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How well does indoor climbing translate to outdoor?

Original Post
David Kerkeslager · · New Paltz, NY · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 122

My main training over the winter has been indoor bouldering. I did get outside a bunch of times during the winter, but it has been inconsistent due to weather, and even on days when I did go out, the weather often wasn't conducive to pushing grades.

Through training indoors in the winter, I've massively improved my indoor bouldering. However, going outside consistently again this spring, I have been a little disappointed with how well it translates. I have gotten slightly stronger, but didn't really see any gains until after I took a trip to Red Rock and did a significant chunk of every day outdoor climbing. And those gains still aren't close to the gains I saw in my indoor climbing.

What's other people's experience? Does indoor climbing translate to outdoor climbing for you?

I'd like to have a better plan for continuing to improve next year. Are there any types of indoor climbing activity that translate better to outdoor than others?

kenr · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2010 · Points: 13,840

First, at least one excellent outdoor-climbing / training authority says it takes at least a month for any sort of strength gains to translate into improved performance -- as your neural and unconscious mental perceptions learn to incorporate it into your actual goal-style climbing.

But indoor bouldering is actual climbing, so perhaps . . .
need to get more specific about what styles of indoor setting correspond to your outdoor goal-style rock.

Myself I found that indoor Bouldering in modern northeast USA gyms tended to have a very different style of holds and move-sequences from my outdoor rock -- so I focused instead more on indoor Top-Rope routes.

I notice in my favorite gym in the northern Alps of France, the whole philosophy of the gym is to support outdoor sport lead climbing, so the hold-sets and move-sequences on their indoor Lead/TR routes (but not their bouldering) tend to be similar to outdoor Sport routes on the local French limestone.
. . . (This philosophy has an unfortunate consequence for their business: Unlike modern urban NorthEast USA gyms, that France Alps gym is emply on any day with weather resembling non-wet non-cold).

As competition (now with the Olympics) grows in importance, seems like indoor hold-styles and setting-sequences are becoming even more different from most outdoor rock. Also I guess modern USA gyms have figured out they have little business interest in making it easier for their customers to avoid paying by instead climbing outdoors on sunny days.
. . . (and though I love outdoor climbing, I actually enjoy this increasing difference, since it adds variety of fun + challenge) . . .
But I think it implies that need to get more careful about seeking which routes to include in sessions of indoor climbing.
. . . (? or even find a different gym which old-style better supports outdoor climbing ?)

Gunks (esp Trapps) in particular tends to favor horizontals, crux moves with a long reach to the next horizontal. Any setter who created indoor routes with that many horizontals would get laughed at for "boring". So what helped (non-tall non-ape) me climb harder stuff at Gunks was training big moves indoors on Campus board.


Steve Marshall · · Concord NH · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 40

IMO, not really that much. but it is great for improving your forearm and core strength, recovery capacity, stamina etc, which DO translate outside. the technique is very different in my experience but once you get used to the rock, you should be able to put those delicious strength gainz to use.

Chris Fedorczak · · Portland, OR · Joined Dec 2016 · Points: 0

I lead a full number grade down when climbing on real rock (indoor 11c/outdoor 10c). Best to start conservatively when you go outside and work your way up. While the basics translate, your ability to see/find holds (especially small feet for me) does not. 

Jake Jones · · Richmond, VA · Joined Jul 2011 · Points: 1,639

Invariably, I get the metaphorical shit kicked out of me for the first couple trips of the season outside.  I attribute this to a couple things, and this varies from person to person.  Mental:  there's more exposure outside (on ropes) and taller routes and bigger/more dangerous fall potential depending on what I'm climbing.  This causes me to overgrip until I settle back into a good spot psychologically and pick back up where I left off in the fall.  Physical:  routes are longer, and though gym climbing does keep you in shape with regard to muscle usage, movement, etc., your body gets used to stopping at 40, 50, 60 ft (unless you do endurance training all the time).  Also, bright colored holds on a flat plane makes route reading a hell of a lot easier, so you get spoiled.  You don't have to hang on holds as long and the decision making process en route is greatly reduced indoors, generally speaking.  In addition, it's been my experience that many indoor gyms try to do a good job of making difficulty grades commensurate, but fall short.  This is in part because it's not easy to do, and many don't attempt to because it's so difficult, and because it's a product they're selling.  If everyone that purports to be a V3 (or insert grade here ____)  climber inside could do every V3 outside, then no one would ever need to have this discussion, but that's not the case.  I hear it all the time.  It's very difficult to mimic what one would find outside sometimes- to the point that indoor and outdoor climbing have been and are becoming more and more separate entities.  

All this combined, or maybe just some of it, is what leads to people (including myself) getting smacked down after having spent significant time inside- even if that time is spent training.  Some people are lucky enough not to be greatly or adversely affected by the psychological aspect of it (which is significant, IMO).  But I suspect that a lot of folks have the same difficulty that you and I have.  Personally, I enjoy the challenge of trying to re-adjust each season, and it's interesting from one season to the next to see if the steps I've taken help me to do just that.

All this to say:  You're not alone.  I know lots of people that experience what you do.  Take it for what it is, enjoy the process and the double edged sword of staying in shape but being "spoiled" by indoor climbing, and use it as motivation to get out more.

Seth Cohen · · Concord, NH · Joined Apr 2010 · Points: 50

I think indoor and outdoor climbing don't TRANSLATE well: in my experience, indoor bouldering is easier, and indoor rope climbing is harder, than outdoors. Though obviously that depends on the gym. I think of indoor climbing as TRAINING for outdoor climbing.

Indoor climbing is training, and training alone. I think if you go to the gym thinking you'll just do a bunch of boulders, or just to a bunch of pitches, without any real plan, you won't really see much gain. You have to have a plan: do max bouldering, do up-down-ups, do endurance laps on rope climbs, use the hangboard, do a campus board workout, etc etc. If you execute this training well, with a schedule, you'll absolutely see gains once you go outside.

Sure, there will always be a couple days of getting used to real rock again. And endurance is, in my experience, the hardest thing to train indoors, so you'll need a couple days outside to wake up your endurance again. But you should be able to notice gains in finger strength and power, if you treat indoor climbing as TRAINING ONLY.

kenr · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2010 · Points: 13,840
Seth Cohen wrote: endurance is, in my experience, the hardest thing to train indoors

unless your gym has a TreadWall.

. . . (tho I would think that doing laps on Auto-Belay would have a positive effect on outdoor endurance).

SeƱor Arroz · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 10

The physical gains translate well, IMO. The issue is that there are a ton of MENTAL factors in outdoor climbing that aren't the same. Let's start with the fact that indoor climbing by definition tells you where all the holds are. And the danger factor is entirely removed. So that brings a level of headiness to even outdoor sport climbing that isn't there with indoor sport climbing. Move to trad climbing and the additional skills and mental demands are hugely different.

John Wilder · · Las Vegas, NV · Joined Feb 2004 · Points: 1,535

It is far easier to train endurance indoors than outdoors. If your gym has a treadwall, that helps, but it's certainly not necessary.

Imho, rope climbing indoors is not helpful for training power or power endurance. I suppose base endurance can be worked while on ropes, but I stopped gym climbing on ropes several years ago and my outside endurance and power jumped a full number grade within about 6 months of strictly bouldering in the gym. I never boulder outside, fwiw.

It does depend on what you're looking to achieve. I don't think if you're primarily climbing on gear that you're going to see huge training  gains until you're onsighting around 5.10 on gear. This is mostly due to the massive mental challenges and skillset required to climb harder on gear, not to mention you just don't need to be *that* strong to climb 5.10 on gear. I didn't see any real trad gains until after I was leading 5.10 and then spent a few seasons upping my sport game and training in the gym.

Alexander Blum · · Charlotte, NC · Joined Mar 2009 · Points: 132

I think that the best way to make a more efficient plan for future improvement is to figure out what is holding you back right now, as specifically as possible. It's just like turning a vague homework problem or technical question into a concrete, specific problem statement. Only after doing that can you devise an effective approach to solving the problem.

It would be interesting to know the grade you are bouldering in the gym. If you are bouldering even just V4/5 in the gym, the difference between your current level of tick and leading 5.10 trad routes is 110% mental and technical. I would posit that it probably is anyway, because that grade really is physically "not that hard", even in a sandbagged location like the gunks. It can be scary and full of complex decisions that need to be made on the fly, which often makes it feel much more pumpy and difficult than the grade does when simply clipping bolts, or toproping. However, saying "mental and technical" isn't nearly specific enough to figure out how to approach addressing the shortcoming.

Additionally, what people are saying about style is correct spot-on. At the simplest level a Tension board or Moon board is much more specific to steeper, difficult climbing, but these tools have drawbacks as well. A gently overhung Tension board is a great tool IMO, the wooden holds are easy on your skin and the problems involve small, technical footholds, which is uncommon in the gym. With your current problem I would just be patient. If you saw huge gains in the gym over the winter they will transfer to the rock as you continue to get mileage outdoors during the season.

reboot · · . · Joined Jul 2006 · Points: 125
Brett Merlin wrote: If you can climb 5.10 in the gym you can climb 5.10 anywhere, especially slab, offwidth, and run outs.


If you are a good outdoor climber and knows your weaknesses and train those indoor, it translates really well (once adapted to the outdoor style). Otherwise, not so much.
kevin deweese · · Oakland, Ca · Joined Jan 2007 · Points: 405

You're better off thinking of indoor gym climbing NOT as "climbing" but instead just as strength and body-english training. The subtle intricacies of the rock/boulder can't really be reproduced indoors due to the size of the material (think of any route that's considered "slab" when set indoor, the smallest jibs that can be placed with a screw will still be massive jugs compared to the small crystals and edges that one would use outdoors.)

There is a slight translation in terms of seeing a sequence on movements in the gym and reproducing that outdoors but that takes a long time to "click" and is something that develops over multiple seasons rather than a single winter season.

Additionally, remember that gym bouldering problems are set by a human. Different humans have different perspectives of what the value of bouldering is. Some setters will set to emulate what you'll experience outdoors, others (more often) will set for developing strength and showing off ridiculous dynamic sequences. 

Peter J · · Davis, CA · Joined Aug 2017 · Points: 105

Hmmm, you were stronger at Red Rock? I think everyone is "stronger" at Red Rock... Either that or maybe the routes are soft...

David Kerkeslager · · New Paltz, NY · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 122
Peter Foster wrote: Hmmm, you were stronger at Red Rock? I think everyone is "stronger" at Red Rock... Either that or maybe the routes are soft...

Haha, definitely Red Rock grades are a bit soft. But that's not what I meant. I mean that my climbing in the Gunks was about the same before and after the winter spent mostly in the gym, but I saw a significant improvement in my climbing in the Gunks after spending 9 days in Red Rock.

Sam Cieply · · Venice, CA · Joined Jun 2016 · Points: 20

Doesn't translate well at all in my experience. Too bad yall don't live in Cali where we grindin year round. Wesside!

P.S. Please don't move here, thx.
Noah Yetter · · Lakewood, CO · Joined Jul 2015 · Points: 105
David Kerkeslager wrote: 
What's other people's experience? Does indoor climbing translate to outdoor climbing for you?

Very poorly.

Indoors, if I can't do something it's due to strength or endurance 90% of the time. Only rarely, and at my limit, can I not see how to do the moves. I mean, the holds are right there, in bright colors! Even if I can't figure out the right sequence or body position, I've got a pretty good guess at the hold I should be using next.

Outdoors, it's the exact opposite. In high-traffic areas you may have chalk marks to follow, but otherwise holds tend to be invisible except to the touch. If you don't know where the holds are, how can you plan a sequence through them? And that's just the hands, nearly anything can be a foothold... So I frequently end up just stuck, with no idea of what I could possibly do next. And since some asshole put the next bolt just after this mystery move, I'm not about to just try something random and take a 20 foot fall onto a ledge.

In fairness though, climbing a lot indoors has taught me an inventory of moves, as well as a good feel for how far I can reach and what kind of features I can hold onto. So while the carryover isn't very good, it does help more-than-zero. And since my schedule permits climbing outdoors at most once a week, it's gym time or nothing, so I'll take it.
Lena chita · · OH · Joined Mar 2011 · Points: 735

It depends.

For relatively new climbers (<5 years) it translates somewhat poorly, because they usually have weaknesses other than strength, whether it is the ability to read the rock, use foot holds that are smaller than in the gym, and aren't marked with tape, as well as having issues with gear placement, and heck, even simple clipping. They also aren't necessarily training smart, or training the right things, when they are climbing in the gym.

When I first started climbing, I always felt that going outside after a few months of only climbing indoors I needed to remember how to climb on real rock, and my first couple days on real rock I would climb way worse than I had climbed at the end of the previous climbing season, even though I was training indoors and thought i was getting strong.

This post-winter-drop in climbing ability has gotten a lot lower for me over the years, both because I had shorter periods of not-touching real rock as I started scheduling climbing trips to destinations with good weather when the local climbing sucked, but also, I believe, just because the experience adds up. I no longer feel like I need to "rediscover" the rock every time I don't climb outside for a while.

And now when I do regimented training in the off-season, I DO feel that I can come climbing outside after couple months of training indoors, and climb stronger that i did the previous season, from the get-go.

Nick Drake · · Newcastle, WA · Joined Jan 2015 · Points: 476
John Wilder wrote: It is far easier to train endurance indoors than outdoors. If your gym has a treadwall, that helps, but it's certainly not necessary.

Imho, rope climbing indoors is not helpful for training power or power endurance. I suppose base endurance can be worked while on ropes, but I stopped gym climbing on ropes several years ago and my outside endurance and power jumped a full number grade within about 6 months of strictly bouldering in the gym. I never boulder outside, fwiw.

I wrote a bit long response to this and MP gave me an error when I tried to post. So short version that assumes people have already researched energy system jargon. The TL;DR, hard for you single pitch gym routes in large volume are junk mileage for most people 

Gyms tend to set sustained routes and most are in the 30-40 foot range. Look around on any given weeknight and when you see climbers on routes which are hard for them in which they are capable of doing all moves in short sections and you see them pumped as hell clipping chains or falling off 3/4 of the way up. From an energy system stand point you're mostly using "anaerobic glycolysis" as a means to produce energy for hard efforts of 10 seconds to 2 minutes. This is the process which builds up lactic acid within a muscle, i.e. the process which ends up resulting in "pump".

If your gym sessions are to warm on a few routes, then try something near your limit until you pump off and repeat until you're gassed you are quite literally training yourself TO GET PUMPED. There is value in technique training of keeping your shit together when the pump sets in, but most people don't need to be focused here for an energy system.

I asked Tom Randall where he thinks intermediate climbers (meaning 5.11 to 12+ in the YDS range) should focus, he said without a doubt localized aerobic capacity of the forearms. If you're going to climb rope routes do 3 or more pitches back to back (or better yet downclimb between them).
Nick Drake · · Newcastle, WA · Joined Jan 2015 · Points: 476

Technique thoughts on the gym, plastic lends itself to technique you don't use on rock, but there are ways around it.

On rock frequently the edges you use will be incuts in the face, not big old protrusions sticking outward. So don't climbing in the gym stepping DOWN onto holds, come in from the side and place your foot precisely, just like you do with an incut face.

Quiet feet is a great beginner exercise, but it has limits. Once you have it down start working on precise feet. Pick out a small feature on a hold, be it the edge of a ripple, a nub, or spec of chalk. Aim to step on ONLY that portion of the hold. Particularly with specs of chalk you can act like you are climbing granite crystals. 

Paul Deger · · Colorado · Joined Sep 2015 · Points: 35

Route finding, variety of what can be used as both hand and foot holds, variety of body position and balance, mental factor - I have yet experienced a gym that can adequately model what is found on real rock.

FourT6and2 ... · · San Francisco, CA · Joined Mar 2015 · Points: 45

My biggest obstacle when climbing outside is proper sequencing. In the gym, I can look at a route and see all the moves. Because they are color coded. And in about 15 seconds I can visualize what I need to do to get through the route. Outside, not so much. A lot of hunting for each move while I'm actually climbing. I was just in Red Rock a few weeks ago. I was leading an easy 5.9+ in the Black Corridor and I got really sketched out on a clip around the middle of the route. Had to bail. My partner had to lead the rest of the way. I then did the route on top rope and that move was suuuuuper easy. I just had a mental block because I couldn't figure out the sequence while on the sharp end of the spear, so to speak. But once I did it on top rope, boom... easy. Got the sequence down. And I did it on lead no problem.

Other than that, I've found a lot of great technique I've learned in the gym while climbing in the .11s on inverted walls (extreme flagging, backstepping, twistlock, etc.) don't really happen outdoors until you get into some really difficult routes that are way out of my range. I can lead .11b in the gym, but outdoors... 5.10a is the highest I've done on lead.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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