How do bouldering and rock climbing change your body?

How do bouldering and rock climbing change your body?

Every rock climber and boulderer will give you one particular piece of advice – “If you wanna get better at climbing, climb more.” It’s a cliché, but it’s true.

This is because bouldering is not only an activity but one of the best workouts out there. It builds your muscles, strengthens your forearms, legs, core, and more. I could go on and on about the benefits of climbing and bouldering for climbers, but what about others?

It’s undoubtedly incredible, but what if the end goal is different. What changes does your body go through from bouldering and climbing? Is it still the best workout if you just want an athlete’s body, or are there better alternatives?

Well, I do believe that it is indeed the best option, at least for me. And this article will answer all your “whys” today.

Note: This article is about the physical effects of the activity and not the various forms that go into it, so I’ll use the terms “bouldering” and “climbing” interchangeably because they have similar benefits in this case.

What do bouldering and rock climbing do to your body?

As I said, it’ll primarily build muscles in your forearms, legs, and core to ensure a climbing-friendly physique – one that lets you hang your body midair with just your fingers. 

Climbing makes two more scientifically fascinating yet subtle alterations to your skin and a particular part of your brain.

I won’t go too much into the anatomical details about how the mechanism (tendons, muscles, etcetera) work that lets you accomplish these remarkable feats. So, you can watch this video of Shauna Coxsey by Redbull for that.

Shauna Coxsey

1. Skin & Grip

The texture and formation of your skin, especially the one on your fingertips, play a major role in your climbing efficiency. This is because only the skin on your fingertips will interact with the rock crevices or holds.

You’ll slip if it’s too thick due to the lack of “effective pressure.” If it’s too thin, your sweat and moisture will hinder how you grip the holds.

Through wear and tear over the years, your skin thickness will be just the right amount to maximize grip efficiency. Moreover, your “new skin cells” will be relatively drier to reduce the effects of sweat and moisture.

It’s incredible how your body adapts, isn’t it? The next one takes it one step further.

2. Changes in Brain – “The Quiet Eye.”

You might not even notice this, but climbing actually alters the Cerebrum, a part of your intelligence that solves riddles.

It increases your brain’s efficiency to solve the boulder problems as quickly as possible, project the practical route to your body, and send the problem with the shortest route.

It doesn’t happen from day 1, so you could just mistake it for a mix of “experience” and “instincts,” but scientists have found it to be much more than that.

The technical term is “the quiet eye,” and it’s not limited to climbing. Boulderers who improved in their skills to solve complex problems also noticed a calmer and more decisive outlook towards other real-life issues with a “state of complete focus.”

Does bouldering get me in shape?

Since I am done with the unnoticeable and “subtle” changes in your body, let’s get back to the main question and discuss the rather apparent ones. And the answer is yes.

Bouldering and rock climbing are great workouts that gets you in shape and help build a lean / athletic body. Climbing builds certain types of muscles for strength and endurance. As many climbers do, you can do climbing exercises to build the rest for “muscle balance.”

The one thing that where might not help you is getting bulky.

Climbing and bouldering can build abs as long as you watch your diet and maintain a proper schedule. It’ll also make your body ripped and muscular but balanced (lean) and athletic. Climbing isn’t for gaining muscle mass and getting bulky-ripped.

What muscle areas do climbing work specifically?

According to research conducted by WebMD, rock climbing and bouldering balances your core, strengthens your forearms and legs for power, and build (or tone) your glutes back muscles to handle your body weight and the extreme mid-air muscle tension.

1. Core

I have said a bit too many times that it builds your core, but what does that mean? Firstly, it strengthens your core not to carry weight but to maintain the center of gravity under extreme tension. It has more to do with endurance than explosive strength.

When you’re hanging on a steep wall, you’ll need your center of gravity to be at the center of your body so that the balance is maintained and you don’t fall over. Abdominal muscles are used as stabilizers for that to happen.

Climbing works out your abdominal muscles to align your pelvis with your chest to keep everything straight.

This is how amazing the center of gravity is:

Centre of Gravity Experiments

2. Upper Body

Your upper body muscles will break and rebuild like crazy when you go climbing. And the frequency will only increase as you get better at it upto a certain point, of course.

Because of the constant pulling and hanging of your body mid-air using the upper body, you will build your forearm flexors, rhomboids (shoulder retractors), latissimus dorsi (large muscles on the side of your back), and anterior deltoid (shoulder muscles).

3. Lower Body

Lastly, you’ll build your lower body muscles like quadriceps (thighs), calf muscles (soleus and gastrocnemius), and the tendons on your toes. In fact, beginners will be asked to rely on their legs more than the upper body (for obvious reasons), so they rapidly build leg muscles.

It’s also because the largest and strongest bone in your body, the femur, is located in your thigh, so your legs will always have more strength and endurance than your upper body. 

4. Tackling Muscle Imbalance

Not gonna lie, but muscle imbalance will become an issue if you do nothing but climbing though it’s easily solvable. And it’s important for climbers too.

Constant climbing and climbing-based exercises can cause some muscles to overdevelop and leave others underdeveloped. Beginners (or newbie boulderers) suffer from muscle imbalance more often than not.

The most common occurrence is the overdevelopment of biceps compared to underdeveloped triceps in your arms because of the constant pulling.

How do bouldering and rock climbing change your body?
Outdoor Bouldering

To resolve this, you just need to keep certain days for non-climbing exercises and build proper muscle balance in your body. You can do planking, work on your triceps or other body parts as instructed by your trainer.

Is climbing better than a gym?

Climbing (or bouldering) is better than a gym to maintian health and quality of life. While indoor bouldering is certainly more expensive than a gym, most experienced climbers believe the trade-off is well worth the price based on the results.

And hey, you can always cut the cost to absolute zero and go for outdoor bouldering once you get better at it. I think that’s a win-win situation.

In any case, described the climbing workout as an “endlessly variable series of movements.”

Researchers believe that this dynamic muscle activation is more challenging and helpful than repetitive movements of a gym session due to the inconsistency between route similarities.

1. Does climbing burn fat?

Generally speaking, climbing and bouldering are good ways to burn fat. You could burn as many as 8-10 calories per minute which is 2.5 times a gym session. The fat-burning process has numerous benefits for diabetic and blood pressure patients.

Though you’ll have to take permission from your doctor first.

How many times a week should you go bouldering?

Now that I have got you all hyped up and ready to boulder like it’s your daily gym session, let’s calm you down a bit. The idea is to build a body, not break the current one.

Forget about climbing every day, atleast as a beginning or even as an intermediate climber. It’s not only dangerous but quite impractical if you ask me. After an intense and literally muscle-breaking workout, your body needs time and rest to build itself back up.

Beginners with skill levels up to 5.7-5.8 (V4-V8) should only boulder 2-3 times per week. Any more than that, and you’ll risk injuries and harm natural muscle development. The maximum frequency can be increased to 4 times per week once you reach levels 5.11-5.13.

In fact, I have a complete guide on how many times you should boulder every week. You can go check that out next.

Ps…all the best for your journey to an athlete’s body.

Jonathan Spaeth

I got into extreme sports about 20 years ago and am a die-hard adrenaline junkie. Just like in business, I choose my outdoor adventures based on how much they scare me. My goal is to share the lessons I've learned over the past couple of decades braving the unknown to encourage you to do the same.