Indoor climbers find their balance

MORE THAN POWER: Sport requires balance, flexibility, problem solving

May 29, 2011 

Standing at the base of a 25-foot faux rock pillar, Benn Cordy pointed up at a climbing route that looked as if it would give Spider-Man trouble.

Not only were some of the holds about the size of a pack of gum, but reaching them would require some serious flexibility.

“On a route like this it doesn’t matter how strong you are,” said Cordy, a manager at Tacoma’s Edgework Climbing Gym. “You aren’t getting up it unless you have good balance and flexibility. It’s too precise.”

Above him, a woman deftly twisted her body and hooked her finger tips over a hold then paused as she looked up at the rest of the route as if trying to solve a puzzle.

It’s easy to see what might lure somebody to a sport such as rock climbing. Whether in a gym or outside, there is a definite rush that comes with scaling something most people wouldn’t even consider climbing.

But as a fitness activity, rock climbing might not be quite what you think.

“It’s about movement and balance,” Cordy said.

Sure, many climbers have grips like trash compactors and can do one-arm pull-ups, but these skills aren’t prerequisites to enjoy this activity.

“I can barely do 12 pull-ups and I climb,” Cordy said. “… There are 6-year-old girls who climb better than guys who can bench press 400 pounds.”

The elements that are crucial to rock climbing – balance, flexibility and problem solving – are ignored by many traditional gym users.

“There is an important side to your fitness that you are missing if you are not engaged in activities like rock climbing,” Cordy said. “People are too worried about how many pull-ups we can do and how much we can lift. We forget about balance and flexibility.”

At Edgeworks, membership includes access to yoga classes that also are open to nonclimbers.

“A lot of the bigger and newer gyms are offering yoga,” said Tod Bloxham, Edgeworks’ owner. “Climbers really get a good benefit from yoga, and it’s a way the gym can be open to the entire community.”

Vertical Club Tacoma also offers occasional yoga clinics.

While yoga and climbing go hand-in-hand, the problem-solving aspect is what keeps the sport exciting for many climbers.

“People with attention deficits – and I’m one of them – can often hone an ability to focus with this sport because of the problem-solving,” said Jen Vieira, membership coordinator at Vertical Club Tacoma, “Your mind is moving as well, and that’s what I think is so great about rock climbing. It ties your mind and body together.”

In fact, climbers say their sport constantly challenges part of their body they might not otherwise use.

“The biggest comment I hear from new climbers is, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know I had that muscle,’” said Sierra Blakely, director of Olympia’s Warehouse Rock Gym. “You are pushing at one moment, then pulling another. Twisting one way, then twisting the other. You aren’t just doing reps in a gym.”

Added Vieira: “You develop strength in secondary areas like your forearms, and your hands get really strong. Your core gets strong, and so does your lower back. You aren’t just using your upper body. You are using everything.”

While climbing is a complete body workout where participants can burn more than 700 calories per hour, according to healthstatus.com, it also begs for a cardiovascular complement. In response to this frequent request, Edgeworks recently added indoor cycling classes.

Traditional gyms might have more cardio options, but they also often lack another element that rock gyms traditionally have.

“When I go to a gym, nobody talks to me,” Cordy said. “I just work out and leave. Here it is much more social.”

Climbers will talk to each other about routes they are trying, and there is also the constant need for a belay partner. Holding the safety rope through their harness, the belay partner prevents the climber from falling.

At Edgeworks and at Warehouse Rock, you can sign up or use online message boards to find a belay partner or you can bring a friend.

Or you can simply hire somebody to belay for you.

“Yeah, you don’t have to make friends if you are against that,” Cordy said with a laugh.

At Vertical Club Tacoma, there is no need for a belay partner because it is a bouldering gym. Bouldering is climbing on short routes without rope.

“It is such a great activity for people who have trouble getting motivated to work out because it is fun,” Vieira said. “It’s like the difference between running on a trail jumping over logs and rocks and looking at the scenery and running on a treadmill and looking at the cars in the parking lot.”

Blakely says she’s seen the sport change the way people think about fitness.

“You get hooked on it, and it changes your perception on things,” she said. “I see guys who come in here who drink all the time and don’t eat well. Then they start climbing, they get excited and they start eating healthier.

“It can really light a fire under you.”

And once the fire is lit, it’s almost as if you aren’t working out, Cordy said.

“I don’t think of myself as somebody who works out,” Cordy said. “I do activities that I enjoy.

“And I hear that all the time. They say I was just doing this because it was fun and then all of a sudden they have great arms and they’ve lost 10 pounds. It’s pretty nice.”

Craig Hill’s fitness column runs Sundays in The News Tribune and The Olympian. Please submit questions and comments via craig.hill@thenewstribune.com, facebook.com/adventureguys or twitter.com/adventureguys.

Get more fitness coverage at blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure, thenewstribune.com/fitness and theolympian.com/getfit.

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