The muscles in your hips and torso strain to hold your lower half against the wall. You arch backward and extend one hand up to clasp the next hold—your thighs and calves burning with the effort of holding you steady and in balance. A moment later, when the tips of your fingers have secured their grip, there’s a wholesale shift in the muscles you call on to maintain your safe purchase on the climbing wall.
Exercise is all about engaging your muscles—from your heart to your biceps and quads—and asking those muscles to perform work. And when it comes to activating and training a diverse range of muscles, few exercises rival climbing.
Both climbing and bouldering, the name for climbing on low rock formations without a rope, involve “nearly the whole body’s musculature,” says Jiří Baláš, a faculty researcher and lecturer at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, who has conducted research on climbing. While running, cycling, rowing and most conventional gym workouts teach the body to perform consistent, repetitive motions—either to build strength, increase cardiorespiratory fitness or both—climbing is “a more complex movement,” Baláš says.
In fact, climbing is an endlessly variable series of movements. No climbing surface or route is quite like another, so the work you ask your muscles to perform during a climb changes each time you exercise. This ensures you’re training a greater number of muscles. Research suggests this kind of dynamic muscle activation is much more challenging and fatiguing than simpler, repetitive movements.
While all of the pushing, pulling and lifting involved in climbing mirror aspects of resistance exercise, climbing is also an excellent cardiovascular workout, says William Sheel, a professor of kinesiology at the University of British Columbia in Canada. In a 2004 study he and his colleagues conducted on the physiology of rock climbing, “we found that climbers use a significant portion of their aerobic capacity,” he says. “The heart rate response was higher than we predicted.”
Sheel says the amount your heart rate will increase during a climb depends on how hard you push yourself. But whatever your skill level, if the climb is challenging for you, your heart will get a workout.
As with anything else that elevates your heart rate, climbing also burns calories. Even if a 155-pound person is climbing a few notches below “maximal effort,” he or she will burn between eight and ten calories per minute while climbing, Baláš says, citing some of his own research. That’s nearly equal to intense cardio workouts such as spinning. The fear component of climbing can further crank up your heart rate and caloric expenditure.
There are even more health benefits. The balance and neuromuscular coordination required for climbing may bolster your brainpower. A recent study from the University of North Florida found that activities that involve balance, muscle coordination, spatial orientation and other aspects of climbing could significantly improve a person’s working memory, as well as other cognitive functions.
Studies have also linked the kinds of dynamic, balance-dependent movements used in climbing to an improvement of coordination and other motor skills among those with neurologic conditions like multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. Some research has even shown that eight weeks of bouldering can significantly reduce the severity of depression.
Surprisingly, nearly anyone can try it. Climbing walls—both natural and artificial, like those at an indoor rock climbing gym—come in many grades of difficulty. “With the right harnesses and gear, almost anyone can get started,” Sheel says.
Check with your doctor first if you have a heart condition, especially if you’re afraid of heights. But if you’re looking for a new way to build strength, coordination and fitness—and to train many of your body’s underworked muscles—adding a weekly climb to your regimen is a great way to do it.