There can be a lot of fear and trepidation for aspiring rock climbers, and going for the first time can be intimidating. It can be scary to go to a new place a learn a new skill, especially in front of people who do it all the time. Workout gyms have a reputation of being chock-full of unfriendly guys and girls with enormous muscles on top of muscles, which can scare regular people away. In my experience, climbing gyms are different.
The beauty of rock climbing is that it can be as hard as you want it to be. If you can climb a ladder, you can go rock climbing- EVERYONE should at least give it a try sometime. Different climbing grades range from very easy—slightly harder than stairs—to the most difficult climbs that only a select few have ever completed.
Some people are content to climb the same ‘difficulty’ of route their whole life, with no desire to improve. I compare it to those who consistently run a 5k race, never increasing to a 10K, half marathon, marathon or Ultra! There’s really no problem with that- the vast majority of us climb just to climb.
We aren’t trying to set any records or win any awards, we just love the internal sense of accomplishment we feel by summiting a rock. The important thing is to climb V-FUN.
How Challenging is Rock Climbing?
Rock climbing can require strength, endurance, problem solving and creativity, technical knowledge, and of course, courage. The difficulty of each one of these can vary so you can adapt and select routes that meet your needs, or choose climbs that are just outside of your comfort zone.
What Makes Climbing Hard?
To do the most basic climbing routes, rated at around a 5.5 or 5.6 for top roping or a v0 for bouldering, you just need to be strong enough to climb a ladder. Many climbing gyms and even some outdoor areas have plenty of ‘rock’ to keep this level of climber busy.
It certainly helps to be able to do a few pull-ups, especially as you work to improve. In my experience, someone who can do a few pull-ups should be able to climb up to the vicinity of 5.10.
Contrary to what many people think, you don’t need to be all that strong to rock climb. You really don’t see many bodybuilder-type climbers. Hardcore climbers are definitely fit and toned, but technique is key.
I know in the past I’ve been bested by the 12 and 13 year old climbing teams, just because they know and practice better technique than me. From crimping to heel hooks, different techniques can really take advantage of the mechanics of your body and reduce the strength required to complete climbs.
Finger strength is one of the most crucial aspects of climbing, and is often what gives out first. In general, your hands are pretty strong starting out. After a few routes though, your fingers quickly lose their strength.
Over time, and with practice, you will be able to climb for longer and longer periods of time. Certain techniques help to alleviate the force on your fingers by placing it on stronger muscle groups in your body, but strong fingers are required to send difficult routes.
In order to improve finger strength endurance, the first thing to do is to climb frequently for a while. This will naturally strengthen the muscles and tendons without risking injury to them.
After a while, you can supplement your training with things like a hangboard (link to amazon) or simple hand grip strengtheners. I keep some hand grip strengtheners like these (link to amazon) at my desk at work that I use during boring conference calls. Pair it with a standing desk, and you’ll be an absolute fitness machine…
Problem Solving and Creativity
One of my favorite things about climbing is the problem solving aspect. When climbing indoors the problem solving isn’t as intense, since the next step is always color-coded. Even though you know where to go though, you can’t always see how to do it.
It can be frustrating, but as you practice and learn new techniques, deciphering the code becomes easier. As further proof that just about anyone can rock climb, you can always ‘rainbow climb’ up the walls using holds of any and every color like my father-in-law does.
When climbing outdoors, the problem solving component is a lot more fun. There are not specific holds or patterns that need to be followed, and, except for the occasional faint chalk marking, where you put your hands and feet is up to you.
As you climb more difficult routes, you’ll find yourself feeling around for the slightest divots and impressions in the rock, trying to work your way up. Bouldering (climbing low heights ropeless) is often compared to a puzzle that the climber needs to solve and execute as the moves are worked out.
Just as with the other components of rock climbing, there are varying levels of technical knowledge required depending on what you want to do. If knots and carabiners scare you, bouldering requires almost no technical knowledge.
Top rope climbing in a gym requires the knowledge of only one knot and a little bit of belaying know-how that you can learn in about a half an hour. Climbing outdoors is significantly more difficult, since climbers need to have knowledge of basic anchor set up and rescue techniques.
On the more advanced end of the spectrum, trad climbing requires a lot more technical knowledge- from placing gear to advanced anchor rigging. Multi-pitch climbing, and various techniques for roped-soloing also require a lot more technical competence. You can learn a lot of these techniques here from The Rockulus, and also take classes from your local climbing gym.
You might say, ‘but I’m scared of heights!’ By starting with lower bouldering problems, you can work your way up to taller walls and cliffs. I distinctly remember losing my fear of heights when I was about 14, rappelling off of a 250 ft. (75m) overhung cliff.
If heights bother you, there’s no better way to beat it than climbing. It’s hard to start off doing something that feels so unnatural- letting go of a wall at a significant height- but the rope and system setup is more than enough to hold you.
Start with bouldering, and have a spotter stand below you to help control your fall. As you gain confidence, start top rope climbing in the gym. Go a few feet up and then lean on the rope and learn to trust it. In no time, you’ll be climbing with full confidence in the safety of the system.
As you improve, the irrational fear subsides and is replaced with confidence. There’s still risk involved, but you learn to enjoy it. Climbing can be as safe or as dangerous as you want it to be, based on the specific styles you do and the types of routes you attempt.
Are certain types of rock climbing harder than others?
Certain types of climbing are definitely harder than others. In terms of strength, bouldering is the most strenuous. For endurance, sport and trad climbing are the most difficult.
Top rope climbing is generally the easiest because the belayer can capture every bit of progress the climber makes, and the risk of falling is minimal. Within each of these climbing styles, the ratings vary from very easy to very hard based on the rock.
For example, while a 5.10 top rope route may require more strength, endurance, and technique than a 5.8 trad route, the trad route requires more technical knowledge. The overall difficulty of a route depends on your personal strengths and weaknesses.
Is it Hard to Learn How to Rock Climb?
The nature of rock climbing is simple- climb the rock as high as you can get. What matters is how you get up, and how hard it is. Between youtube videos and great resources (like therockulus.com), you can learn a lot of the basics online.
The best way to learn to rock climb is to go to a climbing gym and sign up for a class. Many classes come free with a membership (see my article How much does rock climbing cost?).
It would be pretty difficult to learn to climb by yourself, especially since you need a partner for most styles of climbing. If you have a friend, or even an acquaintance, who climbs, ask them to take you sometime.
Most climbers I know are always looking to get more people into the sport, especially if you’re willing to belay! The climbing community is very inclusive, and is always growing. We like to ‘show people the ropes.’
The hardest thing to learn right off the bat is to overcome your natural fear of heights. It’s hard to learn to trust the rope initially, and until you really can rely on it to catch you, you won’t be able to enjoy yourself. Practice ‘falling’ on the rope from low heights until you’re confident it’ll hold you (it will- see my post about how much weight a quickdraw can hold).
Once you trust the safety of the system, then you need to slowly start picking up knots and just the overall mechanics of the rope setup- how it works and why it’s safe. Eventually you will feel confident setting it up yourself.
It’s always important, no matter how advanced you become, to have another person double-check your harness and knot each time. Complacency can be dangerous.
Is it Hard to Get Good at Rock Climbing?
One fun thing about rock climbing is that you can climb with people who are at very different levels than you are. On the contrary, it’s not fun to go running with someone who is significantly faster or slower than you are, or to play basketball with someone who can beat you one-handed. With rock climbing, you and a partner can climb routes at your own comfort level, alternating belaying each other.
New rock climbers can quickly improve by trying more difficult routes. By climbing consistently, you begin to strengthen certain muscles in your hands and forearms, and start to pick up on small techniques that help make difficult moves easier.
The progression occurs naturally for a long time, but once you reach the 5.10 range, you will have to begin specific training regimens and learn special techniques to continue to improve.
What is a good grade for rock climbing?
A first-time climber in good shape can usually climb up to about a 5.8 with no experience. “Weekend Warriors,” who go occasionally now but have been good in the past usually settle at about 5.10. People who climb on a consistent basis-especially those who frequent a climbing gym a few times per week- usually can get up to 5.12+.
To improve very far beyond that, you kind of have to sell your house and go live in your car at the crag. Climbing every day can push very fit climbers into the 5.13’s and going much above that is the professional level.
People continue to push the limits. When they started the Yosemite Decimal System, the most commonly used rating system in North America, they didn’t think it would ever surpass 5.9. Due to improvements in climbing gear and developing new techniques, as well as focusing fitness on specific muscles, we are currently at a max of 5.15d (for now).
The most important thing is to have fun. Sometimes we lose focus on this while trying to push our personal records. No one really cares how well you climb or how hard of routes you can send- it’s all about enjoying the experience.
How Fit do you Need to be to Rock Climb?
Rock climbers don’t need to be the epitome of fitness. Almost everyone can climb something, and everyone should! As mentioned above, as long as you can climb a ladder, you are fit enough to try rock climbing lower grades.
There isn’t really a weight limit for rock climbing, since a rope can hold more than enough (see: What is Climbing Rope Made of?). Some autobelay machines have a limit of around 330 lbs (150kg), which is something to be aware of, and the climber shouldn’t be a ton bigger than an inexperienced belayer, but overall anyone can climb.
As you advance (should you decide to), you will increase your arm strength and your core strength. Working to increase things like pull-ups and grip strength and endurance will help the most, but also abdominals and upper body control. Serious rock climbers get to be in really good shape.
Katherine wrote about this in a post called Is Rock Climbing a Good Workout?
Can I Rock Climb With a Disability?
There are very inspiring examples of rock climbers who do not have the use of one of their limbs. On a lesser scale, world-famous climber Tommy Caldwell lost a finger and still does amazing things.
Climbers can adapt to their needs by choosing certain types of routes or rock, focusing on grades that meet their capabilities. I think in general, climbing can be a suitable activity for active people with many different disabilities.
Is Rock Climbing Dangerous?
Rock climbing is very safe, when practiced correctly. Accidents do happen periodically, usually when complacent climbers neglect to double-check their safety knots or when they don’t pay attention on the belay.
Climbing outdoors is somewhat more dangerous, due to the risks of rockfall or weather-related exposure. In general though, you’re probably safer in the climbing gym than you are driving your car on the way over.
I wrote all about the inherent dangers of rock climbing indoors in this article- Is indoor rock climbing dangerous? And wrote some more about the rare fatalities that have happened in climbing in the article How Many People Die Climbing?
Can you Lose Weight by Rock Climbing? Not really- it is a very strenuous strength and endurance-based activity, but not so much cardio. A focus on climbing will help you want to lose weight and get more fit so you have more control of your body. Climbing may not cause weight loss, but it certainly helps encourage and promote it.
Is Rock Climbing an Extreme Sport? Climbing is considered an extreme sport by the general public largely due to misconceptions regarding safety brought about by escapades like Alex Honnold’s Free Solo film. With a focus on safety, climbing can be fairly tame.
What age to start climbing? Kids can start climbing as young as 1-2 years old, especially on smaller climbing walls. Many professional climbers started getting into the sport in their early teens. There’s no age limit for rock climbing.
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