You don’t have to be outside to go rock climbing. You don’t have to be an extreme athlete either. Climbing is super accessible: chances are you’re within reach of one of the 600—and counting—climbing gyms in the United States.
An instructor will help you strap into a harness and clip on your ropes, then anchor (that is, belay) you as you play Spider-Woman. Indoor walls generally range from 20 to 70 feet in height, with routes that vary in difficulty based on where the hand- and footholds are. A 60-foot wall will take about five minutes to scale, says sport scientist Jerry Medernach, Ph.D., the president of the National Climbing Community in Luxembourg. Most climbing gyms rent the harnesses, shoes and chalk bags you’ll need, so all you have to do is show up in spandex.
And the thrill is just one perk of making it to the top. Climbing works your entire body and your brain by keeping your muscles and gray matter guessing. Here’s why to try it.
Climbing is about much more than using the arms, says Michael Deyhle, an exercise scientist at Brigham Young University who has studied climbing mechanics. When you do it right, you use your legs a ton (a coach can teach you the technique). Deyhle’s best quick tip: Move your foot up before reaching with your hands so that you can use the power of your legs to help you grab the next hold, rather than using your arms to pull you up. Meanwhile, your abs will fire to stabilize you with each advance. “Your core is involved in every move you make while scaling a wall,” he says.
Even strong runners can get winded walking up a flight of stairs. When you walk or run, you’re moving horizontally. “But when you climb a wall, you’re going vertical, against gravity, which requires more effort and oxygen,” Deyhle says. “The more you climb, the more efficient you’ll be at using oxygen and the easier tough things will feel, like tackling flights of stairs.”
Which muscles will you use a lot during a climbing session? Your finger flexors, according to a study at the University of New Mexico, co-authored by Deyhle. While that may not rank high on your strength hit list, it’s actually something to get psyched about. “Many lifting exercises, including the dead lift, can be improved with better grip strength,” Deyhle says. That’s because typically the first thing to give when you’re holding a heavy barbell isn’t the muscles, but your grip. Other often-unworked muscles you’ll strengthen during a rock-climbing workout are your elbow flexors, which initiate the pull-up movement. “I know several female climbers who are capable of more than 10 strict pull-ups in a row,” says Deyhle, who suggests doing a couple of assisted pull-ups once a week and seeing how much easier they get the more you visit the rock gym.
Doing biceps curls with 15-pound dumbbells will eventually make your muscles yawn and your progress flatline. “But climbing varies with every route you do,” Deyhle says. And even if you repeat the same route, there are limitless ways to attack it. Still, the staff at most indoor rock gyms switch up the rock holds often to change routes and challenge the regular climbers. “Your body doesn’t really know what’s coming next, so each climb is always a new workout,” Deyhle says.
The word problem is used when describing climbing routes—which is fitting, because you have to flex some mental muscle as you go. “With each movement, you have to choose the best strategy, such as body position or which hold you’re going to reach for next, and this provides a rewarding mental challenge that can be transferred to daily life,” Deyhle says (for example, how to quickly negotiate crowds or nail cardio-dance choreography). Plus, encountering tough challenges in climbing and then surmounting them builds confidence. “It may be that the realization of ‘I can do this, even though it’s scary’ can be applied to other things, such as public speaking,” says Eric Brymer, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies the mental elements of extreme sports.
During a run, you can zone out and think about a million things other than running; climbing forces you to be present. “My mind and body are so occupied in solving the way up the wall that I’m not concerned about anything on the ground,” pro climber Sasha DiGiulian says. “Everything else fades away; life’s chaos becomes background noise, and I can focus on the movement in front of me.”