It’s fall in Minnesota and even though the environment is telling you to slow down, we’re here to tell you the reasons why you should stay active. For the next few weeks, we’re sharing 4 reasons why you should try specific workouts or activities. This week, it’s rock climbing!
Ever since the Vertical Endeavors rock climbing gym opened on Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis, I’ve been a climber. One visit was all it took for me to realize that this sport/lifestyle was something I needed in my rather sedentary existence. The allure of the sport was its simplicity. When you’re on the wall, all outside thoughts vanish. With meditative focus, your attention zeros-in on your movement, your breathing, the simple but arduous process of guiding your hands and feet from hold to hold. In a single session, one can realize a deep sense of accomplishment. Then, as a side effect of having all this fun, you get stronger, more flexible, make new friends, and have an incredible reason to get outside and explore.
Below, I’ll outline what I think are the top four reasons you should consider climbing. And if you’re worried about being too young, old, or out of shape, don’t be. Climbing has something for almost everyone.
Reason No. 1: It’s Fun
If climbing wasn’t inherently fun, I wouldn’t do it three or four times a week.
One of the main reasons climbing is fun is that the challenges are nearly endless. There’s so much to learn and work on, and a lot of it can be done at your local gym. All you need are some comfortable clothes, climbing shoes, chalk, and a harness.
So, what’s climbing in a gym like? Think of it like a trip to the ski hill.
Routes, or specific sequences of holds, are color-coded on the wall and graded on a numerical scale. Some routes will be as breezy as the bunny hill while others are tricky and exhausting double black diamonds.
As you move up the grading scale, routes require greater strength, endurance and technique to finish or “send,” as climbers say. Working on a route day after day and finally getting it is a uniquely satisfying experience. But once you’re done with one route, you’re on to the next. Gyms have dozens of routes up at a given time, and, thus, dozens of challenges.
But climbing isn’t all about grades and overcoming difficulty. There’s also the sheer joy of climbing itself. After a while, you’ll develop your own style based on your strengths, favorite techniques and body type.
Reason No. 2: It’s All You
When you step onto the wall, it’s on you to figure out a way up.
While your belayer (the person holding the rope) might shout some tips from the ground, you have to negotiate every sequence. After all, you’re not climbing a ladder here. Mentally, you’ll be engaged as you string together a chain of moves, and you’ll likely make several mistakes. Perhaps your foot will slip or you grab a hold the wrong way. There’s the possibility of falling, or having to awkwardly adjust and waste precious energy. Either way, something important will happen: You’ll learn something, and, if you keep working at it, you’ll discover how to finish the route in a fluid, efficient way.
This sense of discovery is important, because there’s (usually) not only one way to send anything. The way you send something will be unique to your body type, to the moves you like doing, your flexibility and strength. Thus, climbing teaches you about yourself.
There’s also an incredible amount to learn in climbing, as the sport has several disciplines.
First off, there’s rope climbing, where you are tied into a rope and you move up a wall.
In most gyms, this type of climbing includes auto-belaying, top roping and lead climbing. For those with a fear of heights, rope climbing will be an exercise in overcoming that basic, and totally understandable, fear.
Then there’s bouldering, a ropeless form of climbing. The routes in this discipline are short but difficult. (This is a good choice if you’re terrified of heights.)
Because bouldering routes are condensed and tricky, they’re called “problems.” A bouldering session is about trying to figure out solutions to these problems, the more elegant the better. This discipline requires power, technique and a certain amount of creativity.
No matter what discipline you choose to explore, you’ll get a workout.
Reason No. 3: The Workout Is Real
If you’ve never been to a climbing gym before, you’ll quickly learn that there are muscles in your arms that you never use.
The ache will arrive first in your forearms. Most people can only do one or two novice routes before their forearms turn to bricks of lactic acid. It happened to me, and almost every first-timer I’ve brought to the gym. Climbers call this feeling getting “pumped.”
But as you get stronger, your forearm flexors won’t be the only muscles to feel the strain. The burn will also arrive in your shoulders and biceps, as these muscles allowed you clench and pull on handholds.
Your back will also be engaged. Your lats, the big, wing-like muscles along your sides, will be pulling your upper body toward the wall and helping you keep your balance.
Speaking of balance, this where your core comes in. You’ll be crunching your abs as you try to make your leg movements as controlled and fluid as possible.
Your legs, by the way, are the primary means by which you move up the wall. As such, you’ll be using your quadriceps to push your body weight upward and your calves to hold your weight as you balance on tiny footholds.
Aside from working all these muscles, climbing is also an excellent cardio workout. Whether you’re trying to pull off an acrobatic bouldering maneuver or climbing a 60-foot route in one go, your blood will be pumping.
On top of all this, climbing will also help your flexibility. Control and precision are key to climbing well and to develop those qualities one needs to be agile, limber and coordinated.
Thankfully, getting the hang of all this stuff is easier when you’re in the company other climbers.
Reason No. 4: The Climbing Culture
When I first started climbing, I was nervous the gym environment would be like that of a skatepark. I remember being a 13-year-old skateboarder and watching as kids dropped in on ramps, crashed miserably and everyone laughed. Thankfully, climbers are much kinder and more helpful.
If you hang around the bouldering cave, for instance, it’s not uncommon to ask a fellow climber for advice. They might tell you how to improve your footwork or sequencing. They might also give you “beta,” which is climbing slang for a sequence of particular moves to solve a problem.
Go to the gym often enough and you’ll see the same climbers again and again. In my experience, some will become your belay partners or people you go climb with outside on real rocks.
And getting outdoors in the spring and fall is glorious in Minnesota. You can go to Sandstone and boulder right by the Kettle River, or drive across the eastern border and lead climb at Willow River State Park, with a beautiful waterfall in the background.
Once you start climbing outside, you’ll realize that amazing climbing areas are all over the country, from the iconic granite monoliths at Yosemite National Park to the sandstone canyons in the Red River Gorge.
Climbing will give you a new way to see, experience and appreciate the world. It’s so much more than a workout.