a dropped back isn’t going to help improve your core.

Different people have different core strength. See do whatever you can manage for the first 2-3 attempts. And, as you build up strength, try to add 5-10 seconds on your plank every 10-14 days.

If you’ve already nailed the plank, get a bit more creative. Extend one leg upwards, and then the other. Do the same with your arms and do this for the whole duration of the plank. This will help with holds where pressure isn’t evenly distributed across your legs and arms.

Understanding Bouldering Grades

As soon as you get to a climbing wall, you’ll see a noticeable difference between different routes. But, it’s not just the route that a bouldering grade is based on, it’s the difficulty of the holds, the distance between them; how technical the route is.

There are two bouldering grades that are commonly use; V Scale and Font.  

Types Of Bouldering Grades

Font

The font grading system is nice and simple. The higher the number, the harder the route; a 3 is harder than a 1.

To add more detail to the route, they’ll be a letter attached. The later the letter in the alphabet, the harder the route is going to be. So, a 3A is much easier than a 3C, and both are easier than a 4A.

V Scale

Like the Font, the higher the number on the V scale, the harder the climbing route is going to be. So, if you see a V10, that’s going to be much easier than a V15. Instead of adding letters, the V scale incorporate the + and -.

A – will show the route is easier than the average for that V scale. A + sign will show the route is harder than the average for that V scale.

So, a V10 is harder than a -V10, but it’s easier than a V10+. The V10 is considered “average” in the 10 category as it has not suffix attached to it.

So, What Bouldering Grade Should You Be Climbing?

If you took note of our warm up, it’s always good to start easy and work your way up. The same goes for if you are new to bouldering; find your feet.

We’ve tried to give a rough guideline below. There’s crossover on the timeline, as different people will pick this up quicker than others.

Bouldering Noob (0-6 Months)

You’ll be at the lower end of the spectrum. Typically, most people will jump onto a V0 to get used to some holds, then slowly progress to a V2. You’ll be at the 3-5 level on the Font scale.

Bouldering Amateur (6-12 Months)

Once you get 4-6 months under your belt, you’ll regularly be looking at routes in the V5 range. Usually, you’ll top out at around 6A on the font scale. It’s worth noting, a lot of climbers tend to stick around this level due to core strength.

Bouldering Junkie (12-18 Months)

If you’ve not reached your full potential yet, you’ll be regularly climbing in the V6-V7 and aiming for a 6C on the Font.

Bouldering Master (18-24 Months)

The average climber will never get this high in the scale, but if you’re still progressing, you could be aiming as high as a V11 and 8B at this point.

Bouldering Zen (24-36 Months)

You’re talking semi-pro at this stage, well into the 7C+-8 and V13+ on a daily basis.

BONUS: Interesting Websites & YouTube Channels For Noob Boulderers

Websites

Places To Find Climbing Walls

For climbers in the UK, head over to UK Climbing here. And, for Worldwide climbing walls, go to Bob The Boulderer here.

Catch Up With The Latest Bouldering And Climbing News

Two of the biggest and best websites for catching up with news, product reviews, tips, techniques and places to climb are UK Climbing and Climbing.com.

YouTube Channels

Eric Karlsson Bouldering

Looking for tips and advice from an experienced boulderer? Look no further than Eric Karlsson Bouldering. He’s got over 40,000 subscribers for a good reason.

EpicTV Climbing

If you’re looking for an all-round climbing channel, head over to Epic TV. Particularly interesting if you are looking to start bouldering in the great outdoors.

On Bouldering

A slightly smaller channel with 17,000 subscribers, On Bouldering is still well worth subscribing to. Perfect for us bouldering junkies.

What’s Next?

Thanks for reading our Beginners Guide To Bouldering.

Feel free to leave a comment and let us know how you’re getting on, and don’t forget to sign up to our email list!

Written by
Grant Draper

Grant's a motorcycle geek, outdoor enthusiast & confirmed racing nut. He road tests all the gear he buys, and then gives his feedback here on NoobNorm.

He also details any quick fixes he stumbles upon, whether that's to stop brakes on motorcycles sticking, or unusual noises coming from gaming wheels.

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Written by Grant Draper