Bouldering can appear as a dance to some or as a series of explosive powerhouse moves to others. Some of the most talented climbers got their start in gyms, or by playing around on the rocks in Central Park (Ashima Shiraishi for one). Whether you’re transitioning from roped climbing to bouldering, or it’s your first time climbing, bouldering requires starting from scratch. Following these essential bouldering tips will help you master the art of bouldering to get a great workout, as well as an excuse to travel and climb outdoors.
Best Tips for Bouldering for Beginners & First Time Climbers
It might be tempting to try and hop on the most difficult climbing routes as quickly as possible. But often, this strategy can lead to frustration and giving up on bouldering prematurely.
Starting slow is necessary for everyone, especially first-time climbers. Bouldering targets completely different muscle groups than most other workouts and incorporates much more difficult moves than many roped routes. Humility can be the crux of climbing for most beginners.
Start slowly, warm up, and gradually increase the difficulty of the problems you’re trying out. Understand the climbing grades and your own limitations. Setting your sights too high at first can be dangerous and often results in show-stopping injuries that could have been easily prevented. Progressing at your own pace, however, can help you learn necessary techniques and build foundational strength for the rest of your climbing journey.
Focus on Your Legs
The most common mistake folks make when they first head into a climbing gym is attempting to power through all of the moves by pulling hard with upper body strength and neglecting to think about their legs.
Real quick, put your arms up against your legs and see the difference in size. Your legs are massive when compared to your arms. Why would you want to haul that extra weight up the wall, rather than utilize the muscles that are already there?
Proper footwork and technique allow for you to use your legs rather than just focusing on your arms. Bouldering is much closer to a dance than it is to the World’s Strongest Man competition. Learning to lift yourself up the wall using footholds and techniques like smearing is crucial to building a strong foundation for bouldering.
One of the more challenging parts of using your legs is trusting your gear. The best climbing shoes are made to stick to the wall when used properly, and this will make all the difference when beginning to climb with your legs. Experiment with your legs, focusing on how to push yourself upwards while trusting that your feet will stay on the wall.
Keep Silent Feet
As I’ve mentioned, bouldering is as much about your foot placement as it is about pulling hard. One of the best bouldering tips to master the finesse of toe placement is to try “quiet climbing”.
A lot of beginner climbers will clamber their way up the wall in a reckless, clattering manner. While it might work, it won’t do much for improving your technique. My mom always called me a bull in a china shop, and it didn’t ring true for me until I started climbing.
Focusing on quiet climbing, or keeping your feet silent, allows for slow and precise movements. Many beginners will scramble up a route with their feet trailing behind and slamming aggressively into the wall. Climbing with silent feet requires slow, deliberate movement and placement. It takes a lot of patience, but foot placement needs to be precise when foot chips are minuscule and your foot will slip if not placed perfectly.
Hug Your Hips to the Wall
While clinging to a wall by tiny hand and footholds, gravity is doing its best to throw you to the crash pad. When you fold at the hips and push your butt out during a climb, you make it a lot more difficult to compete with gravity.
So, we need to outsmart gravity. Keeping your hips close to the wall helps to keep your weight from folding outwards and putting more strain on your arms. With hips that hug the walls, more of your weight can be distributed into your legs and pushed down onto the footholds.
As an added bonus, keeping your hips in tight requires engaging your core, which can eventually lead to an impressively strong set of abs.
Keep Straight Arms
As you attempt to hold your body onto the wall, it’s natural to keep your elbows bent. It gives the illusion that you are pulling harder and therefore climbing better. Unfortunately, all you’re doing is getting tired faster.
Try climbing with your arms as straight as possible, only bending them when making moves or if absolutely necessary. This typically requires keeping your weight low so that you can extend your arms on the holds.
Keeping extended arms helps take a lot of the stress off your upper body muscles, allowing you to maintain endurance. The weight and stress go onto your joints, which are likely much stronger than most of your muscles. This will keep you climbing longer and with more strength in each session, rather than burning your muscles out quickly early-on.
Avoid the Grip of Death
Another completely natural thing to do is grab onto a hold like your life depends on it and overstrain yourself when it isn’t necessary. Often, you’ll be holding on a lot tighter than you need to be. It takes practice, but eventually, you can master the amount of grip strength needed to keep you on the wall.
With every move you make, adjust the level of grip strength you are using to see what’s necessary. If you’re grabbing on too tightly, it can lead to strained arms before you’re halfway through the route. Loosening your grip when possible is another great way to maintain endurance, which you’ll need.
Try Different Body Positions
Playing around with different body positions is another part of bouldering that makes it a fluid and masterful dance. Turning your hips one way or another, extending a leg to the far left, or matching your feet to hands, are only a few examples of how you can get creative on the wall.
As you start to climb harder grades, creativity becomes more necessary. The routes become less similar to climbing a work ladder and you won’t be able to finish a climb if you don’t shift your body weight around.
Adjusting positioning helps distribute weight in different ways and can help you stay close to the wall while making a move. Playing around with new ways of climbing can add to your repertoire.
One of the best parts of bouldering is sitting around and resting. It sounds lazy, but it’s absolutely necessary. You may not think this belongs on a list of bouldering tips, but it’s essential for development and strength building as a climber.
Try to go bouldering without taking breaks. You’ll be absolutely exhausted in no time at all.
Take lots of breaks. With every attempt at a problem, sit back and let your muscles and tendons relax. Resting not only gives your muscles time to recover, but you can also observe the route and strategize how you’ll tackle it next time. It will help you climb longer, better, and provide more opportunities to figure out how you’re going to send the problem.
Read the Route
All the years spent reading Harry Potter and exercising your imagination finally come into play while bouldering. One of the best methods for sending a problem is reading the route and figuring out how to do it.
Bouldering routes are called “problems” for a reason. To solve it, you need to imagine yourself climbing it, how each move will feel, and what ways you can creatively conquer the crux.
Climbers refer to this as reading the route. You’ll likely see people at a gym with their hands in the air, pretending to climb. They’re not dancing, they’re getting ready for the dance.
Ask for Beta, but Don’t Spray it
Beta. The secrets to cracking the bouldering code. Some people want it, some people won’t ever talk to you again if you give it.
Part of the fun of bouldering is figuring out how to send a problem. When someone walks by and starts “spraying beta” (giving you the answer) takes a lot of the fun away from the climb and can ruin the experience entirely.
Ask for help when you feel like you need it. It can be on a certain move or can be asking for the entire thing. Just don’t go around offering unsolicited advice. It’s a serious no-no in the bouldering culture.
Embrace the Community
The climbing community is a tight-knit one. It’s where you go to both recreate, exercise and often socialize. Bouldering is an incredibly social sport. You spend a lot of time resting and talking about the routes that you’re projecting. As a bonus, you can get many, many more bouldering tips and advice from your fellow climbers!
Inserting yourself into the community and embracing it fully will certainly help you become better. This is one of the best ways to climb with someone who’s better than you and can challenge you to get better.
We’ve all been beginners. A helping hand and a friendly face are what some of us (me) need to keep coming back and feel inspired to get stronger.
Don’t Jump Straight to a Hangboard
In the gym, you’ll see plenty of people doing a hangboard workout. Hangboards are the funny-shaped boards that people hang from, do one-fingered pull-ups on, or move around on. One of the common bouldering tips you’ll hear from others is to use hangboards to get stronger…but I disagree.
Climbing targets tendons a lot more than it targets muscles. You strengthen your tendons slowly by building supporting muscle groups and climbing easy routes.
Without this initial training, you can get injured easily on a hangboard. They’re designed to put a lot of strain on your tendons, increasing finger strength. Save this training for much further down the road, and don’t listen to anyone that says differently.
Climbers all have their favorite styles. I love crimpy routes with big long moves. Some people love slab problems that require intricate footwork and incredible balance. No matter what your style is, one of the best bouldering tips in general is to mix it up.
Mastering multiple styles opens up doors that you couldn’t go through before. There are certain climbing areas that have a lot of slopers, some that are filled with micro crimps, some that are jug city. The more you can climb, the more places you’ll want to go.
If going more places doesn’t interest you, then climb multiple styles because it will strengthen different muscle groups. This will make you a better climber for your specific style and allow you to creatively solve problems you may not have before.
Play Games and Have Fun
Fun is the best way to get yourself coming back over and over. Climbing doesn’t need to be stressful or completely “serious”.
There are plenty of games you can play with friends to get stronger while having fun. Here are a couple of my old-time favorites:
HORSE: Challenge your climbing partners to make difficult moves. If you make the move or climb the whole route, but your buddy doesn’t, they get an H. A true classic.
Add-on: Start with a sit-start. Each person that goes gets to choose the next move in the sequence. I’ve seen this used as a fun way to set new routes and come up with some ridiculous moves.
Take-away: All holds are on at the start. The goal is to top out. Every time you top out, you can choose a hold to put a piece of tape on and label off-limits. This game is a great way to end the day and get pumped quickly.
Of all of the bouldering tips on our list, the best I can offer is to accept failure. Know that you’re going to fall. It’s all a part of getting better. Embracing failure allows you to learn how to fall safely. Falling properly in bouldering means landing on your feet, rolling on your back, while tucking in your arms and head.
Climbing at your current level and not challenging yourself won’t do much for you. You’ll plateau at V2 and climb that for the rest of your climbing career.
Pushing yourself to try harder routes and fall over and over and over is the only way to get better. There will be problems that haunt your mind as you lay in bed at night. The failure and the challenge will drive you to the crag tomorrow and keep challenging you to push your limits.
Once you can fail, you can start to succeed.
Additional Climbing Resources
What to Bring
- Climbing shoes – Climbing shoes are the #1 most important piece of gear you need for any kind of rock climbing. We always recommend buying your own shoes (rather than renting) for those planning to climb regularly.
- Chalk – Chalk helps fortify your hand grip on the wall. Many gyms do not offer free chalk to climbers, so we’d recommend bringing your own chalk in a portable chalk bag you can strap around your waist on longer climbs.
- Harness/belay device – If you’re planning on climbing with ropes, you’ll need a harness and a belay device (note that some gyms have these pre-installed). Check out our guide to the best climbing harnesses for our favorite recommendations.
- Water bottle – Hydration is key in the gym or outside. We love when our water stays nice and cold, so we usually opt for our Hydro Flask lightweight bottle.
- Tape – Calluses, blisters, and tears happen when you’re on the crag. To bandage and cover any painful areas of skin, we’d recommend carrying a roll of climbing tape with you when you’re climbing indoors or outside
- Nail clippers – Climbing can be a thousand times more difficult if your fingernails are long. We always having a set of nail clippers in your climbing bag in case you need them.
- Climbing salve – After climbing, it’s possible your hands will be chapped, cracked, or at best, really dry. If this is the case, a thick climbing salve can help restore hydration and elasticity to your hands. We love this one by Burt’s Bees, made with all natural ingredients.
- Outdoor climbing gear – If you’re heading outdoors, you may need specific equipment for outdoor climbing. Read our guides to outdoor bouldering gear and outdoor climbing gear for a complete packing list of things to bring for outdoor climbing.