Photo: Vladimirs Poplavskis

Indoor Rock Climbing 201

Level up your gym game with essential skills and training tips for intermediate climbers.

So you’ve decided you’re pretty into this whole climbing thing. You’ve made it past the basics, caught the bug, and now you’re starting to wonder: How can I actually get good at this?

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to take your indoor rock climbing to the next level. That includes:

  • Technique drills
  • How to train for climbing
  • Intermediate climbing skills
  • Your gear list

Technique Drills

The secret to ticking harder grades isn’t always in getting stronger—often, you’ll see bigger gains by improving your technique. Try these drills regularly for better climbing efficiency and stamina.  

Flagging

When you make a big lateral reach with one arm, swing your opposite leg outward as a counter balance. This is called “flagging,” and it’s a crucial skill for routes with small or insufficient footholds. 

Drill: Pick three routes. Try to incorporate as many flags as possible in each.

Heel Hook

This is a crucial tool for pulling your hips into the wall to gain reach, and it’s especially beloved among shorter climbers. The trick: After latching a hold with your heel, point your toe downward as much as possible to drive the heel into the hold. Then rock up and over your heel as you pull up on the next hold.

Drill: Pick three routes. Incorporate as many heel hooks as you can in each.

Drop-Knee

Instead of climbing with your hips and shoulders square to the wall, try twisting to gain reach and keep your center of gravity over your feet: Turn your hips so that your side is closest to the wall. Try twisting your inside leg in and down into a “drop-knee” for even greater reach.

Drill: Pick three routes. Incorporate as many twists and/or drop-knees as possible into each.

Eliminates

Subtract holds to challenge yourself and add variety.

Drill: Complete a route that’s moderately difficult for you. Now, pick a hold to eliminate and try the route again. When you’ve sent that, eliminate a second hold, and so on.

Add-on

Add moves to challenge your friends and boost endurance.

Drill: Do three moves. Then have a friend repeat those three moves, plus one more of their choosing. Take turns, adding one move each time, until the route is too long to complete. 

How to Train for Climbing

When you’re new to climbing, the fastest way to get better is just to climb more. Try to get into the gym two to three days per week (be sure to take at least 24 hours of rest between hard sessions). When you’ve been doing that for a while, consider supplementing your climbing routine with two days per week in the weight room, focusing on these key areas:

Finger Strength

Weak fingers are one of the biggest things holding intermediate climbers back. Weak fingers are also prone to injury, so a robust strengthening routine is a good way to ensure they can take the loads you need them to—provided you train with good technique and a healthy amount of caution. Use a hangboard and fingerboard; we recommend hiring an experienced climbing coach if you’re new to finger training.

Hip Flexibility

Increasing your flexibility is one of the easiest ways to boost your climbing efficiency. After all, the closer you can get your hips to the wall, the more your weight will be centered over your feet rather than hanging from your arms. After you warm up and before you climb, spend a few minutes stretching. (Pigeon pose and frog pose are both favorites.)

Endurance

Maybe you can’t quite get to the top of the wall yet. Maybe you burn out after 30 minutes at the gym no matter what you’re climbing. If endurance is your issue, try this ARC training program. You can also do sets of two to three sport routes or three to four boulders in a row without pause. Repeat four times, resting 10 to 15 minutes between each set.  

Core Strength

Your core is what keeps your body close to the wall and helps you maintain control during delicate footwork and big reaches. Consider adding 20 minutes of core exercises after your climbing sessions to build strength in your abs, back, and obliques.    

Shoulder Stability

Nearly all climbing movement is initiated from the shoulders. Once or twice a week, spend 15 to 20 minutes on strengthening and stabilization exercises to help prevent injury to these complex joints.

Photo: Zakirorv Aleksey/Baikal360

Intermediate Climbing Skills

As you get stronger, make sure your technical and safety skills are keeping pace.

1. Learn to Lead Belay

If you’ve got top-rope belaying down, it’s time to learn to lead belay. Take a course at your local climbing gym, then talk to gym personnel about getting your lead-belay certification.

2. Become a Proficient Leader

Learning to lead opens up tons of new gym terrain for you to climb, and it’s a great way to hone your mental game and train endurance. Once you and your partner can both lead belay confidently, start leading in the gym. Experiment with taking practice falls and pushing yourself on harder terrain.

3. Become an Expert Spotter

Good spotting is the key to keeping your partner safe, whether they’re bouldering or leading a sport climb to the first bolt. Learn to anticipate a fall and keep your climber safe. 

4. Practice Backpack and Guide Coils

Part of becoming a good climbing partner is mastering essential rope work. Learn the backpack coil and the New England coil for tidy rope storage and transport anywhere.

5. Take a Gym-to-Crag Course

Want to take your skills outside? Before you venture out, take a gym-to-crag course or a beginners’ sport climbing course with an accredited guide or instructor. Look for courses at your gym and among local guide services.

Your Gear List

If you haven’t already, you should invest in climbing shoes, a harness, a belay device, and a chalk bag. What’s next? If you’re ready to take your climbing game to the next level, it’s worth outfitting yourself with the following:

Good Shoes

Cheap second-hand climbing shoes are great when you’re getting started. But if climbing has become a part of your regular routine, it’s worth buying a tighter-fitting, more downturned shoe for better sensitivity and performance on steeps.

Rope

Some gyms offer free rope rentals. If yours doesn’t, it’s time to get yourself a 30- to 40-meter dynamic gym rope (ask your gym what length they recommend before you buy).

Rope Bag

If you buy your own rope, you’ll want to keep it tidily stacked in a bucket-style rope bag. (If you plan to venture outside, a tarp-style bag may be a better bet.)

Hold Brush

The better you get, the more sensitive you’ll be to the friction of small holds. Treat yourself to a boar’s-hair brush for scrubbing greasy or over-chalked holds.

Liquid Chalk

Ready to push your limits? Stave off sweat with liquid chalk, which contains drying agents and spreads more evenly than powdered chalk.

Note: Always consult an experienced personal trainer or climbing coach before attempting any new exercise routine. This is especially important if you’re new to strength training or have any uncertainty about proper form, exercise safety, or what training loads are appropriate for you.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.