Fitness tips: Cross-training success at your local climbing gym

Want killer shoulders and a V-shaped back? Rope up and climb a wall.

You’re not going to find a much bigger advocate of cross-training when it comes to fitness than me. There are a few reasons for that: One, because cross-training works. But second, and more personally, it’s because I get bored with doing the same old thing.

So I’m always on the lookout for new training regimens to supplement the types of training I do to stay fit.

If that cross-training melds exercise with my love of the outdoors, so much the better. One of those perfect combinations can be found at your local climbing gym.

I know, I know. Between all your weight training sessions, long runs, Crossfit workouts and Pilates sessions, who has time to hang out at a climbing gym? Bear with me as I go through the benefits of trying this sport out.

A couple of hours at the climbing gym will blast your arms, back and shoulders. Yes, all climbers are told to rely more on their legs than their upper body. But repeatedly making moves on the wall and holding yourself there will definitely tax a whole variety of muscles in your back and arms, as well as your shoulders. Hitting a wall trying to build that V-taper on your back? Just take a look at the physiques of elite climbers and you’ll see the results of their labors. They can be yours, too.

Your grip strength will increase dramatically. Again, just like with the back/shoulder/arms work, nothing will get worked more than your forearms and hands. Is it possible to get sore fingers? Yes. But if this sport becomes a regular part of your routine, your hands, fingers and forearms will get stronger. And just so we’re clear, here’s why that is important: A strong grip is the key to a strong lift. Aside from leg machines and maybe squat, can you think of many lifts where you are not dependent on your hands? Aside from wearing straps, there isn’t much more you can do to help build grip strength than climb. So put those hand-grips away and go climb a wall. The more you do, the stronger your lifts will become and the more you will be able to work while in the weightroom. And then let the snowball effect begin.

Your core will benefit. Because so much of climbing entails holding positions at strange positions, your core will get worked in new ways. Climbing forces your body to develop “tensile” strength – power found not in explosive movement, but in subtle movement. Explosive strength is important because it develops fast-twitch muscles, but you need those slow-twitch muscles, too.

So what are the downsides? It might include gear rentals or purchase of things like a harness, caribiner, belay device and climbing shoes. But prices for these pieces of equipment are not prohibitive, particularly online. The gym where I go actually sells a beginner package (all of the items I listed except for the shoes) for $80. I know boot camp classes and kickboxing classes that require bigger equipment fees than that.

And what about fear of heights? Yes, this will be something you will have to face, looking up at walls that are 30 to 50 feet high or more. But you can look at this two ways. One, you will be surprised how safe you feel roped up while on the wall. I feel much safer high on a wall than I do 15 feet up on a ladder painting the side of my house. And you can also use this as a way to conquer a fear. Nothing wrong with a little personal growth, right?

My experience tells me that climbing has helped me get stronger in the gym. But it’s also fun, mentally challenging and very engaging. You might also get a chance to meet some pretty cool people and learn some skills that you can take into the outdoors for even more fun.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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