Gimme a boost to get started?
September 23, 2004 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Per this FPP, I think I need to take up climbing. Any suggestions on how a beginner might get started.

I guess I should fess up to having lousy upper body strength. I've been working on it, but the fact remains that I have a low center of gravity and big ole legs. What should I start doing to build up my strength or should I just start climbing and let that condition me?
posted by jmgorman to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I started climbing a couple of weeks ago, for the exact same reason. I just Googled for a local gym and found one a mile from work.
So far, I can't climb very well or for very long (my forearms & hands give out pretty quickly) but it's still more interesting than the stairmaster or elliptical trainer at a regular gym. The place I go has cardio and weight machines too, so it's not all-climbing-all-the-time.
Unfortunately, I can't tell you whether "just doing it" actually works, but it's certainly one way to start.
posted by spacewrench at 10:13 AM on September 23, 2004

Before you even worry about strength, learn how to do it properly. Get someone who knows what they are doing to teach you. Unless you stick to a gym, doing it on your own is a great way to get killed. Accidents happen, but if you know what you're doing and know your limitations, climbing is pretty safe. But if you *don't* know what you're doing it is very dangerous. If there's an outdoor club near you (such as the AMC, if you're in the East) they might have a climbing group that runs a beginner instruction program.

For some good eye candy, and lots of information on all aspects of climbing, pick up a copy of Mountaneering: The Freedom of the Hills. It's basically THE textbook of (outdoor) climbing.

Most climbing strength is in the legs. The arms, at least for beginners, are used mostly to grab onto things and stabilize yourself as your legs push you up. It's a big myth that you need tons of upper body strength. Hand strength is more important than arm stregth. What strength you do need you'll aquire as you get better.

There are also many different types of climbing. Gym and sport climbing, which have gotten very popular in recent years, put the emphasis on challenging moves, not so much on getting to the top of a mountain.

If there's a climbing gym near you, that's a good place to start and learn whether you like it or not, but keep in mind gym climbing is NOT rock climbing or mountaineering. Gym climbing is much different and much more safe.

The next step after a gym is top roping, where you set up your belay rope at the top of a small cliff before you begin climbing. Obviously, this only works if there's another route to the top. Top roping is pretty safe provided you know how to use a harness and anchor a rope. Don't just assume you can figure it out, go with someone who knows what they're doing.

After top roping comes lead climbing, which is what most people think of when they think of climbing. This is where two people on a rope belay each other, with the lead climbing putting in protection as he climbes higher. This takes a good investment in time, gear, and experience.

I'm not much of a rock climber myself. After learning to do it and doing it a few times I discovered I was too much of a fraidy cat to do much. I prefer a nice steep snow slope I can dig my crampons into.
posted by bondcliff at 10:17 AM on September 23, 2004

"You need upper body strength" is the big lie of climbing. You don't. You need good trunk strength and good form. Attend to crunches and lower back extensions, and pay attention when you are taught climbing technique.

If what you really care about is advanced bouldering, realize that all the interesting bouldering problems are 5.10 and above - that's 10 grades of climbing you should be able to do smoothly. So learn to do them on top rope in the gym first. The "memory" your body develops will help you immensely when you're doing more advanced problem solving, and learning on top rope lets you develop basic balance and control skills in a context in which you are less likely to hurt someone else when you peel off.

The best way to learn climbing technique is to take a class. Really. I have seen this over and over again, when some guy who can bench his weight comes to the climbing gym with me, and I'm trotting up 5.10s all afternoon, and he can barely climb three 5.6s. Because he's dragging himself up hand over hand, which is what you tend to do when no one has taught you basic climbing technique.

What you need to learn: body positioning, balance, how to place and weight your feet, grip techniques, simple methods for shaking out pumped muscles without getting off the wall, falling safely (with respect to the wall, and when unroped). And you need to learn to belay and spot other people, too.

You could learn all the stuff you "need" for bouldering without ever putting on a harness, but learning climbing technique on top rope first will get you further faster.
posted by caitlinb at 10:20 AM on September 23, 2004

Tangentally related, but these hand exercises work.
posted by the cuban at 10:29 AM on September 23, 2004

(on reading my post, I should probably mention my interest in climbing came from a mountaineering background. If gym and sport climbing is what you're into, I'm the wrong guy to listen to.)
posted by bondcliff at 10:30 AM on September 23, 2004

I know that in Minneapolis the REI has a climbing setup. I believe they also teach introductory classes.
posted by substrate at 11:45 AM on September 23, 2004

find a local climbing gym and take a few classes. even better, find someone with a lot of experience to learn from. i agree with all who have said that trying to pick up climbing on your own can be very dangerous. however there are a lot of great books out there that give great insight as well. Freedom of the Hills is still on my to-read list but I've heard great things about it.

In bondcliff's heirarchy of types of climbing I would split "lead climbing" into sport climbing and trad climbing. In sport climbing there are typically pre-placed bolts in the rock as you go up. You can do this is a gym as well as you progress beyond top-roping. Fun stuff and actually quite safe if you know what you're doing.

Trad climbing is where you carry your own gear with you, placing nuts and cams into cracks as you go up. This takes much more experience and should be learned slowly from someone who can share their extensive experience with you.

Bouldering has also become it's own seperate climbing discipline in the last 20 years or so. This is where you climb short problems in the gym or outside with no ropes or protection other than your friends spotting you below and usually a crash-pad of some sort.

If you want to get really advanced you can get into aid-climbing, ice-climbing, mixed (rock/ice) climbing, mountaineering, etc.

regarding hand strength, this is kind of a classic in some circles. I have a (non-climbing) friend who loves it. He can crush me.
posted by jacobsee at 12:06 PM on September 23, 2004

I've heard that women are often far better than men at rock-climbing, because they tend to finesse situations instead of brute-forcing them.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:32 PM on September 23, 2004

I second most everything that was said above, but I'd add or reaffirm a couple of things:

Climbing is not all about strength, especially in the beginning. Most climbers will tell you that when you are learning and climbing easier routes the real problems lie in 1) technique - knowing how to use your body to most efficiently pull through cruxes and 2) your head - for many climbers the hardest part about climbing is remaining calm. When you're scared, pumped and a couple of hundred feet off the ground, even easy moves can become difficult because you can't focus your mental. Some people don't have the head problem. Others fight it for years.

TAKE A CLASS - Smart climbers rarely die climbing. The guys with more balls than brains are the ones who hit the dirt. Take a class and learn the correct techniques. I took a couple of classes when I was a kid, but, when I moved to Salt Lake I was lucky enough to fall in with a good group of experienced climbers who really showed me the ropes and who weren't afraid to cuss at me when I started doing something stupid. It only takes one mistake to kill you, but, ussually it's a train of mistakes that lead up to a fatal one.

I would start at the gym. They'll have classes available and you'll meet other more experienced climbers and maybe you can convince them to take you outdoors real the good stuff is. Gym climbing is really safe and a great way to learn the movements involved in climbing. Also, if you're doing something dumb then the staff will generally yell at you before you get too far off the ground. Most gyms these days also have bouldering walls, where you can climb without a rope (because you don't go to high and you have pads you can fall on). This way, you can climb even when you don't have a partner.

Don't over do it in the beginning. When you first start climbing alot you'll begin developing some muscles faster than others. This can cause problems if you don't balance it out. Your biceps and forearms will get big fast, but if you don't work on your triceps (do lots of push ups) you develop some bad elbow problems that will take a long time to go away. Basically tennis elbow for climbers. Also, your tendons will need to toughen up and get used to holding your weight on some crappy crimper.

I have two theories about training for climbing. The first one is to just climb a lot. You can't climb at your peak all the time, but, you can always go cruise easy routes for fun. The more time you spend on the rock the better. The other advice is aerobic. When you start climbing the hard steep stuff, it's all about endurance. I get that through biking and hiking. This will also help keep you lean so you aren't carrying a bunch of blubber up the rock. So on my off days I ussually hike with the dog in the mountains.

Most importantly - HAVE FUN. I got serious about climbing about 4 years ago and, when it's not snowing, all I want to do is climb. Luckily I live in a spot where I can walk out of the office and be on the rock in 20 minutes. Climbing is one of those sports where the better you get the better the sport gets. Enjoy the experience, the scenery, the thrill, and the comraderie.

It looks like you live in Tennesse, so you should make a road trip to The Red River Gorge in Kentucky once you learn the ropes. That place is like an outdoor climbing gym.
posted by trbrts at 1:35 PM on September 23, 2004

fff, women generally have a lower center-of-gravity, so that helps. Also their strength:weight ratio can often be better than that of men.

Climbing is mostly about blance, not strength. Yes, you do need strength, but your hands/arms are generally there for balance, whereas your legs should be doing the majority of the work (as they do during your regular daily life.)
posted by gen at 1:23 AM on September 24, 2004

Head over to and ask your questions in the beginner forum. Lots of good information there, but you need to sift through it a bit and have a healthy dose of skepticism. The moderators are good though, and are reliable sources of information. The route database will tell you about climbing in your area, and there are places to ask for partners.

You will need shoes, a harness, a couple locking biners and a belay device. A chalk bag and some chalk. Helmet, headlamp, prussik cord and runners/webbing are also a good idea.

Find a partner to show you the ropes. Should be someone with gear, and someone whose good judgment you are willing to bet your life on. Because you will be doing exactly that. Focus on learning proper belay technique to start. Good belaying is an art, and not as simple as most people think. Paid courses can't hurt.

If you can find a gym or bouldering area nearby, that is the best physical training you can get, and the best place for meeting a partner. Wrist curls both directions are good for forearm training. Core strength exercises such as pilates are helpful.

Read everything you can get your hands on, esp. books by John Long before setting up your own anchors. When it comes time to buy a rack, don't pay full price, there are too many ways to get a pro-deal.

Good luck
posted by Manjusri at 1:49 AM on September 26, 2004

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