Is Bouldering Really a Good Workout?

climber on expert bouldering grade
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You’ve been bitten by the bouldering bug and have replaced all your physical activities by climbing. But you may actually be wondering: is bouldering a good workout?

Can bouldering fully replace your regular fitness activities or should you be doing any additional training to complement all this plastic pulling?

What Is Bouldering?

Bouldering is a form of rock-climbing where you climb up small rock-faces, a few meters high. If it’s indoors then the walls are around 3 or 4m high.

The climbing style scan be categorized as a small volume of physically difficult and powerful moves. This can range from 3 to around 10.

This is performed without a rope and the fall is protected with crashmats, when indoors, and portable bouldering mats when outdoors.

Bouldering is to rock climbing what sprinting is to running, or your 3 rep max in weight lifting.

The Different Aspects of a Bouldering Workout

chalking hands

So what are the different aspects of bouldering that make it a great workout?

Training sessions can be characterized as extremely strength and power orientated, whilst performing movements under high body tension. This is spaced out by chilling out, relaxing and socializing with other climbers! 

The different aspects can be considered as:

  • Building muscle
  • Improving flexibility
  • Working co-ordination and spatial orientation
  • Last but not least: Socializing!

Further down we will discuss whether a bouldering workout is also cardio.

Is Bouldering a Good Full Body Workout?

full body workout

Many people say that bouldering or rock climbing is a good fully body workout.

In short this isn’t true.

Is bouldering a good workout? Absolutely. Fully body? No.

If you want to know why, you only need to look at the build of a regular climber on a hot-summers day. The typical physique is a broad back with wide shoulders, bulging forearms and biceps, followed by thin legs. 

Climbing doesn’t train the pushing muscles from the upper body, let alone lower body. Plus it doesn’t really train your lower body like any other muscle building exercise. 

It does however:

  • Help you manage your balance and coordination
  • Work multiple muscle groups all at once
  • Work the heart and lungs continually.
  • Improve mental performance!

What Are The Primary Muscles Used in Bouldering?

woman on overhang

To answer is bouldering a good workout? it also helps to know which muscles are actually used.

Bouldering, like other forms of climbing, is primarily an upper body pulling based disciple. It works strength in the arms, shoulders, back and abs.

The main muscles used are:

  • Lats
  • Biceps
  • Forearms flexors
  • Abs and core

What Other Muscles Are Used in Bouldering?

topping out

Multiple other slightly smaller upper body muscles are also involved in the business.  These are used in lifting your little armies and keeping your shoulder blades retraced, amongst others:

  • Traps
  • Rhomboid
  • Anterior delt
  • Posterior delt
  • Teres major
  • Infraspinatus

On top of these you equally use your calves to a surprising amount plus quads and hamstrings to a lesser extent when pushing upwards.

What Type of Body Does Bouldering Produce?

climbers body

As bouldering is a body-weight to strength optimization sport, it produces athletes on the leaner side, though with well-defined muscles.

During a regular bouldering session, you can burn through approximately 8-10 calories per minute. If you’re climbing for 1hr30 that could be 900 calories.

Combine this with eating healthily and it will definitely keep you on the leaner side.

Muscle mass is gained in the main muscles used however only up to the extent that it is functional. Once you’ve put on that initial mass you won’t continue to get bigger and bigger guns as you would adding weights at the gym.

Bodybuilders who switch to bouldering will drop quite a few pounds given all the excess muscle that needs to be pulled up the wall.

Your typical climber therefore has more of a leaner physique with broad shoulders, large lats with defined biceps and abs. Followed by thin legs on the lower half. 

Is Bouldering a Good Cardio Workout?

cardio workout

Fitness workouts will often have a cardio aspect, so we could wonder if this makes bouldering a good workout?

In short, it depends.

A good cardio workout is generally defined by aerobic exercise that keeps your heart rate and respiration elevated for a continued period. To reap the most benefits think keeping your heart rate at 70%-85% of your target heart rate for at least 30 minutes.

Your target heart rate should be calculated as 220 – Age.

So a 30 year old wanting a cardio workout should target a heart rate in the 133bps – 162bps zone. Smart watches are a great help here.

Bouldering sessions are generally aimed at building power, where you perform one good attempt at a very hard problem with 3-5 minutes rest between each try then. This doesn’t keep your heart rate sufficiently elevated for long enough for it to be a good cardio workout.

We generally associate good cardio workouts with:

  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Rowing

If you want a cardio workout from bouldering then you need to perform the following type of training, or something similar:

  • Find 3 or 4 problems 2-3 grades below your max.
  • Perform each problem consecutively at a brisk pace with no rest between each.
  • Have a 2 minute rest after you’ve completed all the problems. This is one set.
  • Perform 4-5 sets.

This type of training, which is more endurance focused, should keep your heart rate elevated and a higher respiratory rate for the duration, providing a cardio workout.

What Are The Downsides of a Bouldering Workout?

injured finger

Other than the risk of injury which is present in any physically demanding sport, or the risk of a twisted ankle from an uncontrolled fall from the bouldering wall, there are no specific downsides to bouldering.

Regular bouldering however does produce muscular imbalances which are best complemented by antagonistic training. This means doing complementary training for at least the following:

  • Chest and front delts to balance out the lats and rear delts.
  • Triceps to even out the guns.
  • Forearm extensors to complement the flexors.

So is Bouldering a Good Workout?

chalk on hands

Overall bouldering is definitely a fun, socially engaging and physically demanding sport.

It’s a fantastic workout that can keep you fit, all whilst having a blast at the same time. Recent studies have also found that activities that require balance, muscle coordination and spatial orientation can even improve your memory!

For those keen on keeping well balanced strength with functional fitness, you should definitely add some simple antagonistic exercises to your regular training to keep the climbers body balanced and injury free.

Finally, if you’re trying to concentrate on fitness or cardio, think longer easier sets over shorter harder problems.

What are your favourite things about bouldering?

Let us know below!

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