Hiking—sure. Biking—no problem. But rock climbing? That’s one athletic adventure that has always seemed slightly beyond our reach. Dangling 45 feet from the ground, held only by a rope, sounds like a feat of Herculean strength we’re not sure we possess.
But it turns out, scaling the side of an indoor climbing wall is actually a lot less scary than we thought. “Climbing is a very welcoming and accessible sport for beginners,” says Alex Johnson, a professional climber and five-time U.S. national champion. The No. 1 most important thing for beginners to keep in mind? Don’t feel intimidated. “It’s easy to get discouraged—it happens to everyone—but the best way to improve is keep trying,” Johnson says.
Plus, clinging onto a wall for dear life is more than an adrenaline-pumping adventure—it's a serious workout too. Research shows rock climbing can provide an aerobic workout, build upper-body strength, and maintain cardiovascular fitness Physiological adaptation in noncompetitive rock climbers: good for aerobic fitness? Rodio A, Fattorini L, Rosponi A. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2008, Sep.;22(2):1533-4287. Physiological responses to indoor rock-climbing and their relationship to maximal cycle ergometry. Sheel AW, Seddon N, Knight A. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2003, Oct.;35(7):0195-9131. The physiology of rock climbing. Giles LV, Rhodes EC, Taunton JE. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 2006, Nov.;36(6):0112-1642. . Plus, figuring out the best way up the wall gives your brain a mental workout as well.
We found out just how accessible climbing is at Brooklyn Boulders in New York City. After one lesson with helpful instructors, we felt comfortable enough to belay with a partner and hit the bouldering wall by ourselves.
Ready to try some Spider Man-style moves yourself? The advice below will help you walk into your nearest climbing gym feeling totally ready to hit the ground running—er, wall climbing. (Note: These tips are helpful to keep in mind, but an introductory class from a certified instructor is essential for any beginner.)
1. Pick your poison.
There are several types of climbing. Try them all to see what floats your boat, says Luke Livesey, head of instruction at Brooklyn Boulders. Top-roping (or rope climbing) with a belay partner allows new climbers to cover a lot of distance on the walls. No partner? No problem—use an auto-belay.
If you're afraid of heights, bouldering—rock climbing without ropes—is a great option since the walls are shorter, Johnson says. (If rope climbing is long-distance running, bouldering is like sprinting, she explains.)
Finally, in the great outdoors, you'll do either sport climbing, where the climber follows routes that have pre-placed anchors, or traditional (trad) climbing, where the climber places his own protection along the route. (As you likely guessed, trad climbing isn't for beginners.)
2. Get geared up.
Proper footwear is key. “I recommend choosing softer climbing shoes, so you’ll be able to get a better feel and grip on the wall,” Johnson says. Skip socks if they're your own shoes, and wear thin ones if you're renting. For bouldering, the only other piece of equipment you need is a chalk bag, and you’re good to go. For top-roping, climbers also need a harness, lead rope, chalk bag, carabiner, and belay device—all of which should be available to rent at your climbing gym.
3. Learn the ropes.
So you've got the gear; now you have to learn how to properly belay. In fact, climbers have to be belay-certified before hitting the wall on their own, so taking a class is essential. “Belaying is really about getting into the groove and learning the muscle memory,” says Sarah Laine, an instruction assistant at Brooklyn Boulders. Translation: Reading up on belaying isn’t going to be a huge help. But here are the basics you'll learn in an intro class:
- Tie a figure-eight and fisherman's knot to secure the lead rope to the belayer's harness.
- Keep your right hand (or left hand, if you're a lefty) in break position (sometimes called home base) below the belay device—and don't let go!
- As the climber ascends the wall, they create slack, so the belayer has to pull it through to catch them. Pull slack from the climber’s side by pulling down with your left hand at the same time you pull slack up with your right hand, then come back to break position. (Think: Up, down, pinch, slide.)
- Never let go of the rope with your right hand. Your left hand is just an assist—you really want to pull more with the right.
4. Choose your route.
Top-roping routes will always start with a five, followed by a decimal point, and then another number that corresponds to the difficulty level of the climb, Laine says. Routes labeled 5.5 or 5.6 are beginner routes, and the higher the number after the decimal point (like 5.12), the harder the climb. Bouldering routes are rated by the V-scale, starting with V0.
Once you've selected a path, begin with both hands on the start holds (usually labeled with two pieces of tape), keeping your feet off the ground. Then follow the same color route up the wall. (Going off the color is actually cheating.) Some routes won’t have two footholds at the start, so you can just keep the other foot against the wall when you begin.
5. Engage your core.
It seems like climbing would require serious upper-body strength, but your core strength is actually most important. Experience in sports like gymnastics, yoga, or Pilates gives first-time climbers a leg up, Livesey says. Other necessary body parts you’ll need to recruit are your fingers, hands, and upper body (arms, shoulders, and back).
6. Keep your arms straight.
"Think about how you carry groceries—with straight arms, right?" Livesey says. "It'd be far more tiring to carry them while bending your arms, and in the same way, climbing becomes more efficient when we keep our arms straight." At the same time, try to keep your legs bent, which makes it easier to push yourself up with your lower body.
7. Plan your climb.
"It's a smart idea to sequence the hand movements and identify all of the footholds on the wall before your start your climb," Livesey suggests. "Climbers will often mimic the hand movements to identify the correct (or most efficient) order in which to use each hold while they’re still on the mat." As you gain more experience, you'll be able to read sequences better, which is considered a great skill, he says. Also try looking for clues: Which holds have chalk on them (to tell you where other climbers been placing their hands) and which have rubber marks from shoes?
8. Learn the lingo.
It’s essential to communicate properly with your belay partner so you’re both on the same page, Johnson says. Here are a few of the basic climbing commands that you’ll encounter:
- Climber: "On belay.”
- Belayer: "Belay on."
- Climber: "Climbing."
- Belayer: "Climb on."
- Climber: "Take." (if you want to take a break)
- Belayer: "Got."
- Climber: "Lower."
- Belayer: "OK, lowering."
- Climber: "Off belay."
- Belayer: "Belay off."
9. Take a (safe) leap.
Coming down from the top of the wall can seem scary at first, but as long as you've taken all the proper safety precautions, you'll be fine, Laine says. And it's actually pretty fun! When you’re ready to come down, alert your belayer (“lower“), straighten your arms, keep your feet against the wall, and let go with your arms. Think “feet first” so you can push off your legs. It can be safer and less harsh on your knees to try to climb down the same way you climbed up, rather than bounce against the wall, Johnson says.
10. Prepare before going outdoors.
Rock climbing in a gym is a completely different sport than climbing outside, Johnson says. Grades are going to feel a lot harder outside than inside. Plus, you probably won't have access to trained instructors and the outdoors is a less-controlled environment—you're at the mercy of weather conditions and natural holds. But when the time comes, as long as you take the proper safety precautions and communicate well with your partner, heading out can be way more fun than climbing indoors, Johnson says.