Articles ยป Competition Climbing: How Exactly does it Work?

Competition Climbing: How Exactly does it Work?

Have the Olympics fired you up to train for competition climbing? Trying out competitive climbing is an awesome challenge and can spice up your climbing life. Trying out new things in climbing is a great way to change things up when you find yourself in a rut or plateau.

At first, I thought that competitive climbing was pointless and a little scary! I don’t like climbing in front of people.

At the gym, I always try to find the bouldering wall with the least number of people. But participating in a climbing competition has helped me progress in my climbing career and I even had fun along the way!

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Let’s check out what you need to know about climbing competitions and what you can expect when you try your first one. I’m on my second season of competitive climbing and will give you a rundown on what to expect!

When was the first climbing competition?

In 1985 climbers gathered in Bardonecchia Italy and hosted the first climbing competition, SportRoccia. The Italian Academic Alpine Club and Andrea Mellano pioneered the idea for the first international rock climbing competition. SportRoccia was held on outdoor walls instead of an indoor climbing wall. Climbing comps on artificial walls did not begin until 1988.

Catherine Destivelle and Stefan Glowacz were the first two winners of the inaugural competition!

Outdoor Competition in Climbing

These competitions have been informal speed records within climbing.

There have been “unofficial” competitions within climbing. The speed record for The Nose on El Capitan has seen attempts by teams since 1975. Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell snagged a sub-two-hour ascent in 2018 and the title hasn’t been challenged since.

In 2020, two climbers speed climbed The Naked Edge, a 460-foot climb, in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado in just 24 minutes and 14 seconds!

Your First Bouldering Competition

SRPI Adult Climbing Competition League in Alexandria, VA

Check out the climbing gyms in your area to see if they’re hosting climbing competitions. Many gyms offer youth team competitions, but adult leagues are becoming more popular as well. Sportrock Climbing Centers in Alexandria, Virginia offers an adult bouldering league at their performance institute.

The organizers will offer different divisions. For the Sportrock Adult league, there are four divisions. Each division corresponds to a range of bouldering grades. Challenge yourself and pick the harder league if you’re on the fence!

If you can’t find an organized competition, set one up with your friends at the gym! Asking other climbers would be a fantastic way to engage with the community and improve your skills.

Competition Routesetting

In my personal experience, I have seen a huge difference in the route setting style between the regular bouldering problems and the problems set for competitions. In my experience, the gyms typically set routes that will help you train for outdoor routes.

But as competition climbing is growing in popularity, I’ve seen more and more “parkour” style routes. These competition routes can be very dynamic. Combining wall running into bouldering!

A more traditional bouldering comp style route at the Sportrock Performance Institute.

How do bouldering competitions work?

It’s the big day of your comp! Depending on if it’s speed climbing, lead climbing, or a bouldering comp, the specifics will be different. But here’s how my experience has been in participating in the Sportrock Adult league competitions.

In a bouldering competition, you’ll generally show up for a route orientation where you get familiar with the routes and warm up with your teammates. During the competition, you have four minutes to send the problem. After that, you get to take a four-minute break and rest up for the next problem.

After you’ve attempted each problem, the results are scored and the winner is announced!

Route Orientation

Each team gets a specific time to show up for their orientation. During the orientation, one of the employees will walk you through the problems for the day and you will find out the specific time you compete at. We get about four minutes to look at each problem in the comp.

That’s right! We got some idea of what the beta will be for the route and what to expect.

In our bouldering competition, there are three bouldering problems that we’re attempting to solve. Other bouldering competitions may do it differently, so research the rules before!

Commence Climbing!

Once all teams have completed the orientation the competing begins! The first climber goes and they will have four minutes to solve the problem. There will be a running clock that measures four minutes. After four minutes, it resets and immediately counts down again.

A lot of pressure is on that first climber, all eyes are on them!

Soon, it will be your turn! You make attempts for four minutes. Take a break for four minutes and then try again! After 24 minutes, you’re all done!

Once you’ve finished, the comp is still a good time. All of the climbers gather around and cheer on each other. Hearing the roar of the gym when you watch your friend top out with ten seconds left will get you fired up!

Start Holds

When you walk up to a problem, you might see a sign like in the above photo. But what’s up with all the pieces of tape on these holds?

What we’re looking at is the start holds! Just like in the bouldering gym, each problem has certain holds you must start at for the problem. The main difference in competition climbing is that there will be four pieces of tape in total. And you must have the correct number of feet and hands at the start hold.

Routes in climbing comps must be started the way the route setters intend.

Take a look at the picture above. We’ve added color-coded texts to show where all the start holds are located.

For the blue problem, there are two holds that each has two pieces of tape. This means that to begin the problem, you must have two feet and two hands. It doesn’t matter which hold has the feet or the hands, that is up to your discretion!

But in this scenario, we can take a look at where the chalk is on the climb to get an idea of what hold has been used to start. Use context clues like chalk to know what holds people are grabbing and how they are grabbing it!

On the yellow problem, we have three separate start holds. This problem starts off on a gnarly pair of slopers. These are probably my least favorite holds in the entire sport, but it brings up an important point for comp climbing. Once you have your weaknesses highlighted, you need to train to address them. I don’t like slopers, so I must train them more.

The first two slopers each have one piece of tape. The sloper in the bottom right has two pieces of tape. On this problem, I would start with my left and right hand on the top slopers and my two feet on the bottom right sloper.

How does scoring work in a bouldering competition?

There are two ways to score points in a bouldering competition: topping out a problem and controlling a zone hold.

Top out Holds

Topping out a problem means exactly what it sounds like. Just like in your day-to-day bouldering, sending a problem will mean topping out or reaching the finishing holds. The problem your attempting will have a hold at the top denoted with a piece of tape.

You’re looking at the top out or finishing hold! You’ll need to reach this hold, touch it with both hands AND it’ll need

Zone Holds

Each problem will also have a zone hold (or a bonus hold) on the route. The zone hold is an optional hold. Meaning you don’t have to touch this hold. If you can reach the top out hold without touching a zone hold, you’ll still receive full points for the climb and you will not be penalized.

Gaining points for the zone hold is similar to the top out hold, but there are a few differences.

We already covered that it isn’t required to touch the zone hold. In my experience, I’ve never had a reason to skip the zone hold. But in world competitions, it’s not uncommon to see professional climbers skip a zone hold here and there.

Unlike the top out hold requiring both hands to finish, you only need to touch a zone hold with one hand to receive points for it. But you do need to demonstrate control of the hold. If I was falling off of the boulder problem and grazed the hold on the way down, I’m not receiving any points for that.

Get a stable position and show that you can control the zone hold. You’ll get points for that!


At each bouldering problem, there will be a judge who scores and monitors the climbing. When you arrive at the climb, you hand the judge your scorecard and they keep track of your attempts.

Each time you attempt the climb the judge will make a note on the box on your scorecard. When you reach zone holds and top out holds, they will make additional marks for that attempt!

In the event of a tie, the team running the comp will use the attempts as a tiebreaker. If you can send the route on your first try you’ll receive the most points possible.

Is there competitive rock climbing?

Yes! Competitive rock climbing for both indoor and outdoor is a thriving sport! The International Federation for Sport Climbing hosts a yearly world cup where climbers compete within three different skill areas: speed climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering.

Speed Climbing

Speed climbing exists both on artificial climbing walls and even on the gigantic walls of El Capitan. In indoor speed climbing, the climbers train on the same exact route as in the competition. This gives them the chance to code the movements into their muscle memory.

After that, it’s up to the climber to execute and move as fast as possible.

Sport Climbing

Sport climbing has a thriving competitive scene. The first international climbing comp hosted by the IFSC only had sport and that was in 1989! Lead climbing has recently taken a backseat to bouldering in popularity. But if you want to make it to the Olympics, you have to pick up the belay ropes and start practicing lead climbing!

Lead climbing also monitors your climbing time. The faster you can climb, the better you’ll rank!


The bouldering world cup will follow a similar format as we talked about above. In the end, the climber’s performance will be determined based on reaching the zone holds, top out holds, and who can do it in the fewest number of tries.

How do you get into competitive bouldering?

The best way to try out a bouldering competition is to join a league provided by one of the gyms in your area! Many climbing gyms are organizing adult and youth leagues for climbers to test their skills. Many gyms have yearly events where you and other competitors will have one day to send problems.

These daily events will usually take the top five routes you completed and generate your score from those. What’s fun is that there will be bouldering, lead climbing, and even dyno competitions! These events are a perfect way to enjoy climbing with your community.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to train for a climbing competition?

Because competition style routes are set differently than other routes in the gym, get on as many competition style climbs as you can. Identify your areas of weaknesses and practice them.

Which level should I sign up for a climbing competition?

Sign up for a level that’s either at your limit or just beyond it. You want to challenge and push yourself, but you also don’t want to be unable to start every climb.

How to prepare for a climbing competition?

Work with a coach to identify your strengths and your weaknesses. For example, if you are unable to do any coordination moves, then you know that you need to practice coordination problems leading up to the comp.

What to do morning before climbing competition?

Follow your typical pre-climbing routine, eat enough so that you aren’t stuffed but won’t be starving during the comp, warm up and then have some fun climbing.

When was the first climbing competition?

The first outdoor climbing competition was held in 1985 in Italy and the first indoor climbing comp was held in 1988.

How to judge a climbing competition?

You will be given instructions by the group organizing, but you will be verifying that climbers start the route correctly and control the finishing hold.

How do I organize a climbing competition?

Create different groups that correspond to a range of bouldering grades, establish rules for starting and finishing a climb, create scorecards and then find a few judges. Then you’re ready to climb!

Photo of author
Rob developed ORB to help himself categorize and find all the outdoor gear he needed at great prices. He loves writing about the outdoors and climbing. Rob is a certified Single Pitch Instructor through the AMGA.

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