Harry Styles and Lady Gaga are both fans, and it’s in the Paris Olympics this summer – climbing is having a moment. Kerry Potter headed to the nearest indoor bouldering wall
I’m having a one-hour indoor climbing lesson at Eustonwall and my instructor Kamran (below) is telling me how climbing saved him. He used to be horribly addicted to video games, spending every spare moment staring at the screen. But he discovered that climbing provides him with the same problem-solving buzz that gaming did – as you pick your way up a wall, you have to work out the best route and which of the colourful 'holds' to grab or stand on. He is, he tells me, so much happier and healthier now.
Kamran isn’t the only one who’s a climbing convert. A decade ago London had 10 climbing walls, now it has more than 30. The Association of British Climbing Walls predicts participation will grow by 15 percent this year across the UK. Climbing became part of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021 and its profile will reach new heights (sorry!) at the Paris Games this summer.
Many celebrities are climbing keenos: Harry Styles, Lady Gaga, Florence Pugh and Zac Efron are among those shimmying up walls and rock faces for fun and fitness. Even buildings are fair game too for the definitely-never-attention-seeking Jared Leto. He is so into it he became the first person to legally climb New York City’s Empire State Building in 2023. Of course he did!
What are the different types of indoor climbing
Three different types of indoor climbing are really taking off - and they're in the Olympics.
- Speed climbing: this is where two climbers race up a high wall, using ropes and harnesses. The first climber to the top wins.
- Bouldering: with no ropes or harnesses necessary, this is done on walls up to four metres with soft flooring in case you fall. Many climbing walls in cities are bouldering ones (they take up less space and are often in buildings such as converted railway arches). This is what I tried. In competition, the scoring is quite complicated – it’s based on how many peaks and zones a climber completes. You can work your way up from basic to advanced. The colour of the 'holds' indicates the level of difficulty.
- Sport climbing: climbers try to get as high as possible up a wall, with ropes and harnesses. The highest climber wins.
How many calories does climbing burn and which muscles does climbing work?
Believe it or not, up to a whopping 900 calories per hour. And I do believe it, having tried it – I’m pretty fit and I found it challenging. I had to take a breather every few minutes. It’s a full-body workout – and I found it especially tough on my upper body, unsurprisingly as you are hauling your body weight up the wall. My forearms especially ached.
That said, it’s low impact; you’re not jarring your joints like you do with, say, running. It’s slow and steady. So it’s suitable for all ages, as long as you have a base level of fitness.
Regular climbing is excellent for building muscle in your arms, shoulders and core, and for improving grip strength which can be an important indicator of longevity. Some of the holds are much smaller and harder to grip than others.
What kit do you need for climbing?
Nothing really. I wore my normal gym kit and they lend you the shoes. So it’s not a sport you have to buy a whole load of gear for, which makes it accessible to most people. Some indoor venues can be cold in winter so you may need layers - but you'll soon build up heat as your muscles start to work.
What was it like when we tried bouldering?
I used to regularly rock climb a couple of decades ago while living in France and I had to keep reminding myself that bouldering is different in that you don’t get to the top and merrily abseil down. You need to leave enough energy in the tank to climb back down again – there are spongy crash mats but I didn’t fancy falling.
Once I’d worked out how to pace myself, I then had to get over the fear. Until I arrived, I hadn’t realised I wouldn’t be safely trussed up with ropes and a harness. I take my children to climbing walls but they are always the tall ones, where they use ropes. Whereas Eustonwall is a bouldering wall. And, yes four metres doesn’t seem that high… until you’re at the top, looking down.
These considerations apart, I got a huge buzz from bouldering. The satisfaction of picking out a successful route to the peak is real – Kamran is right. It is physically challenging but easy to make progress over an hour. And it’s one of those workouts where you achieve ‘flow’ – you have to concentrate so your brain is present in the moment, rather than worrying about work/ what to have for dinner. If you’re looking to shake up your exercise regime, to improve your upper body strength or try something that will completely distract you, give it a go.
Climbing wall near me
Eustonwall is one of five walls in the London Climbing Centres group. There's also the Lakeland Climbing Centres group, which has three centres. Alternatively, use the Find A Wall function on the Association of British Climbing Walls site.
Eustonwall costs from £11.50 per session or £59 for monthly membership. You must book an induction with an instructor for your first session which costs £27