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Indoor Rock Climbing 101

If you’re thinking of trying indoor climbing, know that it’s very natural to be intimidated at first. Any experienced climber has been there too. Below, you’ll find a ton of info about what you’ll probably see and hear in the gym your first time, which will (hopefully) make it a bit easier to get outside your comfort zone and up the wall. And yes, your forearms and hands are going to be sore in places you didn’t even know existed. It happens. If this article inspires you to to hit the climbing gym, but you don't want to go alone; join us for a workshop!

Before you go

There are really just two important things to keep in mind before your first climb, and they’re both super practical. One: Wear comfortable clothes you can really move in. You’re going to be stretching your limbs every which way, which is a thing you can’t really do in jeans. Two: Make sure your nails are trimmed. You don’t need to have super short nails to climb, but I’ve found that, as someone who has longer nails, keeping them trimmed down makes it easier to grip with my fingertips and also helps me not worry that I’m going to tear off a whole nail accidentally. Also, climbing is a great way to ruin a manicure, so don’t go right after you’ve had one.

When you get there

Most climbing gyms offer day passes and will give you a quick orientation so you know where everything is in the gym. You may then choose to do an intro session with a staff member, where they’ll belay you—control/anchor the rope from the ground while you climb—and help you get comfortable. If you’re going with an experienced friend who is belay-certified (you get certified by taking a class and passing a test), you may also choose to just hop right on the wall and have them help you. Any of these options are fine, and you should choose the one that makes you feel most comfortable. For most people, that’s probably getting a little professional help.

Typically, climbing gyms have both rope climbing and bouldering. Bouldering basically just means climbing on much shorter walls with denser crash pads below and requires only shoes, no harness; you can do it completely solo, so you might want to hop on the wall and give it a try when you first get there. It can help you get a feel for the handholds and how your toes really can grip onto the holds if you trust them.

The equipment

When you go climbing for the first time, you’ll rent a harness and shoes. You may also get a chalk bag. Most harnesses are similar across the board. The harness has a waist loop and two leg loops, and you basically stand in the leg loops kind of just like putting on pants. Then you’ll pull the strap around your waist to tighten it. There will also be a loop on the front of the harness—that’s where the belay attaches, so make sure that you put the harness on so it’s in front. The harness should sit just above your hips. It takes some getting used to and does feel like a diaper at first, but you’ll be walking around normally and forget you’re even wearing it in no time. Perhaps weirder than the feeling of wearing a harness is the feeling of slipping into climbing shoes for the first time. They’re going to feel like they’re too small, by maybe a half size or so. They are meant to be snug; the idea is that the less shoe you have on your foot, the better you can feel the wall as you climb, which translates to getting a better grip on the holds. They should be mildly uncomfortable, but not painful.

The ropes system

Ropes deserve their own section because you have to trust them to feel comfortable climbing. And I’ll be totally honest here: It takes some time to trust the system. But once you do, getting up on the wall is a million times less scary.

As I mentioned before, bouldering is when you climb up and around a rock wall without any kind of rope. There are crash pads under you, and you’re typically not going very high. But when you want to top rope—that is, climb high while using a system of ropes to keep you from falling—you need to be belayed. When someone is belaying you, it just means that they’re on the ground as you climb, and the rope that’s attached to your harness passes through an anchor on the wall and clips into the belayer’s harness. The belayer’s job is to take up (and also let out) slack in the rope so that if at any time the climber falls, they fall only a short distance. These ropes systems are engineered to have a decent amount of friction so that even if the belayer isn’t doing a perfect job, the climber is still safe.

Once belayer and climber are tied in safely and have checked each other’s work, climbing instructors suggest going up the wall just a few feet and then letting go and so you can experience how the rope can hold you. Doing this a few times will help you get a feel for how the system works and make it easier to trust it. I highly recommend doing this. I actually do it every single time I go to the gym before my first climb just to remind myself of how it feels to “fall.”

Another option is to use an auto-belay when you’re first getting started. An auto-belay is a device that’s anchored to the top of the wall and automatically takes up slack as you climb. When you’re ready to come down, the device catches you and lowers you slowly—no second person needed. It’s a good way to focus on simply climbing without worrying about whether a belayer is doing their job right. You should also test falling with the auto belay so you can get a feel for it. Unlike when a person is belaying you, the auto belay sort of works like a seat belt: It feels like the rope won’t catch you at first, but when you actually put your weight into it, it tightens up and keeps you from falling.

The technique

One of the coolest things about climbing is that unlike other sports or activities where you have to really learn a movement pattern before you can do it, the movement is pretty intuitive; you look at a wall with a bunch handholds, and your body just knows what you need to do to get to the top. If you’ve ever climbed anything before, you’ll have the basic motion down.

The thing that most people need to be reminded of, though, is to use their legs. Instead of looking at your hands and planning your next move based on them, focus more on your feet and think about how to walk yourself up the wall. That way, you’re using your leg muscles instead of trying to do pull-up after pull-up. That’s going to make climbing a lot easier.

Keeping your center of gravity in the middle of your body and close to the wall will help you stay strong and in control of your movements. Try keeping your arms as straight as possible when you don’t need to actively use them, to reduce fatigue in your forearms. Speaking of forearm fatigue…it’s inevitable. The reality is that unless you play another sport that requires a lot of grip and forearm strength, your body is not used to using these muscles so heavily. Your fingers, hands, and forearms are going to get tired really quickly. Climbing twice a week is ideal if you’re really trying to see some quick improvement over the first couple of months, but even climbing once a week you will see an increase in form, endurance, and strength. And the best part, I think? Once you just go for your first session or two and learn how to climb safely, it’s a sport you can do totally on your own terms. You don’t need to rely on staff members at the gym throughout the rest of the process, Before you know it, you’ll stop overthinking every little thing and start feeling as at home in the climbing gym as an old pro. If this article inspires you to to hit the climbing gym, but you don't want to go alone; join us for a workshop!

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