10 Tips to Improve Your Bouldering

This article won’t make you improve your bouldering out of all proportion, overnight, but it might help you to start the process of improvement. I recently found myself in a bit of a rut with my climbing, a bit of a sticking point in my development. If that sounds like a familiar feeling to you, then these tips might just help. The changes below have really helped me to get back onto the road to better bouldering. I’m now seeing regular improvements.

So far this year, I have managed a few font 6b’s (which is harder than I ever climbed in my youth) and while that’s no great shakes in terms of performance, I’m happy because I’m getting better. Incidentally I probably weigh a stone and a half more than I did 20 years ago, when I last climbed seriously for any length of time.  It’s certainly not all muscle.

None of the following tips focus on the “buy a finger board and lift weights till everything is really sore. Then walk around at the climbing centre, stripped to the waist, approach. One which has many fans but is not for me. Unlike Ben Moon ‘I do climb to be in nice places’, gyms are not for me. I can tolerate a climbing wall if it’s dark or raining outside, but I’m not really into it. I want to massage my ego, but I want a nice view whilst I’m doing it. That way I can argue that I’m at one with nature and growing as a person.

Oh and finally  before I begin, if these ideas are yours; I’ll be honest I stole most of them, reworked one or two of them, and the others? Well  I might have thought of the odd one myself but they were probably memorised from the mainstream climbing press at one time or another. Honestly I can’t remember doing it. Anyway I’m not sorry if other people benefit from them, it’s supposed to be fun isn’t it?

1. It isn’t that you’re not strong enough to do the move, it’s more likely to be your technique

For years as a climber, if I failed on a move or a route I assumed that I just wasn’t strong enough. I was a mediocre but keen fell runner as a teenager. This left me with little upper body strength and slightly heavy legs in my early climbing career. I used this as an excuse for not being able to climb harder.

I have recently been out a couple of with a mate of mine, who boulders a good deal harder than most people, and he’s been talking me through various problems. I was amazed at how many holds he could “find” to use. Sometimes they only gained him an inch or two, or he just used them to transition to a better hold, or as a rest but he used them. So now when I’m struggling on a problem I to avoid tunnel vision or blaming lack of strength. Instead, I focus on looking for a different way. I might look for a better hold (and better doesn’t mean bigger if it’s in the right place, nearer your body’s centre line is better). If a different technique gets me a little further up the route, I’ll pursue it. The number of times the answer was a different approach rather than more strength still amazes me and hopefully it will amaze you too.

2. Set short term, medium term and long term goals

This year I made a list of problems. I graded the list: likely, possible and pigs might fly.
I graded from V1 to V6 as I operate around the V3 mark. The easier problems where mainly highballs or frighteners as I have a pretty short neck but they were classics like Matterhorn Arete and I wanted to do them. The harder problems are ones that I thought suited my style (I am better crimping on thin holds than I am at pulling over roofs for example).

I started trying them in March this year when the weather improved. Just over halfway though this year I have the majority of the ‘likely’ ones done and I’m a move away from two of the ‘possibles’. I have got off the ground on one of the ‘pigs might fly’ routes, but after that I probably do lack the strength to get much further (you never know). Most importantly the list has forced me to attempt to climb routes I would not have attempted, through lack of belief.

3. Rest between attempts.

It is really tempting to get straight back on after you fail on that rock-over and think; ‘this time, this time, this time’. Don’t. Have five to ten minutes; think about the problem, have a brew, talk to your friends, look at the view. Then consider what you might try differently. Sometimes you need to do the move better, sometimes you need to try a different approach. When you’re completely ready, have another go (but first, check out point #4).

4. Concentrate but don’t try to hard

I know it sounds counter-intuitive but the mindset that seems to produce the results is one where you know exactly what you need to do on a problem but you’re not really thinking about it too much. I guess this is the “flow” state that psychologists refer to, and I think you can do some things to induce that state. I close my eyes visualise the moves, then empty my head, take a few really deep, slow breaths, then get on with it. The people I boulder with find this hilarious. I’m OK with that if it gets me the results.

5. Persevere

I started working Crucifix Arete at Almscliff last summer, I finally got it this May. I probably had twelve sessions on it in that time. It has a really painfully hand jam at the bottom which wrecks the back of your hand after a few goes on it. I needed a week or two for my hand to heal between visits. I made little progress for most of the winter and was beginning to think I just would never get it. Then in April a couple of talented and skinny people showed me an undercut that got me established on the problem properly and two session later it went easily. Each time I learned a little bit. In between tries, I did other routes and problems and the cumulative effect was the outcome I wanted.

6. Accuracy, Grace, Style and Poise

Back to my mate the hard boulderer again. Not only does he find more holds when he climbs. When he is using the same ones I am, he is incredibly precise about his hand and foot placements. He climbs really slowly, no not slowly, thoughtfully. He is measured, this measured approach seems to be half the battle. Last year someone said to me “you made that look really graceful”, I was silently delighted and thought “I bloody hope so I’m trying to”. If you try and climb smoothly and carefully, you have a better chance of hitting the holds just right. This even extends to to lunges and dynos. I have yet to see a great climber who didn’t make it look easy. Just don’t confuse looking easy, with it being easy. It’s all like swan swimming, underneath they are paddling hard like the rest of us.

7. Spotters, Dogs and Gurus

If you can find other people to climb with you will improve faster. I like climbing on my own, I like the solitude and the “this is all mine” aspect. Just as good is the social aspect of climbing with a group of like minded people. If some of these people are better than you they might let the odd crumb of beta drop when they’re off guard, for you to pick up put in your chalk bag and save for later. Some of these Gurus may even be free with their tips and information. If you can find one of these hang on them they are worth there weight in gold

In a big group the pile of mats is bigger so the psychological and real benefit offered is better too. If you can get your friends to stand beneath you and threaten to catch you, offer encouragement (and abuse in equal measure) you’re all set for success! I call this scenario the “baying pack of dogs”. If like me you’re a show-off, you might benefit from the ‘playing to the crowd’ aspect too. Oh and you get a longer rest if there are other folk about trying the same problem. That means the quality of your attempts will be higher. Just accept your place in the pack of dogs when it’s your turn, and try not to drop anyone if they fall. You can also see how the others  are doing the problem. Win Win I think.

8. Clean your shoes and clean the holds

I went to Fontainbleau years back and bimbled around with some locals. They burned me off big time as they knew all the problems and didn’t train on beer and chips. The thing that stood out though was how careful they were to clean their shoes thoroughly. It was like a religious rite, they spent a good minute or so doing it. I figured them for soft brie heads but in hindsight it rubbed off. If I don’t have a black slick of sticky rubber on my palm after a few problems I’m not happy. Cleaning the holds can make a difference too. A waft with a towel can get a lot of grease soaked chalk off a hold and I have been known to take a toothbrush to a particularly filthy hold.  Be careful though, there is a real risk of damaging the rock and problems that seem like they will last forever are often more fragile than you think. Any sort of wire brush, don’t even think about it.

9. Learn to top out a in few different ways

I think to start with I failed quite a lot of problems because I could get the top hold with my hands but I couldn’t get my feet on top of the problem. First trick is to walk around and look at the top of the route. Some ‘trad, on-sight’ part of my mind thinks this is cheating, it isn’t. Next, learn to do a basic mantle, get your feet as high as you can and then press down, palms down arms locked out, thumbs facing you. If you point your thumbs tips toward your body more your weight gets thrown forward yet more. You can top out on a sloping top this way. Also learn “the this top is rubbish and western roll over it” technique. Which comes down to flinging a foot and leg out and over the top and rolling onto the top on your face. Looks inelegant but can be very effective. You should also perfect the foot above your head rock over top out. This works with an overhanging top and a goodish top hold, sometimes rolling onto your toe from a heel hook as part of the process. Oh and finally if all else fails there’s always the 19 points of contact, thrutchy swim of terror.

10. Train and train your weaknesses

I said I don’t really like roofs, and I don’t. But I have been doing a few. I’m not much better at roofs yet, but I pull better between overhanging breaks now. I couldn’t crimp open hand so I wasn’t good at aretes but I have been doing that and I barn door less now, so I’m starting to get the hang of those too.
Be honest with your self. Work out what you’re trying to avoid, and stop avoiding it. You’ll not just improve in your weaker areas, your overall climbing will improve too. Extend this to doing some climbing routes, to build up some stamina rather than the just specific power that bouldering provides. Yoga (which sounds a bit wet) can really help with flexibility, affording you more options in terms of where you can place your feet. Resting is an important part of training too. Rest days mean just that, sit around do what you need to but let your body recover. You won’t improve if you get injured, and you are more likely to get injured if you climb when tired.

And Finally

Perhaps biggest thing you can do to bring about improvement is to decide that you want to improve. It’s really easy to convince yourself that you are happy with your current level of performance and that you don’t want to be any better as you are completely fulfilled. If that is genuinely true for you, great keep doing what you are doing.

Personally I don’t know how accomplished it is possible for me to be, with the limited time I can devote to climbing, and a body that is beginning to take longer to recover, but I intend to find out!