Indoor Rock Climbing Can Provide an Alternative for More Traditional Workout Routines

By Desmond Bieler
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I'm not sure if Jimmy Galindo, my rock-climbing instructor, meant to be funny when he told me that the sport involved "a steep learning curve," but that line's so good, I'm swiping it.

Indoor rock climbing: It's a lot of fun, but you might say there's a steep learning curve.

How steep? Well, Galindo's Sportrock in Alexandria has walls as high as 40 feet, similar to the other two gyms I visited, Earth Treks in Columbia (44 feet) and Results on Capitol Hill (38 feet). As for a curve, many of those walls have one -- one that bends outward toward the climber, who, several stories up, probably doesn't need an extra challenge.

And make no mistake, rock climbing is a challenge. I have the aching forearms to prove it.

But it's not the kind of workout you might think it is. Jim Stiehl, a professor in the sport and exercise science school at the University of Northern Colorado and the co-author of "Climbing Walls: A Complete Guide," says in an e-mail exchange: "Many people who have never tried indoor climbing mistakenly believe that its primary prerequisite is extraordinary upper body strength and, therefore, is the sole province of strong athletes. When climbing, however, technique is often more important than strength."

Or as Galindo put it, "My pet peeve is when people say, 'Oh, I have no arm muscles; I can't do that.' "

And if a MisFit like me (I'm filling in while Lenny Bernstein is away) can scale a wall, you can, too. Heck, I'm the type of guy who, if a drill instructor demanded that I drop and give him 20, would drop and give him 20 bucks in hopes of bribing my way out of it. But I got up there. Well, it took some doing (and enough perspiration to fill Shaquille O'Neal's bathtub) to get up the 40-foot wall, but eventually it happened. And along the way I realized how climbing can be very good for endurance, as well as the leg, back, shoulder and aforementioned forearm muscles.

Upper-body benefits are nice (okay, very nice), but it's likely that rock climbing's emphasis on what Earth Treks' Julian Peri described as "doing lots of obscure movements in a functional manner" is what makes it most attractive to fitness buffs looking for an alternative to their regular workouts.

Those movements also reflect the distinctive mental aspect of the sport, which Lillian Chao-Quinlan, president of Sportrock, likens to "a moving chess game." The climber has to think at least two steps ahead, in the sense that if he puts his right hand there, then where's the left going to go after that?

Actually, the mental aspect kicks in right off the bat, as would-be climbers first need to ingest a fair amount of technical know-how. Galindo spent about an hour and a half just showing my group the ropes -- literally -- before anyone so much as proffered a toe in the direction of a wall. That is a good thing, as proper use of ropes, carabiners and other specialized equipment can mean the difference between a secure perch high above the floor and what Galindo repeatedly referred to as "paperwork."

My group learned how to tie a rope to the harness each of us had to wear, and we learned how to belay a climber. Belaying is controlling the rope as a climber works his way up a wall, keeping the rope taut or slackening it as need be; usually, the belayer is stationed on the floor, with the rope already slung over the top of the wall. The gyms all require belayers to be certified, part of a reassuring emphasis on safety. Students were allowed to belay during the class under the supervision of the instructor.

And although it might seem necessary to get some big lug to keep a strong hold on the rope, just about anyone can belay effectively. For instance, my partner, Maile Zeng of Alexandria, was a . . . well, "little lug" probably isn't the way to put it, so let's just say she's considerably smaller than I am. The point is, she had little trouble keeping me up in the air when I fell away from the wall.

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