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If I were a couple of decades younger, I would seriously consider trying climbing in a climbing gym, but I doubt I have enough flexibility, and I would feel horribly out of place. The thing that attracts me is the total concentration required; there are things I want to put right out of my mind at least temporarily.

But I am curious: is there a measurable criterion for what level of upper body strength a person should have before even beginning? Are there any other measures of strength or flexibility that are pre-requisites for starting this sport?

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    If you're interested, just go to a gym,pay for a day pass, rent gear, and take their belay course. Total cost probably $25. If you don't like it, you don't like it. If you want to do roped climbing, you need to have a partner. I'm 51 and not very flexible, but it's not often that I have any problems with flexibility when climbing. – Ben Crowell Jan 30 '17 at 2:55
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    As a cautionary note, since the answers might lead you to the impression that training grip strength might be useful when starting climbing: Your tendons take longer to get used to the new load than your muscles. So don't start climbing and immediately train on finger- or campus boards. For the first one or two years, you can completely ignore grip/finger strength exercises so you don't get injured. Apart from that, my experience is what the answers say: Just try it; if you like it, you'll quickly build the necessary strength. Until then, the easy routes will be fun enough :-) – anderas Jan 30 '17 at 9:26
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    I don't know how common they are but I am sure I have seen counterweight systems that let you climb without a partner. As you climb the wall the counterweight behind the wall takes up the slack and when you fall/jump off it slwos your fall to a safe speed. – Peter Green Jan 30 '17 at 20:16
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    A desire to try it is the only prerequisite. Also, minimal or no fear of heights. :) Top-roping can be done by almost anyone. I'm 53 and I boulder. Now I'm curious how old you are, of course. There was an 83yo that was top-roping at our place. Physical issues can have an impact, and the more overweight you are, the harder it will be. I've seen pretty heavy people give it a try, though. – Don Branson Jan 30 '17 at 21:27
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    @DonBranson Eh, even fear of heights is something you can eventually get over. Speaking of age, I had the great privilege of seeing the famous Fred Beckey (a Washington climbing / alpine legend) in action, top-roping in Squamish at the ripe age of 93... – Lagerbaer Jan 31 '17 at 0:43
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No, there are no particular prerequisites for indoor climbing. Strength, flexibility, endurance will come along the way. Just take a look into any gym, you will see small, large, fat, weak people. In my place there regularly is a one-armed guy...

The gym

Look for a large, well-run, popular gym. Good signs are:

  • A nice, inviting website which shows all rooms/walls of the gym; explains how everything functions; explains any rules.
  • Beginner and advanced courses.
  • Being chock full at prime time.
  • There should be a small gym-inside-the-gym with assorted equipment (boards to hang from, maybe some weight training stuff).

I would strongly suggest taking a beginners course. Those are available for adults. While it may feel weird, just shrug off the feeling. Do not be shy, talk to the coach, ask questions, actually do what she says, and so on.

A partner

But the main reason for taking a beginners course would be to find another beginner to start your journey with! Exchange phone numbers with someone who seems to be close to your level of body strength, fitness, etc.. Find a weekly "jour fixe" where you regularly meet. The time/day-of-the-week of the course is a good starting point, as both of you obviously had spare time right then!

Then just go and climb. You will find that you will improve very quickly. Do not be shy watching better climbers (i.e., everybody else). Nobody will think bad about you; most people will remember how it was when they started.

The partner is important because a) motivation and b) talking about how to tackle different problems. As both of you will have different arm/leg lengths, mobilities, etc., you will quickly see that you will take different approaches to climbing, so you will learn from each other, even if you both are beginners.

Bouldering

I tried to get into indoor top-rope climbing twice, and it did not work out. The problem is that you are absolutely tied (sic) to having a partner around (so no spontaneous night at the gym) and downtime is much worse. One of you is always not climbing; and when the gym is full, the fullness is much worse, so to speak, since each climb takes longer. Also, frankly, I had incidents with lazy/inattentive partners while my life was literally hanging from a thread...

Bouldering to the rescue! I encourage you to skip all the complexities of top-rope climbing, and go straight to bouldering, if you have a gym that focuses on that. Bouldering might not look like much, but it is very intense, and since you do not have a long climb for every route, it is much easier for the route setters to give you many, many more diverse problems.

If a bouldering hall is full, it's not such a big problem. You get queues in front of the walls, but since each attempt takes only a few dozen seconds, 1-2 minutes max, you get to climb rather sooner than later. Also, when the difficulty rises, you need the time between tries to recover your strength anyways, so it is actually good to see what others are doing at "your" problem.

  • Agreeing on the Bouldering. Where I live is a great bouldering gym that also includes lots of routes suitable for absolute beginners. I can go on my own schedule without coordinating with a partner, and even if I do team up with friends the experience is more social. – Lagerbaer Jan 31 '17 at 0:46
  • Some gyms also have started putting auto-belays in. I wasn't comfortable at first, but they are fantastic for when you don't have a partner. They also are good for beginners, since you don't have to learn to belay to start climbing. – fyrepenguin Feb 4 '17 at 4:11
  • I have not used those, but I assume they also fix the temptation to hang in the rope to "chill out" / recover for long periods... ;) That said, I see no technical reason why they should be less safe than a human belayer, on the contrary. I guess we can be sure they they are overengineered a lot because even a single bad injury / death would spell the certain doom of the company. – AnoE Feb 4 '17 at 19:32
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I am going to say that there aren't any. I have always heard stories of big beefy guys who can a zillion pull-ups getting out into real climbing and then realizing that there are very few features that remotely resemble pull up bars.

For that matter I have gone climbing and rappelling with a person in a wheel chair and people with other handicaps. Here is a story and here are some pictures of what that looks like.

With that said, stronger is usually better and the same for flexibility, but I don't think there are any prerequisites for doing it.

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    Thanks for sharing this story and pics - they are really beautiful. – Paul Paulsen Feb 2 '17 at 0:01
  • @PaulPaulsen If you want to know more about it you should check out this book by Tim Hansel. I was not there the year of the story but I was there the year with the pictures and it was one of the most intense and rewarding things I have done. – Reinstate Monica Feb 2 '17 at 1:25
  • @Charlie Brumbaugh: Just curious -- I saw your profile and I said you not only just do rock climbing but also programming. How come you do both the athletic stuff and so-called "brainy/'nerdy'" field "programming" instead of just one xor the other? What happens if one does just one xor the other and not both (i.e. only athletic stuff, plus non-so-called-'brainy' job or only 'brainy' job and not athletic stuff)? Is it Required to do both and not just one xor the other? – The_Sympathizer Feb 2 '17 at 4:16
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    @mike4ty4 You will see that there quite a lot of users on this site that work or study in science or engineering. You will also probably note that there are quite some professional athletes who like to do something non-athletic (like reading a book or playing a video game) in their freetime. I honestly don't understand where there is the contradiction here, sorry. – Paul Paulsen Feb 2 '17 at 16:51
  • @PaulPaulsen I answered that question here in chat . – Reinstate Monica Feb 2 '17 at 16:56
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If you can climb a ladder, you can start rock climbing.

You won't be doing crazy stuff unless you get more practice and go often enough to build strength, but there will be routes you can work on.

Where arm strength really matters is overhangs. Unless you're doing those, you'll likely find your hand strength is your limiting factor than your arm strength. Unfortunately hand strength takes longer to develop safely than arm strength.

Just go one day and see what you can do.

  • +1 Is squeezing a tennis ball effective in developing hand strength? – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Jan 30 '17 at 3:29
  • @ab2 There's equipment designed for developing hand strength that's not expensive. A tennis ball might be too hard and badly shaped. – Random832 Jan 30 '17 at 3:49
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    Fast buildup of grip strength is a sure way to injury. Don't! Also: the "minimum level" depends on the gym. Some places don't care much about beginners and intermediate climbers, some love to build quality easy routes. Just try it! – Guran Jan 30 '17 at 6:49
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    Using other things to build strength don't seem to do nearly enough compared to actually climbing. Plus, climbing is about a lot more than strength. Strength all over the body (especially core and fingers), technique, problem-solving. – Don Branson Jan 30 '17 at 21:59
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    To elaborate on @Guran's comment, much of hand strength lies in your tendons and ligaments rather than your forearm muscles, which grows considerably slower than muscle does. Additionally, if injured, it also takes considerably longer to heal if you injure yourself. It's best to think of finger training devices more as aids to maintain strength you build climbing, rather than to build strength on their own. – whatsisname Jan 30 '17 at 22:40
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One aspect not yet touched on is that for beginner climbers, upper body strength is not actually as important as you might imagine. If we exclude overhangs (which is reasonable for early stages of training) then legs really are where all the power requirement sits.

In fact when teaching folks on climbing walls, most of my effort has been in persuading people to relax their grip, lean in, and even let go entirely when resting, in order to focus their attention on legs for lift and arms for control

You can climb at a basic level, if you can walk up stairs. As you progress, you will find the areas you need to develop strength. If you are like me (strong, but should be lighter) overhangs present a challenge to be passed as fast a possible before lactic acid buildup puts a stop to things, whereas my teenage kids find that sort of thing really easy.

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I know some amazing climbers who can't even do a single pull up.

Climbing is more about balance and technique than it is about upper body strength. I'm a skinny guy, and one of my favourite things was when some gym rat would wander over from the weight room into the bouldering cave to check it out. They'd see us skinny kids flash up some problem then decide they were going to give it a try. The looks on their faces when they couldn't even grip the holds, or when they'd explode off the wall because they don't understand beta (the sequence of moves required), was always amusing.

When you start climbing is when it's going to be hardest, but after a couple of weeks your muscles will adapt and you'll start to feel stronger. It's the same with any strength training; your measurable gains at the beginning are from your existing muscle becoming more efficient.

Where you'll notice it the most at first is in your forearms; climbing requires a lot of strength in open hand grips. Take your time when you first get on the wall and climb easy for the first 15 minutes to warm up your muscles. This will help prevent the lactic acid buildup in your arms. Learn how to do some forearm stretches too, you'll be doing lot of those.

In your first year of climbing you'll advance tremendously in your abilities. This is because you learn the basics of climbing technique and how to climb more efficiently. In your second year though, you'll notice that you sort of hit a ceiling. This is you reaching your physical limits. The only way to advance beyond this point is to develop your muscles and grow stronger.

Climbing regularly is important. As soon as you stop climbing, there will be measurable strength loss after only 2 weeks.

The most important thing is to have fun, which is easier if you make some friends who climb at the same level as you do. You don't have to worry about people judging you either; one of my favourite things about the climbing community is how inclusive it is. Everyone bonds over rocks and talking about projects and their beta. Just tell people you're new and you'll have no shortage of people encouraging you and offering tips.

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    I have been climbing for 20-something years and haven't encountered the term "beta" in this context. What does it mean here? – Rory Alsop Jan 30 '17 at 12:05
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    In my experience (primarily in US, Utah), beta refers to the sequence of moves. Wikipedia (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_(climbing)) explains it pretty well. – BLT Jan 30 '17 at 14:15
  • Thanks BLT - I'll pop that into Shem's post as it was new to me. – Rory Alsop Jan 30 '17 at 17:59
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    @RoryAlsop In technical climbing, there are some sections of a climb that can only be completed using a very specific sequence of moves. One of my favourite aspects of route or problem setting is that you can force moves so that sections of your climb can only be completed using very specific sequences of hand and foot placements or you simply pop off the holds. We refer to this sequence of moves as the "beta". What beta you use may differ depending on height, strength and ability, but on exceptionally hard routes there may be only one very specific beta that makes a route possible. – ShemSeger Jan 30 '17 at 19:16
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    There's more slang. If some guy walks up to you and tells you all about the moves you should be doing on the problem you're on, he's "spraying" beta, and of course that's very rude. – Lagerbaer Jan 31 '17 at 0:51
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Often absolute strength isn't that important and it's certainly not just a case of dragging yourself up with your arms and really it is more about technique than brute force.

Equally many people will find that finger strength (and abrasion resistance) is the first limiting factor and it's fairly hard to train that other than by climbing.

Most climbing walls will offer taster sessions and beginners courses which will allow you to try it out and learn the basic skills and safety for very modest expense and the chances are that there will be routes which you can manage without a great deal of difficulty.

There are various grading systems in use for difficulty but the easiest are not much harder than climbing a ladder so it is very likely that there will be a few that you can successfully climb on your first day and then just step up the difficulty to see where your initial limit is.

Also if you do a day course for beginners you will be with a group of other novices and an instructor who knows that you are novices and has an strong incentive to encourage you to come back so there should be no particular reason to feel awkward. Equally while indoor climbing is usually done in pairs with one climbing and one belaying in turns there is no reason why you both have to do the same routes so it is perfectly feasible for two climbers with different levels of ability to partner up as long as you are both happy with the other person's competence in belaying.

For many people the challenge and excitement is in progressing and it is just as satisfying to master your first route at the next grade up whatever the level of relative difficulty.

Equally doing a challenging move 20 m above the ground will get your attention and demand the sort of concentration you are looking for at whatever level of difficulty.

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