For the uninitiated, bouldering is slightly different from rock climbing. Basically, instead of trying to climb as high as possible at a steady rate with the help of safety gear and a team of other climbers, bouldering is done much closer to the ground, in no small part because, usually, no safety equipment is used.
To put it another way, bouldering offers a straightforward challenge to climbers: traverse a surface horizontally without falling. No good handholds in sight? Too bad.
Bouldering has the potential to exercise many different muscle groups and parts of the body. Sure, arms and upper body strength are still the stars of the show, but in certain situations, your legs can be just as important. Plus, your core will be pushed to the limit throughout.
Even at relatively low heights, bouldering isn’t for the faint of heart, and for inexperienced climbers, it can even be dangerous.
But if you’ve been working on your bouldering skills for a while and you’ve finally made it to the intermediate level, then you’re probably hungry for more, looking for ways to improve your technique.
We talked to professional climber Deborah Albuquerque about bouldering techniques for intermediate climbers.
A number of recent competitions have showcased Albuquerque’s impressive climbing and bouldering talents, including a 1st-place win at Brooklyn Boulders’ Do or Dyno contest as well as a 1st-place title at Blocbuster 2019 in New York.
Albuquerque visited our office recently to talk about how intermediate climbers can take their skills to the next level, literally.
How to Climb (the Ranks)
The first bit of advice should be easy enough to digest: practice climbing as much as you possibly can, as often as your schedule allows.
Albuquerque put it best during our conversation:
“It’s simple, but the best way to improve is just by climbing a lot. Your tendons, muscles, and skin will start getting used to the experience and you will start learning how to move up and around the wall with the least amount of effort.”
Yes, training each muscle group with weight and aerobic exercises in the gym is crucial, but no exercise is quite like the act of climbing.
If you don’t already belong to a nearby climbing gym or climbing club, now is the time to find one. If you ever want to go from intermediate to advanced, it’s going to take some time. Become a regular at your climbing gym and ask for help and advice when you need it. Even better, make some friends who are interested in climbing. Even if they’re not at your level, you’ll still be able to encourage one another to keep working at it.
It’s Not All About the Arms
Even non-climbers can see from videos and competition footage that a climber’s arms are extremely important for this particular sport. Don’t get us wrong, they absolutely are. But if you focus too much attention on your arms and upper body strength, you’ll end up regretting it in the long run.
The rest of your body needs to be completely in-sync. Where you place your feet and where you hold your body in relation to the wall should never be an afterthought.
Albuquerque shared a couple of simple exercises that can help intermediate climbers develop strength and acuity in other core muscle groups.
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“You may want to start working on your foot technique, body positioning, and body tension so you don’t have to rely so much on your arms. One great exercise for this is climbing lower-grade Boulders like V0-V2 very slowly, without bending the biceps. This will force you to be precise with your footwork and helps develop the core, legs, lats, and shoulders.”
This technique is not too far off from proper weight training etiquette. Going through reps quickly isn’t much of a challenge. Completing an exercise slowly and with total control is far more helpful.
Take a break from your bouldering speedruns and slow it down, focusing on every single movement. When you switch back to more challenging routes, they’ll feel just a little bit easier.
The 4×4 is the inverse of the Slow-Go exercise. Instead of taking your time on a boulder, you move through several easier boulders quickly, then go through the series again and again.
Albuquerque broke down the 4×4 in its simplest terms:
“A great exercise that can help climbers improve stamina is the 4×4. It’s not complicated, just climb four boulders two grades below your normal grade, without resting between each boulder, then rest for four minutes and repeat.”
Like she said, stamina is the focus here. Rock climbers can’t just be great in short bursts, they need to be consistently great for long periods of time, through long routes and challenging courses.
The 4×4 will get you used to the feeling of longer climbs, without stranding you in the middle of a real-world course.
Join the Community, Watch, and Listen
Climbing will always be a visceral physical experience, but upping your game is also going to require careful observation.
Rock climbing has a healthy community here in the States, so take advantage of it. You’ll be surprised by how friendly other climbers can be, especially when it comes to sharing stories about past experiences and climbs.
If you put in lots of practice hours and pay close attention to how more advanced climbers navigate certain walls and routes, you’ll start to absorb important lessons.
Albuquerque told us just how important it is to have a real passion for climbing. For her, everything else stems from that passion.
“There’s no real secret about how someone can become an expert at bouldering. For one, you need to love bouldering. You need to train hard at the gym and at the climbing gym to improve your bouldering skills. You need to watch better climbers, studying how they move. And you should compete whenever you have the chance.”
When you need some extra help, just ask for it. Your local climbing gym might have a staff of trainers who can help you work through a specific difficulty or technique.
Like anything else, expertise in bouldering is the result of hours and hours of hard work. If you don’t give yourself to the sport, you’ll never become an expert.
A Steep Climb in Popularity
No matter your skill level, it’s hard to deny that this is an incredibly exciting time to be involved with rock climbing.
On the amateur side, there are more climbing clubs than ever before. Beginners have access to a huge number of resources with useful information, from in-person instructors to the thousands of online videos that can introduce viewers to more complex approaches and exercises.
But perhaps the most exciting development for fans of professional climbing has been the relatively newfound prominence of climbers in televised events.
Albuquerque is herself a big fan of other professional climbers and she’s been thrilled to see that rock climbing is being taken more seriously every year:
“Climbing gyms are multiplying in the U.S. and in many other countries around the world. Climbers have also stood out lately in obstacle course reality shows, bringing attention to the sport. In fact, these shows are how I was first introduced to the sport of rock climbing. And in 2020, rock climbing will be an Olympic sport for the first time.”
Just think of how significant it was when snowboarding was first included as an Olympic event in 1998. Up to that point, it was rarely seen as a legitimate sport. Cultural institutions labeled it as a crazy pastime for teenagers.
Years later, long after the acrobatic antics of Shaun White and his three Olympic Gold Medal wins, snowboarding is one of the most popular and widely accepted snow sports, right alongside skiing and ice skating.
Who knows, maybe there’s a young intermediate climber out there today who will one day be an Olympic climber proving their skills against a slew of international competitors.
In the meantime, enjoy every climb, every boulder, and every fellow climber who pushes you to be better.