Climbing for Building Strength

Traditional go-to outdoor sports like hiking, running, mountain biking tend to be great for building aerobic endurance but not so much for building strength and sculpting your body.

One of the greatest outdoor activities to build strength is bouldering. It requires massive amounts of core strength and upper body strength if you’re serious about it. But if you’re just starting out it is a very accessible sport: none of the danger of roped climbing, accessible to all, and a whole lot of fun.

And when we say accessible to all, we mean it: all you need to go bouldering is a pair of climbing shoes and, well, boulders. And the best place to find boulders for beginners is indoors. Lots of bouldering-specific climbing gyms are popping up all over the world. The sport is going through a moment of growth. It became olympic last year and this has made the sport more accessible than ever.

I like to think of bouldering as the new yoga: a sport that came from a completely different background but has been adapted to modern needs. Like Yoga, it’s a great way to build core strength and it will get your ripped in no time.

It helps that to climb at advanced levels weight management is a must. All those kilos don’t drag themselves up the rock! The lighter the better. So no wonder that boulderers tend to be muscular, yet not bulky. Light, yet not skinny. Bouldering kind of naturally builds a great body shape. Let’s have a look at the specifics of how it does that.

Unlike roped climbing, bouldering is a sub-minute effort. The very nature of it means that you are in the low-rep, high-intensity range of effort required to build power and strength. So what you’re building with this kind of effort is useful, strong, non-bulky muscle.

Bouldering has lots of dynamic, high-intensity moves. So you’re naturally training fast-twitching muscle fibres. But the cool thing is that no single move is the same. You’re always making slightly different, yet still high-intensity moves. This greatly adds to the variety of muscle groups you train. And all of that without a single boring “rep”.

Another big advantage of bouldering for strength is that it naturally is a bodyweight-only form of exercise. This greatly cuts down on the danger of injuries from doing heavily loaded high-intensity exercises with “bad form”. There are no reps in bouldering, so no damage from compounding bad reps.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind to avoid typical bouldering injuries though. One, always use a bouldering pad to avoid twisting an ankle when you fall. That’s the number one bouldering injury by far. Two, train your antagonists. When you’re bouldering you are doing a lot of “pulling” moves. This can lead to over-use injuries, especially in the tendons. Make sure you complement your bouldering session with e.g. push-ups to even things out. Three, warm up properly. You’re doing a full-body workout, make sure you warm up all muscle groups before going on intense climbs.

If you’re looking at bouldering as cross-training for other sports there are a couple of additional things to keep in mind. When you start out bouldering you will probably feel very sore next day, so schedule accordingly. Don’t even think about doing other strength-based activities the next day after a hard bouldering session. Endurance sports after bouldering are great though. They naturally help your body recover faster from the session.

Feel inspired to start bouldering? First thing to do is to find a good bouldering-specific gym. Even if you have outdoor boulders nearby, I still recommend you go to a gym first. Maybe take a basic course. You will feel way more confident once you hit the outdoor boulders if you do.

Photo by Gregory Hayes

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