Back in 2010, approximately 6,148,000 Americans were participating in rock climbing activities and it has only grown since then. So why is it so popular, why do people do it, and how can you get started?
Rock climbing has (ahem) climbed in popularity over the last 20 years. Many people think that it will someday (cough) ascend to the heights of outdoor activities such as jogging and fishing which, based on research by the Outdoor Foundation, are the two most popular outdoor activities in the U.S.
Indoor rock climbing is said to have started in the U.S. in the early 1980s when outdoor rock climbers built training walls in garages and warehouses. According to the 2010 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report, approximately 6,148,000 Americans (or 2.7% of the population over the age of six) were participating in rock climbing activities such as bouldering, sport climbing, indoor climbing, traditional climbing, and mountaineering.
So why is it so popular? Why do people do it and how can you get started? Well, first let’s look at what makes a good rock climber.
The Physiology of Rock Climbing.
Muscular strength and endurance in rock
climbers have always been measured in the forearm, hand, and fingers via a thing called dynamometry (a measurement of force or power). But interestingly, when absolute hand strength was assessed in a study called The physiology of rock climbing, they found little difference between climbers and the general population.
When we look closer, we see that most elite rock climbers are quite small in stature, with a pretty low percentage of body fat and body mass. So when their hand strength was calculated in relation to body mass, the elite climbers scored significantly higher.
According to the study, at its core, rock climbing is simply “repeated bouts of isometric contractions.” So they went on to test grip endurance using both repeated isometric contractions and sustained contractions. They found the times to fatigue during repeated isometric contractions were significantly better in climbers when compared with sedentary individuals. However, during sustained contractions until exhaustion, climbers did not differ from the normal population. The study authors think this comes down to the ability to perform repeated isometric forearm contractions without fatigue. Oddly, flexibility was not identified as either necessary nor a detriment to climbing success, although that is of course with the caveat that rock climbers must have “climbing-specific flexibility” in order to perform well.
The Benefits of Rock Climbing
1. Builds strength and endurance.
Despite appearances, climbing actually requires a lot more than pure upper-body strength. Completing a climb successfully requires a long list of fitness factors, such as fancy footwork, aerobic endurance, core stability, and lower body strength. Not many folks who are heading out for cardio workout often think of hitting the climbing wall but ascending walls is a great way to get your heart up. It has been shown that climbing a wall for one hour can burn 700 calories (or more) in an adult male. Throw in some tricky maneuvers and difficult reaches, and it will also challenge your mobility, flexibility, and endurance.
2. Reduces stress.
Exercise, in general, has been shown to reduce stress. But rock climbing (like other extreme sports) has the added advantage of a state called flow. Climbers routinely talk about losing themselves in the flow of the climb and get themselves into a mindset that creates a sense of euphoria and even blocks pain. If you climb outdoors, there are the added stress-relieving benefits of the activity known as forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku.
3. Boosts brain function.
Simply put, climbing involves problem-solving. In fact, bouldering routes (rock climbing done without ropes and at low heights) are often called “problems” by veteran climbers. Climbing up a wall or face requires both body awareness and problem-solving because the way to the top is often not as obvious or direct as you might think. It takes a ton of focus to determine which holds are solid, where to place your foot, and how to shift your body weight before making your next move.
4. It creates social connections.
Rock climbers are exceptionally social. Of course, there are some loners out there but in general, rock climbers are pretty extroverted and fun-loving and climbing is a pretty darn social activity. Part of this is simply out of necessity because climbers need to take turns belaying (fixing or securing a running rope around a pin, rock, cleat, or something sturdy) for each other. That means they have to communicate with each other to keep everyone safe. But aside from simply needing each other to stay safe, climbers are a pretty supportive and outgoing community.
6. It can build confidence.
It has been said that “fear is among the greatest obstacles which prevent us from enjoying life to its fullest extent.” It likely comes as no surprise to you that one of the most common fears (aside from public speaking) is the fear of heights (and falling from them). Obviously, rock climbing is one way to conquer those fears (the heights one, not the speaking one). By using the appropriate harness and other safety measures, even beginner climbers can conquer great heights. And as we all know, conquering any fear can build confidence and self-esteem.
Simple Exercises for Rock Climbing
OK. Before you go and hit the climbing wall or the real thing, you will want to prepare yourself physically for the job. There are many workouts, protocols, and plans out there to get ready for the particular climb that you want to tackle, but here are some extreme basics to get you started.
- Brachialis and brachioradialis (arms).
- Rhomboids (upper back muscles).
- Lower trapezius and the teres major (between the shoulder blades).
- Pectoralis major and pectoralis minor (chest muscles).
It should be no surprise that arm strength is important for climbers. And what is more simple and effective than the good old pull-up?
If you are serious about getting good at climbing, get a pull-up bar and install it in a high traffic area of your home. Somewhere you pass often during the day and make an effort to do a set amount of pull-ups every time you pass under the bar. It doesn’t have to be that many, just enough so that it adds up over the day.
If you can’t install a pull-up bar in your home, find a local playground or somewhere else you can work on this essential climbing strength exercise. You won’t regret it.
- Pectoral muscles.
- Triceps (back of the arm).
- Biceps (front of the arm).
- Front and rear heads of the deltoids.
- Rhomboids and trapezius.
- Latissimus dorsi.
Climbing isn’t all about pulling yourself up the wall, it is also about pushing yourself up.
Climbing isn’t all about pulling yourself up the wall, it is also (some climbers would say mostly) about pushing yourself up. This is known as mantling in the climbing world and it is a very useful skill to have. If for no other reason than to haul your exhausted body up and onto the flat ground at the top of the rock face or wall.
To properly mantle, you need a strong chest, strong shoulders and reliable triceps, all the muscles that are worked when performing a push-up.
Dead Hang or Hangboard Training
- Hand and wrist flexors.
- Brachioradialis and extensor carpi radialis (forearms).
- Deltoid muscles (shoulders).
Having good grip strength is essential for climbing. Being able to grip the tiniest holds gives you more time to calculate your next move, and that will help you climb more efficiently by allowing you to use your other climbing muscles more effectively.
Hangboard training is one of the most time-efficient ways to build hand and finger strength, especially if you can’t train at a climbing gym. By simply doing two or three 30-minute workouts per week you can get excellent hang strength results.
Completing a one arm dead hang is also important. Just make sure that you focus on keeping your shoulder blade back and down as much as possible. This provides the most stability and will protect you from injury.
Plank or Mountain Climber
- Transversus abdominis muscle.
- Gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles (abductors).
- Adductor muscles of the hip.
- External, and internal obliques.
If you don’t have a strong core you won’t be successful in most sports and climbing is no exception.
If you don’t have a strong core you won’t be successful in most sports and climbing is no exception. Core muscles are always engaged when you’re climbing. They come in especially handy when tackling a line that requires good balance. Simply put, having a strong core makes all your other muscles do their job better.
There are many other core exercises you can do but simply planking is a great place to start. They are much more effective than doing some crunches or sit-ups because they use your whole core, not just your abs. Once you can hold a good front and side plank, graduate to single arm and leg versions, bird dog planks, planks series, and then on to the mountain climber—they are called that for a reason!
- Gastrocnemius (largest posterior calf muscle).
- Soleus (smaller posterior calf muscle).
- Tibialis Anterior (largest anterior calf muscle).
Good lower leg strength and leg agility make a huge difference in your climbing.
Good leg agility and solid lower leg strength make a huge difference in your climbing because as we learned earlier, it’s not all about your arms. After all, foot placement accounts for two of your four points of contact on the wall or rock face. Strong and supple legs are required for taking your body weight on toes which can give you those extra centimeters of reach for your next hold. Your legs are often burning and shaking as much as your arms are after a good climb so make sure you build strength and stamina there as well.
There are very few activities out there that really give you the opportunity to challenge yourself as much as rock climbing does, and you don’t have to make a pilgrimage to Devil’s Tower to do it either. Even at your local climbing wall, you will feel your confidence and self-reliance grow with each climb, and often quite quickly new climbers will find themselves pushing the borders of their comfort zone.
Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport.