your hip and torso muscles strain to keep your lower half against the wall. You arch back and reach out to grab the next grip – your thighs and calves burn with the effort of keeping you steady and balanced. A moment later, when your fingertips have secured its grip, there is a change in muscle mass that you call in to keep your purchase safe on the climbing wall.
The exercise is all about engaging your muscles – from your heart to your biceps and quads – and asking those muscles to work. And when it comes to activating and training a diverse range of muscles, few exercise rival rock climbing.
Climbing and bouldering, the name for climbing over low rock formations without a rope, involves “almost the entire musculature of the body,” says Jiří Baláš, researcher and professor at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, who conducted research on rock climbing. . While running, cycling, rowing, and most conventional gym workouts teach the body to perform repetitive, constant movements – either to build strength, increase cardiorespiratory fitness, or both – rock climbing is “a more complex movement,” Baláš says.
In fact, climbing is an infinitely variable series of movements. No climbing surface or route is the same as another, so the work you ask your muscles to do on a climb changes every time you train. This ensures that you are training a greater number of muscles. Research suggests that this type of dynamic muscle activation is much more difficult and tiring than simpler repetitive movements.
While all of the pushings, pulling and lifting aspects involved in climbing mirror aspects of resistance exercise, rock climbing is also great cardiovascular workout, says William Sheel, professor of kinesiology at the University of British Columbia in Canada. In a 2004 study he and his colleagues conducted on the physiology of rock climbing, “we found that climbers use a significant portion of their aerobic capacity,” he says. “The heart rate response was higher than we expected.
Sheel says that increasing your heart rate during a climb depends on how hard you push yourself. But regardless of your skill level, if the climb is difficult for you, your heart will work out.
Like anything that increases your heart rate, rock climbing also burns calories. Even if a 155-pound person climbs a few notches below “maximum exertion,” they will burn between eight and ten calories per minute while climbing, Baláš says, citing some of his own research. It’s almost equal to intense cardio workouts such as spinning. The fear component of climbing can further increase your heart rate and calorie expenditure.
There are even more health benefits. The balance and neuromuscular coordination necessary for rock climbing can strengthen your brain. A recent study from the University of North Florida found that activities that involve balance, muscle coordination, spatial orientation, and other aspects of climbing can dramatically improve a person’s working memory. , as well as other cognitive functions.
Studies have also linked the types of dynamic and balance-dependent movements used in rock climbing to improved coordination and other motor skills in people with neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. Some research has even shown that eight weeks of the block can significantly reduce the severity of depression.
Surprisingly, almost anyone can try it. Climbing walls – both natural and man-made, like those in an indoor climbing gym – have many levels of difficulty. “With the right harnesses and equipment, almost anyone can get started,” Sheel says.
Check with your doctor first if you have heart disease, especially if you are afraid of heights. But if you’re looking for a new way to build strength, coordination, and fitness, and train many of your body’s underworked muscles, adding a weekly boost to your regimen is a great way to do it.
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