How to Get Started with Rock Climbing

6 tips for beginners

Rock climbing has changed my life- my approach to fitness, my relationship to my body, and my problems with social anxiety — so it should come as no surprise that I have also become the evangelist of rock climbing. I frequently shout from the roof tops how welcoming and friendly climbers are and what a challenging, full body workout climbing offers.

Here, I offer some tips for those starting the sport or thinking about getting into it. Climbing can seem intimidating; hanging off walls and rocks is not exactly something most of us do in our everyday lives. With these suggestions, I aim to make entering into climbing easy, safe, and fun.

1. Go slow — your hands will thank you

My first time climbing, I ripped quarter-sized chunks of skin off my hand (sorry for the graphic image). The skin on my hands was used to flipping pages of books, not climbing rocks. It needed time to thicken up and develop callouses.

Instead of taking a few days off and letting my hands recover, I climbed two more days in a row. This idiot mistake, of course, resulted in indescribable pain; I could not even open my Nalgene water bottle without wincing. I was excited about climbing and wanted to jump in full steam ahead, but I suffered for not listening to what my body was trying to tell me: stop.

Avoid my mistake and take days off frequently at the beginning to let your hands acclimate to your new hobby.

2. Take rests in between climbs

Early on in bouldering, when I would try a route and fail to get to the top, I would jump back up immediately and try again and again until I finished it (or just gave up for the moment). This approach sapped me of energy extremely quickly. Just like I would take a rest in between sets weightlifting at the gym, I needed to take breaks in between attempts at routes.

I started setting a timer on my phone for two minutes, during which I would sit and rest before doing my next climb. Gradually, as I got better, I shortened this time by small increments.

Give yourself a chance to recover, and also to think about the route you just did and ways to approach the problem. Taking rests in between climbs is key to being able to spend more than twenty-minutes at the climbing gym.

3. Practice Quiet Feet

When I first started bouldering, I was often nervous about falling, so I would slam my foot on a hold, as if hearing that loud sound assured that I would not fall off. This approach failed on three accounts.

First, by making the large, dynamic movements necessary to slam my foot on a hold, I frequently threw myself off balance and fell off the wall. Rock climbing has its occasions for big, dynamic moves, but most of the time, controlled, balanced movement is the key to success.

Second, doing this big type of movement meant I was expending a lot of energy, frequently. Slowly and gently placing my foot does not wear me out the same way as throwing and jamming my foot on a hold does.

Lastly, this technique caused me to ignore the most important thing: foot and toe placement. I was more concerned with just getting my foot on the hold, rather than thinking about where I should put my toes, how I should angle my foot, or how I should position my leg.

Precise, quiet, and balanced foot placement is always better than a loud, chaotic one.

It’s all about that foot placement!

4. Buy Shoes that Feel Right

It is a common saying that you should buy climbing shoes that are at least a size smaller than your normal street shoe size.

The idea behind this is that a very tight shoe ensures proper foot placement — there will not be any wiggling around on the wall. Ignore this. When buying my first pair of shoes, I followed the advice of a couple of climbers and retail associates (who I do not blame for this), who said I should buy a very tight shoe.

While a tight shoe might work for some people, it utterly failed me. Although these shoes seemed fine when I tried them on in the store, the first time I climbed in them, my feet bled — significantly. I returned them and bought a different pair in a size 1.5 sizes larger than my normal street shoe size. I had to size up to find any shoe that did not make my feet feel like they were in a torture chamber. Everyone’s feet and toes are differently shaped, and I happened to need a much larger size.

I have been wearing these shoes for almost seven months, and they are great, snug, but not constrictive. I can wear them for two hours and my feet feel totally fine afterwards. Ultimately, if your climbing shoe is intolerably uncomfortable, you will not go climbing, so go with whatever shoe and size feel good to you.

5. Engage with the Community

A couple of months into climbing, I saw my local gym offering an informal bouldering league. People would form teams of four, who would climb weekly, report the difficulty level of the climbs they completed, and compete against other teams. I wanted to participate, but did not know any other climbers at that point.

I decided to be bold (for me that is) and cobble together a team from a bunch of other free agents, who I competed with for the league’s eight week tenure. Not only was this a fun way to get to know other climbers, but they also helped me greatly improve my climbing.

Watching how other people approach problems or handle certain types of holds can be hugely helpful. While I was on the wall, they pointed out holds I could not see or gave suggestions for solving the route. Participating in leagues, climbing classes, or other events offered by your home gym is a win-win: meet cool, new people and improve your climbing!

6. Yoga and Stretching are your Friends

Before starting to climb, I used to do a generic, light warm-up: jumping jacks, high knees, and a few squats. While this did get my blood pumping, it was nothing particularly special nor geared towards climbing.

A few months ago, I was climbing with a friend when I noticed him doing a bunch of different yoga flows and poses for his warm-up. When I asked him about it, he pointed me to a variety of YouTube videos on yoga specifically geared towards climbing.

After watching and following a few of them, I changed my warm-up and cool-down to brief, 5 minute targeted yoga practices. Not only has my flexibility improved my leaps and bounds, but also my recovery time is shorter and I feel less sore the day after climbing. I never really integrated yoga or stretching as a key part of my fitness routine before, and I wish I had done so earlier.

The yoga warm-up helps with my muscles, joints, and tendons and facilitates more fluid movement once I’m bouldering on the wall. Yoga with Adriene on YouTube has a great yoga for climbers video, as do other YouTubers. Am I super flexible now? No. Can I touch my toes for the first time ever now? You bet!

I hope these suggestions facilitate a transition into climbing, or improve your existing climbing experience. I have developed the most as a climber when I have focused on listening to my body, moving with purpose, and connecting with other climbers. So, get out there and send it!

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