Does Bouldering Build Muscle?

| by Truth Seeker |


Once infected by the hunger for hypertrophy, a man activates his radar for specimens showcasing glorious muscular development. Qui-Gon Jinn’s quote “Your focus determines your reality.” explains the phenomenon neatly. A man only sees what he is looking for.

The same mechanism increases natural bodybuilders’ interest in rock climbing. But since the outdoor version requires a large investment to practice it, bouldering seems like a more practical approach, especially when a man has an ulterior motive (hypertrophy) to participate in the sport.

What’s bouldering? Bouldering is rock climbing without ropes or harnesses. It’s done on small rock formations or walls specifically designed for the activity. In theory, no equipment is necessary to “boulder”, but in most cases, climbers wear special shoes and use a generous amount of chalk to improve their grip stability. The lack of safety measures limits the height to 4-5 meters/13-16 feet.

Does bouldering build muscle? Yes. Bouldering has the potential to build up a man’s forearms and pulling musculature (biceps, lats, rear deltoids, long head of the triceps and upper back muscles). However, climbing doesn’t do much for the chest, front deltoids, the legs and the spinal erectors. As a result, rock climbers who don’t lift weights to counteract the effect develop imbalances.

Does bouldering stimulate less muscle growth than rock climbing? From a hypertrophy perspective, there shouldn’t be any difference since the demand on the muscles that can potentially get ‘swol’ is similar. However, one could argue that bouldering builds less endurance because the pauses are more frequent.

Can my forearms get massive from bouldering?

In theory, yes. In reality, forearm size is genetic. If you have long muscle bellies, your forearms will be big and noticeable even without training. But if you are an ectomorph with long tendons and thin wrists like me, your forearms will look like developed tennis balls at best since there isn’t much muscular tissue to grow in the first place. Neither bouldering nor any other activity can change that fact. This is why a man’s muscle insertions have such a high influence on his genetic potential.

Still, rock climbing will undoubtedly force some adaptation. It may not be accompanied by significant growth, but over time [think years], the connective tissues will thicken significantly.

Extensive research has shown that rock climbers’ bones adapt to the stress of the activity by thickening too. This is the case even for adults who have already reached full skeletal maturity. [source]

What about the back?

Rock climbers’ investment in pull-ups isn’t accidental. The pull-up is a lat dominant exercise, at least when done properly, that has a direct carryover to the sport.

Bouldering can certainly build-up your lats, but it would never produce encapsulating back development because the stress on crucial muscles such as the spinal erector and the upper traps is insufficient. More complete back exercises like the deadlift hit a higher portion of the posterior musculature and generate a more pronounced effect.

A climber may have a wide back, but if climbing and pull-ups are the only stimuli, the level of density will be low.

The Legs?

Neither extreme leg strength nor mass is required to be a climber. The lower extremities may be under extended stress, but the intensity is too low to elicit hypertrophy. The demand placed on the leg musculature during climbing is high, but it’s also endurance-focused.

Why do rock climbers look so big then?

Leanness. A leaner body looks bigger in clothes. Many ripped dudes are extremely light but don’t show it on social media because they remove their shirts whenever possible to take advantage of the “lean muscle effect.”

Favorable angles and photos. The popular images of rock climbers are taken by professional photographers and then edited further. The process filters out the less favorable photos, leaving only the most impactful ones. In other words, carefully selected ensembles of digital pixels are playing with your perception once again.

Massive frames and height. Some climbers are very tall and have thick skeletons – a combo that instantly turns them into natural monsters. A 6’2” tall man with 7.5-inch wrists will be decently sized even if he doesn’t climb or lift weights.

Lifting. Many rock climbers do conditioning drills in the gym to avoid overuse injuries. A natural bodybuilder who also rock climbs would owe a lot of his muscular majesty to bodybuilding rather than climbing.

Can bouldering offer me growth that I cannot acquire through lifting?

No. Systematized resistance training is the most efficient way to reach your natural and unnatural potential. Pursuing bouldering to build muscle mass is not any different than cycling to get bigger legs.

While those alternative routines may be beneficial to your final goal, lifting is more effective, quicker and direct.

The true benefit of sports like rock climbing lies outside of the hypertrophy zone. The major goal is to enjoy the activity itself as well as the adrenaline that it elicits. Any subsequent muscle growth is a byproduct rather than the main objective.

How Big Are Rock Climbers?

Below you can see a chart that contains the weights and heights of popular rock climbers. Most of them are small by bodybuilding standards, but their physiques are achievable naturally.

Name Year of Birth Height Weight
John Gill 1937 6’1.5”/187cm 180lbs/81.65 kg
Chris Sharma 1981 6’/183cm 165lbs/75kg
Dean Potter 1972 6’5”/196cm unspecified
Alex Honnold 1985 5’11”/180cm 160lbs/73kg
Tommy Caldwell 1978 5’11”/180cm 165lbs/75kg
Kevin Jorgeson 1984 5’9”/174cm 145lbs/66kg
Magnus Midtbø 1988 5’9”/174cm 157lbs/71kg


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  1. John Mortimer

    Ok just my take on this as im a climber and a trainer. Does it work chest? Yes. If you pull or adduct the humerous across the body to the sternum like using a cable decline press or fly the chest will get worked. The chest also gets worked in general through isometric holds, too many to mention here, imagine squeezing huge gym balls of all sizes and angles and arms at different bent elbow angles. Again the back gets worked hard at all angles. Most climbers are generally small framed to start with, so just don’t get that big however hard they climb. But agree the back gets worked harder for the most part so some sort of pushing would be good. The legs also get pushed hard but it would come down to the leverage, but if you want you can find climbs to work them harder than a one legged squat. Endurance is one reason to boulder specifically, you can use 4*4s which is very common alot of climbers do this for endurance.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Thank you for the informative comment, John.

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