How Do You Start & End a Bouldering Problem?

When you first enter a bouldering gym you’re told that you’re supposed to start and end a bouldering problem a specific way, but you’ll hear some climbers have different opinions regarding foot placements, jump starts, the so-called “French start”, topping out to end a problem, and other different variations. In this article we’re going to cover the different ways a climber can start and end bouldering problems.

So, how do you start a bouldering problem? According to 2021 International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) rules, the correct way to start a bouldering problem is when a climber “achieves a stable, controlled position with both hands and both feet on the starting holds without controlling or using any other artificial holds or structures”. Of course, most climbing gyms don’t have starting footholds. Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether you start with your hands or feet on the wall first, as long as you achieve a controlled position on the starting holds before you attempt a transition.

So, how do you end a bouldering problem? According to 2021 International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) rules, a bouldering problem is judged successful when the climber is in a controlled position either with 2 hands on the top of the last climbing hold or when they’re standing on top of the boulder (aka topping out). In most gyms, a “controlled” position on the last hold is when you’ve held it for at least 3 seconds.

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How Do You Start a Bouldering Problem?

I’ve heard of many different ways to start bouldering problems, and been told a few different times early in my climbing career (and sometimes even recently) that I’m starting a route wrong because I shouldn’t have put my feet on the wall first before my hands. This never made sense to me because then dynamic starts, bat hang starts, and running starts would literally be impossible for a man or woman of average height. 

Because of this, I researched the actual rules set by the IFSC regarding how to start a bouldering problem. Of course, there are a few other ways around the world you can start a bouldering problem different from the rules set by the IFSC. However, what we should all be saying to the climbers that follow other rulesets when they tell us we’re starting our routes incorrectly is that we’re following the bouldering guidelines set by the IFSC in 2021. You can find the guidelines here.

On page 48 within these guidelines it states:

“A competitor’s start will be judged:

A) “Correct” where the competitor achieves a stable Controlled position with both hands and both feet on the Starting Holds without Controlling or Using any other Artificial Holds or Structures. For the avoidance of doubt, when starting a boulder, a competitor may:

  1. touch, Control or Use any part of the Climbing Surface in order to attain the Starting Holds; and/or
  2. touch any Blocker Hold(s).

B) “Incorrect” where the competitor

  1. Fails to achieve a stable Controlled position with both hands and both feet on the Starting Holds; or
  2. Controls or Uses any Artificial Holds or other Structures not marked as Starting Holds before achieving a stable Controlled position with both hands and both feet on the Starting Holds.”

So a correct start to a bouldering problem is when you touch any part of the climbing surface to get to the starting holds – this includes blocker holds! Blocker holds in climbing are used to block another hold, either to make that hold smaller or to make the climber think more about their movements and transitions onto the next hold. Check out the video below for more information:

So, what is a French start in bouldering? A French start is usually “achieved” by putting your hands on the starting holds and 1 foot (or no feet) on the wall, then pushing yourself up (or even jumping) to the next hold.

The IFSC has clearly stated that BOTH hands and BOTH feet must be on the starting holds in a controlled way before you can make a transition. However, in most gyms there aren’t specific starting holds for your feet, so it’s universally accepted that both your feet should be anywhere on the wall while your hands are on the starting holds before you can make a transition.

The way I see it, if you’re not doing a problem correctly then you’re cheating, especially if you know what you’re doing isn’t correct. And if you’re not in a competition, the only person you’re cheating is yourself – you could learn so much more by doing everything correctly. When bouldering, there’s more of a focus on setting routes with difficult starts. Removing a starting hold from the equation, or only putting one foot on the wall can make a bouldering problem so much easier. For many bouldering problems, the start can be the crux (the hardest part) of the whole route!

How Do You End a Bouldering Problem?

Generally, there are two accepted ways to end a bouldering problem. The first, and most common in climbing gyms is when a climber has a controlled grip on the top hold with two hands. A “controlled grip” is usually accepted as holding onto it for 3 seconds or more.

Another way to end a bouldering problem, which is less common in climbing gyms and more common when bouldering outside, is called topping out. Topping out is when a climber has to stand on top of the boulder – which is the more realistic way of saying you’ve reached the top of a climb. Topping out isn’t as common with indoor climbing because artificial climbing walls rarely have a top out feature, however outdoor boulders usually do have a top that’s able to be stood on.

Can You Use the Top of the Wall When Bouldering?

Often you’ll see beginners use the top of the wall to help them balance when bouldering. The majority of the time this isn’t really allowed, however there are exceptions. The exception to this rule is when the top of the boulder is meant to be topped out. This is not allowed, however, when the top of the bouldering wall either has no holds on or has not been stated as a topping out boulder. Therefore, it’s cheating.

Some climbers will argue that the top of the wall should be “taped off” to show that the area shouldn’t be climbed on, however this is usually only in competition climbing. It’s generally accepted throughout the bouldering community that within a climbing gym that using the top of the wall is cheating. Check out this video of Peter Dixon at the 2014 Portland Boulder Rally Competition ($10,000 prize) where the top of the wall wasn’t taped off and he used that to his advantage. He came 2nd overall.


I'm the owner of Rock Climbing Central and I fell in love with climbing about 5 years ago as soon as my feet touched the wall. Since then all I've pretty much done is research about climbing and climb whenever possible.

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