The First 4 Things You Should Do When Learning to Rock Climb
I know that learning to rock climb can seem intimidating, especially if you don’t have a mentor to show you the ropes. But rock climbing is surprisingly accessible if you know how to begin, and I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to be a super-athlete to start learning how to climb. Here are the top three excuses that I hear from friends who want to learn, but are scared to get out there for their first time:
- I don’t have someone to go with.
- I don’t have any/enough upper body strength.
- I’m afraid of heights/ don’t trust myself/ don’t want to mess up.
After hearing these excuses WAY too many times, I’m going to lay out 4 super simple ways that you can overcome whatever is holding you back and start learning to rock climb. You can do these things on your own, without being a super athlete, and while giving yourself the room to take baby steps (if you need to).
Here are 4 ways to start learning to rock climb:
#1 Start with Bouldering in a Gym
Bouldering is a type of climbing that doesn’t use ropes and keeps you lower to the ground. There are many gyms that are specifically designed just for bouldering, like Boulder, CO’s The Spot. However, many rock climbing gyms offer bouldering alongside sport climbing (which requires you to learn some extra rope skills). Since the walls are shorter, it doesn’t require quite as much endurance, especially for beginner-level routes.
The reason that I recommend learning to boulder before you learn to top rope or sport climb is twofold:
- First, it’s just less expensive, so there’s less of an upfront investment. All you need to go bouldering indoors is a pair of rock shoes (you can rent these for a few bucks at the gym) and maybe some chalk (usually available for purchase at the gym, chalk is used to help add friction to your hands).
- Second, you don’t need a partner. You can go to a bouldering gym on your own for the first time. This may seem intimidating, but the community is actually really welcoming to newcomers on the whole. And the secret is: everyone is bad at climbing when they start. Some people are stronger than others, but that really (really) doesn’t make them better at climbing.
When you first go to the bouldering gym, here are some things to know ahead of time that will make you more confident:
- First, know that the people at the desk will usually explain some basics, like the rules of the gym, especially if you tell them that you’re a newbie. Ask as many questions as you want; they’re there to help you!
- It’s good to know the gym’s rating system before diving in. I know of a few different systems, but here’s a quick primer on the most common ones. Most gyms, in my experience, use either the Hueco- (or “V-“) scale or their own rating system. If it’s unique to the gym, you’ll need to ask someone to point you to some beginner-level routes. If using the Hueco-scale, jump on a VB or V0 (“vee-zero”) to get started.
- Look up some basic techniques on YouTube, if you have the time, but accept that it’s going to be challenging at first.
- Don’t let anyone make you feel bad. There might be some great climbers pulling off feats of strength all around you. Just remember that they started somewhere too, and work from where you are.
TIP: In most gyms, routes or “problems” are delineated using colored flags stuck next to different holds on the walls. Look for the start of a route where the grade (“VB”) is listed, then try to get to the top of the wall using only holds flagged with the same color as the start hold(s). You may need to use other holds at first, and that’s totally fine!
Bouldering gyms are usually pretty social places, and if you see someone climbing at a similar level to you, strike up a conversation! Often, this is the best way to meet climbing partners and people to learn with or learn from.
If you don’t feel confident enough to start totally alone, but don’t know any climbers who’d be willing to take you along, find a friend who’s excited to learn with you. Having a friend to laugh with at the beginning can make the whole experience a lot more fun.
If possible, try to climb regularly — once per week is a great place to start. If you’re located in Boulder, The Spot offers a discounted entry fee ($10) on Friday evenings, and you can even join us for the free Women’s Wilderness Bouldering Meetup!
TIP: Almost every gym that I know of will let you in free for your first visit, so if there are several gyms in your area, check out a different one each week. Not only will this help you learn more, but it can also help you decide which one has the best vibe, before committing to a month-long pass or more.
#2 Start Building Full Body Strength
Yes, climbing might look like it takes a ton of upper body strength, but it is really a full-body sport. You can absolutely start climbing BEFORE you can EVER do a pullup. I promise!
Women, in general, have a hard time maintaining upper body strength, but what we lack in biceps we can often make up for (and more) by having a strong core (abs) and strong legs. Good climbing technique requires a lot of pushing motions (glutes, thighs) and balance, and you may even find that your lack of arm and/or shoulder strength may help encourage good technique early on, because you won’t rely on your hands alone. Climbing is all about EFFICIENCY.
However, gaining some strength in key areas will help you gain confidence as you begin to climb more regularly. Here are my top 5 exercises for beginning climbers.
Plank: Core strength is so crucial for so many sports because it is the foundation for balance and control. Really, there are a ton of great core exercises for climbing, but the plank is my pick because it’s simple, easy to do without a gym, and can be modified in about a million ways to be challenging for everyone. Here’s a guide for how to do a plank with perfect form so that you don’t injure your lower back.
Squats. Ladies with power thighs — you know who you are — get ready to take that power to another level. Squats, both with and without weight, are a great basic exercise to build the power you’ll need to push your body up a wall.
Start with a high number of reps with no (or low) weight, then build up to holding a 10-20lb dumbbell or plate, and eventually, you’ll be ready to squat with a barbell. It’s likely that you’ll maintain this strength better than in the biceps or shoulders, plus, having strong glutes and thighs will help you run, jump, ski, hike, or do whatever else you like to do.
Pull-downs. When I started climbing, I was SO intimidated by the pull-up. I’m a busty lady, so I felt like I had a lot to pull and not a lot to pull with, if you know what I mean. But there are some more basic variations to the pull-up that can help you build up to it.
First, bring a chair or box over to the pull-up bar. Hold the pull-up bar with your hands facing away from you and your thumbs on the same side as your fingers, and use the added height to start at what’s usually the ‘top’ of a pull-up. Step off of the box/chair and lower yourself down as slowly as you can. Step back up on the chair and repeat. (I bought a cheap bar to put in my apartment so that no one could watch me doing this and making an ass of myself). I swear that this exercise, if done enough, will allow you to build enough strength to eventually start doing half- and then full pull-ups.
Another thing to note is that I find chin-ups to be a bit easier than pull-ups. These exercises build different muscles, so learn the difference, and do some of each to figure out where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Lock-offs are another good way to build strength if you can’t finish a full pull-up yet.
Dead Hangs. Although pull-ups and pull-downs will increase your hand strength, simple, timed hangs can go a long way to building up those fingers (and will help with your progression toward the pull-up). Try 30 seconds at first, and build your way up to hanging for 1 or 2 minutes. Add weight if that ever gets too easy.
Burpees: Contrary to popular belief, climbing is an aerobic sport and it can get your heart-rate up pretty quickly. Build up some stamina and short-burst strength by doing as many burpees as you can in a minute. Rest for a minute, then repeat, if you can. Don’t worry if it’s not a large number at first, or if you can’t quite do a full push-up. Work on push-ups separately and you’ll increase the number of reps as you go. Burpees are a great way to get in some heart-pumping exercise in a very short amount of time.
These five exercises are a fantastic start to gaining the strength you need to climb like a boss. You can do all of them at home with nothing but a pull-up bar, which you can buy on Amazon for $20 or find for free in a local park.
#3 Learn to Belay with an ATC (and Find a Partner)
OK, so this is two steps. Once you move from bouldering into top-roping, you’re going to need a partner (or four). Choosing people to climb with can be tough, but to start, find a friend you trust, and learn to belay together so that you know that you share similar risk-tolerances and levels of knowledge.
I highly recommend learning to belay before you ever enter a gym. This is by far the simplest step, but also quite possibly the most important and skipping it is a HUGE MISTAKE that many beginning climbers make that can put them (and their partners) at risk for nasty — potentially catastrophic — falls.
A belayer is the person who controls the rope attached (at the other end) to the climber that will stop that climber from falling to the ground if she lets go of the wall. This is a very important job and not something to take lightly, but it is a fairly simple skill to learn and maintain. An ATC or “Air Traffic Controller” is a simple belay device that adds friction to the rope to help you ‘catch’ your climber. There are a lot of shiny, fancy belay devices, but this one is my favorite for beginners for several reasons:
- It’s cheap. (You can get one for about $15-20 bucks).
- It’s simple. It’s hard to mess up once you understand the basic principles.
- It makes you do the work so that you learn the system inside and out. Some of the fancier devices (such as the Gri-Gri) have very high rates of misuse, especially with beginning climbers, because people think that the device will do all of the work. It won’t. You’re the belayer, and you need to be paying attention at all times. Learning with a simple device can help you ingrain that knowledge and do it right.
Unless you have a highly competent friend who’s able to teach you how to belay, I recommend signing up for a class at the gym or, if you’re in Boulder, joining us for our Women’s Climbing Circle. Most gyms offer short and relatively inexpensive sessions with expert climbers who will teach you to belay and help you get “belay certified” so that you and your friend can climb in the gym.
As you begin to transition into top roping in a gym, it will likely behoove you to purchase a few key pieces of equipment, as rental prices can add up over time. Here’s the short list of what you’ll need and how much it’s likely to cost if you purchase it new:
- Shoes ($80-$150, depending on the model)
- Harness ($50-70, at the low end)
- Belay Device/ ATC ($15-20)
- Locking Carabiner: Pear Shaped, Large ($10ish)
- Chalk bag ($15-20ish, depending on how stylish you want to be)
TOTAL: about $200-$250 if everything is brand new
If someone tries to talk you into buying more than this, be suspicious. Keep an eye out for another in-depth post from us about what to buy when you’re just starting out. Meanwhile, visit your local gear shop and talk to a pro. If you’re in Boulder, hit up some of the amazing folks at Neptune Mountaineering for some local knowledge.
#4 Take our Intro to Outdoor Climbing Course!
…Or find trustworthy and knowledgeable partners who can teach you about climbing outside.
A wise friend once told me that it’s glamorous to be self-taught, but the people who seek out training from others learn faster, use smarter technique, and ultimately grow to be better climbers. Listening to this advice has lead me to climb with some amazing people who have taught me so much in such a short amount of time. Climbing outside can be particularly intimidating, but it’s also one of the most rewarding sports I’ve ever tried.
This course has three sessions, each offered for just $45 (!!), and our instructors include hardcore climbers like Madaleine Sorkin and Kris Norbraten-Duvernay who are ready to take your climbing to the next level. They’ll teach you to set up rope systems and help you learn about the gear necessary to climb on real rock. Plus, they’ll help get you and your partner stoked to venture out on your own.
If you’ve been climbing in the gym for a while at this point, you could also check out our Gym-to-Crag course, where you can learn all about rope systems for outdoor climbing, as well as anchors, and how to sport climb on lead.
Do you have questions about learning to rock climb? Ask them in the comments below, or subscribe to our blog for more great articles.