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Rock Climbing: How It Works and Why It's Popular

Back in 2010, approximately 6,148,000 Americans were participating in rock climbing activities and it has only grown since then. So why is it so popular, why do people do it, and how can you get started?

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #380

Photo of a young woman rock climbing

Rock climbing has (ahem) climbed in popularity over the last 20 years. Many people think that it will someday (cough) ascend to the heights of outdoor activities such as jogging and fishing which, based on research by the Outdoor Foundation, are the two most popular outdoor activities in the U.S.

Indoor rock climbing is said to have started in the U.S. in the early 1980s when outdoor rock climbers built training walls in garages and warehouses. According to the 2010 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report, approximately 6,148,000 Americans (or 2.7% of the population over the age of six) were participating in rock climbing activities such as bouldering, sport climbing, indoor climbing, traditional climbing, and mountaineering.

So why is it so popular? Why do people do it and how can you get started? Well, first let's look at what makes a good rock climber.

The Physiology of Rock Climbing.

Muscular strength and endurance in rock climbers has always been measured in the forearm, hand, and fingers via a thing called dynamometry (a measurement of force or power). But interestingly, when absolute hand strength was assessed in a study called The physiology of rock climbing, they found little difference between climbers and the general population.

At its core, rock climbing is simply repeated bouts of isometric contractions.

When we look closer, we see that most elite rock climbers are quite small in stature, with pretty low percentage body fat and body mass. So when their hand strength was calculated in relation to body mass, the elite climbers scored significantly higher.

According to the study, at its core, rock climbing is simply “repeated bouts of isometric contractions.” So they went on to test grip endurance using both repeated isometric contractions and sustained contractions. They found the times to fatigue during repeated isometric contractions were significantly better in climbers when compared with sedentary individuals. However, during sustained contractions until exhaustion, climbers did not differ from the normal population. The study authors think this comes down to the ability to perform repeated isometric forearm contractions without fatigue.

They also found among climbers a difference in handling elevated blood lactate. Most of the climbers showed an increased ability to tolerate and remove lactic acid during climbing, and if any of you have experienced a lactic acid burn while you are gripping something for dear life, you will know how beneficial that would be.

Oddly, flexibility was not identified as either necessary nor a detriment to climbing success, although that is of course with the caveat that rock climbers must have “climbing-specific flexibility” in order to perform well.

As far as measures of fitness go, as the difficulty of the climb increases, so does oxygen uptake, energy expenditure, and heart rate per meter climbed. But they saw a disproportionate rise in heart rate compared to the oxygen uptake which the study suggested may be due to an increase in arterial blood pressure secondary to stress. Which, in a nutshell, means the higher they climbed, the more stressed out the climbers became.

In conclusion, the researchers left us with this statement: “It appears that success in climbing is not related to individual physiological variables but is the result of a complex interaction of physiological and psychological factors.” Honestly, that could be said of any sport, but I think it applies more directly to rock climbing than many other sports.

Let me demonstrate why by highlighting a few of the unique and more expected benefits of rock climbing.

The Benefits of Rock Climbing

1. Builds strength and endurance.

Despite appearances, climbing actually requires a lot more than pure upper-body strength. Completing a climb successfully requires a long list of fitness factors, such as fancy footwork, aerobic endurance, core stability, and lower body strength. Not many folks who are heading out for cardio workout often think of hitting the climbing wall but ascending walls is a great way to get your heart up. It has been shown that climbing a wall for one hour can burn 700 calories (or more) in an adult male. Throw in some tricky manoeuvres and difficult reaches, and it will also challenge your mobility, flexibility, and endurance.

2. Reduces stress.

Exercise, in general, has been shown to reduce stress. But rock climbing (like other extreme sports) has the added advantage of a state called flow. Climbers routinely talk about losing themselves in the flow of the climb and get themselves into a mindset that creates a sense of euphoria and even blocks pain. If you climb outdoors, there is the added stress-relieving benefits of the activity known as forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku.

3. Boosts brain function.

Simply put, climbing involves problem solving. In fact, bouldering routes (rock climbing done without ropes and at low heights) are often called "problems" by veteran climbers. Climbing up a wall or face requires both body awareness and problem solving because the way to the top is often not as obvious or direct as you might think. It takes a ton of focus to determine which holds are solid, where to place your foot, and how to shift your body weight before making your next move.

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