coach levi bouldering

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that takes place on individual boulders (or 10-15′ high walls if you’re in the gym.) Instead of ropes, pads are placed on the ground for protection. And instead of climbing straight up, you often traverse along the wall as well as climb along the ceilings of caves!

You can start indoors with no experience required, and it’s a great workout, so give it a shot.

Here’s everything you need to know to get started.

Safety Principles and Precautions

Any type of activity where it’s common to fall to the ground brings an element of danger. You can make it safer with these tips.

How to fall correctly

The very first thing you need to know, and what they might teach you upon entering a gym for the first time, is how to fall. Because even landing on a mat can lead to injury.

If possible, land on your feet with knees bent. Whatever you do, don’t land on your neck. (Having a spotter helps for this.)

Absorb the shock with your knees. When you land, absorb the shock by bending your knees.

Roll it out. For bigger falls, don’t just come straight down. Along with bending your knees, roll onto your back to spread the impact further.

(The principles are the same as those during absorbing the impact of a bicycle crash.)

How to spot correctly

As a spotter, your goal is to help the climber fall safely. You want to guide them to a safe landing spot, and guide them so their feet hit first. (Note that you’re spotting them, not actually catching them in your arms.)

Keep your hands up and follow the hips of the climber. Your hands be in the range of the climber’s hips to armpits. Keep fingers together, not spread, for your own safety. (A falling climber could jam one of your fingers.)

Pay special attention in cramped areas where the climber may hit their head on the way down, rather than falling straight to the mat. This is especially common if the climber is traversing or using moves that put their feet at or above their waistline.

Further reading: “Spotting for Bouldering” in Rock and Ice magazine.

Common rules in the gym:
  • Only one climber per wall.
  • Do not walk under climbers who are on the wall.
  • Only top out in designated areas.
  • Only climb down the designated area.
  • No running.

Even if those aren’t explicitly part of the posted rules, obeying them will keep you safe.

bouldering gym route start holds

V Scale Grading System

Boulder problems have a difficulty rating. In North America, we almost always use the “V” scale, which assigns a numerical rating of 0-16 to the problem. It is written as a “V” followed by the number.

Here’s how I would categorize them:

V0 to V1 – Beginner

V2 to V3 – Intermediate

V4 to V6 – Advanced

V7 and up – Superhuman

While the scale starts with V0, sometimes you will see “VB” climbs in gyms. The “B” stands for “beginner” and the climbs, which are for mostly aimed at first-timers, are much like climbing a ladder, except that you have big hunks of plastic instead of rungs.

Most gyms will have the majority of their problems at V4 or below. You will see quite a few V5 and V6 problems, but not much beyond that.

Only occasionally do you see a V8 or above, unless it’s a hardcore bouldering gym (like The Red Barn) or located in a big city (Brooklyn Boulders.) I’ve only seen a handful of problems from V8 to V10, and only once in my life did I see a V12.

Curious what those levels look like?

That was a world class bouldering competition, and those guys (like Daniel Woods) make it look easy. Most climbers would not even get off the ground right there!

Outdoors, you will find problems rated up to V16.

What’s important to remember? The lower numbers are easier and the higher numbers are harder. Stick with the lower numbers at first!

Bouldering Skills and Technique

Now, to actually get yourself up the walls, will require some specialized techniques.

Fundamentals of body position and movement

Remember these basic fundamentals and put them into practice on each climb.

Hips close to the wall

Always keep your hips close to the wall. This makes it easier to support your weight on your feet, improves your balance, and gives you a longer reach.

Reaching with your right arm? Your right hip goes next to the wall.

Hips over feet

If you keep your hips over your feet, it maintains your center of gravity, keeps your weight supported by the strong muscles of your legs, and reduces stress on your arms.

Straight arms

If you’re just hanging there, keep your arms straight. It requires less energy than if your arms are flexed. (Need proof? Try it on a pull up bar.)

Stay relaxed

Stay calm and relaxed; use as little energy as possible. Just the minimum amount necessary to do a certain move.

Use a light grip

It’s the same as downhill mountain biking. Rather than grabbing the bar with a white knuckle death grip, grab the holds as lightly as possible. Exert just enough force to keep yourself from falling.

Use your legs

Your legs should be doing the bulk of the work when you climb. Anytime you go to pull up, be sure to push with your legs, too.

coach levi bouldering

How to grip the holds

If you don’t know how to grip the holds, you won’t get very far.

Here are the types of holds you’ll encounter, and some tips on how to grab them.

Jugs

Jugs are big holds that you can fit your whole hand on. It’s like grabbing the handle of a big gallon jug or the lip of a bucket. It requires some grip strength, but they’re easy on your fingertips.

Crimps

These are the super small edges. You can only fit fingertips on these, with your thumb against the index finger. They can be quite painful – it’s going to take some time to build up your hand strength to be comfortable on these.

Slopers

These are usually bigger holds with downsloping edges. You can’t wrap your fingers around them, so you have to use an open-hand grip and maximize surface contact between your skin and the hold.

Beginners hate them because they try to grip them like jugs and just slide right off the things! But they’re good holds if you know the technique and trust yourself. Generally, you want to stay really low, underneath the sloper, or go slightly above it and push down with your palm.

Pinch

Just like it sounds, you pinch these. Sort of like the grip you’d use to pick up a box of cereal. These do require serious hand and forearm strength, but they don’t work your fingertips like crimps. Occasionally you can turn other holds into pinches by using your thumb somewhere.

Pockets

Pockets are where you put your finger(s) into a hole or divot in the rock.

Undercling

This is a type of hold where you grab underneath and pull up on it. Your palm faces up.

Sidepull

This is a hold where you pull sideways, rather than down. Jugs, pockets, crimps, and even pinches can all be sidepulls.

It’s all about the “angle of pull” concept, where you are pulling in whatever direction gives you the best grip.

Jib
A jib is a tiny foothold, offering just enough space for the tip of your big toe.

coach levi bouldering

Techniques to learn

There are so many fancy techniques that can be used to maneuver around the walls. It’s so much more than stepping and grabbing. The best part is, you can use technique rather than strength.

Toeing
Toeing is when you use your toes on the foot holds.

Edging
Edging is when you use the edges of your feet on the foot holds.

Smearing
Smearing is when you apply your entire forefoot to the wall itself.

Stemming
Stemming is when you spread your legs apart to press into opposing walls or corners.

Flagging
Flagging is when you stretch a leg out to one side for balance, with your toe pointing into the wall for stability. The flagging leg can go in front of or behind the stationary leg. Get it right and it opens a whole new world where you only need one good foot hold at any given time.

Heel hook
Place your heel onto the top or side of a hold.

Toe hook
Reach your toe out and hook it on an edge.

Knee bar
Use your knee or top of thigh against the wall, and brace against that foot.

Bat hang
Use two toe hooks to hang upside down from a ledge.

Drop knee
A move where you turn your knee into the wall and drop it down to lower your center of gravity.

Backstep
Where you use the outside edge of your shoe on a foothold and drop your knee slightly, weighting that back foot and bringing your hip a little closer to the wall.

Bicycle
Typically used on overhangs, you place a foot on either side of the same foothold, allowing you to squeeze the hold between your feet. (One foot presses down or away, the second foot pulls up towards you.)

Match
When you place two hands (or two feet) on the same hold.

Gaston
A high-tension move where you have to push out to the side against opposing handholds. The best description is that it will look as if you’re prying open an elevator door.

Dyno
This is where you leap for a distant hold and your hands and feet leave the rock momentarily.

Combine all these techniques for creative climbing!

Tips for Success

Here are some useful tips that will help you put it all together.

Stretch and warm up before you start.
The moves you make on the wall will be powerful, like a high jump or 40-yard dash. You’d warm up before that, right? So warm up with easy moves, get your blood flowing, and definitely loosen up your joints. Pay special attention to your wrists and forearms. There’s no better way to slow down your progress than a needless injury. A good warm up will help you climb better and reduce the chances of injury.

Visualize the route and moves before you start a problem.
Try to figure out the sequence of moves while you’re still on the ground, so you don’t waste your energy hanging on the wall, not sure where to go.

Don’t be too concerned about grades.
Grades are subjective and vary from gym to gym and crag to crag. Plus, climbing styles differ. Just because there’s a V1 giving you trouble, doesn’t mean you can’t attempt a V3. You’re not getting a report card!

Keep trying.
It’s amazing how small changes can make huge differences on a climb. So if you’re having trouble, keep trying different moves. Try at least 5 different ways to do a move before giving up.

Don’t let your body limit you.
Being tall isn’t always an advantage when climbing. What’s important is to know how to use your body type to your advantage. This video shows how a short climber and tall climber can both complete the same problem in different ways.

Basic gym climbing terminology and markings

You’ve probably had enough of all this terminology. But, there are a few more to learn when it comes to climbing in a gym.

You’ll see this written on the tape that marks the routes.

An upside down “V”
Tape placed on the wall like this marks the starting and finishing handholds for a route.

“Sit start”
You must start with your hands on the start holds and your butt on the ground. To begin, pull yourself off the ground and then make the first move.

“Top out”
Rather than just reaching the finish hold, you actually climb onto the top of the wall.

“Tracking”
This is where you can only use the taped holds. Any unmarked foot jibs or wall features are off limits.

“___ Off”

The means something is off limits. Typically it will say “edge off” or “features off.”

“No ___”

This usually means a technique is off limits. It might be “no stem” or “no smear.”

bouldering essentials

What You Need to Get Started

You don’t need much gear to get started. For your first day, you can wear general athletic clothing and rent climbing shoes for just a few dollars.

What to wear

Wear loose, comfy clothing. As long as it doesn’t restrict your movement, you’ll be fine.

I prefer to wear pants outdoors (for protection from the rough rock surface,) but indoors, shorts work fine.

If you do buy rock climbing pants, what’s super cool is that they typically work for climbing, hiking, and even casual wear! I love the durability of my Gramicci climbing pants and the comfort and style of Prana climbing pants.

You will want to invest in some special rock climbing shoes. These shoes help a lot, even at the V0 level.

They’re no more expensive than running shoes, but they can be even more complicated to fit, so you need to try on a bunch of different shoes. You want to find something that fits the shape of your foot, and get them pretty tight – slightly uncomfortable, but not painful.

For your first pair, just get something close to the right size, and cheap. As long as there isn’t an extra inch of space in the shoe, or they’re cramping your feet painfully, you’ll do alright. After a few months of climbing, you’ll get a better idea of how you like your shoe to fit, and what you want it to do.

What about socks? Most people don’t wear them. You can feel the rock a little better without socks. If you wear them, whether to help your shoes fit better or to prevent your feet from touching the rental shoes, get super thin ones. Like silk liner socks or Balega running socks.

Pro tip: If you go barefoot, put your sock money towards some disinfectant spray to keep your shoes clean and fresh.

Chalk and a chalk bag

This is a very useful addition to your arsenal. Chalk helps to dry your hands for better grip on the holds. If your hands sweat at all, this is essential.

Just about anything will be fine. You can find chalk bags from two Ogres, Prana, and Climb X for less than $20.

Or for just $2 more, you can get the Organic chalk bag, which is handmade in my home town and available in your preferred custom color scheme!

Next, fill the chalk bag with chalk. I would start by getting a Metolious chalk sock – it’s only $4 and comes filled with enough chalk to last at least a month.

When you need to re-fill it, some of the best chalk choices are Black Diamond White Gold and Bison Designs competition chalk. (For the most part though, chalk is chalk.)

One last accessory you could carry is an old toothbrush. It’s used for brushing holds (which might have too much caked-on chalk) and can be attached to most chalk bags.

coach levi rock pull ups

Training for Improved Rock Climbing Performance

Rock climbing is the best training, but there’s lots of stuff you can do at home or in the gym to better prepare yourself.

Strength Training Exercises

Rock climbing requires full body strength. Here are some of my favorite exercises for rock climbers. (Most require no equipment!)

Pull ups

Push ups

Squats

Lunges

For all of these, do lots of variations, because you’ll be on the wall using your muscles in many different positions. Pistol squats, for example, are excellent!

Core Training

More advanced moves require a super strong core. Here are some specific exercises to do to build power and endurance:

Plank

Bird dog

Hanging leg raise

V-ups

Windshield washers

Looking for instructions and photo and video demonstrations of these bodyweight exercises?

Hand Strength and Skin Toughness

Climbing requires hand strength and toughness not often found in other sports. (Aside from martial arts and powerlifting, few sports even work your grip.)

A common question is, “is there a quick way to toughen up your skin?!”

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Just keep climbing and your body will adapt. The skin on your fingers will get thicker and tougher. When I first started, I couldn’t climb often – no more than once a week. But once I started climbing 3x week, my skin totally changed to meet the demands.

The same goes for your hand strength.

Dedicated finger training can stress ligaments and tendons too much and cause injury. It’s safer and more fun to just work your fingers by climbing more often!

Skin Maintenance

mane n tail hoofmaker

You do have to take care of your skin, though. You don’t want your hands to dry out and crack!

Wash your hands. Chalk will continue to suck the moisture out of your hands, so wash it off ASAP after climbing.

Moisturize. When you’re not climbing, you should be using a high-quality hand lotion. Apply some right after washing the chalk off your hands.

There’s one I like for general use called Hoofmaker. That’s for horses, but it’s great for climbers! It will soothe and moisturize your skin, while also toughening it up.

A good one to use each night before you go to bed is called Climb On. Yes, it’s made for climbers!

Tape. If the skin on your hands is getting raw, but you don’t want to stop climbing, apply some cloth tape. This will remove some of the burden from your skin. I prefer the Johnson & Johnson brand and always have some with my chalk bag.

Don’t wash dishes. Try not to spend a whole lot of time swimming, bathing, and washing dishes. Soaking in water will really soften your hands.

Avoid callouses. While you want thick skin, you don’t want callouses. Big callouses will catch on the holds and rip off, and that sucks! So if you get them, sand them down with a pumice stone.

Promote healing. Speed healing by promoting blood flow in the hands and cutting down on inflammation. I do this by using an anti-inflammatory cream like Topricin before and after climbing sessions. It’s good for your skin, muscles, tendons, and ligaments!

 

Now you know everything you need to get started!

Put it all together, practice, and eventually you will be able to do stuff like this:

 

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2 Comments
  1. I’ve heard that yoga can really help rock climbers.

  2. @Darius

    You know I’ve heard that too. We must hang out with the same type of crowd!

    It’s true though – a lot of the same strength and balance gained from practicing yoga can apply when you’re climbing. Yoga won’t make you a pro climber right away, but it’s a helpful background to have.

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