Regardless of if you are just getting into rock climbing or have been doing it for years, it’s a physical workout. Sure, there’s easier climbs, but climbing takes a certain amount of muscles to maneuver your way up a wall or rock face. These muscles develop over time and strengthen the more climbs you do.
Certain muscle groups do tend to be more or less emphasized by popular culture, though when talking about rock climbing. Although people tend to think of climbers as having bulky arms, climbing does work all types of muscles. It all just depends on the type of climb that you are on.
What are the Top Muscle Groups Worked When Climbing?
This depends heavily on the type of climbing that you are doing and the rock that you’re climbing on since an overhanging climb and a slab climb target very different muscles. There are some commonly used muscles across all disciplines of climbing, though, but, again, this is a really general starting list and varies greatly based on how much technique you use, the style of climbing that you do, and the type of climb that you like to climb.
Upper Body: Your upper body is the first thing that many people think of when you say anything at all about rock climbing, and it is super important. Your upper body includes your arms, hands, shoulders, and upper back. We’re going to include your core in a separate category, since its a pretty major part of climbing.
Your lats and upper back keep your shoulders engaged and your arms where you want them to be, so these are used a ton, primarily in steeper climbs, but especially in overhanging climbs. Your upper body doesn’t get used nearly as much when you’re doing a slab climb since this is more reliant on technique and balance.
Although many people think that your biceps are the most important part of your arm for climbing, your forearm flexors are probably more important than your biceps. This isn’t to say that your biceps aren’t important, but since your forearm flexors are what allows you to bend your wrist and use your fingers to grip the rock, these are universally important, regardless of the style of climbing that you are doing.
Biceps are only really important until you learn the technique. Once you learn how to use your core, your shoulders, and, most importantly, your feet and legs, your biceps aren’t nearly as important as you likely thought they were when you started climbing.
Core: Many people think that climbing is all about your arms and legs, but every style of climbing relies on your core muscles. Not only is climbing great for strengthening your core muscles, but it also does so more evenly than many core workouts, meaning it will help improve your balance overall as opposed to just your strength.
Although you may think that your core is only important for steep or overhanging climbs, your core is what helps you balance, so it’s also super important for slab climbs. Your core is what keeps you on the wall as you continue to climb.
Lower Body: Your lower body includes your legs and feet, which are incredibly important to climbing, regardless of the style. When people start climbing, they tend to rely heavily on their arms, but since your legs are such a large muscle, learning to and training your body to rely on your legs will give you much more endurance in your climbing and allow you to climb harder and better.
Although all muscles in your legs are important, some of the most important muscles are your quads. Many climbs involve shifting your weight from one foot to the other and then being able to stand up on that leg. This motion relies on having strong quad muscles to allow you to stand up and maintain your balance on a tiny foothold, all at once.
Since the quad muscles are bigger than the calf muscles, they are often talked about more, but your calf muscles are also super important to climbing. Calf muscles are what allow you to balance on a tiny foothold, or rise up onto your toes to get that last inch of reach for the next hold. They keep your heels from slipping down, meaning that you are able to balance on holds that are much skinnier than your whole foot.
Are There Differences in Muscles Worked Between Sport Climbing and Bouldering?
Sport climbing utilizes much more endurance based movement and muscles, while bouldering tends to focus more on pure strength and technique, so in that way, they do work different muscles. That being said, they are both still just different sides of the same coin and do work many of the same muscles, if not all, just in differing amounts.
For example, both sport climbing and bouldering will work your legs, but in sport climbing, you may find your legs more tired at the end of the day because it is a more sustained workout over a longer amount of time. In contrast, bouldering is much more about shorter bursts of power, which allows your legs more time to rest and will feel much different than sport climbing will.
That being said, a day of bouldering can certainly tire out your leg muscles due to the repeated power-based movements associated with bouldering. Since bouldering tends to include more power-based moves, especially indoor bouldering, it tends to be associated with a more bulked-out muscular appearance and development both in your legs and arms.
The stereotype of boulderers is a bulky person who looks like they have been working out. Their arms and legs are big and bulging and are very obviously quite strong. In contrast, the stereotype of a sport climber is much more of a lean physique with less pronounced muscular structure, but no less overall strength. Although these are just stereotypes, there is some merit to the way that bouldering builds a heavier muscle mass than sport climbing generally does.
Again, all of this is general and completely depends on the type and style of climbing that you are doing. You could climb all slab boulders and totally go against the grain when it comes to the stereotypes of boulderers. On the other hand, you could also be a sport climber who adores climbing in caves or on other large overhangs and develops large muscles to help keep you on the wall. The style of climbing is really what dictates how different muscles will be worked much more than the type of climbing.
Can Rock Climbing Help You Build Muscle Mass?
Does rock climbing build muscle? Rock climbing can help you build some muscle mass, but unlike traditional weight lifting where the focus is more on how much you can lift, the focus in most styles of rock climbing is much more on how long your muscles can keep going. Often time, having a larger body isn’t actually an advantage in rock climbing.
This doesn’t mean that rock climbing isn’t a great workout, because it is an amazing workout; it just isn’t focused on gaining muscle. Rock climbing works all muscles together and tends to help create more lean muscle without bulking up too much since the added weight that comes with bulking up would be a detriment while climbing.
Is Rock Climbing a Sufficient Full-Body Workout?
Rock climbing can be an amazing full-body workout, but if it is a fully sufficient full-body workout depends entirely on what style and type of climbing you’re doing. Climbing has the potential to work all your muscles, but it just depends on how you choose to do it.
If you spend all morning hiking out to a long, sustained multi-pitch route, you will almost certainly have an amazing full-body workout. The approach to the climb and the length of the climb will also make it an aerobic workout, but you will need every muscle to keep up the endurance of climbing a long route.
In contrast, someone who boulders for an hour at the gym may not be getting the best full-body workout. Gym routes tend to be set with a strength-based movement in mind, meaning that they are more likely than an outdoor climb to unintentionally focus on a few muscle groups, instead of providing a well-rounded full-body workout.
Although BMI, or body mass index, is not the best way to gauge how healthy you are, it is still a measure of the proportion of your body that is fat compared to the portion of your body that is muscle. Climbing is a great way to lower your BMI, although this is not really something we advocate for. BMI is a good way of gauging your health but doesn’t really give you the full picture at all, so make you take into account your body composition if you do choose to utilize BMI.
We briefly mentioned using climbing as an aerobic workout, but this is something that many people feel is lacking from climbing, so we felt like it deserved a little more attention. Almost any workout can be made aerobic if you use it in an aerobic way; that is to say, to get your heart rate up for over 15 minutes. While this may not seem like climbing fits, it is totally possible to climb enough routes to keep your heart rate sustained at an elevated rate for an extended period of time, thus making it an aerobic workout.
What is Climber’s Back?
Climber’s back is a classic case of muscular imbalances. Climbers are known to pull-up frequently, meaning that they work their lats, but not push down nearly as much. This can lead to really strong lats and somewhat underdeveloped, in comparison to the lats, pecs.
The pecs are the pushing muscle located in the front of your shoulders and on your upper chest, but they aren’t worked much in climbing. If you don’t’ work your pecs much, but do work your lats frequently, this can lead to an imbalance.
This is how climber’s back emerges. This describes what happens when you have overdeveloped lats, and it leads to an almost hunchback appearance. This is frequent amongst climbers, but luckily, it is easily corrected.
Incorporating chest workouts into your training routine is a great way to help combat climber’s back. Some good workouts to use are planks and pushups. There’s also some great chest stretches that can also be super helpful. These include, but are not limited to, upward facing dog and downward-facing dog.
How to Avoid Muscle Imbalances Due to Climbing?
Rock climbers are known for certain muscles, but not others. This is often due to an imbalance in which muscles are worked out more and how much attention is paid to each muscle group. One of the best ways to prevent and avoid muscle imbalances is to have a focused training plan and climb varied climbs.
Different styles of climbs work different muscle groups differently. For example, an overhanging climb may work your arm muscles while a slab climb may work more of your ankle and lower leg muscles. Climbing a variety of styles of climbs can help you work on all your muscle groups without neglecting the development of any major grouping.
The other common reason for muscle imbalances to develop is if you tend to climb favoring one side of your body over the other. Since most people have a dominant hand and foot, you will likely tend to use one hand or foot over the other. This repeated action of favoring one side over the other can lead to you unintentionally developing a variety of small imbalances in the muscles between the two sides.
The best way to combat rock climbing muscle imbalances is to be aware of how you climb. Take time to work a certain style of movement on one side of your body and then find a different route that does the same for the other side of your body. This will help you to develop the muscles on both sides of your body equally, as opposed to only developing the muscles on your good side.
Wrapping Things Up: What Muscles Does Rock Climbing Work?
Overall, climbing has the potential to work all your muscles, but you have to put in the effort to make sure that it does work all the muscles and not just some muscle groups, or one side of your body, but your whole body. Climbing has so much potential, but how it impacts your muscles and your life entirely depends on you.
Take some time to think about how your climbing practice impacts your body and how you could see that impacting you, both in a positive way and a negative way. There’s so many simple and easy workouts and practices to include both on and off the wall to help turn your climbing practice into an amazing full-body workout.
Looking for more climbing guides? Check out our other climbing tips here.
Here are a few to help you out: