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An Overview of Rock Climbing
Challenge your mind and body with a climbing workout
There’s no denying that rock climbing is the ultimate workout for testing your physical strength and mental stamina. In fact, very few activities target as many muscles as climbing does, while also focusing on your balance, flexibility, and mental endurance.
While many people take their training outdoors, beginners looking for an excellent workout often find that using an indoor training facility is the best route, especially since you have access to qualified instructors, equipment, and various levels of classes. If you want to add rock climbing to your overall fitness routine, the safest way to start is with an indoor climbing facility
Rock climbing is a total-body workout that focuses on strength, balance, flexibility, and aerobic conditioning.
Rock climbing is primarily a strength-based workout. That said, it also gets your heart pumping and burns some serious calories. In fact, a 155-pound person can burn around 600 calories per hour climbing. When comparing it to other workouts though, rock climbing is more like interval-based training since it produces more short anaerobic bursts of power compared to a cardiovascular workout like running or cycling that tends to produce a more steady and sustained heart rate.
When it comes to the muscles you’ll be working, you can expect to use most, if not all of them while climbing or bouldering, which is climbing on low rock formations without a rope. Since your lower body is typically stronger than your upper body, you will rely on the glutes quads, hamstrings, and calves to push you up the wall, while your back, chest, shoulders, and arms work together to pull you up.
Speaking of pulling, don’t be surprised if your forearms get stronger, because unlike many other traditional workouts, you will need a tremendous amount of grip strength to get you to the top of the wall. Plus, with all of the reaching and stretching required to move from one hold to the next, rock climbing is also a fantastic way to increase your core strength, flexibility, and improve coordination.
But it’s not just the physical component of this workout that is good for your health. The mental health benefits that come with feeling confident, using problem-solving skills, being patient and present and the sense of accomplishment you experience when reaching the top are just a few of the reasons this workout tops the list of best for your mind and body.
Pros and Cons
Knowing what you’re getting yourself into can help alleviate some anxiety, and hopefully, answer any questions you may have about the workout. When it comes to rock climbing, the pros certainly outweigh the cons, but it’s still worth noting some of the common concerns people express about the workout.
Total-body Workout “A rock climbing workout is a complete workout, which is why so many people are drawn to it,” explains Justen Sjong, Senior Director of Route Setting and Programs at Planet Granite. You not only exercise your upper and lower body, but there’s a huge mental and emotional component to climbing as well. In a way, says Sjong, it’s very holistic.
Encourages Mindfulness Climbers need to stay in the moment, despite mental distractions from the past and future trying to steal that focus.
Satisfies Your Social Cravings There’s a community element to climbing, and the gym is a great place to make new friends. Plus, the support and encouragement you will feel from other participants leads to greater satisfaction and increases the likelihood that you will stick with rock climbing as a workout.
Depending on who you ask, there are very few cons to a rock climbing workout, especially if you talk to a climber. But just like any other sport or physical activity, there are going to be some downsides to scaling up a wall.
Isn’t Purely Aerobic. Yes, your heart rate will skyrocket, and you will boost your cardiorespiratory fitness, but if you’re looking for a traditional aerobic workout comparable to something like running, cycling, or swimming, you might be disappointed. However, to get your cardio system ready for the climb, you will likely warm-up on machines like spin bikes and treadmills.
Time-consuming. Most climbers wouldn’t consider this a con, but for people new to the sport, Sjong says the time it takes to climb is sometimes seen as a con. “Not only to train for and get competent at but also the actual workouts themselves,” he says. In the 20-minutes many fitness activities take to accomplish, the rock climber has barely finished their warm-up routine. “Our guests typically spend 60 minutes to 90 minutes here, which is a time commitment some people see as a con.”
While neither a pro or con, mentioning safety is critical to the success of your workout. “There’s always a risk of a fall or injury, and that’s why getting your training in a facility with climbing professionals who use equipment certified for rock climbing is your best defense against injuries in the field,” explains Sjong.
Most gyms will have very specific rules, but there are a few general tips for staying safe. The biggest safety challenge for beginners, says Sjong is knowing how to read their own body signals. “You’ve got to know both your physical and mental fatigue limitations, and not discount one over the other,” he explains. When you’re fatigued, call it a day, and tackle the problem next time.
What We Like
- Full-body workout
- Supportive community
- Social environment
What We Don’t Like
- Takes more time than traditional weight lifting or cardio
- Not a purely aerobic workout
The best way to get started with rock climbing as a workout is to head to an indoor facility and take a beginner class. Most gyms offer memberships and leveled classes that you move through as you master specific skills. They will have qualified instructors that can teach you about the equipment as well as lead you through the class.
The other benefit of a gym is you don’t have to buy a lot of equipment. Most facilities have the equipment you can rent, and sometimes it’s even included in the cost of a class. However, you will need to buy a good pair of climbing shoes and comfortable clothes that allow you to move.
While prices vary depending on the gym and location, on average, you can expect to pay anywhere between $50 to $200 for a gym membership. The cost typically depends on the number of classes included with the membership, access to open climb time, equipment, and other fitness-related perks such as yoga classes, core classes, and resistance training.
If you’re new to rock climbing, easing into the workouts will help your body adjust to the physical demands and give you time to learn a new skill set. Start with one or two classes a week, and as you get stronger, consider adding one more class or workout. Many facilities will offer open gym time where you can climb on your own once you’ve completed a certain level of training.
Sjong says a typical rock climbing workout includes a cardio warm-up, followed by some stretching exercises. Then, it’s common to do some easier climbs or bouldering problems before taking on your specific challenge for the day.
Another part of climbing many people overlook, explains Sjong is watching others. “There’s a lot of falls and failures in rock climbing, and by watching others, you can study form and technique, as well as view others fail, which lets you know it’s a big part of the sport and not something to dwell on personally,” he adds.
Most of the training for rock climbing you will do in the class and during open climb time. But just like any other physical activity, there are things you can do when you’re away from climbing that can help boost your strength, flexibility, and stamina.
In the gym, make sure to include exercises that target the major muscle groups as well as core-specific work and exercises for grip strength. Some of the more popular moves to try are:
For core, focus on:
Sjong also suggests taking yoga classes to complement a rock climbing regiment.
For cardio, aim for one to two days of high-intensity interval training and one to two days if steady-state aerobic workouts. If you have access to a stair-climbing machine or a set of outdoor stairs, make sure to incorporate these into one of your workouts.
There are several indoor facilities focused specifically on rock climbing. But it’s not uncommon to now see mini rock walls in larger fitness centers such as the YMCA. One resource for locating climbing gyms in your area is this map of commercial climbing gyms from the Climbing Business Journal. Another good resource is the Mountain Project’s Indoor Climbing Gym page that lists the gyms in each state with links to those gyms.