Strength Training for Bouldering
by Christopher Schafenacker
You wouldn’t be alone if you read that title and thought, Wait, isn’t bouldering, itself, strength training for bouldering? After all, judging by the number of people who try to get stronger at bouldering by doing little more than bouldering itself, I’d say a majority of climbers share this perspective. It’s easy to understand why, too. Bouldering is fun, it’s social, and if you have at it for four solid hours, you get to go home with that satisfying feeling of having left it all on the wall.
Unfortunately, climbing yourself into a pulp is about as useful as pulling an all-nighter ahead of an exam: while it may feel like you’ve put in the work, the reality is that you’ve done little more than traumatize your body. You see, climbing, like studying, requires specific goals and a methodical approach if improvement is to be maximized. And while brain and brawn will bounce back, both require days of rest after a proper shredding. This is not only inefficient, it’s unhealthy.
Expert coaches including Steve Bechtel and Eric Hörst insist on the importance of intensity when training strength. Naturally, they don’t mean running laps like you’re Alex Honnold celebrating his birthday. They mean doing exercises that demand short bursts of maximum effort with plenty of recovery time. In Bechtel’s words, “In strength training […] if we train to fatigue, we screwed up.” This is good news for those wary of cootie-covered routes at the local gym. Intensity, after all, is easy to achieve with a home bouldering wall and hangboard setup.
Get Systematic: Building Boulder Strength
A systems wall, or a simple woody patterned with symmetrically set holds, is a powerful tool for quickly addressing a boulderer’s structural weaknesses. Any home setup can be easily converted into a systems wall by setting mirrored problems across the midline of your board. Nonetheless, the bouldering workout described below can just as well be completed on a traditionally-set spray wall.
Choose two or three movement patterns to work and design a 3-5 move sequences that targets each. Think: lock-offs, hip rotation, undercling positioning, gastons, or any other powerful movement you struggle with.
If taking a systems approach, ensure that each sequence is mirrored and can be completed in both a leftward and rightward direction. If taking the old-school, spray wall approach, aim to design sequences that challenge movement patterns on both sides of the body.
For maximum strength gains, ensure that each of your sequences can be completed in less than 10 seconds. Remember, the goal here is intensity.
Complete 3-5 sets of each problem, ensuring a full rest between attempts. As a general rule, rest one minute per move completed, if not more. Fatigue should not be a factor.
Stop as soon as you note a marked decline in movement quality.
Strength workouts are tricky for training junkies as they don’t provide the satisfying feeling of turning your body into mincemeat. If after hucking yourself around your home wall you’re still hungry for more, tack on the following finger strength protocol at the end of your workout.
Choose two standard grips (full crimp, half-crimp, open-hand) and one project-specific grip (pinch or two-finger pocket, for instance) to train.
Hang for 3-5 seconds on each grip, resting 90 seconds between each hang. If you are able to hold a grip for much longer than this period, add weight.
Complete 3-5 sets of hangs, resting 5 minutes between sets.
When completing this protocol, do not cheat yourself out of rest. It’s your tendons—not your forearms—that are working here, so you won’t feel tired. Nonetheless, the only thing you stand to gain from insufficient rest is chronic fatigue, which translates to chronically weak climbing.
Whether you are a dedicated boulderer or simply training for the notoriously powerful cruxes of the Frankenjura, high-intensity strength work should account for no more than 50% of your training. This means that unless you’re projecting Action Directe, you shouldn’t do the above more than twice a week. And even if you are climbing at an elite level, you still need to rest a minimum of 36 hours between strength training sessions.
Featured Climbing Training Gear
*NEW* The Rocketeer Wall: our free-standing adjustable solution for those who can’t mount a hangboard anywhere in their home or apartment—or who are limited on space. The Rocketeer gives climbers the additional option to set specific climbing holds. Recreate the crux holds of your proj and get ready to send, bruh.
The Rocket Wall: Available in 6’ and 8’ widths, it’s been tough for us to keep up with the demand for this innovative home climbing wall solution. Slightly overhanging, the Rocket Wall is big enough to set routes on, or to build a systems board.
The Rock-Stah: Our handcrafted version of a traditional hangboard, with curving crimp rails to help alleviate unnecessary strain on your pulleys. Because ain’t no one got time for a finger injury…
Christopher Schafenacker started climbing in Western MA before moving to Granada, Spain, where he now writes, climbs, and runs education-centered training camps for competitive youth climbing teams.