I Didn't Think Indoor Climbing Was For Me—Now It Might Be My New Favorite Workout
You can find me on the wall.
In order to access the great outdoors while living in a city like New York, you typically need to hop on a bus or subway, transfer to a train, and finally have a taxi drop you at the start of the hiking trail. Not exactly easy. So, when I was invited to join Mammut and professional rock climber Sierra Blair-Coyle at indoor climbing gym MetroRock Brooklyn, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get "outdoors," even if I'd be inside the whole time.
Let it be known that I love hiking, kayaking, and camping. Indoor climbing seemed like a natural fit. However, stepping into the climbing gym lined with daunting Easter-egg speckled walls made me feel completely out of my element. I wasn't sure if I belonged, or if I could hack it. After being greeted by the staff and meeting my mentor for the afternoon, Sierra Blair-Coyle, my nerves began to wane and I became more excited to attempt something I had never done before.
A U.S. national champion, world cup contender, and Mammut pro-climber, Blair-Coyle is mastering a sport that's often thought to be male-dominated. The first time she climbed was at age 8, when a local mall in Scottsdale, Arizona put up a wall. "I instantly fell in love with climbing," Blair-Coyle tells me. Who better to be my teacher?
The first thing Blair-Coyle showed me was the proper "falling" method in bouldering (climbing freely without a rope). It seems silly, but falling the right (read: safe) way can prevent injury. She explained that when you lose your grip or balance on the climbing hold (the colorful misshaped pieces on the wall), it's best to just accept that you're falling and go with the flow—literally. When you land, she said, allow your body to tuck in and roll down onto your back, side, or shoulder (kind of like an upside-down turtle in its shell). The wrong approach would be to brace your fall with your hands or arms, as this could lead to a sprain or break, or sticking the landing with your two feet. The "tuck and roll" is your happy place.
I warmed up by tackling my first "boulder problem," or route. Routes are color-coordinated, so you either want to follow the same color up the wall (more challenging) or you can "rainbow," which means grabbing hold of whatever color you want. I decided to follow the white pattern: I grabbed my first boulder hold, lifted myself from the ground, and moved my feet as I climbed upward.
When I came to the middle section of the problem, though, I got stuck. I was too far from the next hold. Pinching the wall, I swung my left foot up, catching a tiny white mound I wasn't even sure I could reach, and pushed off of it with my toes to hoist myself up to the next hold. Using my knee, I pushed off another hold to claw my way to the top. I amazed myself with what I could do with my body.
Confidence boosted, I decided to gain a little perspective and take my climbing to new heights. Enter: top roping. I strapped myself into a harness attached to a rope that passes up through an anchor system at the top of the wall, and then down to a belayer (your partner) at the base. My belay buddy was a total stranger, so I had to trust that he would have my back.
Next, I began my ascent, finding the orange holds with my feet and hands and working my way up the wall. For the first time all day, I wasn't thinking about anything—deadlines, family, what I was going to eat for dinner. My mind was quiet. Stress from the day dissipated, and I experienced a kind of peace you don't often find in New York City. I felt strong, alive, and capable. Like I could do anything I put my mind to.
I'll admit that I wasn't perfect: I lost my grip at one point and came off the wall, and was briefly swinging around in the air. (It wasn't as scary as you'd think.) But as I was being lowered down, I realized that indoor climbing wasn't just a mental escape, it also worked muscles in my body that I didn't know existed. It challenged me more than any other workout I've tried, and I was immediately hooked. I unknotted the rope from my harness and noticed one tiny blister on my left palm: initiation.
What beginners need to know about indoor climbing
“My biggest piece of advice is to just try it out," Blair-Coyle says. Sometimes the hardest part isn't the physical act of doing a new workout, but rather walking through the doors, she told me. The good news? Climbing gyms tend to be welcoming environments, Blair-Coyle tells me, which is something I experienced firsthand. My first visit to MetroRock Brooklyn wasn't nearly as overwhelming as I imagined it would be, and I found a strong sense of community within the sport. Unlike my yoga and barre classes, climbers actually socialize and cheer each other on.
In regards to technique, trust that you'll learn as you go. I was under the impression, like many beginners, that your upper body does all the work. Fortunately, I had Blair-Coyle coaching me to use my entire body, not just my arms. When I got stuck on a boulder problem because I couldn't reach the next hold with my hands, she reminded me to keep moving my feet up the wall. (Yes, I had totally forgotten to move my feet.) My hands were soon able to reach the place that I couldn't grasp before.
Positioning can also greatly determine your range of movement. "A lot of the time, if you’re having a difficult time with a move, it’s probably because you’re in the wrong position with your body," Blair-Coyle points out. In other words, don't be afraid to get experimental in the ways you move and bend.
You don't need a partner to rock climb
When I hit a cardio or barre class, I know it's not a team activity. We're all in it for ourselves. I don't need anyone to help me. I had always thought I needed a partner to climb, which was one reason that deterred me from giving it a shot. Another reason? Fear of the unfamiliar, of course. "If you're not comfortable just going in and winging it, inquire with the gym about introduction classes or one-hour private lessons," says Blair-Coyle. Most climbing gyms offer intro and beginner classes that teach you about equipment, tying knots, belaying, and proper commands.
You don't need a partner for bouldering, and many climbing gyms use auto-belays, which allow climbers with no rope handling experience to get onto the taller walls without the help of a buddy. Climb as high as you're comfortable, and the auto-belay will then gently lower you to the ground using its automatic braking system. Feel free to ask a staff member for a quick tutorial of the equipment to get you started.
The best indoor hiking gear to get you started
My thought going into any new workout class is usually, What the heck do I wear? Blair-Coyle keeps her climbing outfits surprisingly simple: tight-fitting shorts or leggings wirh a sports bra or tank. Other climbers prefer looser pants and tees, but it's entirely up to you. “Whatever you’re comfortable working out in is perfect for climbing," Blair-Coyle says. Just keep in mind that if you're wearing shorts and climbing on a rope, the harness could rub and irritate your legs. I wore these high waist Sweaty Betty leggings with this loose-fitted tank, and felt completely at ease.
As for equipment, the climbing gym should have everything you need available to rent, including shoes, harnesses, clips, and chalk bags. Even as a beginner, though, Blair-Coyle recommends buying your own chalk bag, because it won't break the bank and you'll use it often (below, our favorite ones). Don't invest in climbing shoes just yet, though: Shoes can be pricey, and climbers typically don't purchase them until they are more committed to the sport. Indoor climbing is safe and the floor is padded and soft, so some gyms don't require helmets. However, if outdoor sport climbing piques your interest, it's not a bad idea to get a helmet, says Blair-Coyle.
Still not sure where to start? (What's a chalk bag?) We've taken the stress out of the decision-making, and rounded up a few of the best gear for beginner climbers.
From sporty to feminine and chic, we've got your chalk bag needs covered. You can also conveniently scoop up this refillable chalk ball to pop in your bag for only $9. Amazon deems it as a number-one bestseller, so you know you'll be in good company.
The full zipper on this handy backpack allows you to completely open the bag to perfectly organize your climbing shoes, chalk bags, and rope. Bonus: the rope is also protected by an integrated rope bag. Great for beginners or climbing enthusiasts, it will be your new favorite gym bag or travel companion.
If you're considering sport climbing, this brand-new helmet from Mammut is the first of its kind to feature MIPS technology, which offers maximum safety and protection from impacts caused by tumbling rocks or falls. When the helmet gets hit at an angled impact, the low friction layer on the inside allows it to slide relative to the head. The energy and force from the impact is redirected and absorbed, rather than being transferred to the brain, reducing the risk of brain injury.