Is indoor bouldering dangerous? – What are the biggest dangers and how can potential risks be minimized? This article offers helpful tips on how to prevent injury and make bouldering even safer.
Is bouldering dangerous?
Indoor Bouldering is not a dangerous sport – making a mistake is no threat to your life. Most injuries are caused by sprains to the ankle or wrist, elbow or shoulder joints.
The biggest danger when bouldering is the landing after taking a fall.
The second major danger is the overloading of tendons, ligaments, and muscles.
More than half of all injuries in bouldering affect the lower extremities. Around 85% of all injuries are distributed between the legs (55%) and arms (30%).
1. Risks during a fall and when landing
a.) Danger – Falling onto the pad
Falling incorrectly onto the bouldering pad is the number one cause of injury when bouldering. An uncontrolled fall onto the pad can cause injuries, even from a relatively low height of 2 metres.
Most injuries are caused by sprains to the ankle or wrist, elbow or shoulder joints. Those trying to support their entire body weight with their wrist during an uncontrolled fall run an even greater risk of injury. Learn how to fall.
Collisions are quite rare, but can end up being very unpleasant (especially when children are involved). Misplaced equipment is also just as dangerous as a careless bouldering partner. Caution is advised at overhangs and free standing walls in particular.
2. Risk due to overloading
Strictly speaking, overloading is not an acute injury in the classical sense, but rather an accumulation of minimal injuries to the anatomical structure over a long period of time.
Overloading injuries can become tedious
This type of injury won’t put you in hospital straight away, but they can be very unpleasant and a lengthy healing process can ensue as a result. It is not uncommon for muscle overloading to lead to a longer involuntary climbing break.
I am sure you know someone who has fallen victim to one or more of the following injuries due to overloading. You can read up on ways to avoid sustaining them in the chapter entitled “How to avoid overloading”.
The most common bouldering injuries caused by overloading are:
Tendon pulley injuries
The annular ligaments are found in a part of the body that is put under extreme pressure whilst climbing – the fingers.
The annular ligaments’ job is to keep the flexor tendon as close as possible to the bone in order to enable maximum transmission of force when bending the fingers. They serve as a reinforcement of the tendon sheath. We have four to five annular ligaments in each finger.
Climbers who tear one or more of their annular ligaments can expect to retire from bouldering for a period of up to 3 months.
The elbow with its many muscles, ligaments and tendons is predestined for overloading. The many pulling movements during climbing often lead to overloading with corresponding inflammation.
If you climb with bent arms (Climbing technique: Climbing with extended arms), you risk overloading your elbows. Keep your arms extended in order to save energy and prevent overloading.
Targeted training of the antagonist muscles (finger extensors) works wonders – especially for those suffering from lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow).
If you suffer from elbow pain, a solid recommendation would be to invest in an “Armaid elbow massager”. In combination with regular antagonist training you should be rid of the pain within weeks.
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Next to ligament injuries, shoulder injuries are the second most common overloading injury of the upper extremities. The best way to prevent shoulder injuries is a climbing-specific antagonist training.
Lower back / intervertebral discs
In addition to the muscular imbalances caused by intensive bouldering (strong abdominal muscles, strong hip flexors), hard landings and insufficient shock absorption may contribute to back problems. Climbing down and controlled easing of the impact upon landing reduces the risk of injuries.
According to a study, a total of 177 incidents required an ambulance in 2017.
– 124 of these accidents occurred whilst bouldering
– 44 whilst sport climbing and
– 9 were related to other incidents (during warmups, climbing stairs etc.).
The greatest danger in bouldering is the landing after a jump or fall. The study confirms that the majority of bouldering injuries are caused by falls onto the pads (104 of 124).
“The number of reported accidents compared to the total number of boulder-gym entries is minimal and suggests that bouldering is a safe sport.”
(The statistics only refer to climbing halls or artificial climbing facilities.)
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Common bouldering injuries
# 1: Legs
Half of all injuries (approx. 55%) affect the lower extremities (ligaments, tendons and bones of the ankle and knee joints)
# 2: Arms
One third of injuries (approx. 32%) are caused by the upper extremities (fingers (annular ligaments), wrist, elbow, shoulder)
# 3: Torso
Admirers of the Torso need not worry – there is no great danger here (3%).
# 4: Head
Fortunately, the situation is even better concerning head injuries (2%).
(The remaining figures are distributed amongst others incidents or injuries for which exact data could not be collected).
Although there are dangers in bouldering, they are not life-threatening. With some practice (falling) and a little common sense they can be reduced to a minimum.
Safety during bouldering
As we have already seen above, the landing is by far the most dangerous part when bouldering. If you drop like a stone and land on your wrist, you have to expect that something will end up breaking or tearing. In order to avoid injury, take your time and practice a safe landing.
Proper falling technique
Start small: jump off in a controlled manner from a low height. Be playful in your approach, roll around and distribute the energy of the impact as much as possible. Increase the difficulty slowly and proceed by engaging in controlled jumps from an increased height.
Correct landing – safe bouldering
Rolling: Ideally, you should roll backwards when landing (when rolling forwards, there is a risk of injury to the upper extremities). The horizontal fall energy is converted into a continuous vertical rolling movement. Practice a safe and smooth rolling.
Please do not extend your arms and try to brace yourself! – rolling is the only way to avoid injuries.
At least try and bend your joints (hip, knee and ankle) and cushion the fall as much as possible. Allow yourself to fall backwards or sideways onto the pad and distribute the impact energy.
If you still have enough strength to climb down you can save yourself the potential dangers occurring when landing. But be careful: climbing down ALL THE TIME does not provide the necessary falling experience. A deliberate falling practice will better prepare you for any unexpected falls.
Spotting – make bouldering safer
Spotting is not about catching the climber, but rather helping him to land safely on his feet. This ist especially important outdoors. The relatively small crash pads (portable mats) are a lot thinner than the ones in the gym. It is crucial to spot the falling person and help to provide a safe landing.
Keep the landing zone free from people and equipment of any kind. Boulderers landing on anything other than the designated landing pad run the risk of injury.
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How do I avoid overloading whilst bouldering?
Overloading can be reduced considerably by being mindful of the following 3 simple measures:
- Warming up
- Antagonist training
- (Muscular) regeneration
1. Warming up
An extensive warm-up before each bouldering session is an integral part of every serious climber. Warming up reduces the risk of injury, increases performance and (if done conscientiously) can also strengthen the antagonist muscles. Don’t skip it!
2. Antagonist training
Sooner or later, muscular imbalances lead to injuries. Climbing trains the whole body, but the strain on the
– finger flexor muscles in the forearms
– the muscles in the back, shoulders and arms;
– as well as the abdominal muscles is disproportionate to the strain sustained in the respective antagonist muscles.
Healthy climbing = better climbing
Strong antagonist muscles also have a positive effect on overall climbing performance. If you want to improve, there is no way around climbing-specific antagonist training.
A good climbing harness is:
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3. Time for regeneration
Many climbers still make mistakes even after years of experience. Our body needs time to regenerate. If we do not give it the necessary time to do so, the risk of illness, injury and a bad mood increases. At the same time the capacity for optimal performance decreases.
Adequate timing between climbing sessions is a deciding factor when it comes to climbing better and staying injury free. Depending on the intensity of the bouldering session, 1-3 rest days are necessary. These “rest days” are an excellent opportunity for stability- and body tension training.
Minimise risks when bouldering
I know, warming up is boring….. But to avoid injuries it just has to be done.
Fortunately, there are various things to make it a bit more interesting.
Warm up tools
It isn’t quite enough to train finger strength in use alone, but it is enough to warm up. It is small, handy and can be kept in your bag at all times.
It is the perfect tool to warm up your fingers and forearms on the way to the boulder gym. At the same time, the risk of injury decreases. Alternatively, you can also use a soft tennis ball to the same effect.
Promote blood circulation and are suitable both for warming up and faster regeneration. You will be able to feel the blood flow to your fingers increase slowly but surely.
Other trigger points are said to be stimulated here as well, but who knows… the blood circulation is definitely improved.
Handmaster or Grippsaver (Exerciser Balls)
Again, not really suitable equipment for training but well-suited for warming up and as a therapy device.
Both the finger flexors and the finger extensors are targeted. It is small, handy, and easy to use.
Rollerball or Powerball
When I first tried the rollerball I was addicted to it until I completely mastered the technique. Now I use it occasionally to train the entire forearm muscles and the antagonist muscles.
If you have problems with your elbow, I would recommend giving it a try.
These balls are also known by various other names and are commonly used to help maintain and improve concentration and reduce stress. They therefore have multiple uses, but more interestingly for us is that these balls train the fingers and forearm muscles quite effectively.
The balls require some fine motor skills to keep the balls circling, especially when the balls are not allowed to touch each other.
Resistance bands (TheraBand) to warm up the shoulders and finger joints.
This is a classic not only for antagonist training but also for warming up. If you are smart, you can combine both and train your antagonists during the warm-up routine.
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Minimize risk of injuries
Correct finger-taping during bouldering
Sometimes minor injuries may force you to take a break from bouldering. To avoid these unnecessary breaks it is worthwhile to learn a little more about taping. Taping bandages are effective and help with finger injuries (annular ligaments, finger joints) as well as skin problems.
An overview of the most common injuries and their treatment with tape:
Taping a pulley injury.
This is one of the most common injuries when climbing and bouldering. The annular ligaments or “pulleys” (which hold the flexor tendon close to the bone) should be supported. For this I have found a great video in which the application of so-called H-tape is explained.
Middle finger joint / capsular injuries
For a capsular injury, a cross-shaped bandage is used to limit the extension of the middle finger joint.
Tape for skin injuries
Skin injuries are relatively harmless but occur quite frequently. If left untreated they can easily lead to a climbing break for several days. If a skin injury has been sustained, a good tape bandage can help to continue climbing.
The absolutely go-to for all your taping needs. Helps with general joint pain or capsular injuries. The aching finger is taped to a healthy finger in order to provide relief.
Further questions about the dangers of bouldering
What are the most common overloads in bouldering?
The most common overloading injuries in bouldering are those affecting tendons, tendon sheaths (tendosynovitis) and joints.
- Annular ligaments (of the index and middle finger)
- Joint inflammations of the finger
- Elbows (tennis elbow, lateral epicondylitis)
- Shoulder/rotator cuff (bursitis)
What is more dangerous, sport climbing or bouldering?
According to statistics, bouldering causes more injuries than rope climbing (124 to 44). Whilst most bouldering accidents are quite mild (due to the low height) a mistake in sport climbing can easily lead to serious injuries. Therefore sport climbing can be considered more dangerous.