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Indoor Climbing Walls: The Sport of the NinetiesRobin
Mittelstaedt aa School of Recreation & Sport Science at Ohio
University , Grover 229-4, Athens , OH ,45701Published online: 22
To cite this article: Robin Mittelstaedt (1997) Indoor Climbing
Walls: The Sport of the Nineties, Journal of Physical
Education,Recreation & Dance, 68:9, 26-29, DOI:
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26 Vol. 68 No.9 JOPERD Nov/Dec 1997
Development of Indoor WallClimbingThe idea for indoor sport
climbinggrew out of two main components ofoutdoor rock climbing.
The first isthe more tame practice ofbouldering, a technique used
bymountaineers to hone their skillsonlow-level rocks usually no
higher than4 to 5 feet. Basic hand- and footholdsand traversing
techniques can bepracticed without the aid ofa safetyrope, with
little or no danger. Thesecond component is climbing wellabove the
ground on rock faces andcliffs using a climbing partner, a rope,and
safety devices to protect themfrom injury in the event of a
During the mid-1960s, individualsin England united these two
aspectsof the sport by fitting cement wallswith bolted handholds.
The resulting"cliff' offered avid climbers a year-round training
ground. The Frenchadded refinements by incorporatinginterchangeable
handholds and bydeveloping lightweight compoundsmade of fiberglass,
resin, and sand tosimulate real rock (Klugman, 1993).
Indoor sport climbing is becom-ing more popular. In Belgium,
forexample, there were only two climb-ing walls in the entire
country in1985 but by 1990, that number hadrisen to 50. Presently,
Belgium hasthe largest number of climbing gymsper capita in the
world (Gregory,1993; Klugman, 1993). Now, workingout at an indoor
climbing gym isconsidered one of the most rigorousforms of exercise
in France andSpain, as well asJapan, Russia, andChile.
Indoor climbing is gaining alti-tude in the United States, as
well. In1990, the Campus Recreation Ser-vices Outdoor Program at
IllinoisState University conducted a surveyand identified more than
25 univer-sities and agencies with artificialclimbing walls
(Morford, 1991). Inaddition, virtually hundreds of siteson the
World Wide Web are devotedto indoor climbing, as well as
threerecently published books (figure 1).
According to Fesko (1992),climbing represents an exciting
Nov/Dec 1997 JOPERD Vol. 68 No.9
new phenomenon in the fitnessindustry and is growing rapidly.Not
surprisingly, children have re-ally taken to climbing walls. AnOhio
store that caters to recre-ational enthusiasts has incorpo-rated an
indoor wall for shoppersto use for free. Kids climb whileparents
shop and the adults canhave a turn too. The wall hasbeen popular
with parents, teens,and young children. Approxi-mately eight
elementary schoolsin Worthington Ohio have evenadded a climbing
wall to theirgyms, successfully incorporatingclimbing into their
physical edu-cation programs.
... in a veryreal sense,this new indoor sport
can also lead toimproved "mental
A Fun, Challenging Form ofFitness ExerciseIn the past, the role
of fitness hasbeen downplayed in many climbingsettings. Most
physical educators orinstructors of basic rock climbingcourses
barely touch on the subjectof fitness. For safety reasons,
instruc-tors will typically spend a majority ofthe class time
covering the technicalaspects ofbelaying, knot-tying, climb-ing
procedures, and commands tofollow, as well as basic hand- or
foot-holds. Liability issues must also beaddressed. It is common to
requireclimbers (or a parent or guardian)to sign a waiver of
liability beforeparticipating (for more informationon risk
management, seeMittelstaedt, 1996).
Today, people want to climb forboth fun and fitness (jacobs,
1992;Wescott, 1992). As the popularity ofindoor climbing continues
to grow,instructors should incorporate fit-ness and training
guidelines forclimbing students of different skill
levels. Four major fitness benefitsfrom climbing have been
identified.Components of physical fitness thatare enhanced through
climbing in-clude muscular strength, muscularendurance,
cardiorespiratory fitness,and flexibility (Kascenska, Dewitt,
&Roberts, 1992; Mittelstaedt, 1997).
When muscular strength is devel-oped, the climber is able to
generatemaximal force in a single movementand is better able to
make dynamic"crux" moves, such as a "mantle" orpush-up-style move
onto a ledge or apull-up style move using a largebulge or
Muscular endurance is the abilityto generate submaximal force
for ex-tended periods of time. Much ofrock climbing is composed of
manysmaller moves that do not requireone's maximum level of
strength inanyone move. However, musclesmay become tired and
fatigued anda buildup of lactic acid is common.Fitness training can
greatly improveone's endurance level and the abilityto sustain the
multiple movementsrequired when ascending a route.Novice wall
climbers often complainofburning in the forearms, cramp-ing in the
calves, and a phenomenoncalled "sewing machine leg," whereinone's
leg can shake uncontrollably asa result of muscle spasms brought
onby fatigue. A well-conditionedclimber will encounter less
musculartrauma and will recover from an as-cent much more quickly
than apoorly conditioned climber.
Cardiorespiratory fitness meansthat a climber's heart, lungs,
andblood vessels are able to supply oxy-gen to the working muscles
and canalso remove carbon dioxide from thesystem. Climbing can be
an aerobicactivity, especially with the new com-petitions that
stress speed climbing.
Flexibility refers to the range ofmotion that occurs at the site
of ajoint. Student climbers should be en-couraged to develop and
maintainflexibility, which can greatly reducethe likelihood of
injury. The majorityof injuries to climbers occurs in thebody's
small joints, especially in theelbows, hands, and fingers
(Maitland, 1992) The knee andshoulder joints are also
Furthermore, the fingers, wrists,and elbows are subject to the
high-est levels of stress, especially if theartificial wall
includes crack systems.For example, placing the fingers, orwhole
hand in a fissure can holdone's entire body weight becausethe
finger joints or hand are literally'jammed" into the crack
system.These holds produce high levels ofrotational torque on the
fingers,wrists, and elbows, and joints may beswollen and stiff as a
result of repeti-tive climbing using finger holds or
hand jams.To reach a maximal level of
climbing fitness, caution must be ex-ercised and a variety of
climbingtechniques should be incorporated.Repetitive, high torque
movementsin rock climbing can lead to overuseinjuries. A
well-rounded trainingand fitness program that includesexercises to
develop flexibility canprevent injuries. In addition, climb-ers
should avoid overuse caused byintense training and not climb at
ahigher level of difficulty than theyare ready for. Some
researchershave suggested that many injuries
could be avoided by applying basicprinciples of fitness. Rock
climbingis a weight-bearing activity thatplaces considerable stress
on thebody's muscles and joints, and inju-ries are not uncommon for
bothnovice and experienced rock climb-ers. As with many sports,
injuries areoften the result of improper train-ing or inadequate
fitness level.Some colleges and universities havebegun to offer
courses that specifi-cally focus on fitness for climbing(Kascenska,
Dewitt, & Roberts,1992; Shirer, 1990).
International Climbing Gym Directory:
Figure 1. Books and Web Sites on Indoor Climbing
Comprehensive Index to Rock Climbing Gyms in North America:
Index to Indoor Climbing Gyms in the Continental United
Morford, W. (1991). Climb that wall: Aprogram asset. National
Intramural,Recreation and Sports Association,15(3),28-31.
Shirer, C. (1990). The why's and how'sof a climbing conditioning
class.Journal of PhysicalEducation, Recre-ation & Dance,
Walker, K. (1997). Introduction to rockclimbing. [Online].
Available WorldWide Web:
Wescott, W. (1992). Fitness benefits ofrock climbing.
Robin Mittelstaedt is an associate profes-sor in the School of
Recreation & SportScience at Ohio University,
Rock Climbing Links - Magazines, Catalogs, Indoor ClimbingGyms,
Equipment Sources, Home Pages, News & Events, Professional
Associations, and Morel
Information on the Indoor Climbing Wall in the New York
CityParks Department Recreation Center on 59th Street
Information on the Indoor Climbing Wall in Long Beach, CAYMCA.
(Wall is operated by an independent business, but is locatedin YMCA
Long,J. 1994. Gym climbing. Evergreen, CO: Chockstone
Press.Thomas, R. 1995. Buildyaur oum climbingwaDs. Evergreen, CO:
the rocks for fun and fitness. Shape,1(12),102-106,114.
Kascenska,J., Dewitt,J., & Roberts, T.(1992).
Fitnessguidelines for rock climb-ing
students,Jaurnaloj'PhysicalEducation,Recreation & Dance, 63(3).
Mugman, E. B. (1993, October). Wallclimbing scales new heights.
Maitland, M. (1992). Injuries associatedwith rock
climbing.Jaurnalof Orthopedicand sports Physical Therapy, 16(2),
Mittelstaedt, R. D. (1997). Getting verti-cal: Indoor climbing
walls in Ohio.FutureFocus 18(1),16-18.
Mittelstaedt, R. D. (1996). Climbingwalls are on the rise: Risk
manage-ment and vertical adventures. LeisureToday:Journal of
PhysicalEducation,Recreation & Dance, 67(7),31-33,36.
Urquhart. S. C. 1995. Mock rock: Guide to indoor climbing.
NewOrleans, LA: Paper Chase Press.
spatial awareness, and problem solv-ing skills, ingenuity and
imagination,all under physical exertion. " So, in avery real sense,
this new indoor sportcan also lead to improved "mentalfitness."
The New Fitness Crazeof the '90sPeople associated with indoor
climb-ing are calling it "the sport of the'90s. " People of all
ages are takingup the sport and thriving on the tre-mendous
opportunity it provides forpersonal development in both physi-cal
fitness and mental fitness. Rockclimbing is a vigorous activity.
Asclimbers develop their skills andtechniques and progress
towardmore difficult routes, fitness will playan increasingly
important role. Manyindoor climbing enthusiasts believethat
reaching and maintaining an ad-equate level of fitness is as
importantas developing the more technical as-pects of the
Walker (1997) explains that, "Toget an aerobic workout ... all
youneed to do is laps. Choose a wallangle and level of climbing
that iseasy for one climb and simply do itover and over again with
speed butwith precision. You can increase theintensity by climbing
up and down,rather than being lowered between[climbs]. Raising your
heart rate, ex-panding your lungs and resistinggravity in this way
provides an incom-parable aerobic workout. "
Scaling cliffs, cracks, roofs, andchimneys is attractive to
women, chil-dren, student groups, teens,churches, at-risk youth,
corporate ex-ecutives, vacationers, fitness enthusi-asts, and
noncompetitive individuals.Climbing on artificial rock
facescombines both physical and mentalchallenges with the fun of
climbingand promises to continue to take thehuman spirit to new
ReferencesFesko, C. (1992). Social climbers. Ath-
leticBusiness, 16(1),43-45.Gregory, A. (1993). Climbing walls.
and Leisure, 33(6), 16-17.Jacobs, C. (1992). Upwardly mobile:
Chat line for Discussions about Companies that Build
ClimbingWalls: . .'; t : ,
AvailableWotfd Wide Web: