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Is Rock Climbing Better Than a Gym Workout?

When you think of rock climbing you probably think of Free Solo and Alex Honnold standing on El Capitan with no ropes in sight, or maybe Tommy Caldwell climbing the Dawn Wall in the news, documenting his difficult team ascent of one of the hardest climbs in the world. Rock climbing inevitably looks hard and looks scary, and many of us may want to keep rock climbing to the indoor scene. You may want to climb because of its athletic benefits, even if your desire isn’t to suspend yourself thousands of feet in the air on a real rock wall. I’ve been rock climbing for nearly 15 years and I’ve also spent countless hours coaching athletes and writing training plans, and I’m going to outline the answer to this essential question: is rock climbing better than a gym?

What Is Rock Climbing Like?

Rock climbing is a full-body workout that engages a variety of muscle groups, providing a comprehensive workout for your entire body. It not only improves strength, but flexibility, and endurance. The mental challenge required for rock climbing alone, demands more than a regular gym workout. Lifting weights may require a certain level of drive and motivation, but facing the fear of falling every single time you climb makes climbing a mental strength training ground. The problem-solving and decision-making required as you navigate different terrain each time, searching to find and use specific footholds and handholds, can be mentally stimulating and improve concentration.

Climbing is a more well-rounded workout than a gym, unless you plan to focus on cardio, weights as well as flexibility and agility. It’s much easier to target all these areas with rock climbing alone than a gym workout. Climbing is also a social activity— it’s much more fun in a group. Gyms often have “headphones” vibes, meaning you are not as likely to interact with others or make friends.

One of the biggest benefits to climbing is getting to do it outside! Climbing brings you out in nature to experience the great outdoors, while gym workouts tend to be all the same indoors.

Does Rock Climbing Make You Fit?

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Image by Sabrina Wendl

Rock climbing has a reputation for being a great workout. According to one study, it requires the same amount of energy for a rope climb as running an 8- to 11-minute mile. A 160-pound climber would burn around 600 calories per hour. That’s a lot compared to many other sports! Calories per hour burned are calculated based on a person’s height, weight and fitness, but on average here are the popular energy comparisons for these common sports for one hour of activities.

These numbers are estimates and not exact calculations for your specific body weight, gender and fitness for each sport:

  • Rock Climbing: ~600 calories
  • Swimming: 250-600 calories
  • Jogging: 600-700 calories
  • Cycling: 450-600 calories
  • Spinning: 600-800 calories
  • Cross-country skiing: 500-700 calories
  • Lifting weights: 180-400 calories
  • Yoga: 200-240 calories

Does Rock Climbing Build Muscle? 

Rock climbing is an excellent way to build muscle. The best part about climbing is that you don’t really even notice that you’re building muscle—you’re focused on the activity of climbing and the muscle building is a nice bonus. 

Does Rock Climbing Count as Strength Training?

Climbing can push your heart rate to between 120 and 180 beats per minute, if you are doing harder climbs. Difficult climbing also targets larger muscle groups and core tension, building strength with each attempt, but if you’re climbing on easy terrain for you, you may not see the muscle growth you’re hoping for and it will be more of a cardio workout.

The Benefits of Going to a Gym

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It’s easy to see why rock climbing is a lot of enthusiast’s choice for exercise, but  let’s dig into what the gym offers that rock climbing may not.

A gym is going to have tons of things to do, cardio, weightlifting, classes, and more, while climbing is focused on one thing—going up. Gyms offer a wide range of equipment, allowing you to target specific muscle groups or fitness goals, while climbing is a bit more general. Unless you vary the type of climbing training that you do, it’s basically the same activity and does not allow you to choose a targeted muscle group to exercise.

Gyms are super convenient and more accessible if you want to vary your workout—a major bonus. Gyms provide a consistent environment for getting exercise, regardless of weather, unlike climbing if you want to climb outside.

Gyms and climbing gyms may also provide structured training to allow you to meet your fitness goals, and some climbing gyms also have a regular gym, so you may get the best of both worlds.

Bottom Line: Is Rock Climbing Better Than a Gym? 

Rock climbing can be better than a gym if you want to go outside, meet new people, and workout without really feeling like you’re working out.

However, if finding a climbing gym is tricky and you have access to a regular gym, they do have access to a variety of activities from cardio to classes to weights, and can be a great option.

If you find rock climbing exhilarating and fun, love solving puzzles and a different challenge each time, it might be the better choice for you. If you prefer a variety of workouts and the convenience of a gym, that could be the better option.

If you’re aiming for a specific outcome like muscle building or weight loss, a gym might offer more targeted options. If you enjoy the challenge of mastering climbing routes and building your mental skills, rock climbing could be ideal.

Gyms often provide flexibility in terms of when you can exercise, while outdoor activities like rock climbing may require more planning and climbing in a gym may be more time consuming as it requires a lot of rest.

Rock climbing can ultimately lead you to a fitter, better life without the grinding feeling of going to a gym. It can build problem-solving and mental skills and allow you to make friends. The gym has its place though—if you want something efficient, easy, fast and targeted, then the gym is the way to go. When it comes to getting in shape, rock climbing can often feel easier as it’s more fun, and burns a ton of calories if you spend a lot of time on the wall. A weight-lifting session at the gym doesn’t burn that much energy, so if your goal is to get fit, climbing may be the better option for you.

Ultimately, the “better” choice depends on what aligns with your preferences, fitness goals, and lifestyle. Both rock climbing and gym workouts offer unique benefits, and the ultimate answer is that neither is better, but a little bit of both is best.

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