Just saw Free Solo and interested in giving it a shot?
Wondering if there are any weight limits or restrictions? What about auto-belays vs top rope climbing at the climbing gyms?
Here we will discuss everything regarding weight in rock climbing.
Wondering if you are too heavy for rock climbing is a very common question that worries many people that want to start climbing.
Since climbing in any of its expressions is an exercise that in its very core consists of holding and carrying your own body up a certain route or problem, it is impossible to deny that weight does not play an important role in the dynamics of the sport and in climbers’ performance.
However, having said this, the short answer is ‘no’.
You most certainly can be a very good rock climber without having to be paper thin, but we will go into more detail about certain implications weight has in the sport.
Is There a Weight Limit for Rock Climbing?
While being lightweight intuitively helps in having a good performance, weight affects climbers of different disciplines differently.
However, let me reassure you that regardless of the specific discipline, climbing is completely possible and enjoyable at any weight and for any body type.
There is a very common misconception among beginners that a climber must be able to carry his or her own body weight entirely with their arms, and this belief makes them think they are not cut for climbing.
But this is absolutely false.
When climbing, most of the body weight is carried by the legs, as the arms only help in transitioning between the different stable positions, so the legs do most of the work.
Many climbers spend entire months if not years progressing, improving, and enjoying their climbing before being able to complete a single pullup. And this is possible thanks to the big role that techniques play in climbing.
In fact, the world’s best climber Adam Ondra once revealed in an interview that when he on-sighted his first 8c+, which is a professional world-champion level of climbing, he was only able to do 13 pullups in a row. It was technique more than strength-to-weight ratio, which took him to the highest levels of the sport.
In general, everyone can climb regardless of their body type and size, but it is important to note that individuals that are overweight, weighing more than 250 pounds, 115 kilograms or so, have a much higher chance of suffering an injury.
Bouldering is a very explosive type of climbing. Problems are short and powerful so having a lot of muscle is an asset here.
Due to this, boulderers tend to be very bulky and predominantly heavier than sport climbers. Since you will require a lot of strength, but will only carry your body weight for a very short amount of time, weight is not that much of an issue when bouldering.`
Lead Climbing / Top Rope Climbing
Lead climbing is different to bouldering in several aspects that make weight consideration important.
Since routes are longer and more endurance is required, climbers tend to be slimmer than their boulderer peers, so they have less weight to carry for a prolonged period, sacrificing muscle, energy supplies and consequently max power.
However, this is only truly impactful at advanced and elite levels. Beginner and intermediate climbers are much more balanced with bodies of all types.
However, roped climbing introduces 2 very important mechanics where weight truly matters: belay devices and climbing partners.
The Differences Between You and the Belayer
While weight itself does not play that much of a role in fall dynamics, the difference between the belayer and the climber does matter.
Ideally the climber and the belayer weigh the same so that they can interchangeably catch each other safely without any special considerations.
But since this is not always possible, the next best scenario is one where there is less than a 30% weight difference between belayer and climber. Within this range the dynamics of the falls will be almost as if they both weighted the same. When this condition is not met, special considerations should be made.
Let’s talk about these other scenarios.
The Belayer Weighs Considerably More Than the Climber
When the belayer is more than 30% heavier than the climber, the belayer needs to be even more aware than usual to provide soft catches and prevent injuries on the climber.
Since the big weight difference naturally makes the climber stop falling faster, the stop can be so abrupt that it pulls the climber towards the wall with a lot of force, potentially damaging the ankles or whichever body part hits the wall.
To avoid this, the climber must provide what is known as a ‘soft catch’ through dynamic belaying.
Dynamic belaying is a technique where the belayer deliberately lengthens the fall to make the impact softer.
This works by giving more time for the rope to mitigate the force rather than stopping the climber abruptly.
To perform this technique, the belayer moves slightly forward or gives a bit of slack just as the climber’s fall is about to tighten the rope.
Generally, dynamic belaying would be the preferred technique for most falls, but there are exceptions where soft catches are not ideal.
If there is a risk of decking, if the climber is on a slab, or if the climber is on a steep overhang where a big fall would make it very difficult to return to the wall, it can be safer or more convenient to have a shorter fall.
It is not the most intuitive technique so practicing indoors can be very beneficial, and here you can read more about it if interested.
The Climber Weighs Considerably More Than the Belayer
When the climber is the heavier one in the duo, by a big margin, there are different risks.
As a heavier climber falls, the big difference in weight can easily carry the belayer forward or upward, making the fall longer. When the difference is too extreme, both the belayer and the climber can be at risk, since the belayer can be launched with a lot of force towards the wall or all the way to the first bolt.
If the fall is that big, the climber is at a higher risk of decking or having a very uncontrolled fall. Because of this, dynamic belaying is NOT encouraged when the belayer is too light in comparison to the climber, and simply catching him on the spot is recommended.
Any additional momentum the belayer adds to the fall, by moving forward or increasing the slack, increases the difficulty of stopping the fall.
Fortunately, just as dynamic belaying can help when the belayer is the heavier one, there are also tools to assist when the climber weighs more.
The Edelrid OHM is a device that increases rope friction when there is a big difference in weight between the belayer and the climber.
Instead of clipping the first draw of a climb as one normally does, the climber would instead pass the rope through the OHM device and clip that to the protection.
In the case of a fall, even after just the first draw, the increase of rope friction significantly reduces the risk of a ground fall. Additionally, it makes lowering and catching falls in a controlled manner much easier for the light belayer.
Feeding rope is not affected.
Auto Belay Devices
Many indoor climbing settings have auto belay devices which allow people to climb without the need of a partner.
Since the device is automatic, it does not totally replace a belayer to pull the other end of the rope, so there is no belaying technique in place to assist on a catch.
When using an auto belay device; experts recommend an upper weight of around 120 kilograms and a minimum weight of around 10 kilograms. Just like a very heavy person can become too heavy to be safely stopped by the automatic system, a very light one can become very hard to lower or the catch can be too hard.
Holds Spinning or Breaking
Just as in outdoor settings, the rock can break and holds can fall off, hence, indoor holds can break or spin in place under certain circumstances.
However, the form and direction of the force is much more important than the weight of the climber.
For example, the hold on the image could be prone to spinning if the secondary screw is not attached and force is applied far away from the center in a perpendicular manner.
Here climbers of all weights and sizes can make the hold spin, if proper technique and direction of the pull is too much or placement of the feet is more relevant than the weight of the climber.
Climbing, Weight and Well-Being
Having said all this, I would like to make some final notes on training for climbing, weight and well-being.
A message for beginners that might be discouraged from climbing due to not having the body they imagine climbing requires. And, of course a message for more experienced climbers that might be putting themselves in unhealthy situations due to a misconception that extreme weight reduction is the best or only way to excel at the sport.
Climbing Brings Changes
If you are just starting your journey with climbing and you feel like you do not have the best body for the sport, be aware that the body will change due to the sport itself.
Climbing is an extremely physical workout, and you will feel it from your very first time.
You will get stronger while having fun as you climb. You will gain weight if you lack muscle. You will lose weight if you have fat.
Climbing is a very well-rounded sport after all, as you get major health or fitness benefits from practicing it, rather than waiting to have a better fitness level before getting into the sport.
Prioritize Health Over Perceived Performance
There is a very common, yet harmful, trend among advanced and elite athletes, especially female members of the community under 30 years old, where there is an extreme focus on weight loss as a means to increase performance.
The idea behind this rationale is that losing weight is easier or at least more efficient than gaining the strength needed to carry it. However, this is a very harmful and dangerous point of view that is leaving young climbers with life-long effects due to malnutrition-related issues.
Besides the harms it brings, there is scientific evidence from studying elite athletes suggesting that losing weight is definitely not the way.
Many top climbers such as Beth Rodden have spoken out about the issue, and it is a very important matter that should be discussed more. There are also documentary films about this topic.
You should care for yourself. Your health is more important than your climbing performance. And even if you valued performance above all, simply losing weight at all costs is not the way.
Alex is a computer scientist from Mexico currently studying a PhD on cancer genomics. He is a full-time researcher, a regular weekend warrior, and someone who enjoys sharing his thoughts through writing. He first started climbing at uni, where he fell in love with the beautiful places it took him. So, he promised himself he would someday experience the beauty of climbing and nature in every continent. Nowadays, after several years with this motivation in mind, school and work have taken Alex to 4 different continents already. This has given him the opportunity to make friends all over the world, experience different cultures and their communities, as well as the chance to listen all the stories these people have to share. Alex hopes these adventures will continue for many years, and is eager to share his experiences as a wandering climber.