Is Bouldering Harder Than Rock Climbing?

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Bouldering and rock climbing are often compared because they seem similar. However, there are many significant differences when you delve into both of these sports. 

Each one has its unique challenges and will require different techniques, training, and muscle groups to participate in the sport safely.

Asking if bouldering is harder is a tricky question as there are so many differences, and it depends upon the individual and their strengths. 

Rock climbing and bouldering both have difficulty levels, and therefore, beginners can start with either one. Many climbers feel that bouldering is the harder of the two. For climbers that may struggle with fear of heights, rock climbing will be the harder challenge. On the other hand, bouldering requires finger and upper-body strength right off the bat, and that can be hard for those who are just getting started in the sport.

Bouldering can help new climbers adjust to moving sideways on a climbing route before moving on to greater heights in rock climbing. 

Also, you are building strength and stamina that is necessary for rock climbing. Bouldering also helps climbers master control, balance, and footwork. All of these skills will be put to good use while rock climbing.


What is Rock Climbing?

Much like its name suggests, rock climbing is a physical sport that involves climbing up natural rock formations. There are many different types of rock climbing, and bouldering is technically a type of rock climbing. 

Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash

Many rock climbing types use ropes and other equipment to help users safely reach the top of their climb.

With so many rock climbing types, it can be difficult for a beginner to understand the different styles. To break it down for you, here are some of the most popular disciplines of rock climbing.

  • Lead Climbing
  • Traditional or Trad Climbing
  • Sport Climbing
  • Top Rope Climbing
  • Bouldering
  • Highball Bouldering
  • Deep Water Soloing
  • Free Soloing

The two major categories are roped climbing and climbing without ropes. Lead, Trad, Sport, and Top Rope all fall within the first category. Bouldering, highball bouldering, deep water soloing, and free soloing are categorized as climbing without ropes. 

Each type of rock climbing has particular qualities that make them different.

Roped climbing allows for mistakes to be made. The rope is there to catch the climber if they fall. Roped climbing is great for everyone, but especially beginners and those that are reaching new difficulty levels. 

Typically, this type of climbing is done from approximately 50 feet off the ground to over 3000 feet.

On the other hand, climbing without ropes is exactly what it sounds like. It is just the climber and the rock. Some climbers may choose to use pads or a spotter, but this only protects the climber from a certain height. 

While climbing without ropes is more exhilarating, it also carries more dangers.


What is Bouldering?

Bouldering is a type of rock climbing. Bouldering involves climbing shorter routes that are usually only around 20 feet off the ground. It is done without a harness or rope. Instead, crash pads are used as protection. 

With bouldering, you begin on the ground and climb from there to the top of the rock or boulder you are trying to climb.

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Bouldering is popular because routes can be done more quickly. There are fewer costs, and you do not have to learn how to use all the gear properly. Bouldering can also be done solo, which means only having to adhere to your schedule.

The shorter routes help climbers increase their limits more quickly as they can accomplish a lot in less time. Bouldering increases coordination, mobility, and strength.

Highball bouldering is a type of bouldering and rock climbing. In this discipline, the individual climbs a tall enough rock to cause severe injuries if a fall occurs. This differs from rock climbing, known as Free Soloing, because in a free solo, a fall would mean almost certain death due to the height and conditions.


Key Differences Between Rock Climbing and Bouldering

Rock climbing and bouldering both have particular challenges. Either way, you go, you are going to be pushing your limits and getting a great workout, both physically and mentally. 

There are some places where the two have strengths that overlap, but for the most part, from gear to grade to muscle power, here are some of the key differences.


Endurance

Rock climbing requires more endurance than bouldering. Bouldering routes do require endurance even though routes are shorter. On the other hand, rock climbing typically lasts longer, requiring your muscles to endure through more challenges.

Strength is an essential component of endurance, and training is critical for a climber to build their endurance. The quickest way to build up your tolerance is to keep practicing. 

Climb often, and target your weaknesses in your training routine. Combatting fatigue and knowing when you are overworking are two ways that an increased endurance can help you stay safe.


Mental Strength

Mental strength is required for all types of rock climbing. Whether you are solving a route or working up the courage to climb higher, you will undoubtedly be challenging your mind.

For fear of heights, bouldering is a great way to increase the heights you want to climb eventually. By gradually conquering your fear, you are building your courage, and hitting new goals will motivate you to keep going.

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While many situations may come up while you are rock climbing, the confidence that you have from training will allow you to keep a cool head to think smart even in unfamiliar circumstances.

Rock climbing and bouldering will both give you an adrenaline rush. Even a fifteen-foot height in bouldering can be intimidating. Being prepared mentally will help you enjoy the adrenaline instead of it tripping you up.


Strength, Muscles, and Training

Rock climbing and bouldering both require strength, but each discipline has needs in different areas of your body. Technique training for footwork, grip, and body positioning will benefit all climbers.

Your shoulders, arms, and back will be feeling new things as you begin rock climbing. As you train, you will come to rely more on your legs and less on your arms. As discussed above, rock climbers also need a lot of endurance, which goes into their training routines.

With bouldering, your muscles will be needed more in your upper body. Increasing your maximum strength will benefit you in bouldering. Planks, pull-ups, and pushups can help build strength. If you are getting stronger but are still falling a lot in bouldering, you need to switch your training to specific techniques to help you further.

Both disciplines require core strength and balance to help climbers reach new heights of success. Flexibility is also essential, and yoga can help with climbing and bouldering.


Puzzle Solving

Solving puzzles while you are climbing takes mental insight and creativity. You are working out how to best solve a puzzle for your body.

There are many possibilities as you are attempting a new route in rock climbing. Assessing what your next move should be is critical. Your mind is stretched in new ways as you dedicate your focus to the problem at hand to figure out the best way for your body to climb the rock. A good practice is to look at your climb and mentally figure out how you think it will go. It can be very enlightening to see how your mental problem solving is different when adding in your physical body.

Because boulder problems are shorter, it is easier to remember the sequences as you are climbing.


Injuries

Bouldering and rock climbing can both be safe sports when the proper gear, training, and execution are in place. Both practices can see injuries when muscles are overused.

In rock climbing, protective gear such as helmets, harnesses, and rope are utilized to minimize risk. Strains can be caused by overusing muscles, and sprains are possible with incorrect landings after a jump or fall.

Bouldering injuries can be more severe as crash pads are the only safety equipment that is used. Cuts and bruises can also be common injuries if caution is not used during a climb.

Equipment failure or a lack of training can both lead to more serious or deadly injuries.


Gear and Terminology

Gear used for rock climbing and bouldering differs significantly.

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Rock climbers need a lot more equipment. Therefore, the starting cost of getting into rock climbing can be a hard entry point into the sport. Rock climbing typically uses the following equipment:

  • Climbing shoes
  • Chalk
  • Harness
  • Rope
  • Quickdraws
  • Personal Anchor System
  • Belay Device
  • Helmet

Boulders generally only require chalk, climbing shoes, and a crash pad. Having a friend or trainer to spot you is also advised, especially when starting. In addition to the many differences in gear, some terminologies exist separately in each discipline. [ Learning the lingo is part of the fun of gaining a new skill. ]


Bouldering Grades vs. Rock Climbing Grades

While bouldering is a type of rock climbing, the two disciplines have different grading systems.

Bouldering has the five following grading systems:

  • The V Scale or Hueco Scale – most common in North America
  • The B System – used in North America
  • The Fontainebleau system – used in Europe
  • The UK Technical – used in the United Kingdom
  • The Dankyu System – used in Japan

Rock climbing grading is broken into only two main grading systems:

  • The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) – used mainly within the United States of America
  • The French Scale – used worldwide

The YDS is broken into five classes. For roped climbs, the YDS starts with a 5 and a decimal point followed by a number. This delineates that it is a roped climb (5) and the difficulty of said climb (the number following the decimal).

For instance, a YDS rating of 5.3 would be good for beginning climbers. A rating of 5.11 would be very difficult. The scale runs from 5.0 to 5.13 in the Yosemite Decimal System.


Improving Skills and Doing Both

Many climbers are curious: does bouldering help improve your rock climbing? Can you do both? The short answer is that yes, you can do both. Bouldering will improve your rock climbing skills if you decide to do both or to switch later on.

As bouldering has less protective equipment, your focus on climbing skills is critical. As you move on to rock climbing, this will benefit you greatly as you adjust to other skills and learning the new gear. Also, mastering techniques of moving across the wall and refining your grip will aid your rock climbing.

Bouldering will have helped you develop strength, power, and stamina throughout the short routes. These improvements can be directly applied to rock climbs. Learning to think on your feet and solve the puzzles of climbing will also be applied to rock climbing.

These two types of climbing are different in many ways. While bouldering will give you many skills that are helpful in rock climbing, there will still be a significant learning curve as you move onto a new discipline.

Doing both rock climbing and bouldering will give you many advantages. You will be gaining great techniques and skills that can be applied to both, and the physical strength you gain will help with core strength, balance, and flexibility, which are also applied to both disciplines.

One advantage of doing both is that no matter the weather, you can get climbing. With indoor climbing facilities, you can rock climb indoors when the weather is terrible.

Alternating between the two types of climbing can also keep you mentally interested. If you get bored with climbing complexities, switch to bouldering for a while or vice versa.

The best advice to learning either skill is to go slowly and learn from others. Whether you are using strength and flexibility in bouldering or muscular endurance in rock climbing, you will be pushing yourself to new limits before you know it.