Climb the Walls

Build strength indoors before braving the wild.

For the past 16 years, Andrea Cocciolone, executive director of the Planet Rock Climbing Gym in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been scampering up walls, rocks and the sides of buildings. Watching Cocciolone, a former nationally competitive climber, on the wall is comparable to watching a wave roll through the ocean. She moves gracefully, and coordinates her muscles, breathing and mind to make what looks like an effortless ascent.

But climbing is a total body workout. Your arms, abs, back and legs work together to move you up the wall and keep you from falling. And it also challenges your mind. Only a certain sequence of moves will get you to the top, so your mind has to continually process which holds to grab.

Cocciolone recommends learning to climb indoors before tackling a sheer rock face. That way you'll build muscle strength in your hands and forearms and teach your body how to move vertically.

At an indoor gym, a belay class--which teaches you how to work a rope connected to your climbing partner and protect her during a fall--is required for first-time climbers. You'll learn how to tie into your harness and belay device and use the system as your partner climbs. After passing the class, you'll be allowed to climb in the gym without instructor supervision.

Want to start moving up? Here are Cocciolone's tips for hitting the wall.

Warm up. Begin by finding two footholds and at least one handhold on a wall. (Be mindful of other climbers tied in to the route.) Warm up by climbing sideways (traversing) along the base of the wall. If you're not warm once you reach the edge, reverse your direction and return to your starting position.

Move your feet gently. Place your feet confidently, yet quietly. Banging your feet into the wall or shuffling them into the holds is a waste of energy. Locate a hold and set your foot onto it gently, knowing that it will support you.

Use the insides and outsides of your feet. Instead of climbing on your toes, "use both the inside edge and the outside edge of your foot," says Cocciolone. This will require turning the inside of the knee towards or away from the wall. This technique provides more options for holds, extra reach and also reduces repetitive muscular fatigue. And if you climb on your toes, you may develop painful cramps in your calves.

Point your heels down. During a climb, your powerful leg muscles provide support for your body. To avoid calf strain, keep your heels down toward the ground.

Keep your hips close to the wall. The hips are the body's center of gravity, and keeping this center close to the wall provides stability. It also reduces arm fatigue. If your hips are extended out behind the body, you have to move through more space to get to the next hold.

Rotate your hips. It's easy to get nervous and keep the front of your body pressed against the wall during a climb. But this position doesn't offer full body movement. By rotating your hips, while staying close to the wall, you may be able to reach a handhold that would otherwise be out of grasp.

Climb from the core. All movement originates in the core of the body. The abdominals and back provide the base of support for the arms and legs. Tighten your stomach when climbing to provide the strongest base possible.

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