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Is Climbing and Bouldering Good For Cardio?

Is Climbing and Bouldering Good For Cardio?

As an avid climber, I’ve recognized many benefits that climbing brings to me, including physical, mental and emotional. However, a very debatable benefit is whether or not climbing and bouldering are good for cardio health so I decided to do some research to find out.

Is climbing good for cardio? Climbing increases your heart rate and respiratory rate, making it good for cardio. However, climbing builds your cardio fitness differently than most cardio activities and is difficult to compare.

Climbing is one of the most well-rounded sports that you can do for your physical, mental and emotional health. However, the way you climb heavily changes the effectiveness of your cardio exercise.

How To Make Climbing and Bouldering A Great Cardio Workout

Climbing requires dynamic and static movements that require full-body control. This full-body control requires a lot of muscle activation which drives the heart rate and respiratory rate of your body while you climb. 

Depending on how intense your climbing session is, you may get an amazing cardio workout or a completely sub-par cardio workout.

To make climbing and bouldering a great cardio workout, you have to maintain an increased heart and respiratory rate. If you want to make sure you get a good cardio workout from your climbing session, try these steps.

  1. It is easiest to do this if you have a means of checking your heart rate with a device such as a heart rate monitor or a smartwatch. The Apple Watch, for example, is a great way to track your heart rate while you climb, especially if you are using a climbing app.
  2. Throughout your climbing session, take moments to pay attention to how heavy or fast you are breathing.
  3. If your heart rate is below your target and/or your breathing rate isn’t elevated, then increase the intensity of your climbing. You can do this by:
    1. Increasing the distance you climb 
    2. Increasing the speed you climb
    3. Increasing the difficulty of your climb
    4. Increasing the number of climbs you do without rest
    5. Decrease rest/recovery time between climbs
  4. Maintain that intensity for the desired time (most cardio workouts should be at least 30 minutes in your target heart and respiratory range).

What Is Cardio and Why Is It Important?

Cardio is any activity that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe hard. 

Many people recognize running, biking, hiking, soccer and basketball as cardio workouts but what many people don’t realize, is that any activity such as weight lifting or dancing are also considered cardio.

Cardio is important because it improves your lung and heart health, as well as burns calories and increases your metabolic rate.

To reap the benefit that comes from cardio workouts, you should do 30 minutes in your ideal heart and respiratory rate at least 3 days per week.

What Is Your Ideal Heart Rate For Cardio

Everyone’s body requires a different heart rate for the best cardio outcome. This rate is dependent on your max heart rate, which is generally calculated using your age. 

Once you have that number, you can identify what zone you need to be in for the ultimate cardio workout. 

Using the steps below, you can identify what your heart rate should be and use that to design a climbing and/or bouldering session that meets your cardio needs.

  1. Subtract your age from 220. For example, if you are 25 years old, 220-25=195 (this is the average max heart-rate)
  2. Identify what “zone” you want to be in for each phase of your workout
    1. 50-70% Zone: This zone is best for recovery or improving endurance. It is also commonly known as the zone for burning fat (though you will still burn fat in higher zones)
    2. 70-85% Zone: This zone is specific for improving performance and building heart/muscle efficiency (The Ultimate Cardio Zone)
    3. 85-100% Zone: This zone is when you move from aerobic to anaerobic. It is most often used for increasing speed and intensity, though it should be done in short bursts.
  3. Calculate your heart rate percent for each zone by multiplying the number calculated in step 1 by the percent you are looking for. For example, 75% of 195 is calculated by multiplying 195 by 0.75. If you are 25 years old, 195 would be 100%
    1. 50-70% would be 97.5 – 136.5
    2. 70-85% would be 136.5 – 165.75
    3. 85-100% would be 165.75 – 195

What Is Your Ideal Respiratory Rate

There is no set respiratory rate or “zone” for getting a good cardio workout. The goal is to elevate your breathing rate to meet the needs of the type of workout you are doing. 

Some exercises such as running or cross country skiing may require more oxygen for energy and removal of waste products such as carbon dioxide and lactate compared to that of weight lifting or high-intensity workouts.

Generally, you can use the “sing and talk” test to see if your respiratory rate is where you need to be to get a good cardio workout. To do this test, all you have to do is see if you can talk and sing.

  • If you can talk and sing, then you likely need to increase the intensity of your climbing session 
  • If you can talk but you can’t sing, then you are likely working out moderately and will get a good cardio workout
  • If you have to take gasps of air or can’t talk full sentences, then you are likely working out intensely.

With that being the case, your main goal should be your target heart rate with your respiratory rate as a secondary concern.

Though it is clear that you elevate your respiratory rate while you climb, this is still one of the most argued (among climbers) as a reason that climbing may not be a good cardio workout. The biggest argument is a comparison with how you breathe after running a mile compared to after a climbing session. This is likely due to the misconception that you have to breathe really hard to get a good cardio workout. Whereas you only need to raise your respiratory and heart rate to a certain level to make it a good cardio workout.

How is Cardio Different In Climbing Than Bouldering

The biggest difference between climbing and bouldering is the distance you climb. Funny enough, this actually changes the level or type of cardio that you get while climbing too.

Some climbers report that despite an increase in heart rate, it is harder to increase your respiratory rate while bouldering because the routes are shorter.

In comparison, climbing requires you to continually increase your respiratory rate to compensate for the endurance required to make it to the top of a long route. However, your heart rate may be lower.

These differences don’t mean that one is better than the other for cardio, but it may mean that if you want a really great cardio workout to be included in your climbing session, you may need to dedicate 30 minutes in your climbing session to address any weaknesses that prevent the session from having a good cardio aspect to it.

How To Increase Heart Rate While Climbing

As mentioned above in the heart rate target zone section, these zones are for different types of training. 

The 50-70% zone is for endurance, which is why you probably notice that your heart rate is lower when doing long climbing routes. Endurance is required to reach the top. 

This doesn’t mean that you aren’t getting a good cardio workout if you remain in the 50-70% zone, but if you want to bump into the 70-85% range, you may want to dedicate 30 minutes in your climbing session to increase your heart rate.

Here are some things you can do while climbing to increase your heart rate for 30 minutes:

  • Climb more dynamically or climb more dynamic routes (try skipping holds if you can’t think of any other ways to climb dynamically)
  • Climb faster so your focus is getting to the top as quickly as possible (this is best for top-rope climbing)

How To Increase Respiratory Rate While Bouldering

With bouldering, it is usually easier to get your heart rate up because you are frequently doing short bursts of powerful moves. However, it is commonly reported that getting your respiratory rate up can be challenging while bouldering. If you have this problem, it may be worth dedicating at least 30 minutes to your climbing routine that focuses on getting your respiratory rate up.

If you aren’t sure how to get your breathing elevated, try this drill as inspiration for other activities in bouldering that can dramatically increase your respiratory rate:

  1. Identify 4 climbs that are 2-3 levels below your current grade. 
  2. Complete each climb as quickly as you can without taking a break in between each route
  3. Once you complete all 4 routes, take a 1-minute break and then repeat 3-4 times.

By the time you are done with this drill, you will likely find yourself breathing hard and your heart rate will be in or above your target zone.

This drill should also show you what is possible when it comes to getting your breathing elevated while bouldering.

Can Climbing Build Muscle and Replace Weight Training?

Climbing, like many body-weight exercises, is a great way to build muscles in your entire body. However, weight training is commonly used to supplement climbers strength building, not replace it.

Can Climbing Build Abs

Climbing is a core-intense workout and is a great way to build your ab muscles. However, unless you are eating right, you may not see that six-pack you may be hoping for.