Looking a bit like a child’s jungle gym on acid — all jagged angles, weird formations and multi-colour plastic climbing holds — an indoor bouldering gym is a feast for the eyes and, it’s soon clear, an assault on the fingers. When you scramble up the wall, you’re grabbing onto holds that can be as thick as a ladder rung or as thin as the edge of a credit card.
“I don’t think there’s a single sport on the planet that puts such a high demand on finger strength,” says Matt Johnson, the head coach at Bloc Shop, a bouldering gym in Montreal. “But other muscle groups help: your biceps, forearm flexors, lats and legs all propel you up the wall. And having a strong core is super important to stabilize you on the small holds.” Johnson adds that bouldering’s cardiovascular component is fairly minimal and its social aspect is high: “Climbing is short bursts of intense activity, followed by a decent amount of falling, a lot of rest and a lot of chatting.” Because you tumble from the wall onto gymnasium crash pads — which, he notes, are well padded and totally safe — it’s not an ideal sport for anyone with a history of back, knee or ankle problems. “But it’s really good for people who are curious and playful, because as much as it’s a serious workout, it’s also a mental puzzle to figure out the exact sequence to get up the wall,” Johnson says.
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And while a towering rock wall might seem outrageously intimidating at first, Johnson says novices get the hang of climbing faster than they expect. “There’s something totally innate to this sport.”
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Most gyms can teach you how to take climbing outside, where you’re tethered to a partner who will help guide you up the wall and safely down onto soft portable mats. “You’re not going to be pushing yourself to the same degree, and there’s a bit more risk,” Johnson says. “But there’s a lot higher risk of getting injured playing football or soccer.”