We can all agree that climbing is an exciting and fun alternative to the gym and a great way to socialize.
You might be wondering: Is rock climbing equivalent to the gym or other types of exercise in terms of fitness training and calorie burning? Does it account for adequate cardio exercise? And how efficient is it in helping you lose weight?
So keep reading to find out the answers to these questions. We will even share some tips about how to maximize the number of calories you burn and shape your sessions according to your goals!
First Things First: What’s a Calorie?
The calorie is the unit we use to measure the energy our body consumes. We are most familiar with calories in types of food, which shows how much energy they contain. That energy is stored in the body and can be broken down when we need to use it. About 20% of all the calories we consume are used towards physical activity (the rest are used for survival, essential bodily functions, and digestion).
You can calculate the daily calorie intake you need based on your sex, age, weight, and physical activity. The average daily intake is 2000 for women and 2500 for men.
How are Calories Burned Typically Calculated?
You can either roughly calculate the average amount of calories you burn daily or the number of calories you burn while engaging in a particular activity for a set amount of time.
You can do the first by using the Harris-Benedict formula (calculating your BMR – Basal Metabolic Rate) and your weekly activity level, and the latter by using MET (Metabolic Equivalent) values. We show both of these methods below.
Many online tools will calculate it for you, but not all of them are reliable, and usually, they differ by a large margin. Read on for our recommendation!
And of course, you can always use a heart monitor or smartwatch to track how many calories you burn, but we will talk more about that in a bit!
Harris-Benedict formula – BMR
Your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) is how many calories your body burns when resting, not engaged in any activity, including digesting.
You can calculate it using the Harris-Benedict formula (use pounds for weight and inches for height):
Men BMR = 66 + (6.2 x weight) + (12.7 x height) – (6.76 x age)
Women BMR = 655.1 + (4.35 x weight) + (4.7 x height) – (4.7 x age)
For even more accuracy, we recommend using the revised Mifflin-St Jeor formula (here you need to use kg and cm):
Men BMR = (10 x weight) + (6.25 x height) – (5 x Age) + 5
Women BMR = (10 x weight) + (6.25 x height) – (5 x Age) – 161
Then choose the activity level number (ALN) that indicates your regular physical activity:
- 2 – sedentary (little to no exercise)
- 375 – light exercise (1-3 days per week)
- 55 – moderate exercise (3-5 days per week)
- 725 – very active (intense exercise 6-7 days per week)
- 9 – extra active (very intense exercise or physical job)
Finally, multiply your BMR by the activity level number to find how many calories you burn daily on average.
Calories burned on an average day = BMR x ALN.
So the calculation for the total calories burned by a 28-year-old female office worker (height 1.70m, weight 60kg) who climbs 3 times a week would be:
BMR = (10 x 60) + (6.25 x 170) – (5 x 28) – 161 = 1361.5
Activity Level Number = 1.55
Average calories burned daily = 1361.5 x 1.55 = 2110.3
One MET accounts for the energy cost of sitting without doing any activity, defined as 1kcal/kg/hour. So your weight in kilograms is how many calories you burn in one hour just by sitting. An activity like walking slowly that requires twice the energy of just sitting has a MET value of 2. MET values have been assigned to different activities and sports (you can find a list here).
So by multiplying the MET value of the activity to your weight in kilograms, you can find the number of calories you burn in one hour of engaging in that activity.
However, this method does not take into account sex, age, and physical build, so it’s not super accurate.
How Many Calories Do You Burn Rock Climbing?
There is a lot of confusion about how many calories we burn when rock climbing. That is because there are so many variables that affect how many calories you actually burn. For starters, each person has a different physical build and metabolism. The more you weigh, the more calories you expend climbing. If you are climbing outdoors carrying equipment as well, you will burn a more significant amount of calories.
Apart from differences in physique, other factors affect calorie burning in climbing:
- Route/problem grade
- Type of climbing (sport, bouldering)
- Type of wall face (slab, vertical, overhang)
- Climbing style – more experienced climbers that climb with more efficiency will sometimes burn fewer calories than beginners
- Climbing speed
- Actual time on the wall
As we will see in a bit, climbing is a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise.
Aerobic exercise uses multiple energy sources to fuel the body for longer durations of moderately intense activity. In contrast, anaerobic exercise uses fast energy reserves to fuel the body for short bursts of high-intensity activity.
It’s usually the case that the more challenging a route is for you, the more calories you will burn; it’s more complicated than that, as we will see.
You can also try using a heart monitor and timing your climbs, but many climbers that tried this are unsure about the accuracy of the results. Reported heart monitor values range from 150 calories an hour up to 900, mostly because of all the variables we just talked about. The variability between different types of climbing and different people is stronger than the actual trend of caloric expenditure.
Since climbing combines aerobic and anaerobic (more dynamic) exercise, and it also involves taking rest or belaying, the caloric burn is more complicated to measure than in cardio exercise like running or cycling.
How Many Calories Can You Burn Bouldering?
The number of calories you burn when bouldering is not as consistent as when sport climbing because the bouldering routes (or problems as we call them) are shorter. Usually, we get more variety of static and dynamic movement.
- More challenging problems with longer rests burn less than easier problems with shorter rests.
- And if you’re working on a bouldering project, you don’t burn so many calories since you alternate between trying a couple of moves and resting.
However, you can still traverse the wall for longer periods, or climb less challenging problems without breaks to raise the heart rate, but not letting your forearms burn. This can be considered aerobic exercise and burns more calories than projecting when bouldering. So the ideal would be to do a combination of the two, taking shorter breaks or doing other exercises between climbs.
As we will see, bouldering can be used as a great way of burning calories, so be sure to keep reading later on in this article.
By the way, we go over advanced bouldering tips in our other post here.
How Many Calories Can You Burn Top Roping or Sport Climbing?
Research from Harvard assigns an average of 600 calories burned per hour for a 155-pound person for rope climbing.
Other research papers, cited in ‘Training For Climbing’, say you spend around 11 kcal per minute, so 660 calories per hour (assuming the whole hour is spent on the wall), which roughly agrees with the Harvard research.
So if for you one hour at the climbing gym means thirty minutes of actual rope climbing, then a three-hour session could give a caloric burn of up to 900 calories.
We tried out some online calorie calculators (here, here, and here) for a person who weighs 155-pounds (that’s the only information they were asking), and we got 818, 753, and 592 calories for one hour of generic ‘rock climbing,’ which is not too far from what research says. Remember, one hour means one hour of active rope climbing on the wall, not including rest time.
The thing is, people have different metabolic rates, so people with the same weight can burn a different amount of calories doing the same activity for the same duration.
So let’s try using the MET method to calculate it ourselves.
If we choose ‘rock climbing, ascending, high difficulty’ from the Compendium, the MET value is 7.5. So a 155-pound (70kg) person will burn 70 x 7.5 = 525 calories in one hour of active climbing on the wall. So to estimate how many calories you burn throughout a whole session, you will need to use a timer so that you only count the time you spend on the wall.
As we highlighted before, this method does not take into account factors like sex and age.
The Compendium of Physical Activities has developed a corrected MET formula that takes into account the sex, age, and physical build, thus using your exact metabolic rate rather than the average (by including the Harris-Benedict formula).
The formula to do that is a bit more complicated, but here is an awesome tool that does it for you. You can even select which formulas to use of the ones we mentioned. We recommend selecting the ‘Mifflin-St Jeor formula’ and ‘corrected MET compendium.’
When we use the tool for a 155-pound, 6 foot, 28-year-old male, the amount of calories burned purely by climbing in one hour is 483 (the body in that hour burns 555 calories in total, but only the 483 were burned by climbing).
How Many Calories Can You Burn Belaying?
You do burn some calories while belaying, but the number is negligible. You are still active, but not exercising. If you really want a number, you can get an estimate by using a MET value for standing, adding a bit more to account for the effort required in belaying. The average MET value for standing still is 1.6. If we also compare belaying to different activities listed on the Compendium, we could assign a MET value 3, but keep in mind that this is still an estimate.
So then multiply the MET value 3 with your weight in kilograms, and that is an estimate of how many calories you burn belaying in one hour.
For example, if you weigh 70kg, you burn about 210 calories in one hour of belaying. However, you would still need to use a timer to calculate precisely how much time you were belaying.
Other Common Fitness-Related Questions about Climbing
Is Climbing a Good Cardio Workout?
What cardio exercise does is improve the body’s ability to pump new blood into targeted muscles and remove old blood. Your heart rate increases, as well as your breathing, but you can still breathe through your nose without it being too noisy.
There is a lot of talk on whether rock climbing can be considered ‘true cardio’ or aerobic exercise since usually we cannot sustain the heart rate to an aerobic range. That’s not really true, and there is no straightforward answer since it is really up to you! You can make climbing into a cardio workout, or keep it to anaerobic strength training, depending on what your focus is.
So here are a few tips to involve cardio in your climbing sessions:
- The key is duration.
- Indoors rope climbing or bouldering: Climb for 15-20 minutes consecutively, but keep the intensity just below your ‘pump’ threshold. So climb about 2-3 grades below your maximum. You don’t want to feel a burn in your forearms (that would turn into anaerobic exercise), only fatigue.
- Indoor/Outdoor sport climbing: A route that you know is challenging for you can have you sweating and shaking and keep your heart rate up for a more extended period than just working on a bouldering project, for example, which means less time on the wall.
- Outdoors: Have a multi-pitch day, where the endurance of the cardiovascular system will definitely be a factor.
- Limit the duration of rest breaks between climbs to keep your heart rate elevated for longer so that you burn more calories
The more you push yourself, the more your heart rate will rise, and your body will rely more on aerobic metabolism, burning more fat to produce energy. So whatever your skill level is, if a climb is challenging for you, your heart will get a workout. Your heart rate also rises when you feel fear, so the number of calories you burn increases even more.
Can Bouldering Be a HIIT Workout?
A HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) workout combines cardio and strength by engaging in bursts of anaerobic exercise separated by short recovery periods of moderate activity.
This way of exercise stimulates the EPOC or ‘afterburn’ effect, which causes an increased rate of caloric burn after the workout, which can last up to 24 hours. That is because metabolism is elevated, increasing the consumption of oxygen, needed to help the body restore.
If you have the intention of turning your climbing session into a HIIT workout, bouldering is ideal, since it boils down to repeating sequences of dynamic movements.
Pick problems that are just below your maximum ability and climb in a way that increases your heart rate and creates a burn in your forearms, a sign that you are in the range of anaerobic exercise. What kind of problems you will choose depends on your skill and physical build too. If you are better at static movements and balance, you will tap into the HIIT effect more by selecting problems with more dynamic movements. Problems that involve overhangs should be pretty effective for anyone, though.
Be careful not to overdo it. The maximum a HIIT session should last is 30 minutes. But it’s even better to separate it into 3 or 4 sessions lasting around 5 minutes each, taking brief rests between them.
Can Climbing Help You Lose Weight?
Climbing is so popular for being a full-body workout that helps you build muscle strength. But can it help you lose weight?
First of all, by building more muscle, you set yourself up for success. Muscle tissue is metabolically more active and burns more calories than fat tissue, even when you’re not exercising.
If you are a beginner, it may take a while before you are able to raise your heart rate when climbing (to burn more calories). But if you take rock climbing seriously, you will gain a leaner physique, lower fat percentage, and more defined muscles.
Climbing may not be the fastest way to lose weight.
What is more important is that climbing is an activity that is extremely fun and social, so it’s easier to stick with than other exercise plans. Looking forward to going back to try a route will definitely push you to become more active and engage in healthier habits.
Wrapping Things Up: Calories Burned Rock Climbing
Simply giving an average number for how many calories you burn during rock climbing would be misleading and inaccurate. But the good news is that the amount of calories you can burn is considerably large!
The best part is that climbing is an exciting and social sport that strengthens the whole body, improves your physique while also increasing mobility, balance, and flexibility.
The factors affecting the number of calories burned while climbing are so many that we cannot assign a number for generic ‘rock climbing.’ Still, as we have seen, there are ways to track how many calories you burn when doing a specific type of climbing, in a particular way.
- You can roughly estimate the number of calories you burn climbing in an hour by multiplying the MET value with your weight or using this tool to get a more accurate answer
- You can burn from 200 to 700 calories in one hour of active climbing on the wall, depending on many factors
- Calories you burn while belaying are negligible, but it’s still better than sitting or not being active
- Turn rock climbing into a cardio workout by increasing the duration of your climb to raise your heart rate while staying below your ‘pump’ threshold
- If burning more calories is important to you, track your breaks and take shorter rests
- Bouldering can be a great HIIT workout when done with high enough intensity and brief rest periods
- Rock climbing will give you a lean physique and toned muscles you will be proud of!
And here’s the kicker: You are going to meet great people and have an awesome time in the process!
Did you enjoy this post? Then you may like our other climbing tips: