Which muscles do you actually use while rock climbing?
After a hard session at the gym, I feel like I’ve just used every single one of them. But the truth is that some muscle groups get used way more than others.
Knowing which muscles are used most while you climb is important for your training plan, but also for a more targeted training that helps you to prevent injuries and long-term muscle imbalances.
This article is for you if you want to know more about which muscles are most used in rock climbing, and if there is a difference between indoor and outdoor climbing.
Primary Muscles Used In Rock Climbing
When you climb, you use a lot of different muscle groups in your body. In the image below, you can see which muscles are used, which ones are used most intensely (orange), and which ones play a less important role (yellow to green).
Now, if you’re looking to improve your rock climbing, you should focus on training the orange muscles first, as they are the ones that (literally) do the heavy lifting, located in your upper body.
These include the muscles in your forearms that are responsible for your grip strength, and the lats, which pull you upwards and towards the wall.
The Upper Body
The upper body is where the most important muscles, the lats and finger flexors, are located.
Shoulders and Upper Back – The Latissimus Dorsi
The lats, or latissimus dorsi, is the big wing-shaped muscle in the middle of your back.
This muscle is the primary muscle used to extend your shoulders and pull your body upwards. When you climb, the latissimus is one of the most important muscles, together with the anterior deltoid and rhomboids, which all work together to pull your body up and towards the wall.
There are also other muscles in your shoulders and upper back that support the lats in their work and help to stabilize the shoulder as well as pull down the upper arm towards your core.
As most of these are concentrated on the back of your body, it is important to actively train their antagonists in the chest area to keep your shoulders in the middle and avoid a hunched posture.
Forearms and Biceps/Triceps
As you can see from the image below, the hands themselves actually do not have a lot of muscle and the muscles that actually bend the fingers are located elsewhere: in the forearms.
This is why new climbers especially feel pain in their inner forearms when they’re not used to the constant gripping, and is where most climbers get “pumped” first. These forearm flexors are used to open and close the hands and are the primary arm muscles used in climbing.
You can specifically train these muscles by climbing loads and doing more advanced exercises on fingerboards with time.
However, this needs to happen gradually so as to not damage the tendons and ligaments in your fingers. Here, we wrote a whole article about crimping and how to train your hands.
Or you’re looking to really shred your forearms, check out our list on the best grip strengtheners on the market.
The biceps (located in the upper arms) help to flex your arms and pull your body closer to the wall. They also support the lats and are in the second category (yellow), which means they’re used a lot when you climb.
Your core and abdominal muscles are important for your overall body tension, which is essential to good climbing.
Now here’s why.
Having a good body position and strong core helps to keep balance, reach for a high hold, and keep your feet at shoulder level when you are on an overhang. However, these muscles are in the second category, as they are mostly used to stabilize your body and support the main muscles doing the lifting.
There are many other muscles between your shoulder blades and in your lower back that contribute to stabilizing your body together with your abdominal muscles while you climb, helping to maintain your engaged core in an overhang.
Lower Body – Don’t Forget Your Calf Muscles
While the legs are an important part of climbing, most climbers won’t need to train these muscles specifically as they are often already stronger than the specific muscles mentioned above.
Now, the quadriceps are the muscles straightening your lower leg from a bent position and should be sufficiently strong so you can stand up from a quite low position on only one leg.
Strong calves come in handy when you are standing on your tiptoes a lot or are spending a lot of time smearing on a slab. But overall, specifically training your calf muscles is essential.
Good flexibility in the hip and strong hip flexors can be very useful for high stepping and keeping your balance on the rock.
Indoor vs Outdoor Rock Climbing
Now, there are some differences in the styles you climb indoors or outdoors. While there is both bouldering and route climbing available indoors, there are some styles like trad or slabs that can only really be practiced outdoors.
Here is a look at some other differences in muscle use between indoor and outdoor climbing.
A big difference between indoor and outdoor climbing in regards to the muscles is the approach. While indoor climbing usually requires little effort from you, outdoor routes are sometimes hard to reach or far from public transport or roads.
Therefore, a long hike with heavy backpacks might be needed, which challenges mostly your legs and back. This can be a good warm-up right away and means that you might be ready to get climbing immediately.
When climbing indoors, make sure to warm up properly to activate all the most needed muscles, get more flexible, and prevent injuries. Here is an article with some more tips and tricks on how to stretch properly for climbing.
Slab climbing is typically done outside and refers to a route on a less than vertical rock face. This means using a lot of friction while you climb and using specific foot techniques like smearing.
This style of climbing is a bit easier on the arms but more demanding for your feet and legs, most notably your calf muscles!
Here, the difference lies more between bouldering and rock climbing, no matter if you are indoors or outside.
While both styles of climbing use the same muscles, boulder problems are usually shorter and more demanding, while climbing routes are higher.
This means that in bouldering, you will not need as much endurance, and even though the moves might be harder and more technical, the problem can also be done in a short amount of time.
When you transition from bouldering to rock climbing, you might notice that you get tired while still on the route and not after a few problems like you might while bouldering.
The thing is, the muscles get used over longer periods of time, and it’s therefore really important to learn how to take a break on the route and what body positions you can assume to relieve your arms for a while.
While climbing on an overhang, you will need a strong core and even hip flexors to be able to keep your feet at the same height as your shoulders and be able to step high.
This places some extra demands on your body because while you need your core for all styles of climbing, the intensity is a lot higher when you’re supporting your body weight upside down.
When trad climbing, you might be relying on your grip strength a bit less because there are typically cracks in the rock where you can jam various body parts.
So, you will be relying more on overall body tension, flexibility, and tough skin instead of gripping onto a “normal” hold. If you are leading a trad route, however, you will be placing gear along the way, which usually takes longer than just clipping a quickdraw, so this brings along extra challenges.
You will need more endurance and be able to hold a position for long enough so you can safely place your protection before moving on. The second climber will then need to clean the gear, therefore also spending more time in between moves, which can be a challenge on its own.
What Muscles Do Mountain Climbers Work?
Mountaineers or alpinists usually do some climbing in the higher areas of the mountains, but their primary activity is hiking and scrambling.
In the parts of the ascent without any climbing, they mostly use their leg and back muscles, walking and scrambling over rough terrain with heavy backpacks.
Now, the biggest difference to climbing is the use of the forearm muscles. While they are some of the most stressed muscles in climbing, they are less crucial for mountaineers.
Climbers, however, might have to hike to their climbing area, but generally the focus is less on the legs than with mountaineering.
Muscles Not Used in Rock Climbing
There are quite a few muscles that are not used in rock climbing, but that doesn’t mean they can be neglected. It is important to do so-called “antagonist training” to train the muscles that are “opposite” to the ones you use a lot during climbing.
Keep It Balanced
This way, you can make sure that your body is in equilibrium and you don’t develop long-term conditions like the climber’s hunchback.
Here is a nice (but wordy) video for some exercises against hunching forward that strengthen and mobilize your pectoral muscles in your chest and some smaller, stabilizing muscles in your back.
Science Says It’s Working
The Iranian Journal of Public Health recently published a study analyzing the improvements in a variety of physical tests in students that practiced rock climbing.
This study concluded that the students improved in a variety of areas such as:
- Handgrip strength
- Pedaling power
- Vertical jump tests
- Other bodyweight exercises requiring strength and endurance, such as push-ups, pull-ups, and more
Climbing might not work every muscle in your body, but it will have an impact on your overall fitness level, health, and happiness* (*the happiness part is a personal, very un-scientific statement).
So… Does Climbing Build Muscles?
Well, the short answer is yes, rock climbing does help to build muscles. But building muscles often is not the climber’s main objective.
Have you noticed that rock climbers are mostly toned, but rarely very big? That is because they are aiming to achieve the best strength-to-bodyweight ratio – to be strong but without weighing too much at the same time.
Especially in the beginning, you will see the biggest transformations in your forearms, back, arms, and core. Climbing is an aerobic full-body workout and a bit of a mix between strength and cardio.
But don’t forget that according to climbing legend Wolfgang Güllich, “the most important ‘muscle’ in climbing is the brain.”
Hi there, I am Mirjam and have recently discovered rock climbing for me while backpacking in Colombia. Originally from Switzerland I currently live in Venezuela and work as a freelance writer and translator. I have always loved being in nature and the mountains and am stoked to explore more of the world’s best climbing in the years to come!
You can find me at @mirigoesround or www.bosstranslations.com