Rock climbing is exciting to watch and do, but if you haven’t really begun and watched it for the first time, it can also be a little intimidating to watch. I know that many friends I have were initially shy about going to a gym and starting to learn rock climbing in front of many strangers. Gyms also don’t have the best reputation for being learner-friendly places. But climbing gyms are different from regular gyms, and I have met tons of friendly sports climbers who are very eager to help and teach. One question remains, how hard is rock climbing? The question lacks details, and it’s kind of unspecific, but I’ll try to answer it in this post.
How hard is rock climbing? It’s as hard as you make it. There are straightforward routes that feel like a ladder in your garden. And there are challenging routes and boulder problems that you need to train months for. The good thing is that almost everybody can start, and if you go to a climbing or bouldering gym there are always some routes and problems that suit your ability. And from there on, you can gradually improve.
Once you reach a specific grade of difficulty in climbing, you might not want to improve anymore, and that’s fine. Depending on your body type and weight, improving beyond certain grade can involve a lot of training, and not everyone wants to spend the time. But that’s fine, there are a lot of routes of every ability and if you’re just out there for fun, why give yourself a hard time? On the other hand, if you want to keep improving a sound training system is essential, I tried to explain it in this article.
How Hard is Rock Climbing? What skills are needed?
When you rock climb and boulder you need 5 skills. The more skill needed from the individual aspects, the harder the climbing becomes.
Most moves require some strength
Longer routes and continuous climbing will need endurance
If you want to tackle the crux, i.e., the hardest part, of gradually increasing difficulty, you will need to solve problems with creativity
Sports climbing, traditional climbing, and alpine climbing need technical skills involving ropework, knots, and handling of gear
All the disciplines need courage and motivation, especially if you leave your personal comfort zone
Endurance: The engine that keeps you going when rock climbing or bouldering
If you want to become a decent climber, you need finger strength. Even though many people focus on training their fingers way too early in their climbing career, and fingers that give out are typically a sign of bad technique in beginners. But at some point, your fingers will become a limiting factor. You need to keep practicing, and then you will extend the time you can spend climbing without fingers giving out. There are good techniques to help reduce the force on your fingers, like climbing with extended arms and maintaining proper hip position. For more information about this, read here. Generally, in terms of endurance, multi-pitch rock climbing needs more endurance than sports climbing and sports climbing needs more endurance than bouldering.
No matter what you do, at some grade rock climbing routes and boulder problems need a strong grip. The easiest thing you can do to increase endurance is to climb often and train things like traversing. You can also do hangboard training, see my article about a quick DIY hangboard setup for your home, and use grip strengtheners.
Strength: A limit for power moves and if you lack technique
Most easy climbing routes like a US 5.5, 5.6 or V0 boulders don’t really need a lot of strength. If you can climb a household ladder, you’re probably strong enough. And most boulder and climbing gyms have a lot of routes of these grades as a lot of people are beginners. It can help to train pull-ups to improve faster, but if you continually fail to climb these routes because of strength, it’s probably your technique that lacks. If you’re a regular person to train pull-ups, you shouldn’t have difficulties to reach 5.8 or 5.9 or 5a, 5b in french grading.
Climbing definitely needs upper body strength, and even though you have to practice leg technique and proper core and footwork are super crucial, at some point, the upper body will become a factor. But not like you think, there are almost zero bodybuilders or powerlifter type of climbers. Instead, you need muscles that can hold you statically for long periods of time and then quickly and swiftly explode for dynamic moves. That’s why most professional rock climbers have very low levels of body fat. The technique is key, though, and if you see youngsters climbing hard problems faster and better than you, it’s almost safe to assume that they master the technique better. If you know how to mechanically approach a problem and use the body resources you have perfectly, strength will play a lesser role.
On the other hand, if you have no technique, raw strength will limit you. Look how most beginners climb, especially if they are gym bros: No legwork, lots of pull-ups and they usually burn out after 2-3 routes with arm pump. It really pays to know how to grip a hold correct and when and if to use heel hooks and advanced moves like flags and turns.
Problem Solving + Creativity: Bouldering and Climbing is like a 3D puzzle for your body
The biggest muscle involved in rock climbing of any kind and bouldering is your brain. It’s the aspect I really love rock climbing for. I think it’s an amazing way to forget work and other things, as climbing needs immense focus and dedication. Granted that indoor rock climbing takes some of the puzzle aspects away, with its color-coded routes, but even here challenges for your brain arise. Finding the right body position and grip sequence can be really hard. And a lot of times you will feel yourself watching good climbers in awe, thinking, “why didn’t I come up with this solution?”. By the way, the solution to a rock climbing problem is called beta.
Outdoor climbing is where this puzzle becomes really interesting. There are usually tons of possible holds, and only every now and then do you see chalk marks. You really need to develop an eye for good holds, and it helps to go through the route mentally before you try. An easy trick is to “climb” a route some times mentally before you actually try it and then try to notice the difference between your mental climb and the reality. You will be surprised by how many different routes are once you’re doing them for real.
The harder a route is, or a problem in bouldering, the longer you need to solve it. Easy routes can be done onsight usually, but harder routes need some thought and practice. The process of learning a route with its intricacies is called projecting. Read more about correct “projecting of a route” here.
It’s an art that you need to practice too!
Technical Skills needed
Some types of rock climbing need more technical skills than others. The least technical discipline, by far is bouldering. You only need some shoes and know how to fall. In the gym, even falling is usually not a problem as the shock-absorbing ground is usually fine for fall heights up to 2-3 meter. If you don’t want to learn about knots and belaying and carabiners and have no money to spend on a harness, go bouldering indoors. Outdoor bouldering, however, needs a crash pad and some knowledge how to use it, plus you need someone to spot you, so that’s a bit more involved.
Indoor top-rope climbing is the next easiest thing to do in terms of technical skills. Besides the correct belaying technique, which you can learn in under one hour, and the basic double figure 8 knots to tie into your harness you need nothing else. It becomes more challenging when you start to climb outdoors, where you need to know how to build a correct anchor (if you don’t know how to read here), and once you get into lead climbing, you will also know how to place quickdraws. It’s also when you need to think about cleaning a route, which means removing the anchor on the top and setting things up to be lowered down by your belayer after finishing a route.
When you master sport climbing in the lead, you can think about traditional climbing. Traditional climbing means you place your own safety gear such as nuts and bolts and cams. This is also when most people start climbing multi-pitch routes, so you need advanced anchors. Multi-pitch climbing, solo top-roping, etc. are other disciplines of climbing that involve advanced gear.
Motivation and Courage
When I started rock climbing, I actually began to do bouldering. I was just too afraid of heights initially. But by working my way up to higher boulder problems in the gym, at some point, I was ready to try an indoor rock climbing gym. Man, to this day, I remember how sweaty my hand palms were… I also did some canyoning and started rappelling down cliffs to work on my fear of heights. If you’re bothered by the height, I think exposing yourself to it gradually more is the best way to fight it.
I’m apparently not the only person, see this article about exposing yourself to cure anxieties. Once you’re comfortable with boulders of all sort inside the gym, get a harness, and do some indoor top rope. The good thing about top-rope climbing is that you can actually train to take falls in a very controlled way: Just have your partner lower you once you finished a route, and tell him or her to give you some slack, then let go of the wall. You will probably only fall for 5 inches or so, and there is no danger, but it will get you desensitized to the height and sensation of falling quickly.
Once you gain confidence, you will be quickly going up and down without hesitation, and at that point, you can start lead climbing. The longer you keep climbing, the less the irrational fear will become. There will always be some slight risk involved, but if you want, climbing can be a very safe sport. You just need some courage to enjoy it, and by following my approach, you will gain that courage if you don’t already have it!
Are traditional climbing and multi-pitch climbing harder than sports climbing?
There are some styles of climbing that are harder than others. When it comes to the strength needed, bouldering reigns supreme. There are some very dynamic and challenging moves involved when you try hard boulder problems, and strength will become a limiting factor here. But in terms of endurance, multi-pitch and traditional climbing are harder than sport climbing.
Top-rope climbing is the easiest of all, as you can take a break whenever you want during the climb, and if you have no endurance left, you can simply lower down. The risk of falling is almost zero too, as the belayer can keep adjusting the rope while the climber moves up, so the highest fall that occurs is not more than a foot usually, including rope stretch.
In terms of route difficulties – it’s very varied. There are some long routes of difficulty 5.8 that feel harder than shorter 5.10 routes. It comes down to your personal preferences – if you like slab climbing, a 5.8 slab route might feel easier than a 5.7 overhung route. That’s why you should always keep in mind your personal strengths and weaknesses and work on them to become an overall good climber.
What do I need to bring to the table to learn rock climbing or bouldering?
Rock climbing is pretty straight forward in theory: You climb a wall up until you reach the end of the route. But there is theory and technical details that you can learn to become a better climber. Just read my blog to find more tips, watch youtube videos, and visit other sources like climbing.com and rockandice.com. I would also recommend you to join a rock climbing or bouldering gym; it’s the perfect way to work on your skills in a controlled environment. A bouldering gym brings the further advantage that you can go train solo, which is nice if you and your friends have busy schedules.
If you start out, getting a mentor is a good idea too, as it helps you improve even faster. Most people I know are always keen to teach and help new climbers. I think the hardest part to learn is to work n your fear of height and falling, which is typically a thing most beginners have. If you don’t consider yourself one out of 100, it’s also good to book a climbing course to learn the details of knots, belaying, and general safety with climbing gear. If you lack knowledge, it can be dangerous.
How hard is it to become good at rock climbing or bouldering?
If you want to become really good at climbing, it takes years. Like any other serious sport, it will need dedication and systematic training. But the cool part is, you can always climb with better climbers. This is not true for other sports like running or football, where you won’t have a good time if you cannot keep up with the pace or skill of the other.
If you go rock climbing with very good rock climbers, there might be some routes which are too hard for you. But you can always let them try the route first, and then follow them top-rope. By alternating the belaying, you can also let them work on their hard routes, and they belay you for easier routes. You only need two ropes in this case, as you don’t want to switch the rope to the other route all the time.
If you climb with better climbers than you are, you will also quickly learn from their good technique and execution, becoming a stronger and faster climber in progress. If you just want to progress fast, I recommend focussing solely on climbing often and many different routes until you reach 5.10 (french 5c), and then include systematic training workouts like campus board sessions and grip strength training.
Which grade do I need to be a “good” climber?
If you start out, your goal should be to become comfortable with lead climbing 5.8 (french 5a). Amateur climbers who just work on their climbing during the weekend usually reach grades like 5.10 (french 5c). If you hit the bouldering or rock climbing gym frequently and regularly, you will probably get up to 5.12 or higher within 3-5 years (french 7a).
After that, it becomes a different story. Becoming a 5.13+ climber needs years of hard and daily training and also the mental ability to read routes correctly. These are also the grades where natural preposition like ape index, weight, etc. come into play. The current maximum is 5.15d (french 9c). There are only a handful of athletes around the world who climb at this level, so don’t beat yourself up about it!
Do you need to be really fit to start rock climbing or bouldering?
No, certainly not. It doesn’t harm if you are not morbidly obese, but I have seen heavy climbers tackle really hard problems with technical finesse. Most people who can climb a ladder can also rock climb, and since there is no weight limit, even if you are a little heavy, you can start. The only thing you should keep in mind is the weight of your belayer, as too big of a difference can be a problem.
When you advance, you will notice how you become stronger in your arms and core region, and people who regularly climb are among the strongest and most flexible people in the general population.
Can You rock climb with a disability?
Yes, you can, there are people with no legs who successfully climb. It’s just a matter of your personal disability what kind of routes suit you best. But even with missing fingers or hands, you can still climb slab routes. I think you should definitely give it a try, even if you feel a disability holds you back. There is a good chance that you will have a lot of fun nonetheless!
Are Rock Climbing and bouldering Dangerous?
If done right rock climbing is pretty safe. Yes, there are accidents, but if you and your partner learn to belay correctly and keep the basics in mind, you can minimize the risk. Indoor climbing is pretty safe, with indoor bouldering probably being the safest. Outdoor climbing is a bit more difficult, but if you take a course, I think climbing is most likely safer than riding a bike or motorbike.
Other Related Questions
Can I Lose some Weight by Rock Climbing or Bouldering?
Sure, you can. However, if your goal is only to lose weight, it might be a better idea to go running or to bicycle. Climbing is not a cardio sport, and it will help you to get stronger and more flexible and maybe motivate you to lose more weight in the process of becoming a stronger climber.
Is Bouldering or Rock Climbing an Extreme Sport?
How often I heard this question. The general public is influenced by movies like “Free Solo” etc., but in reality, I wouldn’t consider climbing more extreme than mountain biking.
Can my kids start rock climbing and bouldering?
If they’re 1-2 years old, yes they can. You can even build them their own little climbing wall in their room, as a 2-year-old doesn’t need a lot of height to have fun. The good part about climbing is that there is no age limit – you can have fun no matter if you’re 80 or 4 years old.
Kids can start climbing as young as 1-2 years old, especially on smaller climbing walls. Many professional climbers started getting into the sport in their early teens. There’s no age limit for rock climbing.
If you liked this article, have a look at some of my other articles. Maybe you’re about to start climbing and need some good shoes, well I tested them, and these are the top climbing shoes for 2020. Or you need some advice on how to prepare for bouldering and climbing, read more here.
Feel free to leave me a comment; I’m always happy to get some feedback!