Have you ever wondered how hard rock climbing is? I know I did. My curiosity started when I got invited by a friend to climb. And on my first day, I found that rock climbing was a fun and intense activity that works your whole body!
Generally fit people would find it easy to finish the beginner grade climb routes. Starting from the intermediate routes however, the rock holds become difficult to grab or step on. I learned that it was mandatory to have strong fingers and toes to ascend these routes. Muscles that you don’t use as much in your daily life.
To further help you imagine how hard it is… Let us say that there are pebbles, the size of your big toe, stuck on the wall and scattered far from each other. Grab a pair with your fingers and try to pull yourself up. Now try stepping on another pair using your toes to push yourself up. Sounds difficult, right?
In this article, we will explore the different elements of rock climbing that affect its level of difficulty.
Simple rule of thumb is that the higher the angle, the more difficult the wall becomes. The angle influences the easiest level of route that can be set for it. The hardest level of route however is dependent on how creative your gym’s route setters are.
The convention for rock climbing is to measure the angle from a vertical line. This can be a little confusing for some since we are used to measuring angles from a horizontal line. But I’ll be providing you with illustrations so that you understand what I mean.
Walls with angle less than zero degrees are the easiest to climb. If you are a beginner with no prior strengthening workout of any kind, then you start with this wall angle. In the rock climbing gym I go to, we call this the kiddie wall since it was made to be kid friendly.
The zero degree or perfectly vertical wall is perfect for every beginner. This wall will help you learn the basic body mechanics for rock climbing. Beginners with experience in general body strengthening would find this very easy to climb.
The slightly overhanging wall is the most common angle you will find in the real-world of outdoor rock climbing. Strong beginners will feel slightly challenged when they try this wall angle for the first time. This angle however will quickly be mastered by most climbers.
The moderately overhanging wall is probably the most versatile angle. Most plastic rock holds are made for this angle. Therefore, climbers of skill level from beginner to advance will have routes to try for this angle. Starting from this angle, even strong beginners will have a tough time climbing it.
The steep or overhanging wall will give you a serious workout even if your are only using good holds (jugs). This is an advanced wall angle and would require the climber to have strong fingers, legs and core. If you are a beginner and you were able to finish climbing this wall angle, then I can’t help but be amazed at your strength. Most beginners though would find this wall angle really painful for their hands.
The roof or severely overhanging wall is a really difficult and scary angle to try for the first time. I’ve experienced climbing a 4 feet extension of this angle in my gym and it is always a challenge to get pass this! I have a body builder friend who was NOT weak by any means but never once passed a “roof” section. This was a result of not being able to use his muscles efficiently in an angled environment or awkward positions.
Climbing Grades (Hardness of Climb Routes)
Remember the Kiddie Wall we talked about from the previous section? Despite being the easiest angle, the gym organizers could still make the route hard by using small or difficult rock holds. Actually, any wall can become harder using a variety of rock holds like crimpers, pinches, slopers and etc. These rock holds can also be placed creatively and require you to do complex movements.
There are 3 popular grading systems in rock climbing but we will be focusing only on the French Scale for simplicity. The beauty of using the French Scale is that it is applicable for sports climbing, top rope and bouldering.
Sports Climbing / Top Rope grade: 1 to 6a. Bouldering grade: 4 to 5+.
These are great for complete rock climbing beginners. These climbs will mostly contain jugs (easy to hold or step on) but will increase in difficulty of movement. If you consider yourself as a fit and strong person then you will most likely finish these climb routes on your first day.
Sports Climbing / Top Rope grade: 6a+ to 7a+. Bouldering grade: 6a to 7a.
It is at these grades that things become interesting. Rock holds become more difficult and the movement get more complex. As the holds become smaller, the more you’ll need stronger fingers, toes and core muscles. Majority of rock climbers are at this level. If you are a fit person with no rock climbing experience, then you will most likely have a very hard time ascending even the lowest intermediate level.
As of time of writing, I’m working my way to finish 6b climbs smoothly. Doing functional exercises for your upper body and lower body helps a lot. I started developing muscles on my fingers and toes because of the climbing specific exercises I linked above.
Sports Climbing / Top Rope grade: 7b to 8b. Bouldering grade: 7a+ to 7c.
These climbs require tons of experience and incredible strength. The guys you’ll find doing these are instructor skill level already. These guys typically look more ripped than your average rock climber. To help you imagine, they do exercises like muscle ups, one arm pull ups, one arm push ups and pistols squats with ease.
Just for fun, I tried climbing an advanced climb route but I couldn’t get past a fourth of it. Heck, I put in a lot of effort just to advance from the starting position. Don’t try climb routes like this if you are a complete beginner because there is a high risk of injuring yourself.
Sports Climbing / Top Rope grade: 8b+ and up. Bouldering grade: 7c+ and up.
The “cream of the crop”. This level of climbing is at the peak of the sport. Climbs like these will be found on outdoors and top level competitions. Just looking at these walls will make you ask yourself if it is even humanly possible to climb.
Energy Cost of Rock Climbing
Any activity that we do has an energy expenditure rate. This rate is called the Metabolic Equivalent or MET. A science journal I’ve read mentioned that the average MET for rock climbing is 8.4 to 9.0. Simply put, it means that you spend 8.4 to 9 times energy in rock climbing than when you are resting. Activities with MET greater than 6 are considered to have vigorous intensity.
The rock climbing MET above however is only for wall angles between -10 to 12 degrees. These are walls that are perfectly vertical or just slightly overhanging. Walls that are for beginners.
You can expect the MET to be greater than 9.0 for climbing walls with greater angle.
In “Will Rock Climbing Build Muscle?“, I wrote a section explaining the energy cost of rock climbing. I recommend that you read it if you are interested in knowing more about the science and mathematics behind the energy expenditure for rock climbing.
Body Mechanics and Muscle Memory
When I first heard of rock climbing, I imagined that all I needed was a strong upper body to pull myself up. After all, rock climbing is all about upper body strength, right? Did you think so too?
If you did, then you couldn’t be more wrong just like I was when I started! I mean, sure, you could climb and finish a wall using mostly your upper body. The issue though is that this approach would only work for beginner walls with big rock holds. And if you still insist on muscling your way up using your arms, then you’d be making the same mistake I did. Your climb would be harder. You would be climbing inefficiently and you’d climb less than your strength has to offer.
“So how should I climb?” you ask.
Push yourself up with your legs
“Use your legs” is a common advice given by experienced climbers to beginners. Even though it is not obvious for beginners, rock climbing actually depends a lot on your lower body strength. Your legs have at least twice the muscle mass of your arms. And majority of your body weight should be carried by your legs when climbing.
Majority of us, men, have a tendency to depend more on our upper body strength as beginners. Women beginners somehow have better instinct in using the lower body to push themselves up. I guess it is because men have naturally bigger upper body. And a lot of us focus on upper body strengthening at the gym.
The good news though is that anyone can train their legs! I recommend that you read “10 Simple Leg Exercises for Rock Climbing Beginners” if you want to make your legs more useful for climbing. With my recommended leg exercises, you would start conquering intermediate routes!
Strengthen your toes and fingers
After learning to be more efficient with your legs, the next hard thing you’ll encounter are small or difficult rock holds. As you reach the intermediate climb routes, the rock holds become smaller and therefore harder to grab or step on.
I have been practicing martial arts for a significant amount of time but I still couldn’t climb the lowest level intermediate route on my first day. It is at that time I realized how weak my toes were and how I haven’t been training them at all with my other activities. And although I’ve been training my grip, it still wasn’t enough to hold onto rock holds called slopers and crimpers.
You’ll need to strengthen your fingers to carry your weight when you are hanging on a cliff. And you need to train your big toes so that you can stand on them even on a small surface. Because you are putting pressure on your small joints, your body will adapt a high strength to weight ratio composition.
Develop single limb strength
Your body will also have to be used to asymmetric application of forces since it is rare to have symmetrical and even rock holds for intermediate climb routes and above. Unilateral exercises like one arm push ups, pistol squats and one arm pull ups are just some of the recommended exercises that’ll help you ascend intermediate grade routes.
If your fingers and toes are strong and you can do unilateral exercises, then you probably can climb some of the intermediate grade routes. Otherwise, intermediate routes will be too hard for you.
Another interesting thing about rock climbing is that your analytic skills can affect how easy or hard you finish a route. The routes challenge you mentally!
Climb routes can be thought of as puzzles. The question is always “how do I finish a route based on my strength, length of limbs and flexibility?”. Everyone has a unique body composition. I especially like this because you are challenged to create a strategy based on your limitations and advantages.
Just “muscling out your way” will only work for beginner routes. You have to be smart enough on how to climb efficiently for intermediate routes and above. Which limb should you use? Which muscles should be relaxed or have tension? What kind of balance do you need from the small holds available? How much energy should you need in each move? Will you have enough energy to finish the climb if you use multiple power moves at the start? These are just some of the questions you’ll have to think about when you climb harder walls.
Rock climbing is a fun activity that becomes challenging starting from the intermediate climbs. Strong fingers and toes are required for small and hard rock holds. You will know if your abs are functional or just for display when you climb difficult angles.
Muscling out your way is NOT enough. You also have to be smart at puzzle solving to finish the more difficult climbs.
I hope this article was helpful to you! You can also read how I spent my 20 hours of active rock climbing time and use it as a guide. If you enjoyed reading this, then share it to your friends! And if you enjoy reading more content like this, then subscribe to my mailing list. Have fun rock climbing! Be good at anything fast and be a rad rookie! 🙂