What are the Best Strength Exercises for Bouldering?

group of people bouldering

The best strength exercises for bouldering are movements such as deadlifts, box jumps, weighted pull-ups, and campus board exercises.

The fundamental requirement for these strength exercises is that they train movements that transfer well to bouldering and that they are suitable for training max strength and power.

In this blog, I’ll first discuss the difference between strength training for bouldering and sport climbing and then dive into the best strength exercises for bouldering. As in my previous blog about the best strength exercises for sport climbing, I explain how each exercise helps your bouldering.

Ready to dive in?

Let’s go!

1. What is the Difference Between Bouldering & Sport Climbing concerning Strength Training?

The difference between bouldering and sport climbing concerning strength training is that for bouldering strength and power become an issue sooner than with sport climbing. As a result, boulderers should start some form of strength training earlier in their physical development to climb higher grades. In this blog, I focus on exercises that aim to increase strength by lifting weights and/or lifting your body weight. There are other forms of training you can do to increase force output, think of exercises on a system board, trying 1-4 hard moves on a difficult boulder problem, or optimizing stability. These are all beyond the scope of this article though. I will discuss them another time.

Furthermore, since this blog is about the best strength exercises for bouldering, the exercises I discuss are best suited for training max strength and power. This does not mean you can’t do the exercises I described in my previous blog, about the best strength exercises for sports climbing, it’s just that most of them are less suitable for power training. The ones that are though, I will discuss again in this blog, including the boulder movements they improve.

2. The Climbing Movements You Train in the Gym

I feel it’s important to repeat that to increase your strength for rock climbing and/or bouldering, you need to train movements that transfer well to the wall

That’s why I Insert the list of movements for rock climbing from my previous blog is here one more time. And again, I will mention with each exercise which movements you train.

Movements that are part of sport climbing and bouldering:

  • Pulling: every static and dynamic movement with your arms
  • Grabbing: every hold for your hands you need to grab onto
  • Hip Hinge: pressing your hips to the wall
  • Jumping: doing dynamic movements
  • Lunging/Single Leg Squats: drop knees and flagging
  • Pushing: rarely, but more often when climbing chimneys and corners
  • Holding/Static Body Positioning: staying in a position to prepare for the next move and/or to keep part of your body in position so the other part can grab/stand onto the next hold

3. The Best Strength Exercises for Bouldering

2.1  Deadlift

Best to train: maximum strength, power

Trains Boulder Movements: pulling, grabbing, hip hinge, holding/static body

Again, the deadlift is on the list of best strength exercises. This hip hinge movement is great to build strength and you can also use it perfectly to train power. When you do so, focus on pulling the barbell off the floor as fast as possible for up to 3 repetitions per set. You’ll notice that if you focus on pulling the weight off the floor fast your sets get more intense than when you “just lift the weight”. Thus, rest between sets for at least 5 minutes. The better you get at deadlifting for power the better you train your nervous system to coordinate fast heavy moves.

https://www.youtube.com/shorts/kVfeBH-JEC4

2.2  Kettlebell Swing

Best to train: power and power endurance

Trains Boulder Movements: pulling, grabbing, hip hinge, holding/static body

Just like the deadlift, the kettlebell swing is a hip hinge movement. Nevertheless, it has unique properties you won’t find in many other weight lifting exercises. First, you have to hinge hard by moving your hips against the weight, as a result, the kettlebell will swing into the air. This demands a lot of power from the hips. Secondly, since the kettlebell moves forward and up, you won’t be able to hold it in a certain position. This means that the weight comes down as soon as it reached its peak, forcing you to continue hinging the weight up without rest.

As soon as you’ve developed a clean technique and a strong foundation with the deadlift, the kettlebell swing is a great next step to developing power and power endurance.

2.3  Box Jumps

Best to train: power

Trains Boulder Movements: jumping

Box jumps require a lot of power and therefore a solid base of maximum strength to be done well. You have to propel your weight up against gravity and the better you are at generating power the higher you’ll jump. The easiest way to understand the importance of power (acceleration x strength) with box jumps is by doing the exact opposite.

Stand up and try to jump as high as possible by making a slow jumping move. How did you jump?

Barely, if at all.

Train box jumps between 1 and 3 repetitions for 2-5 sets with at least a 5-minute break between sets. Yes, you read that right, at least a 5-minute break between sets. This is because to improve power you need to be able to generate your absolute maximum amount of power to improve. Think of how you’ll get stronger at a deadlift for example. By adding more weight. In the case of box jumps you increase the height of the surface you jump on. Because the higher you have to jump the more power you need to generate.

2.4  Jump Split Squats

Best to train: power and power endurance

Trains Boulder Movements: jumping and lunging

Jump split squats require more coordination than box jumps but you can’t increase the height of the surface you jump on. You jump up and come down. That’s why jump split squats are better to improve power endurance. Instead of doing only 1-3 repetitions, you do 10-15 repetitions as fast as you can without slowing down during the set. Do up to 3 sets and again, with at least a 5-minute rest in between.

2.5  Weighted Pull-ups

Best to train: max strength

Trains Boulder Movements: pulling, grabbing, holding/static body

Contrary to normal pull-ups, weighted pull-ups require more core strength and more pulling strength. If you can do 10 pull-ups you can start doing weighted pull-ups. Be sure to do them correctly, by pulling your chest to the bar while squeezing your shoulder blades together. If you can do 30 pull-ups but can’t do a pull-up technically correct, don’t add weight. Be strict on yourself because bouldering requires you to get into plenty of gnarly body positions already. You don’t need to do the same while lifting weights.

Do weighted pull-ups for 3-5 sets with 1-5 repetitions resting for 3-5 minutes in between.

2.6  One-Arm Inverted Rows

Best to train: max strength

Trains Boulder Movements: pulling, grabbing, holding/static body

One-arm inverted rows are a great way to train your back, shoulders, and core because you have to prevent your body from rotating. You can increase the intensity by getting into a more horizontal starting position. If you’re hanging straight under the barbell/rings and still find it easy, you can wear a weight vest or a backpack with books.

Focus on core tension and make sure you move like a solid piece of wood instead of like a sack of potatoes.

Do one-arm inverted rows for 3-5 sets with 1-5 repetitions resting for 3 minutes in between.

2.7  Finger Board

Best to train: max strength

Trains Boulder Movements: grabbing, holding/static body

If the fingerboard in strength training for sport climbing is indispensable, then in strength training for bouldering even more so. Before you start training on a fingerboard you should at least be climbing for 2 years and have reached a redpoint level of at least 7a. This ensures that you actually need a fingerboard to improve and that your connective tissues are prepared for the extra load.

There are a variety of fingerboard protocols available. I recommend you take a look at the following protocols:

  • Eva Lopez
  • Lattice
  • Repeaters

2.8  Campus Board

Best to train: power

Trains Boulder Movements: pulling, grabbing, holding/static body

To start campus board training, I believe, you should boulder for another year while training on a fingerboard. This ensures that your fingers are used to high amounts of load which is a requirement for powerful moves.

3. What does a Strength Training Session for Bouldering Look Like?

Now that you know which strength exercises for bouldering are best, and why, it’s time to put them together into a training plan.

Since you need a (very) strong foundation of maximum strength for power training it’s best to focus on maximum strength first.

My recommendation is that if you’ve never done structured strength training do 2×6 weeks of maximum strength training with the 6th week being an unload week. A week where you do only one set of each exercise and reduce the amount you climb. After the second cycle, you can start a power cycle of 3 weeks, with the 3d week being the unload week. Then after each power cycle, you do another max strength cycle.

A max strength training for bouldering could look like this:

  • Deadlift 3×5
  • Weighted Pull-ups 3×5
  • Single-Arm Inverted Rows 3×5
  • Finger Board f.e. 1x15sec hangs on the smallest edge possible. Every consecutive week you add one set of hangs. With a maximum of 5 after 5 weeks.

A power training for bouldering looks like this:

  • Kettlebell Swings 3×10
  • Box Jumps 3×3
  • Jump Split Squats 3×10
  • Campus Board Training

It’s best to increase your strength training to 3x per week when you climb less and do as little as 1x a week when you climb more frequently.

I will dive into more detail about how to structure (periodize) your strength training in a separate blog post.

Joël Broersma

Hey, I'm Joël, a Dutch Physical Therapist living & working in Switzerland. I'm an avid rock climber and sports & movement lover in general.

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