Stop Hurting Yourself. 15 Tips for Injury-Free Bouldering

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Bouldering is a high-risk activity. Performing well while avoiding injury is both an art and a science. It’s not just about warming up, but getting your tactics right and developing a feel for when to push and when to back off. Use this article as a checklist to ensure that you’re doing everything in your power to stay injury-free.

1) Warm-Up

Note the three crucial stages for any climbing warm-up. (And for more in-depth description on how to warm up for any type of climbing, check out these tips.)

1. Raise heart rate and body temperature.

2. Combine easy climbing with mobility exercises (focus on the arms).

3. Build up the difficulty slowly.

2) Know your level

Never attempt sessions beyond your experience level (or, for juniors, age category). Note for junior climbers: Always follow each progressive stage, regardless of the age you start climbing, i.e.: a junior who starts at age 14 must still gain four years experience before moving to stage 4.

Try to reduce volume and intensity of bouldering during growth spurts. Parents and coaches should monitor growth with a growth chart.

3) Observe protocol for falling and landing

It’s not just elbows, shoulders and finger tendons that are at risk from bouldering. Be aware of other climbers when you are committing to a hard move, learn how to effectively pre-pad the landing and arrange your spotters, and always be mindful of how and where you will land.

4) Warm up progressively

Don’t get on hard projects too soon. Instead do several problems at each grade level. Alternate between different wall angles, and rest longer between problems as the difficulty increases (e.g.: 1 minute between V0s, 2 minutes between V1s, 3 minutes between V3s, etc). Do not allow a pump to build. Climb for at least 45 minutes before trying a hard project.

5) Rest sufficiently between attempts

Don’t thrash away at projects. A rule of thumb is to rest 1 minute for every hand move completed. Take a 10- to 15-minute break every 30 minutes to help you to sustain productivity and avoid injury. Stretch your legs during breaks, but do not stretch your arms. Warm up again after breaks of longer than 15 minutes.

6) Use skill before force

Use rest periods to review your sequences and consider the subtleties of the moves rather than just trying to pull harder with each attempt.

[Also Read Stayin’ Alive: 10 Tips to Keep You Safe]

7) Move on and switch styles

Avoid working the same project for longer than 30 minutes. Move on and try something else on a different angle and with a different style of holds.

8) High-risk holds and moves

It’s important to develop versatile strength and skill for bouldering, so you shouldn’t shy away from higher-risk moves unless you have good reason, such as a specific injury. However, an extra degree of caution is required.

Make sure you are fully warmed up, but still feeling strong and fresh.

Have a “test go” first to pre-load your tendons without trying 100 percent.

Be mindful of a foot slipping and be prepared to let go suddenly.

Be particularly wary if the move is dynamic; be as controlled as possible.

Take fewer tries with longer rests between attempts.

Beware of:

Pockets (especially split-finger combinations, underclings, or sidepulls, which may subject the fingers to torsional forces.) Try not to let the fingers move in the hold.

Small sharp edges, especially if held with a full-crimp grip. The safest utility grip is the half-crimp (fingers at 90 degrees).

Shouldery moves (especially iron crosses).

Big dynos.

Slopers. When slapping repeatedly for the same hold, mind the wrists.

Compression heel-hooks. (Protect the hamstrings. Activate them first).

Dave MacLeod, healthy and strong, on the second ascent of Mystic Stylez boulder
Dave MacLeod, healthy and strong, on the second ascent of Mystic Stylez (V15), Magic Wood, Switzerland. Photo: Lukasz Warzecka / PolishedProject.

9) Emphasize quality

Always train when feeling fresh and recovered. Never boulder after doing hard routes and never flail at the end of the session to the point that you can’t get up easy problems. Forget “no pain, no gain.” Stop and warm down before your form deteriorates significantly.

10) Don’t overtrain!

Beginners should train an average of 2 to 3 days a week, intermediates: 3 to 4 times, and advanced climbers up to 5 times a week. (This includes other forms of training such as routes, hangboard, campus board, etc.)

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11) Structure your training

When climbing on two consecutive days, do more intensive training on the first day and volume-based training on the second day. E.g.: bouldering on day 1 and routes on day 2 (or hard boulder projects on day 1 and bouldering mileage on day 2).

Split your training into phases (usually 1 month in length) where you focus predominantly on strength for a month and then endurance the following month (e.g.: in strength phases, train strength 2 or 3 times a week and endurance once).

Make sure you have a light week or even a full rest week every 2 to 3 months and a 2-week break twice a year.

12) Balance the body!

Climbing works a specific and limited range of muscles, and many common injuries are caused by muscular imbalances. Finish every session by training the antagonist or opposition muscles. Do 3 sets of 20 reps of the following exercises:

Push ups (for chest, shoulders and triceps).

Reverse wrist curls or finger extensions with a rubber band (for forearm flexors). If you’re too tired after climbing, then train antagonists on rest days.

13) Build a base

Hard bouldering can be dangerous if you don’t have a strong upper body. A supportive weight-training and core-conditioning program can help provide crucial base strength. Seek appropriate advice, but don’t overdo it—aim to build strength without excessive muscle bulk.

14) Warm down

Finish sessions with very easy climbing followed by a quick pulse-raiser and some gentle static stretching.

15) Lifestyle

Eat a healthy, balanced diet, stay hydrated and always eat a small protein-based snack immediately after training. Take protein supplements if you don’t have sufficient protein in your diet. Go easy on your training if work gets tough or if you are losing out on sleep.

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 205 (October 2012).

Neil Gresham has been training and coaching for two decades. In 2001, he made the second ascent of Equilibrium (E10 7a/5.14X) on Peak District gritstone, and in 2021 made the first ascent of Lexicon (E10 7a).

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