Rock Climbing Scales You Up Physically and Mentally—Here's How

Rock Climbing Workout

Getty/Design by Cristina Cianci

Ready to climb your way to new heights and build up serious muscle at the same time? It might be time to try rock climbing. If you’re not familiar with this popular sport, rock climbing will challenge you both mentally and physically and is considered a full-body workout, too.

We asked top experts to explain how beginners can best get started with rock climbing and what’s important to know before you hit the wall. 

Meet the Expert

  • Foxman McCarthy-James is the head setter at Brooklyn Boulders in Somerville, Massachusetts.
  • Cody Bradford is an American Mountain Guides Association–certified climbing guide. 

Rock Climbing 101 

Indoor rock climbing usually takes place in a climbing gym, where you’ll find climbers rope-climbing on set vertical routes or bouldering (free climbing without a rope.) You can search for a gym near you here

To get started, your local climbing gym may offer an orientation class for newbies. Or, you may be able to request a private lesson. “One of the best places for beginners to get started rock climbing is at a local climbing gym," explains Foxman McCarthy-James, the head setter at Brooklyn Boulders in Somerville, Massachusetts. “Indoor gyms have staff that can provide instruction on how to tie knots properly and how to belay a climbing partner.”

At your orientation, you’ll properly learn how to put on your harness, tie rope, and belay your partner—where the rope is run through a device that will catch your partner in the event they fall. All of these are essential skills before getting started. 

Your climbing gym may also offer equipment rentals for climbing shoes, harnesses, and helmets. If you get really into climbing, you can always purchase your own equipment later on. 

A Full-Body Workout 

When you see someone with a lot of experience scrambling up rocks quickly, they may make it look easy. But don’t be fooled—you are actually working a lot of muscles when you start climbing. 

Even though you’ll be pulling up with your arms, the rest of your body will be hard at work, too. “Rock climbing is a full-body sport,” McCarthy-James says. “Most people assume that it requires a lot of upper-body strength, but it's a great workout for your core, your arms, shoulders, back, abs, and legs as well; everything is going to get worked.” 

In addition to getting stronger, you’ll be working on your conditioning and mental fitness as well, notes Cody Bradford, an American Mountain Guides Association–certified climbing guide.  “Climbing itself offers a type of holistic movement in a single activity that many others do not. You are performing an anaerobic activity with a great need to concentrate on your breathing as you are constantly moving,” he says. “Climbing will also build your cognitive abilities, as it relates to linking your brain and your body's need to make counterintuitive (at first) movements while high off the ground. There is even a bit of an emotional component, as this can be scary when you start out.”

Indoor vs. Outdoor Climbing 

If climbing in nature appeals more to you than working out in a gym, you may want to work your way up to outdoor climbing. Outdoor climbing is a different beast than a climbing gym, though, says McCarthy-James. That’s because indoor climbing is done in a controlled environment. “Climbing outdoors requires technical knowledge to do safely and ethically,” he says. “But the views are amazing and it's a great way to connect with the environment.” 

If you are new, Bradford suggests starting indoors to get familiar with the basics and build up strength. “I'd recommend indoor climbing a couple of times to get used to the sport in a controlled environment,” he says. An indoor climbing gym can offer much in the way of a complete workout routine. Most modern climbing gyms often have an entire traditional gym within their facility. You can do other strength-training exercises as well, and also use the bouldering wall.”

If you are interested in moving outdoors after you get the hang of it, consider working with veteran outdoor climbers or even with a climbing coach who can help get you moving safely. 

Is Rock Climbing Safe for Beginners? 

Rock climbing may look intimidating, but as soon as you get familiar with the basics, you can start climbing right away. 

“It might sound silly, but the best way to get ready to start rock climbing is to start rock climbing,” McCarthy-James says. “You don't need to be able to do pull-ups or hang upside down. Climbing is a fairly unique movement, so it will feel hard and awkward at first, but our bodies acclimate relatively quickly to moving vertically instead of horizontally,” he says.  

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