Admit it: Sometimes you want an upper body workout that skips the pull-ups, push-ups and rows. And that’s OK — especially when there are 16-foot boulders and 45-foot rock walls to climb! The Cliffs at LIC, New York’s new 30,000-square-foot rock climbing gym, offers more than one way to sweat it out, including a dedicated fitness facility equipped with battling ropes, kettlebells, suspension trainers and more. Add in slacklining, tight rope walking and state-of-the-art cardio machines, and we’re talking heaven for fitness fiends.
But even if you skip all the extras and head straight for the rock wall, you’re guaranteed a cardiovascular workout you’ll be feeling for days. In fact, rock climbing can burn anywhere from 500 to 900 calories per hour, provided climbers keep rest to a minimum between routes. Research suggests rock climbing can also build strength, power and bring aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels to new heights. To get the most burn for your buck, we talked to senior rock climbing instructor Eli Strauss to break down the various forms of climbing, and which workout might be best for you.
1. The Sprint Workout: Bouldering
Level: Beginner to advanced
Targets: Arms, back, chest, shoulders, fingers/hands and core
No rock climbing partner? No problem. If you’re heading to the rocks on a whim, bouldering, moving laterally across routes close to the ground without ropes or a harness, is the easiest way to get climbing. Plus, you’ll get a serious workout — fast — similar to high-intensity sprints or intervals, Strauss says. “With bouldering you’re not going as far as you do when you’re rope climbing, but each individual move is much more intense,” Strauss says. Because it’s just you up there, the small, explosive movements needed to propel you from one hold to the next require the body to move and adapt in ways it’s not used to.
While beginners work mostly the arms, back and shoulders, bouldering at steeper inclines recruits the core and leg muscles to keep climbers’ bodies close to the rock. Strauss recommends starting with V0-grade climbs (which are far from “zero” exertion!), and slowly working your way up from there. Bouldering routes, more commonly referred to as “problems,” will also challenge your mind just as much as your grip strength.
2. The Endurance Workout: Rope Climbing
Level: Beginner to advanced
Targets: Arms, back, shoulders
Sometimes you just need to go the distance, and scaling 50-foot routes will take your climbs from fun run to marathon status (or at least get you moving in that direction). After all, rock climbers aren’t just adventurers, they’re endurance athletes, too. Rope climbing, which requires a partner on the ground belaying, is all about conditioning and building stamina, “much like long-distance running,” Strauss says. “Each individual move is relatively easier, but if you go for distance it can really add up.” So while a short, 20-foot route might help you improve technique, that cardiovascular workout likely won’t kick in until you start climbing greater distances without rest.
Similar to bouldering, when you’re just starting out, rope climbing isn’t typically a full-body workout. “Beginners can expect to feel it most in the upper body, particularly in the forearms, which they’re not used to working,” Strauss says. “Climbers first have to develop the muscles just to stay on the wall.” But as you graduate from basic ladder-like climbs to steeper routes with smaller holds, expect a full-body workout that will build long, lean muscle while increasing heart rate and maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max).
3. The Strength Workout: Campusing
Targets: Arms, fingers/hands
Maybe you’re a Ninja Warrior in training, or maybe you’re just trying to take your climbing to the next level. Regardless, campus boarding, or campusing, means climbing without the use of your feet as a way of building upper-body power and serious grip strength. The boards, which hang flat on a wall or at an incline, are equipped with a variety of rungs, which climbers ascend, descend or move across using only their hands. Some parkour or rock climbing gyms will have them as training tools (like The Cliffs’ campus board pictured above), but more often than not, climbers will create their own. “A lot of people think this is a pretty masochistic sport — and they’re not wrong,” Strauss admits.
Campusing and other more advanced forms of climbing require a high level of strength, skill and technique even just to get started, and listening to your body is a must. Just as important as it is challenge yourself, it’s necessary to know when to back off.
“Rock climbing is a sport that nobody is good at when they start,” Strauss says. “But that’s the fun of it: setting goals, and pushing yourself to be better.”