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Climbing 101: Making the Transition from Bouldering to Sport Climbing

So, you’re a boulderer wanting to make the transition to a rope climber? You see all your friends going outside, posting on the ‘gram, having a good time taking whips. You think “I can climb that pink problem in the corner, I can definitely flash 5.12.” (Turns out, reality is much pumpier than fiction...) Sound familiar? ;)

The Transition: Bouldering to Route Climbing

By Phil Ferrara, M.S., C.S.C.S. Photos: Jesse Christopher

So, you’re a boulderer wanting to make the transition to a rope climber? You see all your friends going outside, posting on the ‘gram, having a good time taking whips. You think “I can climb that pink problem in the corner, I can definitely flash 5.12.”

The day comes. You’re racked up and pull on to the warm-up 5.10. The first 10 feet are E-Z mode—definitely no harder than V0. But suddenly—and without warning—your forearms begin to swell. What is this magical feeling? Why do my forearms feel like water balloons? Are my fingers slipping? You crimp harder. Your feet slip. Your reptilian brain begins to panic as your butt sags away from the wall. “I’M FALLING!” you scream, whipping off the third bolt.  

Sound familiar? If you’re like me, the transition from boulder monkey to top rope tough guy was a long, painful road fraught with many pitfalls. This is because, in reality, you are transitioning from one distinct sport to another. Like the powerful sprinter running a 10k, you have all the strength in the world but lack endurance and efficiency. But have no fear! With a little dedicated practice and some time on the wall, you too can overcome the dreaded transition from bouldering to route climbing. In this article, I will outline the strengths and weaknesses of a boulderer and discuss training methods to get you clipping the chains on your next sport project.

The Space Between

First, it is important to distinguish bouldering and route climbing as two nearly-distinct sports. Yes, they both involve movement on rock and, yes, they both may require a degree of finger strength. But physiologically, they are vastly different. Bouldering can be thought of as the power lifting of rock climbing: shorter bouts of high-intensity work, smaller holds requiring greater finger strength, pulling power, and body tension. Contrast this with roped climbing, which involves finger flexor endurance, and movement between clips or rest stances. While you may have the raw strength to bust through the low crux, you lack the physiological infrastructure, technique and mental game necessary to climb the upper headwall without pumping off. With this in mind, let’s discuss what the burgeoning rope climber can focus on to make the transition a little easier.

Josh Vale cruises to the chains on Bi-Winning, 5.13b. Bozeman, MT.
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Problem #1: Physiology and Infrastructure

Use low-and-slow ARC training to develop an aerobic base in the forearms.

The biggest physiological short fall of the boulderer-turned-route-climber lies in the aerobic capacity of the forearm musculature. The aerobic system is responsible for producing ATP during low-to-moderate intensity exercise without producing lactate and acidic H+ ions in the process (think hiking or slow running). In a boulderer, finger strength may be high however the aerobic and lactate threshold is very low. This means as soon as you pull on to the wall, the pump clock starts ticking… and fast. To combat this issue, we need to build capillary beds in the forearm musculature while simultaneously increasing mitochodondrial density and size. Enter: ARC training.

ARC training (aerobic restoration and capillarization) is a form a low-and-slow, steady-state training that is standard practice in every endurance sport. During ARC training, we aim to climb around our aerobic threshold for up to an hour. You should be able to comfortably maintain your breath and climb with a light pump (no more than 6/10). Over time, your body will lay down new capillary beds around the finger flexors, allowing you to get more oxygen-rich blood to the working tissue. Simultaneously, the mitochondria in the muscle fibers will become larger and more efficient. This means you can climb harder without getting pumped. You may even be able to recover on-route. Whoa!

Here’s the catch: a robust aerobic base takes a very long time to develop, especially in small muscles like the finger flexors. Don’t expect overnight gains. If you have previous aerobic base training, you can get away with performing a minimum of 4 weeks and up to 8 weeks of pre-season conditioning. Those with a younger training age should expect multiple 4-12 week cycles of consistent ARC training to build base-line capillary density and aerobic capacity. While it may be boring, you will thank yourself later!  

Problem #2: Technique and Efficiency

Employ regular, dedicated practice with a focus on footwork and technique.

The next major issue is general efficiency and technique. Sure, you can hold on for eight seconds. But could you continue making efficient movements while pumped? Bouldering tends to be more horizontal than vertical and forearm pump has less effect on overall performance compared to rope climbing. While bouldering requires body tension and hard squeezing, it does not promote low-cost movement on vertical to slightly-overhanging terrain.

To practice this, technique drills should be employed on a regular basis. Drills like sticky feet, big hands/small feet and straight arm traversing can all be used to practice efficient footwork in the gym. Other drills focused on balance (like stability bouldering) can help with finding clipping stances and improve overall movement economy. Technique drills should be practiced every time you come into the gym as part of your warm-up or simply as the workout itself. Only practice technique when you are fresh. Use this time to practice high-quality movement. You may also combine technique drills with ARC for an engaging, multi-purpose workout.  

Problem #3: Mental Factors: Fear

A strong headgame takes time and practice. Use systematic desensitization to overcome your fear of falling.

The last major hurdle is the mental aspect of route climbing, in particular the fear of falling. For some people, falling is no problem. You take the whip, get up and try again. But for others, the prospect of falling on a rope is much more terrifying than a bunch of foam pads. For overcoming fear of falling, a commonly-used therapeutic tactic can be employed: systematic desensitization.

Systematic desensitization is a means of overcoming fear by exposing oneself to progressively more anxiety-inducing circumstances in a calm, controlled environment. This means you go into the gym with the intent of falling. Start small: take a fall with your waist at the bolt. As you feel more comfortable, climb a little higher and take another fall. Over time, falling becomes a routine non-event. Heck, you may even like it.

Once you are comfortable falling in the gym, take it outside. The major difference at the crag is to read the route ahead of time and understand when it is okay and when it is NOT okay to fall. Having an experienced partner can help you see these issues before you get on-route. Are the first two bolts potentially dangerous? Are there any features to be aware of? Is there a 30-foot runout to the chains? All these questions (and more) should be taken into consideration before roping up.

Practice makes perfect... standing up on bad feet!
Dedicated practice to footwork and movement drills is essential for learning efficient mechanics.
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This isn’t to say there aren’t any pros to being boulderer first. Strength and power take much longer to develop than endurance. Moreover, as a boulderer you know how to turn on the “try hard,” so its just a matter of putting it into a new context. While the transition to rope climbing may be difficult at first, taking the time to develop necessary infrastructure, technique and mindset are essential to future performance. Remember: Go easy on yourself and don’t set expectations for how hard you “should” climb. Becoming a well-rounded climber takes time but puts more tools in your toolbox. Work on these new skills in a low-stress, comfortable setting before pushing it outside. Take your time and enjoy the process.

Until next time… Get out there and have fun!

Josh Vale on Bi-winning, 5.13b. Bozeman, MT.

Key Take-Away Points

  • Bouldering and sport climbing should be approached as nearly-independent sports.
  • Building forearm infrastructure and a robust aerobic base in the forearm musculature takes time but is an essential part of endurance training.
  • Practice efficient footwork and movement regularly through technique drills.
  • Use systematic desensitization to overcome fear of falling on a rope.
  • Go easy on yourself and don’t expect anything. The transition takes time. Enjoy the process!

About the Author

Philip Ferrara is a Bozeman-based trainer, researcher, and physiologist with nearly a decade of climbing experience. He is an NSCA-Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (C.S.C.S.) with 5 years of personal training experience. He also works as an exercise physiologist in cardiopulmonary rehabilitation.

Philip earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia in dietetics with a focus on sports nutrition. He obtained a master's degree from Montana State University in exercise physiology and nutrition sciences, where he studied finger strength and fatigue in sport rock climbers. His work has been presented at conferences around the world, including the International Rock Climbing Research Association's biennial conference. When not climbing, Philip is an avid skier, trail runner and home cook.

Follow Phil on Instagram at: @Mountain_Sport_Performance

Facebook: www.facebook.com/mountainsportperformance

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