Should I Boulder or Top Rope?
A person during a steep boulder climb.

There comes a time in every man’s life when one asks himself: should I boulder or top rope? A few of us can actually address such an important iss… Okay, we’ll stop right there. Even though we were just playing around, many folks ask Google whether they should pick one of the two mentioned activities. Also, there are some that wonder why shouldn’t you combine ’em, what’s so wrong with it, etc.

If you fit the description we’ve shared with you above, that’s a good sign you’re going to love today’s article. Love might seem like too strong of a word, but you’ll see. By the end of this text, you’ll know whether you should pick bouldering or top-roping, or both! Stick around for some useful info!

The answer’s, as always, a matter of personal preference. Before you make a decision, know that bouldering’s a bit harder than top-roping. You’ll need more muscle strength and it can be a pin to start the climb over and over again. However, these activities are complementary, so why pick one or the other when you can try both? 

And that’s not the whole of it! Keep on scrolling, sir!

Table of Contents

Bouldering vs. top-roping (definitions)

Before we step further into the discussion about whether you should try this or that, it’s very important to define the terms we’ll be using a lot today. In other words: it’s crucial we know what we’re dealing with here.

The similarities

Both activities, bouldering and top-roping, represent probably the two most accessible climbing methods for beginners to try out. Also, both of ’em are among the most popular ways to climb when speaking of indoor gyms (here’s what you’ll wear inside them). However, that’s where all these similarities come to an end. Now you’ll see just how and where do these climbing methods differ.

What is bouldering?

First things first, let’s define the amazing activity known simply as bouldering. Bouldering is a version of free climbing typically performed on smaller (natural or artificial) rock formations without the use of any ropes or harnesses or, in some extreme cases, any form of equipment. However, most folks that practice this phenomenal sport wear high-quality climbing shoes just so they guarantee themselves a more secure foothold. Also, they use chalk on their hands to keep ’em dry so they’ll provide them with a firmer grip. Lastly, bouldering mats are put under the climbing area in case of an unfortunate event.

Here’s a quick glimpse into the history of bouldering: it was originally seen as a training method for mountaineering and traditional rope climbing. The thing is: climbers could practice certain moves at a safe distance from the ground (bouldering is still usually done at a height that doesn’t go above 6 m (20 ft.)). Practicing bouldering was very purposeful in building stamina and improving finger strength in climbers. At one point in the XX century, bouldering distanced itself from being only a little practice for rope climbers and mountaineers, becoming an independent discipline.

What is top-roping?

What about top-roping or, as some call it, top-rope climbing? You’ll want to know that it is a climbing style recognized by the climber bine securely attached to a rope that goes through an anchor system from the top to the bottom of the climb. That way, the climber is prevented from falling and injuring oneself. There are both indoor and outdoor top-roping climbs. Here’s a fun fact: top-roping is the most widespread style of indoor climbing and it’s also used in situations that could turn out to be quite unsafe or environmentally damaging.

Now, that’s about it for this introductory segment. It’s time we dive into our main dish for today and see whether you should try one or both of these challenging, yet fun & exciting climbing styles.

A man top roping indoors.

Should you boulder or top rope?

Before we dig deeper into the boulder or top rope debate, we might want to consider answering the question that’s on everyone’s mind. That is: which activity is harder?

Bouldering vs. top-roping – Which one’s harder?

Most experienced climbers would tell you the same: bouldering’s a little harder. That’s because bouldering grades begin at a much harder level than their top-rope equivalents. Also, bouldering’s harder because there’s no rope for you to rest on, and there’s a good chance you’ll fall if you slip or drop. However, both activities require you to have certain attributes. For instance, bouldering requires you to use more strength, while the other activity demands your endurance levels to be top-notch.

One could intuitively get the idea that bouldering’s a harder climbing method just by looking at the “no equipment whatsoever” segment in the definition of the term. In other words: once you fall, you have to start from the beginning of the climb. If you’re top-roping you can just say something corny like Darn it! and continue the climb.

All of the above doesn’t mean you should avoid bouldering, and start with top-roping (although it might be a better option if you’re beginning your climbing “career”). We just wanted to provide you with a more objective picture. Before you come to any decision, you might want to see what else’s there to consider.

So, top-roping is generally better for beginners?

Well, that mightn’t be the whole truth. To be completely honest, the question in the title deserves an answer that’s neither a yes nor a no. Actually, both activities can be good and pleasing for beginners. However, for totally different reasons.

As we’ve already said, bouldering involves using less gear. Also, you don’t need to climb points higher than 6 m (20 ft.). The main thing is: easy bouldering problems are harder to conquer than easy top-roping issues. They require you to use more strength and possess a bit of technical skill, although not so much that it would be somehow impossible for beginners to try it out.

On the other hand, top-roping, as you could’ve guessed, is a gentler approach to climbing sports. However, it requires you to utilize more equipment and endurance. Also, you can’t exactly climb top rope just by yourself. Unless, of course, you’re in possession of an automatic belay machine.

Here’s another difference between the two: it seems as though improving, getting better, and better in a sense that’s visible is somehow easier with top-roping. With bouldering, your improvement, moving upwards is less visible, and, to be honest, a bit more difficult.

People usually don’t prefer one over the other before starting. There are folks that begin with bouldering, too. And it seems as though they haven’t missed a thing. Which one you’ll choose is a matter of personal preference and that’s the way it should be!

Why not both?

It’s always good to pose this question when someone introduces you to an either/or issue (here we had: boulder or top rope). Many climbers practice both activities while giving one or the other advantage every once in a while. Here’s how they do it indoor-style!

There’s something of a general rule: you could start your training session with a lightweight bouldering warm-up segment. Once you’re done with that, you can start the official part of your sessions using a climbing method you want to improve the most. While bouldering puts the emphasis on strength and the dynamic of moving, top-roping sessions are focused on muscular endurance and cardio.

Complementary climbing methods

The two climbing styles compliment each other quite nicely; top-roping will “assist” you with bouldering and the other way ’round. For instance, ending your bouldering session with some top-roping is a fantastic method to get your forearms pumped in no time.

If you notice you’re spending too much time focused on one activity, switch to the other. That way, you’ll guarantee yourself the most optimal growth as a climber. In other words: you won’t lack training in any branch of the climbing knowledge tree. Please Don’t mind the corniness.

Don’t forget to do a light warm-up to get your muscles warm and going before each climbing session in order to prevent injuries. Start the official session with the method you prefer and want to work on. End it with the practice of the other climbing style just so you become something folks like to call a well-rounded climber.

For a more detailed peek into the relationship between muscles and climbing, click right here.

Bonus round: Bouldering tips for beginners

To reward your patience, we’ve selected some bouldering tips for beginners that will come quite in handy. Here they are:

  • Use your toes instead of midsoles while climbing. 
  • Utilize your legs in order to push yourself up. 
  • Stick your hips closer to the wall.
  • Keep your arms straight while you’re climbing.
  • Don’t use too much chalk; don’t overdo it. 
  • Also, don’t be afraid to fall. 
  • Climb with different folks to learn new ideas and moves. 

If you choose to follow the tips above, we’re sure you won’t have any trouble finding your place in the bouldering arena. One more time with the corniness; we’re awfully sorry.

Parting thoughts

That’s about it, dear climbing beginners, amateurs, experts, etc. If you were wondering whether should you boulder or top rope, now you’re one step close to finding your answer. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed reading this one as much as our last article on freediving fins storage.

For more tips on climbing and climbing-related activities, visit this page of our blog.

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