Indoor climbing is having a moment, with an estimated 53 new facilities launching lasting year in the U.S. and the number of climbing gyms doubling in the past 10 years. Fun, right? Sure, but it’s also a workout. “Climbing is often mistaken for a glorified pull-up regimen, but nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Dylan Waickman, manager at First Ascent Climbing and Fitness in Chicago. “Climbing is a full-body workout that is constantly asking you to move in new and creative ways. Efficient movement, cardiovascular endurance, and a high tolerance for extreme forearm pump and lactic acid buildup are hallmarks of a successful sport climber.”
If you know, you know, and those who know climbing are aware there are two buckets for this discipline: Bouldering (climbing on a wall 10-20 feet high with a crash pad below in case you fall) and sport climbing (using a harness and rope for safety as you scale higher walls). “A combination of coordination and explosive power will suit a boulderer well, while sport climbing has a higher cardiovascular demand,” explains Waickman.
Either pursuit promise to seriously strengthen arms, hands, core, and legs. “You are constantly engaging your forearms to hold on, core to stabilize, and legs to propel yourself upwards,” Waickman says. Major back muscles like your latissimus dorsi and trapezius also come into play, he says, and unlike other forms of fitness, tendon strength is as important as muscle strength. “Training the tendons in your fingers is an important piece of the equation as well.”
Grip strength matters, since you’re constantly grabbing holds, agrees TJ Ciotti, director of instruction at The Cliffs, a series of climbing gyms in the tri-state area. “If you’re just starting out, fingers will feel more tired initially,” Ciotti says. “Even though it’s tempting, if you have base level of fitness, to go all in, the tendons in your fingers are not used to that kind of abuse.” As a rule, climb no more than two to three times a week when you’re starting out, he says, and build from there.
Ultimately, those who stick with climbing become addicted to more than just the physical perks, says Waickman. “Climbing can be meditative as you learn how to recognize your fears and work through them instead of pushing them aside,” he says. “Climbing is also inherently a competition between you and the wall, as opposed to a competition between you and another person. This makes it a great sport for pursuing personal growth without getting caught up in comparing yourself to others.”
Ready to give it a try — or simply up your game? These hangs, maneuvers, and pull-up variations are just what you need. You’ll also need set of 15-pound dumbbells and a hang bar and/or wall and should try to get through it all in one push. (Top tip, says Waickman: When doing a hanging workout, keeping a slight bend in your elbow to protect your joints.)
Why: This is a simple move to develop strength and endurance in your forearms.
How to: Start standing on the ground or on a box below the pull-up bar. Reach up and grab it. Hang from the bar for 7 seconds, rest for 3 seconds, and repeat for a total of 6 reps (this set takes a total of 1 minute). Rest for 1 minute, then do another set.
How many: Aim to do 3-5 sets of hangs, with one minute of rest between each.
Hanging Knees Raise
Why: This move builds shoulder and core strength.
How to: Hang from your board (using a wide hold) or pull-up bar, arms straight. Engaging your core, bend your knees and pull them toward your chest. Hold for one count, then release.
How many: 8-10 reps x 2 sets
Push-up With Single Arm Row
Why: This exercise builds pectoral, triceps, and biceps strength while mimicking the vertical climbing movement on a wall.
How to: Grab the dumbbells. Start on all fours, placing the dumbbells lengthwise on the floor below each shoulder. Wrap your hands around the dumbbells, palms facing in. Get into an extended push-up position, arms and legs straight. Bend elbows and do a push-up; upon straightening your arms, bend your right elbow and raise the weight in your right hand to your chest. (You will need to slightly shift your weight to left side to maintain your center of balance.) Do another push-up; repeat on the left side.
How many: 10 reps (alternating sides) x 3 sets.
Why: With a focus on your hips, obliques, and lower back, this move (as the name suggests) is a great prep for the real thing.
How to: Start in an extended plank position. Keeping your back flat, bend your right knee and raise it toward your chest. Straighten your right leg back to the start position. Repeat on left side.
How many: Do as many as you can in 60 seconds, keeping legs moving quickly.
Why: This exercise, which requires a climbing wall or a board or pull-up bar placed near a wall, teaches you to rotate your core and navigate lateral space while maintaining strength in your arms.
How to: Grab two holds on the wall with a wide arm stance (or hang from your bar), feet off the ground. Cross your right leg in front of your left, twisting your body to the left as you do. Reach out to the left with your right foot to tap the wall far from your centerline. Twist back to the center, then to the right, letting your left leg cross over your right leg. Tap the wall with your left foot. Return to center.
How many: Five taps on each side. Rest a minute. Repeat once.
Why: Finding ways is hoist your free arm above your hang arm is what climbing is all about. This exercise forces you to reach farther and higher with every tap.
How to: Hang from your wall, board, or bar that is placed near a wall, feet off the ground. Inhale and reach your left arm as high in the air as you can, letting your right arm support your weight. Tap the wall above you with your left hand. Exhale and bring hand back down to the hold or bar. Repeat on opposite side. With every wall tap, try to reach your finger higher and higher up the wall.
How many: 6 reps (alternating sides); rest 30 seconds. 3 sets.
4, 3, 2 Finger Hangs
Why: Grip and finger strength are everything in climbing; this move trains your fingers to support your body weight.
How to: Reach up and grab the holds on your wall or board, or grip the pull-up bar, using an overhand grip with four fingers (minus the thumb). Hang for 8-10 seconds. Release and rest for five seconds. Repeat the hang but this time, exclude your pinky so you are hanging by three fingers. Hold for 5-7 seconds. Release and rest for five seconds. Repeat with a two-finger hand (index and middle finger). Hold for 5 seconds. Release and rest for five seconds.
How many: Work through this sequence 3 times.
Why: Strong shoulders and latissimus dorsi muscles (upper back) are key in climbing—this exercise works on both.
How to: Face a climbing wall and identify a route to climb. Grab the first hold with your right hand. Bend right elbow to pull that hold toward your right shoulder (known as a lock-off), reaching upward with your left hand for the next hold. When your left hand is in front of the hold, pause and hold your body in this position for three seconds. Then grab the next hold, and repeat on your left side.
How many: 10 x 3-second hovers, then come back to the floor. Repeat the climb three times.
Why: Core and lower back strength and flexibility are essential for efficient climbing and will help keep you from getting injured.
How to: Use a wide grip on a climbing wall, hang board, or pull-up bar. Hang with straight arms, knees slightly bent and feet off the ground. Cross your ankles, bend knees, and gently swing your legs behind you, arching your back. Allow your feet to swing forward again, but stop them before they touch the wall or cross your centerline. Engage your back muscles and pull your feet back and behind you again.
How many: 10 reps x 2 sets
Final words of wisdom? “The best way to get better at climbing is to climb,” says Ciotti. “Don’t overthink it. Just climb.” Adds Waickman: “Just get on the wall and let your inner kid take over.” Speaking of which, if you bring your youngster along, don’t be surprised if he’s better at climbing than you are. “In a sport where strength-to-weight-ratio has a large effect, the kids simply have an unfair advantage,” says Waickman. Just roll with it—and make sure you beat him on the sprint home.