Rock climbing challenges many muscles in your body in a way that few other sports do, so today we’ll talk about six muscles used in rock climbing! These muscles will be taxed and pushed to the limit on the wall.
Rock climbing is a phenomenal full-body workout. One that taxes your lats, grip, core, and legs in a way few other sports are able to. Pretty much your entire body is involved in getting from the ground to the top of the wall!
Muscles Used in Rock Climbing
Don’t be fooled, rock climbing is a full-body workout that will challenge muscles and joints you didn’t know you had. There are some muscles that will be more challenged than others though, so we will focus on six different muscles.
- Lats and Shoulders
Lats and Shoulders
The latissimus dorsi muscle, aka the “lat”, is a broad muscle that covers the area between the shoulder and the lower back. It is primarily responsible for back movements, like pulling or lifting.
Especially when your arms are straight, your lats are engaged and it is literally impossible not to use this muscle while climbing. With a lat pulldown or a seated row, you can literally feel this muscle working. It is literally the main engine that helps you to pull everything together. You will literally use this muscle when climbing up or down.
This is the one muscle that will be taking the brunt of your workout while climbing, so take care of it!
The muscles in your shoulders all will be working to stabilize and support your biceps, lats, and forearms. While we won’t call out individual pieces, know that the combination of your lats and shoulders and their strength will have a huge effect on your climbing.
The biceps help pull your body to your hands and for many “bros”, the bicep curl is might be your favorite gym exercise. While climbing, you will no doubt use the biceps when you are pulling yourself up and this is either the second or third most used upper body muscle group.
Grip comes from the muscles in your forearms and ligaments, tendons, and smaller muscles of the hand. Thus, it’s no surprise that your forearms need to be strong for you to be able to get up the wall.
To improve your forearm strength, try squeezing a tennis ball or pinching a 10lbs plate. Doing pull-ups is also a great way to improve your grip and lats, so use those as often as you can!
There are many muscles that make up your “core” but most people think of their abs when they think of core strength. Many sports require a strong core, and rock climbing is no different. The abs help with stabilization, protecting your back, balance, and also help with picking up and moving the feet.
The quadriceps, or quads, are the muscles on the front of your legs that connect your femurs to the pelvis. While you won’t use them as much as your arms in many styles of climbing, when you are pushing against a hold or raising your leg you’ll often be engaging your quads.
The calves are the muscles on the back of your lower leg. They are used in climbing to push your body up the wall, while you pull with your arms and hands. They also help to flex the foot. Often, when you are in a tricky foot position it will be your calf that holds the foot in the position you want it.
Slab climbing is notoriously hard on your calves, and many people are very surprised they walk around with tight calves for days after climbing on the slab.
How is Muscular Strength Used In Rock Climbing?
Muscular strength is used in rock climbing by how long your muscles can perform. Muscular endurance actually is much more important than pure muscular strength. Unless you are bouldering, climbs often last as long as 10 minutes and sometimes much longer. Thus, you need your muscles to keep strong over a long period of time.
Think of a sprinter vs. a mile distance runner. The sprinter is super powerful but can only hold that pace for short bursts. A runner who competes in the mile must maintain a pace for a much longer period of time.
How Can Climbers Improve Muscular Endurance?
Improving muscular endurance has a lot to do with time under tension. In rock climbing, you’re always putting your muscles under tension and many climbs last for a very long time. Thus, the longer your muscles can maintain a high level of tension over a long period of time, the better they will perform and the more endurance they will have.
This video demonstrates different ways to work on improving muscular endurance:
Tips for Improving Muscular Endurance
Here are a few tips and ideas that you can incorporate into your training to help you build muscular endurance!
- Don’t Rest!: Try climbing much easier, but much longer routes to increase your time under tension
- Train off the Wall: Grab a pullup bar and a few times a day hang from it as long as possible, grab a hangboard and slowly start to strengthen your forarms and hands, do high volume calf raises. Anything to tax the muscles you’ll need in climbing over a longer period of time.
- Eat Right: Not only is food fuel, but a 150lbs climber is at an advantage over a 200lbs climber. Gravities rules, not ours!
- Prioritize Recovery!: When you aren’t climbing you need to relax your hands, shoulders and legs as much as possible to let them recover. Also, make sure you’er getting plenty of good sleep.
If you keep these things in mind and try to make them a priority you will see your muscular endurance improve. This isn’t something that will change overnight, but with time and effort, you will develop the endurance you want!
Can Rock Climbing Build Muscle?
Absolutely! Elite climbers, like gymnasts, often have some of the highest strength-weight ratios of any athlete or in any sport. Climbers often have shredded upper backs and grips due to the constant use of these muscles.
Now, you will never look like a bodybuilder as a climber. Climbers build muscle for strength, not size. In fact, the larger a climber is the harder climbing can be. Bigger muscles tend to be less flexible and muscle weighs more than fat, which is actually a detriment to climbing.
Because climbing uses mostly pulling muscles in the upper body and pushing muscles in the lower, it is easy for climbers to develop nagging overuse or imbalance injuries.
We always recommend supplementing some other form of light exercise to balance out some of these deficiencies and make yourself a better, more functional overall athlete. Something like Crossfit has a lot of carryovers and helps to balance the body.
The Last Pitch
Climbing is an activity that requires the use of your muscles to achieve your goal. Knowing which muscles are most important, and doing exercises to build those muscles can help you perform better in climbing.
It’s important for climbers to understand the role muscle plays in the sport, work on improving their strength, and make time for recovery so they can be ready for all their goals.
Growing up in Fresno, CA, Yosemite has always called to Robert. From camping trips as a kid, he quickly became a regular to the parks granite walls.
His favorite, and most difficult climb to date is Serenity Crack at the Royal Arches in Yosemite, rated a 5.10d. Robby spends most of his time bouldering these days, and loves the Camp 4 Boulder area.