August 18, 2017
Indoor climbing in the bouldering gym wall

Bouldering: Climbing for the Height-Averse

by Jeanine Barone  |  

Rock climbing can be an excellent way to get exercise, and thanks to the proliferation in local climbing gyms, it’s accessible to pretty much everybody—even those who live nowhere near a mountain.

But what if heights aren’t your thing? If you want the benefits and adventure of climbing without the vertical ascent, you might try bouldering. Here’s some information to help you get started.

What is bouldering?

Unlike typical rock climbing, bouldering is done with no harness or ropes and involves heights of no more than 20 feet (and often much less than that—about eight feet). Using your hands and feet—and a whole bunch of muscles—you’ll maneuver yourself across, up, over, under, or between boulders of various size, either real or manmade. Bouldering requires that you carefully plot your route as you navigate, determining where to best place your hands and feet for greatest efficiency. You’ll generally focus on a lateral path rather than a vertical one, as you would with traditional climbing.

Equipment-wise, you don’t need much: just a bag of chalk and a good pair of climbing shoes. Both can be purchased at a good sporting goods store or online. The chalk keeps your palms and fingers dry so you can maintain a grip on the rock and avoid slipping. You generally keep it in a small nylon sack that hangs around your waist. The shoes have a sticky, rubber sole and should fit snugly. (Some experts suggest buying a size smaller than your regular shoes.) You can usually rent shoes at a climbing facility, if you’re not ready to purchase your own. This can also be a good way to determine what size fits you best.

Since you’ve got no harness to keep you in place if you slip, climbing facilities generally have thick padded mats, called “crash pads,” around the bouldering area to cushion falls. If you decide to boulder outdoors, you’ll need to buy your own crash pads online or in a sporting goods store.

Benefits of bouldering

Bouldering provides a great strengthening workout for nearly all your muscles, including those in your shoulders, upper back, arms (biceps and triceps), forearm, wrists, and core. Those are engaged not just in helping you hold on and pull yourself upward, but in keeping your body as close to the wall as possible, which is important for balance and endurance. (Your muscles will fatigue more quickly the farther you’re hanging from the wall.)

Even your hands will get a workout, via the intense gripping they’ll be doing. So will your quadriceps, the muscles in the front of your upper leg, which provide the power to push yourself upward from hold to hold. You’ll also get an aerobic workout when bouldering, especially if you push yourself to move relatively quickly.

There’s evidence that bouldering may also provide psychological benefits. In a pilot study, published in BMC Psychiatry in 2015, researchers randomly assigned almost 50 people with depression to two treatment groups. The first group bouldered three times a week for eight weeks, while the second group was wait-listed for bouldering. The subjects in both groups were coached by mental health professionals about mindfulness, meditation, and positive social interactions and also participated in group discussions and received informational materials. The study was conducted in Germany, where some hospitals have started to use climbing for its therapeutic benefits.

Compared with the wait-listed group, the bouldering group had a significant improvement in depression symptoms as measured by a widely used depression scale (the Beck’s Depression Inventory). On average, the improvement was equivalent to a drop in one severity grade, from moderate to mild depression.

The researchers surmised that bouldering might be helpful for depression because it requires a great deal of concentration and attention to the present moment, which in turn reduces the likelihood of ruminating over negative experiences or events—a common thought pattern among people with depression that tends to potentiate the depression. Bouldering can also improve social interactions and help boost self-efficacy, both important components of depression treatment.

How to get started

If you’re considering bouldering, a good way to begin is by taking lessons at a climbing gym or, if you can’t find one, a gym or community center that has a climbing wall. You’ll learn how to fall properly onto the crash pads to reduce injuries, including how to land safely on your legs and roll onto your side, which helps to break up the impact and spread out the force from the fall. Aside from crash pads, some gyms may also have a spotter to make sure your head and shoulders don’t hit any unpadded areas. (People who boulder outdoors often use multiple spotters.) Your instructor will show you how to stay close to the ground as you boulder, focusing on a horizontal path.

As with any physical activity, of course, injuries can occur during bouldering. The most common are cuts, bruises, ankle injuries (from falls), and overuse injuries to the tendons of the arms, shoulders, wrist, and fingers. You may need to avoid bouldering if you have a joint problem or overuse injury, such as arthritis, a herniated disk, or rotator cuff tendonitis; check with your doctor or physical therapist first. In addition, people who have poor balance may need to skip bouldering or do exercises to improve their balance before tackling this new activity.

For more basics on bouldering, see this web page from outdoors outfitter REI.

Also see 8 Hiking Movies to Get Your Feet Moving.