In the movies, rock climbing is often depicted as a sport of dramatic one-armed pull-ups. You might see Tom Cruise or Sylvester Stallone summit a precipice using only upper-body strength and flinty determination, but in reality, rock climbing is more like chess, a series of short pre-calculated moves that progress you to your final goal. There’s no game-day heroics, no giant leaps across the abyss. While rock climbing does demand a certain type of fitness from its athletes, it’s technique that propels climbers to the upper echelons of their sport.
One of the main differences between the climbers of today and those of 20 or 30 years ago is that the younger generation will most likely have been introduced to the sport in a gym rather than outdoors. Indoor rock climbing has maintained steady popularity for the last 15 years, and for people like American professional climber Ethan Pringle, who grew up in mountain-challenged San Francisco, it was the first point of entry into the sport.
“In some ways, it’s the best way to get into it,” says 25-year old Pringle, who is sponsored by Mountain Hardwear and has completed hundreds of climbs ranked 5.13 or 5.14 all over the world. (The most difficult is 5.15, which has only recently been a technical designation and of which there are very few in the U.S.) “Indoor climbing teaches you basic safety and how to move your body over vertical terrain.”
If you want to attempt the sport — indoors or outdoors — here are a few things Pringle recommends that you keep in mind:
It’s Not All About Strength
“Rock climbing is not nearly as much about strength as it is about learning to move on the wall in an efficient manner,” Pringle says. “There is much more progress to be gained in technique and footwork than in getting stronger.”
Remember to Use Your Feet
Pringle believes that the most important lesson for new climbers, besides basic safety, is to learn how to use their feet. Beginner climbers typically try to pull themselves up a wall using only upper-body strength. “When you are climbing on a vertical wall, 90 percent of your weight should be on your feet, and your hands are just there for balance,” Pringle says.
Train Your Muscles
Rock climbing puts a huge emphasis on the muscles of the back, biceps and shoulders. To avoid injuries related to muscle imbalances, Pringle makes sure to train his chest and triceps in the weight room. He also trains the extensor muscles in his forearms with some reverse wrist curls because the flexor muscles get so much use while climbing.
Watch the Scale
Rock climbing is a strength-to-weight ratio sport, meaning you don’t have to worry about the numbers you put up in the weight room as much as the number on the scale. Pringle characterizes himself as one of the “beefier” climbers, at 150 pounds and 5 feet 10 inches tall. So don’t worry about bulking up; a better way to get stronger for rock climbing is to simply lose 5 pounds of useless weight.