Erin Crowley might not immediately strike you as a rock climber, but you can bet she's in the climbing gym or out in the mountains at least one day a week after work. As a kid, she climbed pretty much anything she could find and was always rock climbing on family vacations, but it wasn’t something she had much access to as a New Yorker. That all changed when she moved to Denver in 2015.
The kindergarten teacher began passing climbing gyms during her daily commute, reigniting her interest and helping her connect with her new home. After two years, she “gets a lot of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment” from the self-dependence the sport requires, and loves the strength she has developed.
The Rise of Rock Climbing
But Crowley isn’t alone. There has been a steady increase during the past 10 years, says Jamie Gatchalian, owner and coach at Mountain Strong Denver. He says that the past three to four years, specifically, have seen a lot of new climbers come to the sport.
Gatchalian, who has been rock climbing for 20 years and is sponsored by Mad Rock Climbing, credits climbing's rise in popularity to moving out of the shadows and onto magazine covers and Facebook feeds. “Top-level climbers have broken out of climbing fame and gained more notoriety with sponsors, and you’re seeing more people become top-level athletes.”
Additionally, the sport will be included at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, so there’s no way the hype is dying down anytime soon.
Another opinion on the force behind the trend is variety. “We see more people looking for new and unique ways to work out that aren’t typical,” says Zach Brinchi, the press and outreach coordinator for USA Climbing. He likened the increased popularity of rock climbing to CrossFit, something far removed from a traditional gym workout.
Accessibility, however, is a huge contributing factor to the boom. Indoor climbing gyms — be it an addition to an existing gym, a stand-alone gym or the renovation of a grain silo in Oklahoma City — are a hot commodity right now. And Brinchi cited the nearly 400 climbing gyms that they work with across the country, a number that’s doubled in the past 10 years, as hard evidence of the trend.
Need more proof? At the Link Rec Center in Lakewood, Colorado, they’ve seen their average open-gym climbers grow from about 10 to more than 50 a day in just three years. On a recent Sunday, typically a sleepy day for the climbing wall, assistant director of climbing and coach Mandee Middleton saw average traffic triple.
Which to Choose: Walls or the Wild?
There’s quite a difference between climbing on the controlled environment of an indoor wall with plastic holds compared to hiking deep into the wild and scaling boulders and mountains in the elements. Common advice for new climbers is to start on the wall to understand the fundamentals of the sport and learn the movements of the body and what’s physically required.
Top-rope climbing — using an anchored rope and a belay supporter — is a common starting point and gives the greatest sense of security. Bouldering is done without ropes or harnesses, a more powerful freestyle that relies only on personal body weight to steer and take on steep angles, but it can be more discouraging for newbies.
Both of these styles can be done indoors and in the wild, with personal preference dictating. Also keep in mind that while weather often keeps anyone but the die-hards out of the wild most of the year, the wall makes this a great year-round sport.
A Killer Physical and Mental Workout
“Climbing is more laid-back than a run, but still a rigorous workout,” says Middleton. The physical benefits cannot be mentioned enough, and it can’t be fully appreciated until you try it yourself. It can be a social workout or a personal decompression time.
Part of the appeal of rock climbing is the mental strength it demands and develops. Gatchalian enjoys how “individually empowering” rock climbing is and thinks that the mental aspect is a huge draw for people. “How do I solve this problem? How do I shift my body weight to ensure I get to the top? It makes the sport more engaging than many others,” he says.
He says climbers rely on their fingers, forearms, shoulders, core and legs to move up and across a wall or boulders in the wild. “It’s the combination of all of these areas, and using your full body, that can lead to success.”
To support the muscles required to climb, Gatchalian recommends exercises that require full-body tension, like kettlebell exercises (swings and snatches, Turkish get-ups, farmer carries, etc.), deadlifts and cleans (with a barbell).
In Middleton’s youth class, she has the kids do exercises to support their work on the wall, like pull-ups, push-ups, squats, triceps dips, the row machine and exercises on a BOSU ball. (But, yes, adults can benefit from those too.)
Bring the Little Ones Along
USA Climbing has 7,800 members with 66 percent as youth climbers (under age 18), according to Brinchi. Climbing has long been appealing to kids and teens, and that seems to only be bolstered as access to climbing gyms with youth-oriented programs increases. Gatchalian likens climbing to gymnastics, an individual sport with huge appeal and longevity for competitions — such as the Olympics.
There’s the obvious benefit for kids to have a physical outlet for their energy, but Middleton has seen kids get far more out of even one to two nights of climbing each week.
She’s watched kids develop more physical strength and display calmer, better behavior. She’s seen autistic students really blossom while learning to rock climb. And kids so paralyzed with a fear of heights that they can’t move proudly make it to the top of the wall during just a four-week class.
“Kids will go and climb until they can’t climb anymore. Then we send them home good and tired!” says Middleton. And what parent doesn’t want that?
Should You Try It?
Not every trend that comes along is one you have to add to your fitness routine. But if you’re tempted by all the Facebook and Instagram photos of your friends scaling rock climbing walls, it’s time to consider what you can get out of it. If you answer yes to any of the below questions, it might be time to look up your nearest rock climbing gym.
- Do you like adventure?
- Do you want an athletic activity you can enjoy year-round?
- Are you looking for a way to shake up your workout?
- Are you unafraid (or only minimally afraid) of heights?
- Do you like your workouts to be mentally challenging as well as physically challenging?
- Do you want to learn something new or sharpen your existing skills?