Peak fitness: Your guide to a rockin’ workout
To Dr. Gerald Lofthouse, rock climbing is a physical puzzle.
“You’re playing with these finite elements. The rock is what it is, and your body is what it is, and you try to put the two together to solve the problem of how to get from here to there,” said Lofthouse, a family medicine doctor who practices at Illinois' Adventist Hinsdale and Bolingbrook hospitals. “It’s an intellectually intriguing game.”
But don’t let the brain talk fool you. As the avid climber belays, or secures himself by attaching to the end of a rope, his body is preparing for a strenuous ascent.
Lofthouse’s chosen sport is one in which a growing number of people are getting involved, according to the American Alpine Club, a premier climbers’ organization. This surge in popularity can be witnessed at high-grade gyms and community events, where climbing walls are popping up left and right.
Although Lofthouse, a Willowbrook, Ill., resident, often goes on outdoor excursions, he still practices his moves on indoor structures. Beginners and pros alike love to scale these walls because the controlled environment (i.e. no falling rocks or inclement weather) gives them the opportunity to hone their skills without worrying about other variables, he said. The exercises allow you the opportunity to get accustomed to the harness and develop a feel for how to trust the rope if you lose your footing and begin to fall in a real-world setting.
The simulation has other benefits.
“It’s a nice intro. Indoors, you can see and grab the (climbing holds), but outside, it’s not as obvious,” Lofthouse said. “So when you practice on a climbing wall, you start to acquire a sort of body encyclopedia of grips, maneuvers and positions with each formation you try. You build up these techniques that translate on real rocks.”
But whether you use indoor climbing walls as a training ground for a trip to Yosemite National Park or heave yourself up for the sheer enjoyment, it’s sure to get your adrenaline going.
“Jogging the same two- or three-mile trek gets old, and people desire something more exhilarating,” said Anthony Morelli, climbing wall coordinator at the Annerino Community Center in Bolingbrook. “The draw is that it’s a heart-pounding, adventurous extreme sport. We’re not talking jumping jacks and push-ups — we’re kicking it into high gear.”
For some tips on trying your hand at climbing, read on.
Who can do it
“You’re an obvious candidate if you spent your childhood hanging from monkey bars or swaying from tree branches,” Lofthouse said. “But rock climbing can work for novices to advanced athletes. You don’t have to be a hard-core mountaineer to excel.”
Persistence is the most important requirement for success, Morelli added. But speed is not a precondition. In fact, it can detract from the technique, which is all about being able to sustain a position.
You’ll master the sport if you possess mental determination and patience.
“It’s all about visualization,” Morelli said. “You have to sit and assess the (cliffs) and map out your route, imagining your body making that journey before you hit the rocks. Being prepared with a blueprint is half the battle.”
Why you get fit
“It will tone your shoulders, forearms and trunk or core muscles,” Lofthouse said. “But the activity is especially dependent on your legs, which exert most of the effort. It’s a total body workout, and you burn a lot of calories because you’re using a large number of muscular groups.”
Rock climbing is a combination of weightlifting, cardio and coordination skills, Morelli said.
“You can’t just rely on one strength you have — climbing demands it all,” he added. “But the benefits are far-reaching: Flexibility, agility, body control, balance. And your calves and forearms are going to be solid.”
What you will need
The vast majority of facilities with climbing walls will have the gear you need available for rent. But if you really dedicate yourself to the activity, it’s worth considering investing in your own equipment.
- Shoes: These kicks have special grip/adhesion qualities, allowing you to securely slot your foot into cracks, slabs and edges. They usually are flexible but appropriately supported to minimize pressure on the Achilles tendon. For the most part, a pair will cost somewhere between $70 and $150.
- Rope: These are special chords made from continuous filament nylon, which is stretchable like bungees without as much spring. The average cost is about $200, according to Lofthouse.
- Harness: These protective sheaths made of straps and belts go around your waist, groin area and thighs. They contain tie-in points and belay loops. REI carries models ranging from about $35 to $125.
- Chalk: This is a necessary but cheap palm coating. Fine grind costs only a few dollars, but portable pouches are available for around $15 or $20 at sporting goods stores.
- Miscellaneous: Slings, runners, carabiners and quickdraws are common jargon. These all are pieces of your anchoring system. If you get serious about climbing, you’ll get comfy cozy with these items.
How to do it
- Stretch. Just like any other sport, this will help prevent injury, said Ian Blakesley, assistant facility manager at Vertical Endeavors. Your fingers and tendons will be better prepared for the challenge if you do this.
- Don’t forget to breathe. Holding in the air will make your body tense, Blakesley said.
- Don’t hug the rock too hard. “This can keep you from moving around and seeing solutions,” Lofthouse said.
- Maintain three points of contact. Make sure two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot are planted on the rock, Morelli said. You don’t want to get stuck hanging from one arm.
- Use your bones.
“Let your skeleton bear weight rather than your muscle,” Blakesley said. “If you’re hanging and your arm is extended straight out rather than bending your elbow, that’s a more efficient use of energy.”
This strategy allows you to “relax on your body’s foundation” and helps avoid muscle tears, Morelli said.
- Let your lower body do the work. “People are always under the assumption that your arms are the most important component, but the key is to use your legs as much as possible,” Blakesley said.
- Shake it out. “If you get a nice hold, let go with one hand and get the blood flowing. Then repeat with your other hand,” Blakesley said.
- Give yourself some rest days between climbs. You should practice two to four times a week, but you want to space out the physical exertion, Blakesley said.