Sport climbing has made huge gains in popularity recently, allowing many people unfamiliar with the sport to learn more about it. Compared with traditional rock climbing, which is more about getting to the top of a route, sport climbing involves high-intensity climbing on relatively short routes and emphasizes climbing’s physical aspects. Sport climbing routes can be found indoors or outdoors, on crags or on artificial walls at a gym or dedicated facility, and usually have protection (including bolts) already in place.
Given that sport climbing is more accessible than traditional rock climbing, both in terms of location and equipment costs, and it’s a fun full-body workout, it’s not surprising that more people are interested in trying it.
As with any new physical activity, sport climbing requires some preparation and training to make the most of it — and prevent injuries, says Joshua Dines, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in the Sports Medicine Institute at HSS. “Even though it may seem like more of a hobby, approach it like any sport, making sure to ease into it and warm up before a session.”
Ready to make the climb? Here are a few tips to help you get started.
As fun and exciting as high-level sport climbing may seem (and it is!) when you see it on TV, keep in mind that you’re watching highly trained athletes at the top of their field — so temper your expectations for your first few forays. “You’re seeing the best in the world!” Dr. Dines says. “Be smart and ease into it if you’ve never done it before.”
That means learning proper technique, for one. “Take lessons in a safe environment,” Dr. Dines says. “There are a ton of climbing gyms — these are a great place to start. They’re safe with soft floors, they cater to different skill levels, and there are instructors and other people in the community willing to help.”
Once you’ve learned the basics, start with brief climbs and slowly build up the duration and intensity of your climbs as your endurance increases. “The first time you go out, just go for a little bit, like a half hour,” Dr. Dines says. “Your muscles need to acclimate to the different movements. You’re stressing your body in a different way, using muscles you don’t use on an everyday basis.”
Be sure to pace yourself, using your body as a guide. “If you’re hurting, don’t do it,” Dr. Dines says. “If you’re fatiguing, your form will break down, which could lead to injury.”
Finally, make your goals realistic. “Getting to the top is not the goal,” Dr. Dines says. “As with lifting weights, if your plan is to do 10 reps, and you get hurt at eight, shut it down. Don’t push through hurt even if you haven’t reached the top.” That caution includes taking on more adventurous climbs. “As you get more comfortable, you can take your climbing outside, but it’s a bit more dangerous, with fewer safety mechanisms built in — so be careful.”
As with any sport, it’s essential to warm up and stretch beforehand to prepare yourself for the exertion to come. “Climbing is a full-body activity, so approach the warm-up the same as you would for basketball or soccer. Warm up the muscles, get your heartbeat up, and do some stretches,” Dr. Dines says.
After a few minutes of cardio (e.g., jumping jacks, a brief jog), try these moves to activate your shoulders, core, and lower body:
For days you’re not climbing, work on overall strengthening and mobility. “When you climb, you put your body into pretty weird positions,” Dr. Dines says. “It takes a ton of core strength and rotational mobility.” And while advanced climbers may prioritize finger grip and forearm strength, most beginners should focus on their whole body. “A rookie mistake is depending too much on the upper body,” Dr. Dines says. “Shoulders take on the brunt of climbing, but good climbers use their legs a ton.”
Try incorporating a few exercises that work the muscles around your rotator cuff, hamstrings and quadriceps.
Relative to traditional (or “trad”) climbing, sport climbing is relatively safe — falls, for one, are normal and expected as climbers work out moves. Still, it’s possible to hurt yourself, so take care to avoid injuries.
A hard fall can be disastrous, resulting in dislocated shoulders, broken bones and worse, depending on the climb. Avoiding injurious falls involves making sure you’re in a safe environment with proper equipment. “When you get in a harness before a climb, make sure it fits appropriately and you’re using it correctly,” Dr. Dines says. “As you level up and you get more aggressive, equipment becomes a huge factor.”
For most beginning climbers, overuse injuries are likelier than those incurred from a fall. “New climbers are prone to tendinitis in the rotator cuffs, elbows, and forearms and labrum tears in the shoulder,” Dr. Dines says. “These are the muscles so critical for climbing. Amateur climbers tend not to use their upper-body as effectively as experienced climbers.”
To avoid overuse injuries, build up your time and intensity slowly and pay attention to your body’s signals. “If you go from doing nothing to climbing a lot, your hands, wrists, and fingers could be sore,” Dr. Dines says. “If it takes you a couple of days to recover, be aware that maybe you overdid it a bit and climb a bit less next time.”
But there’s a difference between a bit of soreness that lasts a few days and a persistent hurt. “If something hurts when you’re doing it or it’s not getting better with time—five days later the pain is still there—get it checked out,” Dr. Dines says. “This is not ‘no pain, no gain.’ If you can’t get back to where you were before a climb, that’s an injury.”