Rock Climbing: The Guide to Getting Started for Beginners

rock climbing beginners

In this article, we will share tips on rock climbing for beginners. It is impossible to ignore the growing popularity of rock climbing with the sprouting of climbing gyms. Rock climbing is also having its debut feature at the upcoming Olympics. More beginners are interested to start rock climbing as it a great way to work the whole body. Rock climbing is also a challenging sport and gives a sense of excitement for thrill seekers.

For social butterflies, rock climbing is also a social activity with a strong community sense. Friendships are often forged with fellow climbers while scaling walls.

But like most sports, there are risks involved that rock climbing beginners may not be aware of. Over excitedly approaching a new sport without awareness can cause beginners to get injured.

For this article, we have one of our senior physiotherapists – Yiren, who is an active rock climber to share his experience with rock climbing and the different types of injuries one can sustain during the sport. He will also share tips that will be useful for newbies to minimise risks of injury and to maximise their fun and enjoyment.

Yiren’s Journey with Rock Climbing

To Yiren, rock climbing started off as a co-curricular activity in University. Till date, Yiren regularly exercises after work with his group of climbing buddies at the climbing gym. Rock climbing became more of a social activity, rather than training intensively for competitions during the university days. Through this sport, Yiren has learnt the importance of the varied aspects of the body such as flexibility, balance, strength and endurance. All these physical aspects are crucial elements of rock climbing. Rock climbing is also an activity that enhances one’s grit and determination. Climbers usually take numerous attempts to complete a climbing route after discussion with other climbers who have completed the same route. 

Knowing your body’s limit is important to prevent sustaining injuries. Yiren has witnessed many of his friends getting injured while trying to attempt challenging routes that are of a higher difficulty level than what they are used to. Yiren has personally sustained a tennis elbow injury during the early days of climbing as he was pushing himself by climbing at the gym 3 to 4 times a week. Despite being a seasoned climber, Yiren also recently sustained a finger ligament tear while attempting to pull himself up on a small hand hold that allows just 2 fingers. 

What are the Common Injuries from Rock Climbing?

As a physiotherapist and seasoned climber, Yiren has seen plenty of rock climbing related injuries and has successfully helped to treat these injuries. In this segment, he will cover the common rock climbing related injuries and how they happen.

Tendon Injuries

Pulley injury where climbers tend to crimp and grip hard on tiles. This creates tremendous load onto the finger tendons to hold the entire body weight. A pop sound or pain at the base of the finger might be heard or felt upon injuring it.

Tennis or golfers’ elbows are a common injury as lots of grip is required to grab hold of tiles. This will load up the forearm flexors throughout the climb. Repetitive climbing might overload the common flexors or extensors of the tendon inserting into the outer or inner part of the elbow, which is first presented as pain. 

Ankle Sprains or Knee Ligament Injury

This happens normally when a climber doesn’t land properly from bouldering. Cushioned mats can be found at the base of the boulder wall – it is used to absorb the impact when a climber leaps off the wall and lands on the mat. Upon landing or falling off from routes, the ankle might be caught in the gap between the cushion and climbing wall or the climber could land on a rotated ankle. Should there be too much of a torsion force, the knee ligament could be at risk of straining or popping depending on the magnitude of the force.

Knee meniscus injury is common in climbers who attempt to ‘drop-knee’ in a narrow confined space. Drop knee is a technique in rock climbing that gives your body a more stable platform in order for a further reach in arms. Drop knee involves you rotating your entire body and knee inwards from a lunge position, pivoting on the foothold. With little margins available, the knee might be in a flexed position with a shear force from the rotation maneuver. This can shear the meniscus repetitively if one attempts the same route multiple times. 

Shoulder Injuries

Subacromial conflict or commonly termed as impingement are common in climbers where structures (rotator cuff tendons, bursa) in the space below the acromion can be irritated with repetitive motion of shoulder in a locking position (hold in the top of pull up manner). Irritation of the structure may result in inflammation and presents as a catching pain at a certain angle

Rotator cuff injuries are prevalent amongst climbers due to the nature of the sport itself which requires sustained and powerful shoulder maneuvers switching between tiles. Continuous tensile load through the shoulder muscles while the climber maneuvers on the tiles, at times when the muscle is not able to support the weight, the stress goes into the tendon which may then strain the tendon.

Shoulder dislocations are common especially when climbers are challenging themselves to higher difficulty levels of routes. They might place their shoulders in a compromised and overstretched position while on the rocks. With repetitive strain on the ligaments and imbalance muscle tone which is responsible for the stability of a shoulder joint, hence increasing the risk to sublux or dislocate the shoulder. 

Climbing Tips We Wished We Knew

A Good Landing is Key

Choose to either climb down to a lower height before leaping off the wall. This will reduce the  impact on your knees and ankles, avoiding the possibility of injuries. Go for the orientation classes at climbing gyms specially designed for beginners. These orientation classes will demonstrate proper landing techniques that will be beneficial for rock climbing beginners.

Don’t Overdo It

Listen to your body and take time to rest and recover between sessions. Rookie climbers who are getting into climbing tend to overdo it with the frequency of climbing sessions. This usually results in overuse injuries to the tendons. Instead of focusing on climbing with your arms, work on your footwork techniques. This will reduce the toll on your shoulders. Apart from footwork, focus on conditioning your shoulder and fingers for strength and endurance. You can perform finger boards drills with different hand holds which are more specific to the varied climbing routes 

Climbing Challenges You May Face

I can’t pull myself up

There are different hand holds such as the jug, crimp, sloper, volumes. Fingerboards are commonly found in climbing gyms to condition and strengthen fingers and hands with body weight, akin to a pull up. Familiarise yourself with these holds by practicing on the finger boards with hangs. In that way, it trains your body and hands to get the best grip on these holds during the climb. If you are having difficulty with hand holds, you should work on your shoulder. To condition one’s shoulders, you can choose to perform specific isolated muscles training in the gym. Exercises such as a Latissimus pull down and rotator cuff (external rotation) using cables or weights. General pulling exercises will also help a climber to pull himself closer and ascend the wall.

I can’t ascend the wall

Proper usage of the legs will reduce the need to place upper limbs under tremendous stress while climbing. Sit-ins, drop knees, matching of feet on small tiles, flagging of legs on wall are examples of footwork techniques. The more stable your feet are, the more fluidity you get during climbing. This reduces the need to grip onto tiles tightly to hold up your bodyweight. Utilising synergist cross anterior and posterior slings will ease climbing (eg: right hand grip with left foot); reducing chances of swinging too far away from the wall.

I can’t jump off

Practise on a lower ground for higher levels such as dyno moves (jumping from tiles to tiles). Start with jugs as they are the easiest. Train your jumps and push off with the most strength powering from your quadriceps and gluteus on land. Ways to train them are through squat jumps with hand coordination. You can try jumping from the ground onto the fingerboard. Your hand will need to be able to grip and hang your entire body weight. Keep your abdominals rigid in order to minimise unnecessary swings as these will increase load onto the fingers.

Rock on and Keep Climbing

We hope that this article will be beneficial for beginners who are interested to try rock climbing. If you are worried about the difficulty level, we hope our tips to overcome common challenges have been helpful. Keep in mind to listen to your body when starting a new sport and to exercise safety.

For seasoned climbers like Yiren, we have something for you too. In our next article, we cover tips to enhance climbing performance and advice on treatment methods for common climbing injuries.