Rock Climbing Gyms: Benefits, What to Expect and Term Definitions

Climb on, Friend

Getty Images / Ty Allison / Photographer's Choice Collection

Looking for fun social activity that doesn’t involve ingesting extra calories? Take a trip to your local climbing gym and enjoy a few hours with a good friend, indie music and a fun physical activity that leaves your forearms burning.

The appeal of climbing lies in its counter-cultural attitude toward fitness: it is remarkably non-competitive, friendly and casual. Because climbing (usually) requires a belay partner, the sport is inherently social, requiring the trust of your climbing buddy.

Climbing gyms are the modern-day equivalent of the roller rink. At the proverbial "Climbing Gym U.S.A.," you’ll see climbing devotees, usually donning plaid shirts and facial hair along with legions of kids, usually enjoying a birthday party and even couples out on a first date as well as everyone in-between.

Physiological Benefits of Climbing

Physiologically, climbing is the perfect remedy for the hunched thoracic and cervical spine caused by excessive typing and texting. Holding your body close to the wall engages the posterior shoulder girdle, bringing the shoulders back and lifting the neck and head. In addition to the upper-body workout, climbing engages glutes, hamstrings, and calves while requiring open hips to hug the wall. Yoga serves as a fantastic compliment to climbing.

What to Expect at a Climbing Gym

When you step into the climbing gym, purchase your day pass and sign the waiver, you’ll receive an orientation to the sport and the particulars of the gym.

Plan on wearing a gym-issued harness. If you're happy sticking with beginner routes, you can get by with your favorite athletic shoes, but if you want to step up your game, you'll need to rent or purchase climbing shoes.

In addition to holds and ropes, colorful duct tape dons the wall at a climbing gym.

Those bright pieces of tape indicate routes or specific paths to get up the wall. Routes typically have difficulty ratings based on the Yosemite Decimal System. Gym routes range from 5.5 (stated Five five), an easy climb similar to climbing a ladder, up to 5.12 (stated Five twelve), a climb requiring a high-level combination of strength and technique.

Assuming you head to the climbing wall with a friend, you’ll most likely take turns climbing and belaying. While the climber is getting high on the wall with a little help from the belayer, the belayer is removing slack from the rope to minimize the risk of a fall from the wall. The friend on the ground is belaying, or serving as belayer. In order to belay safely, gyms usually require a class or a basic belay test before issuing certification.

If you aren’t looking to learn about ropes, knots, ​and belay devices, you can hop on the climbing wall using auto-belays. This express-ticket to climbing allows solo-climbers the chance to enjoy the climbing gym on their own.

Climbing gyms cater to novice climbers, outdoorsy folks and everyone in-between. Get on over to your local climbing gym; in the name of a great time, you’ll leave with two bruised knees, zero grip strength and calloused hands. But trust me, it’s all worth it.

Climb on, friend.

Rock Climbing Glossary

  • Auto Belay: Mechanical device that removes rope slack and safely lowers a climber to the ground; serves as an alternative to a human belayer.
  • Belay Device: Tool used to remove slack from a climbing rope; utilized by a belayer.
  • Belayer: The person on the ground who actively removes slack from the climbing rope in order to minimize the risk of a fall.
  • Bouldering: Climbing a large boulder or fixed set of moves (“problem”) not requiring a harness, rope or belayer; Often requires a spotter.
  • Harness: Worn by both climber and belayer, the harness attaches to the rope (climber) and belay device (belayer).
  • Holds: Manufactured pieces of plastic bolted to the wall to create routes.
  • Routes: Set pattern to scaling wall, requiring various technical movements or body positions.

Author Bio: Sydney Rhind Westrate

Sydney Rhind Westrate works in collegiate recreation and began climbing when she assumed management of her college climbing wall. She is an avid triathlete, recently completing Ironman Wisconsin (2014), and enjoys most forms of outdoor physical activity. Sydney resides in Wheaton, IL with her husband, two daughters and geriatric (and loveable) border collie. Follow Sydney on her blog, The Lotus and the Lorax.

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