A Beginner’s Guide to Rock Climbing

Fitness trends usually only last a few years. Not so with rock climbing, which shows no signs of slowing. As of December 2014, Climbing Business Journal reported a total of 353 commercial climbing gyms in the U.S., revealing a 9% growth rate from the year before. All of these facilities mean folks who live in areas with hardly a hill in sight can simulate the experience of scaling a rock wall by heading to their local gym.

Any form of physical activity does your body good, but you might be surprised by just how true it is for rock climbing. According to FitDay, a 155-pound person can expect to burn about 818 calories per hour. This activity also gets your heart rate pumping, so you’ll increase your cardiovascular fitness while strengthening your muscles. There’s also reason to believe rock climbing can benefit your mind. Of course, having fun isn’t a bad reason to take it up, either.

As accessible as rock climbing has become, it can still be intimidating for outsiders. Confusing terminology and unfamiliar equipment are hurdles that sometimes keep guys from trying the sport. Getting started is a lot less difficult than you think, though. The Cheat Sheet spoke to Bob Ferrari, owner of HighXposure Adventures and an AMGA-certified instructor with 15 years of experience guiding, about how to get in on the fun. Read on to find out how you can get started today.

1. Just go

rock climbing

Source: iStock

All of the mental planning in the world isn’t going to make you any better off starting in a few weeks compared to just setting out tomorrow. If you have friends who are experienced climbers, and we mean people who have been going for years rather than months, ask if you can tag along. Otherwise, Ferrari said, “your best bet is to call one of the guide services.” No matter which route you take, you should go over the basics of belaying and general safety information.

What’s next? Climbing. Don’t feel overwhelmed, because you should be starting at a very slow pace. Ferrari compared it to going skiing for the first time. “They put you on the bunny hill. A nice, low-level hill where they can teach you,” he said. “That’s exactly what we do.” From there, you’ll build to more challenging routes as you get better and gain confidence.

Gyms can be a good starting point, but don’t assume that’s the only way to begin. In fact, going outside might be a better choice for those who have the option. While many gyms have decently qualified instructors, there isn’t the same guarantee of knowledge or teaching ability at indoor facilities. Outdoor guides have stricter standards. “The only way to become a guide is to meet a certain prerequisite,” Ferrari said. These requirements come prior to even taking the certification exam, including a thorough training program and extensive leading experience.

2. Get familiar with styles

rock climbing, bouldering

Source: iStock

Keep in mind rock climbing can mean something different depending on who you ask. As with many sports, there are different styles. The major ones are: bouldering, sport climbing, traditional style, aid climbing, top-rope climbing, mountaineering, and free-solo climbing. Beginners frequently start with top-rope, where there’s an anchor set up at the peak of the cliff with a rope that runs all the way to the top and back down again. “This is one of the most controlled environments for rock climbing that there is,” Ferrari said.

Not everyone is interested in the glory of a massive ascent, though. Bouldering, originally a method designed to help climbers perfect moves in a safe environment and build strength, has become a style all its own. Ferrari said some people prefer this style of climbing, because they’re more interested in perfecting challenging moves than anything else.

These two styles are good starting points for beginners. Watching pros like Alex Honnold has many guys dreaming of free-solo climbing, but that’s a long ways down the road. No beginner should even consider it, because there’s no room for mistakes.

3. Rethink fitness

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

Rock climbing demands a certain level of fitness, including both strength and cardiovascular endurance. You won’t typically find many climbers with massive arm muscles, though. “There’s a huge misconception about rock climbing,” Ferrari said. “People think they need to have this unbelievable level of fitness. That they need to be able to do a pull-up, or two, or three.” He said that simply isn’t true. Your lower body is just as important as your upper body, and maybe even more so. “Your legs are for elevation. Your arms are for balance,” Ferrari said. That’s not to say you can’t pull your way up a cliff, but it’s a pretty rotten idea. Not many people have the type of strength that would allow for that. You’ll exhaust yourself far more quickly. “You’re not going to last past lunch,” Ferrari said with a laugh.

The best way to become a stronger climber is to practice as much as you can. Men’s Fitness designed a fitness plan with rock climbers in mind, and it involves plenty of the namesake sport. But climbing isn’t always an option, especially for people who have a ways to travel. When you can’t perform the activity itself, Ferrari recommended focusing your efforts on cardio and yoga.

Your strength-to-weight ratio is probably more important than strength alone. If you’ve ever tried to bulk up muscle, you know how difficult it is to get bigger without also adding fat to your frame. If you’re finding yourself struggling to make improvements in rock climbing, it’s probably going to be more beneficial to lose a few pounds. This is the method Ferrari has always used. “Just stay lean and keep climbing,” he said.

4. Consider some beginning gear

rock climbing shoes, rope

Source: iStock

One of the best reasons to opt for a guide service on your first outing is you don’t need to buy or rent any equipment. It’s no good to purchase tons of pricey gear just to find out you didn’t have nearly as much fun as you thought. After several sessions, assess your interest level. If you find you’re really enjoying the sport and want to proceed, then it’s time to start thinking about gear. “At this point, I would suggest you get your own climbing shoes and a harness,” Ferrari said.

5. Take it up a notch

rock climbing

Source: iStock

Learning to set up your own top rope is a pretty natural progression. Ferrari explained many people climb this way for years, just working on form and getting as good as they can. From there, expect to follow a partner up some ascents. Only after you’ve had a decent amount of experience should you start thinking about leading. Many find this transition to being on the front end of a climb incredibly satisfying, but you never want to get cocky. “We suggest you only lead on climbs that are well within your ability level,” Ferrari said.

If you’ve made it this far, and you’re serious about continuing, it’s time to make a big purchase. To get everything you need for your lead pack, Ferrari said guys should expect to spend about $1000. While it’s a big initial investment, expenses after that are pretty minimal. “Once you have all that gear, you’re done,” said Ferrari. “The only thing you’re gong to replace from time to time is your rope and your climbing shoes. And you may need to replace your harness here and there.” If you love the sport, and you go often enough, the cost will be worth it.

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