There is little doubt that one of the most popular trends in rock climbing right now involves ditching the harness and rope. And no, I’m not talking about following in the footsteps of Alex Honnold and attempting a death-defying free solo. Nope, I’m talking about bouldering, baby!
Forget Covid, it seems that every man and his crag dog has caught a bad case of the bouldering bug right now. It is by far the fastest-growing discipline of rock climbing, with bouldering experiencing an annual growth rate of 20% year-on-year. In the USA alone, it is thought that around 6 million people regularly climb indoors, most of which is predominantly gym bouldering. That’s whole a lot of vertical mileage!
It wasn’t always like this though. In the early days of mountaineering, in the late 19th century, bouldering was a lot lower down on everyone’s priority list. In fact, the very few mountaineers who practiced “boulder climbing” use it as a tool to hone their technical rock climbing skills lower to the ground, in preparation for their bigger alpine ascents. By the mid-1900s, bouldering had emerged as its own recognized discipline thanks to pioneers around the world like Oscar Eckenstein, Pierre Alain, and John Gill.
Are you curious and this exciting, yet unusual sport? Wondering if it’s as fun as it looks? And want to find out what the main advantages of bouldering are? I have been sifting through an endless sea of academic studies to undercover the 11 biggest benefits of bouldering that’ll have you coming back for more.
The Surprising Benefits Of Bouldering
At first glance, bouldering doesn’t exactly look overly active, but there’s a whole bunch of undercover mental and physical benefits going on behind the fun. The way I see it, the benefits of bouldering can be broken down into three distinct categories:
Physical Benefits – Yes, it’s a lot of fun, but it’s also an awesome workout. Expect to see improvements in your cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, flexibility, balance, and even the potential for weight loss.
Mental Benefits – Get ready for some serious problem-solving, benefits to your mental health, and even a confidence boost or two. You’re capable of a lot more than you think!
Social Benefits – Make new friends, let go of those trust issues, and improve your communication skills
Oh, and just a heads up, a few of the points below might get a little “scieny” and will touch on topics such as mental health, depression, and anxiety. Please remember that I don’t have some Harvard Medical degree that I forgot to mention, and while the majority of the benefits I outline below are backed by multiple published scientific studies, please consult a doctor if you want a medical professional opinion!
It will improve your cardiovascular endurance
In case you have forgotten your high-school Physical Education classes, Cardiovascular endurance – or aerobic fitness – is essentially how well your heart and lungs can supply oxygen to the rest of your body whilst working at a medium intensity. The higher your Cardiovascular endurance, the longer (and harder) you can work out before becoming fatigued.
While like there is a whole lot of sitting on mats going on, surprisingly, bouldering is awesome for improving your aerobic fitness. A whole bunch of studies have proven that climbing can dramatically increase your aerobic ability. This study monitored climbers on both a treadmill and boulder circuits and found that climbing a single problem equated to the same energy output as running at a moderate pace, similar to running a mile at a time of 8 – 11 minutes.
Another study found that bouldering could even burn 8 – 10 calories per minute, or up to 600 calories an hour! Interestingly, this study also concluded that the better your climbing ability, or more specifically, the more overhung terrain you can climb, the better the cardiovascular endurance of the climber was.
Bouldering will make you stronger
I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that climbing, and bouldering in particular is awesome for your muscular endurance.
Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle group is contract against resistance – like your body weight – over a given period of time. The better your muscular endurance, the more resistance and time, your muscles can contract. Muscular endurance is probably what most people will refer to simply as “strength”.
We all know that climbing gets those forearms pumping, but it’s far from the only muscle group getting a good workout while in the gym. In fact, countless sources regularly cite that bouldering is one of those activities that have the potential to work many of the body’s main muscle groups, on par with the likes of swimming and cross-country skiing.
This study analyzed a database of college students across a 10-year period, and found that participants showed significant increases in handgrip strength, lower limb pedaling power, Vertical Jump, Push-Ups, Pull-Ups, and Sit-Ups – after only 4 weeks of bouldering!
It makes you more flexible
So you’re heart getting a good workout, and your muscles are feeling the burn, but what about flexibility? Thanks to the science geeks, medical studies have also uncovered the benefit of rock climbing and the impact it has on your flexibility and overall core strength.
For this study, a group of 30 individuals trained in indoor climbing across an 8-week period. After this, another 8 weeks of detraining was recorded. For the 8-week training period, a huge improvement, approximately 20%, in mobility in the sagittal and coronal plane (mobility moving left to right, and front to back) was observed. Interestingly the study also found that during the 8-week detraining period there was a huge reversal in mobility. Most participants lost up to 50% of the new mobility they gained while training. Simply put: if don’t use it, you lose it.
It will make you more aware of your balance and center of gravity
It seems that no specific study has been conducted on the impact of bouldering and the ability to balance, but anyone who has been climbing long enough will vouch that your ability to balance will receive a boost from regular bouldering. How couldn’t it? In what other situations are so so acutely aware of your body position, and how your center of gravity can completely change the outcome?
Few can argue that good balance is an important ingredient for being a good climber. In this study, using female athletes participating in the 2015 Acro Youth World Cup as their focus group, the researchers found that there was a huge correlation between balance and the participant’s competition results.
They concluded that there is a “statistically significant influence of balance on the result in bouldering” and found that balance was a significant influencing factor on an individual’s ability to boulder at the highest level, more so than in the speed and lead disciplines.
Want to get better at bouldering? Why not give the hangboard a break and try some balancing training instead?
There are endless physical benefits to bouldering, but that’s only scratching the surface of what his sport can do for you. Below, I have done some digging into the medical studies surrounding the mental benefits of climbing and bouldering.
Climbing improves life satisfaction
This may be the single biggest benefit of rock climbing. How can you not want to do something that is scientifically proven to increase your quality of life? It’s a really hard point to argue with.
Multiple academic studies have shone a light on how participating in mountain sports can positively increase life satisfaction. These authors go a step further and based on their research conclude that it is the experience of being in the flow state that contributes the most to life satisfaction whilst climbing.
This is also backed up by Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory, a highly regarded framework for evaluating mental well-being. He states there are five elements that are essential to an individual’s life satisfaction. These five pillars, all of which can be experienced in a single trip to the bouldering gym are; positive emotions, engagement (also referred to as flow state) relationships, meaning, and achievement.
It can help your memory, problem-solving abilities, and other cognitive abilities
I like to think of bouldering as physical problem-solving, and while it may sometimes feel like child’s play, there’s no doubt that it gets your brain cells working. What actually happens when we try to work out a new problem? Udo Neumann, arguably one of the world’s leading experts in climbing movement and theory, suggests that the Perception-Action Cycle is one of the contributing factors to a competitive boulderer’s success.
The model essentially depicts the continuous process of how we interpret a problem, and use our existing knowledge and experience to apply to the situation we face. This is a continuous loop that we use until we find an appropriate solution to the problem we are faced with.
There’s plenty of research out there about the positive impact all this problem-solving has on your cognitive functioning. These researchers compared 30 experienced climbers (all climbing 7b or above) to 30 non-climbers, using a standard psychological testing tool called Tactual Performance Test, which is essentially a blindfolded test using a child’s wooden-shaped sorter toy.
The study concluded that the climbers had significantly better spatial perception, tactile perception, and movement memory than the non-climbing control group.
We also did our own bit of research with the 2020 Olympic climbers, and was amazing that almost 75% of them could solve a Rubix Cube! There’s little doubt that most experienced climbers have superior problem-solving abilities than your average joe.
Bouldering psychotherapy is proven to decrease depression and anxiety, and boost self-confidence
Depression is a huge problem for many people. Did you know that it is estimated that 17% of American adults will suffer from a major depressive episode at some point in their lives? That’s almost 1 on 5 people!
When it comes to remedies, it’s a long-know fact that exercise is one of the best treatments for helping those who suffer from depression. But are some forms of exercise better than others? Apparently so. Bouldering psychotherapy, also known as BPT is making waves in the world of psychology.
This super-interesting study of 133 patients conducted in 2020 found that those who participated in Bouldering psychotherapy, instead of the more traditional home experience programs, experienced a far more significant decrease in depression. It’s not the only study to come to this conclusion either, plenty of other people have proven the positive effects bouldering can have on depression and boosting self-confidence, whilst minimizing negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, impulsiveness, and and restlessness.
I should also note that some studies have highlighted situations where climbing can actually increase anxiety. For example, onsighting, falling, and lead climbing have all been shown to impact pre-climbing anxiety. This is understandable, after all, who doesn’t get pre-climb jitters when pulling onto a spicy new boulder problem?
Social and Logistical Benefits
Some of the biggest benefits of bouldering can be explained by medical research. For these social and logistical benefits, we’ll take
Improve your social skills
Finding common ground with someone half or twice your age has never been easier. The people I have met at the gym and the genuine relationships that have grown along the way is one of the reasons I love climbing. The warm welcome a strong climbing community will offer is something you are unlikely to find running on a treadmill or staring into a mirror as you monotonously lift free weights.
No Partner or expensive gear required
One of the biggest advantages to bouldering, as opposed to more traditional styles of climbing, is that you don’t have to rely on your flakey climbing bros every time you want to go for a burn. Of course, a spotter or two is always a wise idea, especially when outside bouldering, but rocking up for an afternoon of solo sendings is a great way to blow off some steam.
Also, unlike trad, and even sport climbing, you really don’t need much gear to get started. So long as you have a trusty pair of bouldering shoes, and a little bit of chalk, you’re ready to start tearing it up at your local gym.
It gets you outside!
It seems that there are a lot of people out there who could really benefit from a regular outing in nature. It’s thought that around 40% of American adults are Vitamin D deficient. While it might not exactly be life-threatening, a lack of vitamin D can lead to mood swings, fatigue, hair loss, and joint pain.
If you ever decide to leave the gym, I highly recommend going for an outdoor bouldering sesh! The gym is great for regular training, but nothing beats that adventurous feeling of exploring a new climbing spot!
Ready to get started?
As you can see, there is an almost endless list of reasons why you should start bouldering this year. Whether you want to get a little stronger, increase your mental well-being, or simply meet some awesome new friends, getting out and wrestling some boulders has endless possible benefits people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds can benefit from.