There’s a stealthy, athletic way to full-body muscle—and it’s not in the weight room. Will Cockrell explores how the climbing wall forges strength.
I’m only 2.4 metres off the ground on the rock wall at Cliffs of Id, a climbing gym in Los Angeles, but my adrenaline’s already pumping. But it’s not because of the height, and it’s not because I feel like some gravity-defying Spider-Man. It’s because every muscle in my body is firing to keep me glued to my perch. If my grip or my back or my core relaxes, I slip. It’s a full-body workout as challenging as anything I’ve ever done in the weight room—which may explain why climbing gyms are as packed as weight rooms these days.
The number of climbing gyms in America has steadily increased, and climbing is a fast-growing fitness trend. Its inclusion in the 2020 Olympics and the anxiety-inducing Oscar-nominated documentary Free Solo are now inspiring even more curiosity. Meanwhile, climbing facilities themselves have evolved from dank warehouses into temples of functional fitness, full of people who are simply there for a fun, hard workout. Some come for simulated adventure, but many come for the community, too. All leave with a buzz. “I don’t go camping; I’m not the stereotypical man-bun climber,” says Cliffs of Id trainer Eddie Tsang. “But I love the problem-solving aspect of rock climbing, and you can almost feel the neurological pathways firing between your brain and your muscles.”
Tsang goes on: “When you climb, your body spends a lot of time under tension. You’re thinking about what grip you’re going to use on a hold, about how you’re going to shift your weight in one direction, what kind of counterbalance to use, all while keeping your core engaged.” Tsang, 38, is an attorney by day who also climbs and teaches TRX and bodyweight bootcamp-style classes at Cliffs of Id. The former break-dancer and high school wrestler infuses the basic movements of climbing into his classes because, as he puts it, “it’s a smarter workout for building strength while maintaining functionality.”
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