Workout We Love: Indoor Rock Climbing

Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Rock Gyms.

Are you going to rock the wall, or is the wall going to rock you? That’s the decision you have to make when you’re 29 feet in the air, near the top but not quite close enough to reach it with your hand. Arm muscles screaming, quadriceps aching and the next secure foothold seemingly out of reach, you realize the easiest path is downward. Make it to the top, though, and you find the awesomeness.

Founded in 1994, Philadelphia Rock Gyms has long been the dominant force in this region’s indoor rock-climbing scene, with six locations and plans for more. This spring, PRG opens its newest gym in Malvern, just a few miles down Route 30 from Gravity Vault, a competitor attracting climbers to its Radnor location.

Indoor climbing is a fun full-body workout that’s both affordable and challenging. Most gyms offer three options: lead climbing, bouldering and top rope. Lead climbing isn’t for beginners, and we didn’t have the arm strength for bouldering. Top roping isn’t any easier than bouldering—but if you’re expending all that energy, wouldn’t you rather be 35 feet in the air?

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Gear is required, but you can rent it at reasonable rates. Indoor gyms outfit climbers with lightweight climbing shoes, harnesses with loops that circle the waist and each thigh, and a carabiner. The latter is the D-shaped device that secures climber, rope and belayer (the person holding the rope at the bottom of the wall).

Amanda Schwartz, facility manager of Philadelphia Rock Gyms’ Oaks and Coatesville centers, begins our lesson by teaching us to tie a Figure 8 knot. “Use the rope to make a head, choke the head, then stab the head with the rope,” she tells us.

Climbers use the Figure 8 knot to secure the rope to their harnesses. That rope goes all the way up the wall, loops through an anchor, then descends. Belayers use the carabiner to fasten that rope to their harness. While it’s pretty simple to master, gyms won’t let you climb unmonitored until you’re belay certified.

Choosing your route is the next bit of business. Walls are designed with climbs of varying degrees of difficulty and clearly marked with a numerical system based on the Yosemite Decimal Rating System. We start with an easy 5.3 route, and within a few climbs, we master a 5.6. By the time we top that wall, our forearms and quadriceps are on fire.

Your flexibility is tested, so yoga skills definitely come in handy. In fact, rock climbing is a lot like doing yoga poses on a wall. “We have climbers of all ages and sizes,” says Schwartz. “That’s actually the beauty of climbing: You go at your pace and find your own accomplishments.”

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PRG climbers run the gamut, from little kids to grandparents, from lean and small to big and tall—though the predominant body type is long and lanky, with muscles chiseled by climbing. As for the vibe, it’s definitely chill. “It’s not a competitive sport,” Schwartz says. “Or if it is, you’re only competing with yourself.”

You’re also getting a full-body workout. Forearms and quads work the hardest. The next day, biceps and calves are sore. If you go, take an introductory class. Check Groupon for discounts, and visit gym websites for deals, group climbs, women-only hours, info for kids, and special events.

And bring along some like-minded people who prefer a challenge. You have to trust that, if you fall, the belayer won’t let go. You also have to believe in yourself and think more about climbing than falling.

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