Should You Boulder or Top Rope First? Best session design

Choosing to start your indoor climbing session with bouldering or top roping will directly impact how much you get out of it. I spent the past few hours researching which of these climbing types you should do first in your session. Here is what I found out:

As a general rule, you should do an easy bouldering warm up before every session. After the warm up, start your session with the type of climbing you want to improve the most. Top rope first to focus on muscular endurance and cardio. Boulder first to focus on strength and dynamic movements.

Although this seems straight forward, there are some nuances involved with it. In this article, I discuss these nuances when structuring your climbing session to meet your goals.

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Begin Your Session With a Bouldering Warm Up

I am a firm believer that every session should start with a warm up. Warming up will not only get your heart rate up and muscles warm but it will also help you prevent injuries.

You cannot climb if you are injured. Take the 10 minutes (or less) to do a proper warm up. It may seem like a waste of time but trust me, it is not. It will help keep you feeling strong and climbing frequently.

The easiest way to warm up is to do some very easy climbing on the bouldering wall and progressively climb harder. While nothing is stopping you from warming up on the top rope wall, the bouldering wall is much easier to use for this.

The bouldering wall will provide you with easy access to a wide variety of different holds and moves. Plus, you will not have to wear a harness or clip into the top rope machine to use it.

I recommend checking out Andrew MacFarlane’s YouTube video below which follows the warm up of professional climber Louis Parkinson. While you may not need as intense or as long a warm up as Louis, the video shares some great information and warm up ideas.

Focus on Which Climbing Type You Want to Improve

After you have thoroughly warmed up, it is time to start the actual session.

You will be the most fresh and will be able to give your best effort in the beginning of every session. As the session wears on, you will start to become fatigued and won’t be performing at 100%. We want to take full advantage of this beginning window when you are able to climb your hardest.

To do this, you need to decide which type of climbing you want to focus on for that session. You then will use the majority of your time trying to improve that type of climbing.

If you want to become a bouldering master, you should make bouldering the primary focus of most (if not all) of your sessions. The same goes for top roping.

That being said, I believe that all climbers (especially ones with less than 1 year of climbing experience) should both boulder and top rope. Doing both of these will help you become a more well rounded climber.

Just remember that there is no wrong choice when deciding which one to pick. It is entirely up to you to decide what you want to improve the most.

Both bouldering and top roping will improve every aspect of your climbing ability if done correctly. That being said, they tend to emphasize different aspects. I discuss what the primary focus of each of these is below.

Bouldering Focused Session

Bouldering problems are much shorter than top rope routes. Therefore, the bouldering problems are typically made to be harder and require more dynamic movements than the top rope routes.

Note: this is a generalization, not ALL bouldering problems will be made this way. There are a good amount of boulder problems that require tremendous technique and balance to send and are not just brute force.

As a general rule, climbers will need a lot of muscular strength and explosive power to send hard boulders. Beginning and focusing your session on bouldering will help develop this strength and power.

Top Rope Focused Session

Top rope routes are much longer than bouldering problems. Therefore, they are typically made to have easier moves and require a larger amount of static movements than the top rope routes. (This is a generalization like the one made above. There are a lot of top rope routes that have extremely difficult moves that require a lot of strength).

As a general rule, climbers will need a lot of muscular and cardiovascular endurance to send har top rope routes. Beginning and focusing your session on top roping will help develop this endurance.

Switch Your Climbing Type To End Your Session

Top roping and bouldering compliment each other very well. Top roping will help you with bouldering and vice versa.

Bouldering for more than just a few minutes will require a degree of muscular endurance. Finishing off your bouldering session with some top rope is a great way to work on this and get your forearms more pumped than a bike tire.

The crux of top rope/sport climbing routes is the hardest part of them. The crux often requires a combination of strength and technique to send. Bouldering at the end of your session when you are exhausted (just how you will be when reaching the crux) will help you prepare and train this.

So, once you have spent the majority of your time working on the one you wanted to improve, switch to the other. Think of this as putting the icing on a cake. You already made the cake, now it’s just time to finish it off.

The Bottom Line

Always do a brief warm up to get your muscles warm before your session to help prevent injuries. Start your working session with the type of climbing you wish to work on and improve the most. Finish off the session with the other type to help you become a more well-rounded climber.


Hi, I'm Rex! I have been into everything outdoors for as long as I can remember. Climbing became a huge part of my life in college and I hope to share everything I have learned on this website to help fellow passionate climbers.

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