The Strength-Training Workout That's Also an Adrenaline Rush

Have you given indoor rock climbing a try yet?
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If your current exercise routine feels like you're spinning your wheels or running in place, head to your nearest indoor rock climbing gym and strap on a harness for a workout that activates your body and your mind. You won't need much except comfortable clothes and a good pair of shoes (though many places let you rent them).


Types of Indoor Rock Climbing

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When you get to the gym, you may find there are two types of climbs offered: bouldering and roped climbing. Bouldering walls are only about 12 feet high and are climbed without a support rope and with crash pads below. Each climb can take 30 to 40 seconds.

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Roped climbing walls are much higher and the climber wears a harness attached to a rope on a pulley. A belayer acts as a spotter, adjusting the tension of the rope as you ascend and descend, and can catch a climber in case of a fall.

Bouldering courses are graded on a V-scale from 0 to 17, where beginners tackle levels 0 to 2, and only the most advanced climbers attempt levels 14 to 17. Roped climbing routes are rated using the Yosemite Decimal System that run from 5.2 to 5.15, where higher grades are more challenging. At the intermediate level, starting at 5.10, intermediate grades of A through D give a more specific idea of how challenging a course is.

The difficulty level of each climb depends on the wall angle as well as the number, size and shape of the holds. It also depends on your own level of exertion and speed. As the incline of the wall increases to a vertical climb and beyond it to ascending an overhang, the difficulty level increases, requiring less speed to get the same aerobic workout.


Read more: Is Rock Climbing a Good Cardio Workout?

Outdoor vs. Indoor Rock Climbing

While indoor rock climbing mimics the motion of outdoor climbing, the workout itself varies. Indoor climbing hand and foot holds have been designed for humans to scale, while outdoor climbs rely on natural cracks and imperfections in the rock that haven't been tailored to climbers.


It's like the difference between a treadmill workout and a cross-country run. On a treadmill, you control the speed, angle and time of the run. With a climbing wall, you can climb a slab, where the angle is less than 90 degrees, or an overhang, where the angle is greater than 90 degrees. You can also customize your climb based on the size and shape of the holds and the distance between them to help you level up your abilities and focus on your goals.


Benefits of Indoor Rock Climbing

Climbing is a whole-body workout that can also have mental and emotional benefits as well. The exhilaration of hitting new heights or conquering fear combines with the mind-body connection, keeping you mind active and solving problems as you go.


1. Works Every Single Muscle

"The moment your feet leave the ground, your entire body is called into service," Wil Rivera, co-owner of Grass Roots Fitness Project says. Most of us spend eight to 10 hours of our day sitting, which can weaken muscles associated with spinal alignment and stability. Climbing counteracts those negative effects, Rivera says.


"From a physiological perspective climbing tends to engage the weakest parts of the modern human body: the posterior chain." Basically, your entire backside. Additional benefits include improved grip, shoulder stability, core strength and hip strength and alignment.

With climbing, your core is at the center of everything you do. A strong core stabilizes your upper limbs, enabling you to reach and expand, then grasp, draw in and contract your muscles while pulling your full body weight up.


It also supports your leg and glute muscles as you steady yourself with one leg, reaching out to secure purchase on a new foot-hold, then pressing down to extend your legs, propelling your body up to reach the next hand-hold.

As you're reaching, stretching and extending, you're also using your other limbs to support your body and position against the wall. Each limb is important and active, often performing complementary actions.


2. Burns Calories

Climbing can burn between eight to 10 calories per minute, according to a January 2014 study published in The Scientific World Journal. That number can increase or decrease depending on the level of difficulty of your climb, your climbing speed and, surprisingly, your level of experience.


Inexperienced climbers achieve a higher level of aerobic workout than expert climbers, according to the study. Likely due to the fact that your body isn't used to the movements, and thus has to work harder to master them. That's great news for climbing novices who are looking to boost their calorie burn by switching up their workout routine.

3. Keeps Your Mind Engaged

For most indoor workouts, a routine can feel so much like a routine that your brain can go on autopilot, allowing you to watch TV, respond to cues and commands in a class or zone out.

Climbing requires constant vigilance and attention as you constantly reevaluate your relative position and plan your next move. And keeping your balance steady is as much a mental exercise as it is a core strength exercise.

4. Challenges Your Aerobic Capacity

Rock climbing is unique in that, instead of flexing your muscles to activate them, you're keeping your joints steady and exerting more force and pressure on your muscles in an isometric contraction as you propel yourself upward, according to a May 2004 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

This type of isometric exercise is similar in exertion to holding a yoga pose or a plank with your entire body for an extended period. "During climbing, there are increases in oxygen consumption and heart rate, suggesting that it requires utilization of a significant portion of whole body aerobic capacity," researchers state in the review.

Read more: 11 Unusual Workouts You Probably Haven't Tried

Maximize Your Indoor Rock Climbing Workout

For beginners, an optimal workout plan would be one to two hour, two to three times a week, says Cody Bradford, a certified rock climbing guide. But you can also benefit from single and sporadic sessions. "Focus on low-angle routes with big holds spaced closely together where you can take small steps and learn to use your feet appropriately."


If you're looking to optimize your progress, keep notes on the frequency and duration of workouts or track them using an app like the one created by Rivera and his team at Grass Roots Fitness Project, Rock Hustle. In addition to frequency and duration, the app tracks intensity and includes personalized training recommendations help climbers plan and evaluate their sessions.

"It is important to note that in the beginning the limiting factor is forearm endurance," Rivera says. His advice is to progress slowly, starting at the lowest grade and progressing only when you feel ready. You can always go back down a level or slow your speed if you're finding the next level too challenging.

Rivera also recommends significant rest periods between climbing intervals by a ratio of 2:1 to avoid injury and to allow your forearms time to recover, especially in the beginning.

"Climbing is inherently dangerous, so a gym can be a fairly safe way of starting out," Rivera says. As a beginner, work on your range of motion first by starting on low-angle (slab) routes with big holds, where the climb feels more like going up stairs or a ladder.

Practice your grip on simpler climbs first, gaining experience with different types of holds on a practice hangboard. Practice using the hangboard with your feet on the ground and leaning back at first, then move on to less than body weight using your harness and counterweights with your feet off of the ground. Slowly work your way to full hangs and eventually pull-ups, suggests Rivera.

You can also prepare yourself for your first climb a few weeks in advance with strengthening workouts, focusing on your calves, your forearm power (which is related to hand strength), and your shoulders. Above all, make sure your core is activated and ready to help with balance, stability, and overall movement.

Read more: How a Bungee Workout Can Shake Up Your Fitness Routine


How to Warm Up for Your Climb

Start every indoor rock climbing session with a 15-minute warm-up. Riviera recommends a combination of the following exercises.

Step 1: Foam Roll

Warm up your lower body with a foam roller for 30 seconds in each position. Start on your stomach. Place the foam roller under your hips and, using your body weight, roll down and then back up from the hip to mid thigh.

Turn to one side and roll the outer side of the hip to hit your IT bands. Continue onto your back and use your body weight to hit your hamstrings from glutes to knees. Finally, roll onto your other side to hit the opposite IT bands.

Step 2: Box Step-Ups

Step up onto a box with one foot, pull your body up to standing on the box, and lower yourself back down to the floor with a controlled movement. This will activate your glutes and legs.

Step 3: Cardio

Jump rope or stationary bike for three to five minutes to get your heart rate up.

Step 4: Activate Your Shoulders

Use resistance bands to improve shoulder mobility with the following exercises:

Move 1: Shoulder Pass-Throughs

  1. Holding the band in front of you in both hands, keep the band taut.
  2. Raise your arms above your head, continuing until your arms stop behind you.
  3. Returning the band to in front of your chest.

Move 2: Pull-Aparts

  1. Holding the band in front of you in both hands, keep the band taut.
  2. Pull the band out to the side so the band come toward your chest.
  3. Release back to the center.

Move 3: Spinal Rotations

  1. Lie on your back with knees bent and directly above your hips and your arms out to the sides in a T shape.
  2. Twist your knees to the left and turn your head to the right.
  3. Bring them back to the center and tepeat on the other side.

Enjoy a Good Post-Climb Stretch

Perform each static stretch below for 60 seconds to increase range of motion across hips and shoulders.

Move 1: Pigeon Pose

  1. Begin in Downward-Facing Dog (an inverted V shape).
  2. Move your left knee forward and bring your shin to the ground with your left knee by your left wrist and your left foot behind your right wrist.
  3. Lower your hips to the floor. If this feels comfortable, reach forward with your chest and bend your elbows, lowering your body to the floor. You should feel this in your glutes and hips.
  4. Hold here for 30 seconds and switch sides.

Move 2: Pectoral Wall Stretch

  1. Stand in a doorway with both arms straight out to the sides, resting on the wall on either side of the doorway.
  2. Slowly lean forward until you feel the stretch in your chest muscles, just in front of your shoulders.
  3. Hold here for 30 seconds and switch sides.

Move 3: Lunge With Spinal Twist

  1. Step your right foot forward into a lunge, keeping your left knee straight and your right knee bent at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Place your left hand on the floor and twist your upper body to the right, extending your right arm to the ceiling and hold for 30 seconds.
  3. Repeat on the opposite leg.




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