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Can Climbing Build Muscle and Replace Weight Training?

Can Climbing Build Muscle and Replace Weight Training?

My friend was complaining about how boring it is for her to go to the gym and lift weights so she asked me if I thought climbing was good for building muscle. From personal experience, I know it is, but I decided to do some research to see if there was any research on the topic.

Climbing is a full-body workout and like many body-weight exercises, it is great for building muscles. The most common muscles activated in climbing are the abdomen, forearms, shoulders, and triceps. Climbers typically report getting gains from climbing within one to two weeks of training. However, many professional climbers supplement their climbing sessions with weight training to build muscles faster.

Whether you want to be more active or are bored at the regular gym and want to mix it up by joining a climbing gym, you may be wondering if climbing can replace exercise. This article goes through the main muscles that climbing builds, discusses whether or not you can replace exercising with climbing and if you should supplement climbing with weight training. 

Can Climbing Build Muscle

You’ve probably seen some extremely toned climbers and wonder if climbing builds muscle. Most advanced climbers supplement climbing with strength training so it is difficult to differentiate between what is from the climbing aspect of the training or strength training. Overall, climbing does build muscle, but it won’t give you a lifter’s body.

Research has proven that training with bodyweight (climbing is a bodyweight activity) significantly improves muscular endurance but what about building strength and composition? The nature of rock climbing includes many reaches and holds that are repeated throughout the climb. The repetition of reaches, pulling/pushing your weight up helps rock climbers build muscular strength, muscular endurance, body composition and flexibility.

Like any bodyweight exercise, use of the muscle over and over again will tone them and strengthen them. For example, if you frequently pull your body up with your biceps (common in climbing) then your biceps will get stronger. 

On the other hand, many climbers have expressed that there is a maximum need for muscles for climbing and after you reach that point, technique kicks in. This makes some climbers feel like you only build muscle for a short period of time when you first start climbing and that you need to supplement weight training for continued muscle building.

What Muscles are Used in Climbing

Climbing is a full-body workout and it is likely that by the end of an hour of intense climbing, you have used every part of your body. With that being said, some would suggest I list every muscle and how it is used in climbing, but you probably don’t care about the hairline muscle on the side of your neck compared to the main muscle groups climbing heavily affects. Here is a list of muscles that are most commonly used in climbing.

Upper Body

Many climbers associate climbing with upper-body exercising because there are many upper body muscles worked. In general, men are more likely to focus on their upper body than women, but both men and women report that their upper body muscles get stronger with climbing. Here are the main upper body muscles used in climbing:

Deltoids

Location: The Deltoids are located at the front of your shoulders

The Anterior Deltoids are an important muscle in pulling your body up while climbing and is one of the most dominant muscles used by climbers. Because the posterior (back) shoulder isn’t used as often, climbers may get unbalanced muscles around their shoulder rotator cuff, which can cause shoulder instability damage. To counter this, climbers recommend posterior shoulder exercises to keep the rotator cuff healthy.

Biceps

Location: Biceps are the muscles on the front of your arm between your shoulder and elbow

Not surprisingly, the effort of pulling yourself up with your arms is a bicep heavy exercise. Like most muscles on this list, the bicep is usually more engaged the steeper the incline of the climbs you are doing, so if you want to focus more on building bicep muscles, try steep/inverted climbing. 

Triceps

Location: Triceps are the muscles on the back of your arm between your shoulder and elbow

Just like biceps are used to pull yourself up, so are triceps. This is probably why climbers are notoriously great at pull-ups, which is also a tricep heavy exercise. If you don’t have a pull-up bar and want to build your triceps at home, you can focus more of your triceps while doing pushups if you put your elbows at your side while you push up. 

Forearms

Location: The forearms are the muscles between your elbow and your wrist

Studies about the effect of rock climbing on health frequently note increased strength of forearms and attribute it to a major part of the grip in climbing. Naturally, with climbing, you will build your grip strength, which forearms is a big part of. This is also a relatively easy muscle to work on

If you want to increase your grip strength, check out this article (12 Grip Training Exercises: A Guide for Climbers to Increase Hand Strength)

Pecs (Pectoralis Major/Minor)

Location: The Pec muscles are on your upper chest muscles 

The chest muscles are other major muscles used for pulling down. Climbers frequently recognize pectoral definition after continued climbing training. In addition, if you don’t properly train the back of your shoulders, your chest muscles will tighten to protect the shoulders, which means that they get worked even more. Unfortunately, the compensation of your chest tightening frequently results in the dreaded climbers hunched back. To counter this effect, it is important to add additional focus to your back muscles.

Core

Location: The Core muscles are located between your chest and hips 

Your core is a huge powerhouse for climbing. Without your core muscles, you wouldn’t be able to make the necessary movements for climbing. This is especially noticeable when you are climbing an inclined wall or start getting into more difficult climbs. Here are the two main core muscles used in climbing:

Lats (Latissimus Dorsi)

Location: The lat muscles are the muscles located on the sides of your back that are the winged shape

Lats are what allows you to pull down. When you climb, you are constantly pulling and building your lats. Because of this, it is important to stretch and make sure that you are balancing all the pulling with some pushing as well. There is a reason climbers frequently love handstands.

Abdomen

Location: The Abdomens (abs) are located on your front side between your chest and hips

Second to lats is abdominals for the most used muscle in climbing. As part of your core, the abdomen holds your body close to the wall and enables you to move your limbs and balance for each move. Climbing trainers usually include supplemental exercises in a climbers regimen that focuses specifically on your abs. The stronger your abs, the better you climb. This works both ways, the more you climb, the stronger your core gets too.

Lower Body

A frequently under-rated part of climbing by spectators, but your lower body is a huge part of getting up the wall. Women generally use their lower body more than men, but both men and women recognize that their legs get stronger from climbing. Here are the main lower body muscles used in climbing:

Glutes

Location: The Glutes are the muscles in your buttocks

Your glutes are the bridge to your legs and they get used more than climbers realize. When used properly, they help build momentum, balance and reach. For example, engaging your glutes helps get your hips closer to the wall. Because of this, glutes are a major muscle used while climbing. Unfortunately, many beginner climbers don’t properly activate their glutes and it becomes more of a weight or anchor than a large muscle to help propel you up the wall.

Thighs

Location: The thighs are the muscles between your hip joint and knees

Though climbing is frequently considered an upper-body heavy exercise, your thighs can be one of the most used muscles while climbing. If you are climbing with good technique, then your thighs will get a great workout. Even without good technique, it takes a lot of thigh muscles to pull your feet up to the next handhold and push up to get your hands to the next hold as well. In general, women are more likely to use their legs to push themselves up the wall compared to men who depend on their arms to pull them up more. 

Calves

Location: The calves are the muscles between your knee and ankle

Every time you place your toe on a climbing hold and push up, you are using your calves. Your calves can be activated easily by standing on your toes, which can be an important movement for getting up the wall. Because of this, the contraction of your calves is common. Many climbers notice a difference in their calves’ definition after each climbing session and some climbers report their calves to burn after climbing training because of how much they use their calves. 

Can Climbing Replace Exercising at the Gym

One of the main reasons people become interested in climbing is that they don’t want to go to the gym or do a traditional workout but wants to be more active. Depending on your goals, climbing can replace exercising in the gym. Climbing is a great cardio workout and compared to many other workouts in the gym, it is a great replacement. However, if you want to build big muscles or be able to bench and squat twice your weight then adding weight lifting will still be necessary.

Should You Supplement Climbing with Weight Training

As climbers continue to train or start to plateau, they frequently wonder if supplementing weighted gym workouts is a good idea. If you want to get stronger and build muscle faster, then supplementing climbing with weighted training is a great way to do that. This is especially important since you should take one or two days off climbing each week. In fact, a common regimen for climbers is climbing with climbing drills 3xs a week and weight training 2xs a week.

If you want a guide for bouldering drills to add to your exercise regimen, check out this post (A Guide For Climbers: Bouldering Drills 101

Climbing is a full-body workout but each climbing problem/route focuses on different muscles. Like any training, balancing your muscles with each workout is important. Since climbing is known for naturally building front shoulder muscles, climbers should have an additional focus on back shoulder muscles to avoid imbalances. This is applicable for all muscles in your body. If you had a triceps intense climbing week, then work on biceps, etc. 

Conclusion

Climbing is a full-body workout that works your upper body, core and lower body muscles. There are some muscles that are neglected more than others so it is important to pay attention to your body and supplement exercising as needed to balance those muscles such as the back of your shoulders. Focusing more attention on balancing your muscles helps prevent injuries caused by instability damage.