On the face of it, rock climbing may seem a gloriously pointless endeavour. Hauling your body up remote cliffs for no good reason is certainly strange behaviour, but climbing is undoubtedly one of the best sports for body and mind.
Having spread throughout Europe in the late 19th century, climbing began to blossom in the majesty of Yosemite National Park, USA, where a bunch of misfits and rebels took to the mountains in the latter half of the 20th century. Their achievements captivated the world and pushed climbing towards the mainstream: now it’s set to be included in the next Olympics. Like any sport, there are elite athletes pushing the limit of what is possible, defying gravity and common sense in extreme tests of endurance and control. One American climber, Alex Hannold, climbs hundreds and even thousands of metres high on incredibly difficult ascents with no rope.
Some types of climbing, like mountaineering or free-solo (the hair-raising discipline practised by Mr Hannold), are not for the faint-hearted. Others, however, are less precarious: bouldering and top-rope in particular. The former is a variation of climbing which involves short, 3-4 metre routes called “problems” that may be climbed safely without ropes. Top-rope has the climber wearing a harness connected to the top of the climb and their partner below, allowing navigation of dizzying heights with minimal risk.
With more and more indoor climbing gyms in controlled areas, climbing is an increasingly accessible and safe sport for everyone. In fact, indoor climbing has been found to have a lower risk of injury than many mainstream sports such as basketball, sailing and football over 1000 hours of practice, according to a 2010 Klinikum Bamberg study. Not only are indoor climbing gym memberships generally cheaper than regular gyms, but the climbing workout is superior in many respects – combining the benefits of yoga, cardio, strength training, meditation and problem-solving in one session.
2006 research from the University of Colombia shows a long list of physical demands placed on the body to ascend a climb. Meeting these physical demands leads to increased strength in areas such as core, forearms, upper and lower back, fingers, legs and to a greater or lesser degree just about every muscle group in the body. Proprioception (the ability to sense stimuli within the body in regards to position, motion and equilibrium) is required to perform intricate footwork. Yogi like flexibility is required to gain the right positioning on certain routes. Cardiovascular fitness on long climbs is essential. In our blog on the relative energy burning merits of each sport, we found that climbing can burn around 700 calories per hour. (Link sports calorie blog, September 17, here).
Climbing is also great for the mind. 2011 Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg research has even linked bouldering to decreased risk of depression and also found it to be an effective treatment to battle it. They also considered the complex problem solving required to ascend difficult routes as stimulating grey matter growth
The thing about climbing is that the workout you get depends heavily on the kind of rock you are climbing. Rock quality and the structure of the rock itself plays a huge part in the kind of workout you get.
Three types of climbing
There are three main kinds of climbing wall: slab, overhang and vertical.
Slab climbing involves sub-90 degree climbs with tiny holds. It’s is a great way to develop finger strength and get a crash course in body tension: being able to spread your body weight out so as to minimise isolated stress on any vulnerable areas. Body awareness, balance and control are essential. One of the main tips in climbing a slab is to try and put as much weight on your feet as possible, so often your legs get a good workout too.
An overhang is anything more than 90-degrees – all the way to plain horizontal sections of rock that you must climb upside-down. This is where gravity is at its most cruel. Overhang climbing helps you to develop some serious upper body strength and really forces you to think about the efficiency of every move. It is a great workout, but it will wear you out in no time.
Vertical walls are, well, vertical. Anything at an approximately 90-degree angle. Vertical wall climbing requires elements of both of the previous styles and will often pose a more strategic challenge – how best to distribute your weight and position yourself to reach the next hold with minimal effort? Here, where the temptation to haul yourself up with upper body strength is the strongest, it is important that you find the smartest way up the rock without draining too much of your reserves.
Inside a climbing or bouldering gym, you will find many varieties of climb. Sampling lots of different styles of climbing is the best way to get a full body work out and test yourself in as many ways as possible.
The biggest benefits of climbing, however, accrue when you leave the gym and take and find some real rock. Climbing outdoors gets you into the thick of things. Getting a great workout that challenges you mentally, amidst some of the most incredible scenery is tough to beat. In addition to the positive effects of climbing as exercise, you reap the abundant benefits of time spent in nature. Regular nature experiences have been shown to boost memory and increase creativity, along with a whole host of benefits. Check out our blog on the benefits of nature (insert nature blog).
One last note about climbing: anyone can do it! Gyms are full of people of different shapes and sizes and these qualities, it is easy to see, don’t usually correlate to skill. Often a muscular man will have great difficulty on a climb only to see a sprightly 12-year-old girl zip up to the top with little effort. Nevertheless, there are some myths about climbing physique that persist. One idea is that reducing body fat to extreme lengths will lead to better performance. 2014 research published in the British Medical Journal however, found that there is no real statistical basis for this.
Another theory states that one should have long arms and legs in proportion to one’s body. Once again, however, this has been shown to make only a marginal difference in performance. Height can be a factor – but taller is not necessarily better. Shorter climbers generally have a greater advantage in overhanging climbs where their compact size and greater core strength to body weight ratio allows them to move with greater ease, wasting less energy. Taller climbers suffer more on overhangs with their added weight and higher centre of gravity but have the advantage of being able to reach holds that shorter climbers cannot. Everybody’s physiology is unique, meaning that we must all learn our own way to climb that allows our shape and size to become our greatest asset.
So, no matter what body you have, if you’re interested in the ultimate mind and body workout, consider giving climbing a go. Poke your tongue at gravity, go back to your monkey roots and climb!