Rock climbing is having a moment. An explosion in the popularity of indoor climbing gyms over the last decade combined with the recent release of the stunning and stupefying climbing documentary Free Solo has inspired a surge of intrigued newbies.
The low-impact, intense workout that has you scrambling and scrutinizing your way up sheer faces — fake holds or real rock — works the whole body and the mind.
But learning proper rock climbing techniques can be tough for beginners without a dedicated coach or knowledgeable friend. So we talked to experts at Brooklyn Boulders in New York City to find out what you can do to make your way to the top with strong style and gravity-defying grace.
How Climbing Makes You Fitter
There’s no doubt that regularly climbing, indoors or out, will challenge your body physically in ways you never experienced before. The act of scaling a wall or rock face engages your whole body as you work to keep progressing vertically, a task that also requires mental toughness and quick thinking. “Climbing combines the athletics of gymnastics with the choreography of dance and the strategy of chess,” says Ty Foose, director of route setting at Brooklyn Boulders.
After you start climbing consistently, expect to see increased strength in your upper body, arms, core, legs, and your fingers, says Luke Livesey, head coach and team manager of the BKBeasts competitive climbing team at Brooklyn Boulders. “In fact, pretty much your whole body is going to get a lot stronger. As you start climbing this will happen on its own as you physically adapt to the demands of the sport.”
Foose concurs: “Climbing is one of the few sports that uses pretty much every muscle in the body. Take a look at just about any picture of someone at their limit while attempting a hard climb. From their fingertips to their toes, and back to the top of their head, every muscle is engaged.”
Crucially, climbing also adds a fun, social aspect that slogging away in a dank gym can’t give you. Climbing requires such focus that you won’t find yourself watching the clock, waiting to hit 20 minutes on the treadmill.
“With climbing you’re more likely to forget that you should have left the gym an hour ago,” says Livesey. And there are so many different ways to enjoy climbing — indoor or outdoor, bouldering or speed climbing, single pitch or big walls — it’s hard to get bored, says Foose.
The 2 Most Important Things for Beginners to Keep in Mind
If you’ve just gotten bitten by the climbing bug, it’s important to learn a few basic rock climbing techniques before you start developing bad habits. Most indoor gyms offer instruction, so be sure to seek that out when just beginning. But it’s also crucial to keep these two basic tips in mind when first stepping into a harness or tentatively traversing a bouldering wall.
It’s not a pull-up challenge
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking this is about doing pull-ups all the way to the top, says Livesey. You should focus on keeping your arms straight while keeping your shoulders engaged by slightly elevating your chest.
Push with your legs
This goes hand-in-hand with challenging the newbie notion that you need to haul yourself up the wall with your arms. It’s more about pushing yourself up the wall with your legs, especially when attempting any type of overhang, says Foose.
Rock Climbing Techniques and Tips
To continue to keep getting better and stronger in your climbs, find a fun and challenging project at a gym, apply the following guidelines, and work out the moves one by one until you are able to link them together, says Foose. “Eventually, you’ll be ascending a climb that might have previously seemed impossible. Then you’ll be ready to join a bouldering league and dominate with your friends!”
1. Size up the climb
This technique, called sequencing, is an important one to practice early on in any climbing adventure. This mental skill simply means you should survey the climb — or “problem” — figure out which holds are for your hands or feet, and then consider in which order you should use each of these holds, says Livesey.
“Try and identify what the route setter intended for people to do on this climb,” he adds. “They’ve presented you with a problem to solve, and the best time to figure this all out is before you jump on the wall!”
2. Get your feet right
Focusing on your foot placement will pay off quickly, says Livesey. “Using the toe point of your climbing shoe [as a point of contact] will allow you to twist your body and move fluidly though the climb, further reducing the need to pull.”
Visualize moving up the wall from your toes through your knees, hips, and torso. “Twisting also allows you to keep your center of gravity closer to the wall and over your feet,” he says, “again making things easier. But also it increases your reach in order to gain the next hold.”
3. Don’t waste any movements
It’s important to learn how to use your feet and shift your balance smoothly, Foose says. Your body should be in constant balance as you climb, using your lower body and feet as a base to propel you up the wall in fluid and deliberate motions. The key is to try not to stress and strain your body for extended periods, but to use every body part in an efficient sequence to solve a problem.
4. Keep expanding your skill set
For intermediate climbers who are already good at moving up the wall efficiently, it’s important to drill down and work on any weaknesses. “As a climber, you’ll find greater progress from diversifying your skills, avoiding specialization, and taking on challenges as an opportunity to learn,” says Livesey.
“Another thing to consider is the simple mantra ‘If you want to climb hard climbs, you have to try hard climbs,'” he says. “Don’t be put off by a climb that looks too hard — you might surprise yourself.”
5. Practice persistence
“If there’s a move that you can’t do, try it in isolation — climb up to that move using bigger holds and attempt that move by itself. Practice it over and over while thinking about what changes you could make in your body position, foot placement, movement, or sequence in order to stick that move,” says Livesey. “If you stick that move, perhaps you can now do the whole climb [without any falls] — congratulations, you’re now ‘projecting,’ which is every climber’s favorite way to progress!”