In terms of total body exercise, there is perhaps none more mentally and physically imposing than rock climbing. If you can get past the thought of climbing, the benefits abound: increased muscle strength and improved balance and flexibility, to name a few.
For professional rock climber Sierra Blair, it was love at first climb. As a child, she was invited to a friend's birthday party at a rock climbing center at an outlet mall near her home in Scottsdale, AZ. She had never climbed to this point, but was immediately struck by the joy she felt as she stood on the wall. She enjoyed it so much that her mother drove back to the same place almost every day after that.
It got to a point where Blair told her mother that she wanted a career. Her mother was supportive, but didn't know if that was a possibility until a few weeks later when she spotted an article in her local paper highlighting a youth climbing team in Arizona that had just won a national title and had some athletes at the Olympics make. Mama Blair asked her daughter if she wanted to enroll and that's when the journey began.
"There's something about it that just feels right to me," Blair said. “It's fun and trains my brain. I love climbing and I love how it feels. It's a good way to relax, but it also helps me focus at the same time. It gives me a good workout and it always feels like there's something to achieve in climbing, no matter what."
Blair spoke to M&F about how to get started on your own climbing path, important tips to remember before you climb the wall, some of the basic exercises that are part of her training and how she found a way to reposition herself on difficult climbs focus.
Key to getting started with climbing
Just go to the gym. Climbing gyms usually have particularly friendly staff. If anyone is ever nervous trying to climb, the staff are usually incredibly helpful and really will help you more than you think. Unless people just want to feel like a fish straight out of water, I also encourage people to see if the gym offers introductory climbing classes or private lessons that you can take. Once people actually decide that they want to climb and be part of it, a lot boils down to what you can handle. I think two days a week is a pretty good amount to go in there and climb for a beginner. It will definitely make you sore, but also help you get better.
There are a lot of good climbers who only climb two days a week - not necessarily at a professional level, because we're there about four to five days a week. But two days a week climbing can be really fun and you can make a lot of progress. I think it's important to just keep at it. A lot of people in climbing develop these circles of friends because it's a very social sport. You really can design it however you want.
How to keep climbing
What has really helped me throughout my career is working 90-100 percent for a long time. I see a lot of people getting in and out of climbing at all levels, and a lot of them work at 120 percent for a few months and then they drop out. It's so important to have that long-term consistency. I guess that's why I couldn't burn out climbing and I'm getting better and better. You don't have to go crazy if you work hard. There is an acceptable level of hard work, and if you keep that up, I think that's where you'll find the biggest gains.
Checkpoints before climbing
I'm someone who packs his bag before an ascent - even if it's just a training session, because I want to be well looked after and start the ascent relaxed. The most important things I need are my climbing shoes, my chalk bag and liquid chalk. We use brushes when climbing. They look like toothbrushes, but the bristles are horsehair and you use them to brush chalk for a better grip. I grab some snacks and some Perfect Hydration and that's really all I have in my climbing bag. It's an easy operation unless you're away for a long time. Once I'm ready to climb the wall, I usually put on my shoes, your chalk bag, chalk my hands, and see what you're going to climb.
You're trying to figure out what you're going to do from scratch. It's actually a pretty quick process for the most part, because at a certain point you can see from the ground what it's going to be. Sometimes when you're against the wall you have to adjust because even if you can see everything from the ground, you don't always know how it's going to feel against the wall. So you need to make changes along the way.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
I'm from Arizona, so hydration is one of our main tenants of life out here. As an athlete, when I'm hydrated I feel so much better and more powerful. I think the tricky part is that you don't always know when you're dehydrated. w I'm really focusing on tracking how much water I'm drinking each day. Just to make sure I get everything I need. It definitely makes a big difference in my climbing and my recovery.
nerves are ok
Since I compete a lot, nerves can be a big factor. Sometimes they can hit really hard in a competition, although I've competed in several. Whether the competition is going well or not, the nerves can kind of all stay the same, which is crazy.
One of the things I do when I feel stressed — and sometimes I can even do this while climbing a wall, depending on where I'm positioned — is count backwards from 10. Standing against the wall, I count backwards from five or three just to think of something else for a second so I have time to calm down. That was a small thing I've done over time. I think it really helped me calm down when needed.
Climbing can be scary... sometimes
It's important to remember that there are many safeguards in place, so it's really in your head. So this is a way of forcing yourself or reminding yourself that everything is going to be okay. One of the things I've been struggling with lately is about a year ago that I had a herniated disc in my back. I just had it treated last year and am still training for rock climbing.
For about six months I didn't follow climbing at all. I would stop if I felt it was getting too risky on the wall. I would climb down because the force of a fall was just too great. There have been a few times that I've talked myself into moving because I was so scared of falling on it and it was very difficult to pull off.
Climbing the mental hurdle
What was really hard was that there was a certain point where I was in mild pain almost constantly. This was tough for me mentally because I believe your body can only take so much mild pain that you're just in a bad mood all the time. You are moody and you also have an injury that you are working on. Climbing was unfortunately what irritated my back the most.
I had to learn which positions I could climb into and which ones I couldn't. Because my lower back was so sore, I couldn't use it as well as some of my abs. I just felt like my arms were taking over everything because my lower body just wasn't cooperating. So I climbed a lot easier than usual, but it felt a lot harder. Oddly enough, what really helped me when I was climbing was that I always
I still felt like I was getting a great workout because I had to push myself so much harder in a different way. It was true even if the climbs were easier than what I would normally climb. I think that helped me mentally. I still felt like I was working hard even though it wasn't what I would normally do. I love the feeling of working hard. That helped me not to completely lose my mind because of the injury.
Train like a climber
For most climbers, rock climbing takes up a large part of their training. I think that's because it's so specialized and you have to be familiar with so many movements that are constantly changing. After that you train for a lot of finger strength. We have these things called hangboards that we hang on. You can do pull-ups if you want, but it's not shaped like a pull-up bar. It has a number of different grips that allow you to work from different positions. They hold on to them for specific time intervals. You can add weight, hang with one arm, two arms, and two different grips for your hands. There are so many ways you can mix it up.
We also do something called campusing. People who aren't climbers usually think it's cool because it looks like they're little flaps of wood on a slightly overhanging wall. This is really good for your fingers and arm strength. As for the general exercises we do, it's a lot of core, plank, and hollow body holds. Some people can do front levers while climbing and some can't. For the arms, it's a lot of pull-ups and weighted pull-ups. People actually train their legs now, which is cool. These are squats, deadlifts, squat jumps, lunge walks, and lots of plyometrics too. Climbers actually become quite versatile athletes when it comes to fitness. For a long time you just climbed and did nothing else. w it has become so competitive that everyone has to hit everything from all angles.