Learn to Climb: Safer Landings for Bouldering

Prevent injury with proper falling technique
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Julie Ellison
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Prevent injury with proper falling technique
Photo: Andrew Bydlon

Photo: Andrew Bydlon

One of the true joys of bouldering lies in its simplicity, which also makes it an excellent introduction to the sport of climbing. There are no complicated rope systems, you typically don’t get too high off the ground, and all you really need are shoes and some chalk. Bouldering seems safer than other forms of climbing, but the short falls are high-impact and can easily lead to injury if you hit the pads wrong. Since many gyms’ bouldering areas are covered in cushy padding, having a spotter inside isn’t usually necessary, but just like with roped climbing, knowing how to fall safely and land softly will help prevent injury. Feeling comfortable falling on the pads will also help you focus on trying hard on the wall, instead of being scared of hitting the ground.  

Guidelines

No two falls are exactly the same, and the gymnastic moves of bouldering often put our bodies in funky positions, meaning there’s no “one true way” when it comes to safer landings. The following list is a set of guidelines that you’ll want to think about and practice any time you head out for a bouldering session, whether it’s inside or outside.

  • Remove all jewelry, belts, and anything heavy or sharp in your pockets or on your person that could cause injury to you or others, including keys, phone, and wallet. Before you pull onto the wall, scope the landing zone to make sure it’s free of everything from water bottles and chalkbags to other climbers. 
  • Once you start to peel off, never try to grab other holds to catch yourself. Accept that you’re falling and go with the flow—literally. The key is to find a good balance between keeping your whole body slightly engaged and at the same time somewhat relaxed. This might sound impossible, but finding the sweet spot of keeping muscles activated but soft is the key to safe landings. Tensing up too much before impact will lead to strains, sprains, and even bone breaks, ligament injuries, and muscle tears.   
  • Try to land with a shoulder-width or wider stance and bent, soft knees, directing most of the impact into your strong lower body, which is designed to absorb that sort of falling force.   
  • Land with the bottoms of your feet squarely on the mat, instead of the heels, toes, or side of the foot.   
  • Tucking your chin to your chest will help engage your neck muscles to prevent whiplash, which is a common injury for boulderers,
    especially after falling from a horizontal roof.   
  • One of the biggest mistakes new boulderers make is trying to stick the landing and finish standing on their feet. When you land, allow your body to tuck in and roll down onto your side, back, or shoulder. Don’t fight the momentum of the fall; allow it to take you down to the mat in a soft “tuck and roll” manner. 
  • Never try to stop yourself with your hands or arms. Landing on an outstretched hand or arm can lead to an upper extremity injury like sprains, strains, or breaks. As you’re falling, try to hug your arms high and into your chest. This prevents them from instinctively reaching down to stop a fall, and it keeps them out of the way so you won’t bash them on any obstacles on your way down.  
  • When falling from a low roof where your body is almost horizontal, keep your arms and legs elevated, almost like they’re still holding onto the wall, allowing your back to absorb the impact (think of a turtle flipped on its shell). Remember to tuck your chin to your chest to prevent whiplash. 
  • Dynos can cause a scary, face-down fall that leaves little time to correct your body position. Keep arms and legs up to avoid landing on them and turn your head to one side to stabilize the neck and prevent whiplash. Try to engage your core as well to soften the landing.      
  • When landing directly on your back or stomach, instead of curling your arms up into your chest, try to slap the mat out to your sides at the moment of impact. This will help counteract the force of the fall and engage your upper body just enough to keep it from flopping around, which can cause injury.   

To Spot or Not to Spot?

Gyms with fully padded floors in the bouldering area rarely require a spotter, but some gyms still use movable crashpads, and even fully padded gyms might have problems that climb over an unpadded spot; in those instances you’ll need a spotter. The spotter’s job is to guide the climber’s body so it lands in the safest spot possible. That doesn’t mean catching the climber; instead, the spotter should have her arms up, elbows bent, and wrists and hands soft, ready to grasp the falling climber’s hips or waist and gently push them toward the safest part of the landing zone. A good spot relies on a good stance: feet a little more than shoulder-width, one foot slightly in front of the other with knees bent.