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Know Before You Go: Rock Climbing

Boulders be damned. Learn what to expect from your first rock climbing class.
Know Before You Go: Rock Climbing
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Humans aren’t supposed to be good with heights. It’s an evolutionary trait that prevented us from leaping off cliffs like lemmings. Yet rock climbing has become one of the most popular — and physically challenging — workouts around. Luckily, the vertically inclined can find indoor facilities in every state (some colleges included!).

Cliff Hanger — The Need-to-Know

Ready for a brains-meets-brawn challenge? Studies show rock climbing is a killer way to maintain aerobic fitness, build strength, and get that heart rate up to new heights [1] [2]. Clinging onto a wall for dear life might also increase anaerobic and aerobic metabolism [1] [3]. But it’s not all about the physical stuff. The real secret to climbing is focus and patience. For many, it's just as important to strategize a climbing route as it is to improve grip strength.

A few basics before hitting the wall: Rock climbing classes come in all shapes and sizes. Experienced climbers can usually buy a day pass and climb to their hearts' content. For newcomers, a 30-minute training session will teach the basics of climbing and how to operate the ropes (i.e. not dropping your climb buddy on his or her ass). Not to fear, though, because “belayers” are supervised by an instructor until they pass a certification test so no one’s left hanging. But before strapping on those climbing shoes, be sure to check our pro tips below!

No Way But Up — Your Action Plan

Want to zip up a wall like Spider-Man but not quite sure what it means to “belay off”? We spoke with Shandra Campbell, Outreach Coordinator at Brooklyn Boulders, to get the lowdown.

  • Climb aboard: Knowing the many types of climbing can mean the difference between a fun afternoon or a class full of falls and fails. Just starting out? Try bouldering, which uses shorter routes and doesn’t require a rope. More ambitious climbers can sign up for top roping, which requires another person to the anchor the climber on a rope. Stick to indoor facilities for starters, though, where there are less variables like wind, glare, or unstable footing.
  • Dress for success: Put away the ball gown and tails — climbing is best done with comfortable clothing that won’t restrict movement. Pants that hit below the knee should have a lot of stretch in them (think yoga pants). For footwear, most athletic sneakers should be fine for climbing, although there are special shoes for the job which hug the foot and have especially sticky bottoms. Most facilities will provide all other specialty equipment including ropes and harnesses.
  • Flex your talents: People with a background in yoga or martial arts tend to adapt best to rock climbing, not because they’re buff, but because they’re flexible and can focus on the task at hand, Campbell said.
  • Talk the talk: Lingo does not a climber make, but learning the basics can be clutch. Check out Brooklyn Boulders’ terminology page or the Climbing Dictionary to bone up on terms such as “belaying” (the process of doling out rope to a suspended climber) and how different routes are marked by difficulty.
  • Go slow: Rock climbing is a lot like chess. It’s less about speed and more about planning a route. The best climbers are always building a strategy that’s one foothold or reach ahead.
  • Calm those nerves: It’s okay to be scared of falling — even the pros sometimes get jitters. To help chill out, consider climbing with a friend. The buddy system can improve safety and confidence, setting climbers up for success [4] [5]. Better yet, head to a gym with trustworthy and knowledgeable instructors certified by organizations like AMGA or PCGI. Most respectable gyms will have reviews and instructors’ bios to scope out their credentials.

Rock climbing is good for the mind and body and, with the right climbing crew, it can become a staple in any workout regime and a fun way to cross-train.

Were you scared the first time you climbed? And how did you get hooked? Let us know in the comments below.

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Works Cited +

  1. Physiological adaptation in noncompetitive rock climbers: good for aerobic fitness? Rodio, A., Fattorini, L., et al. Motor Science and Health Department, Motor Science Faculty, University of Cassino, Cassino, Italy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2008, Mar;22(2):359-64
  2. Physiological responses to indoor rock-climbing and their relationship to maximal cycle ergometry. Sheel, AW., Seddon, N., et al. School of Human Kinetics, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2003, Jul;35(7):1225-31
  3. Physiological responses to indoor rock-climbing and their relationship to maximal cycle ergometry. Sheel, A.W., Seddon, N., et al. School of Human Kinetics, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2003, Jul;35(7):1225-31
  4. Improving patient safety: lessons from rock climbing. Robertson, Newcastle University, Newcastle, U.K. The Clinical Teacher, 2012 Feb;9(1):41-4. doi
  5. The physiology of rock climbing. Giles, LV., Rhodes, EC., Taunton, JE. School of Human Kinetics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Sports Medicine, 2006;36(6):529-45

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