Why climbing may be the mind-body workout you’ve been looking for

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(Photo: Ewan Burns for Brooklyn Boulders)

“You want to climb like a monkey,” my instructor explained before I hopped on a wall recently for my first attempt at bouldering at the massive new Brooklyn Boulders climbing gym in Long Island City, Queens. “Try not to use T-rex arms.”

So, I pictured the agile mammals moving with their arms long and outstretched, chalked my hands, and began navigating the colorful holds that chart seemingly endless routes (called “problems”) throughout the 25,000-square-foot space—their rainbow-splatter effect interrupted only by occasional eye-catching murals.

You have to keep readjusting and refocusing, all while plotting your next step. Oh, and focus on not falling off.

After an hour, with my forearms aching and shaking, I realized it was one of the most fun, rewarding fitness experiences I’d experienced in a long time.

It’s a feeling that must not be unique, considering that since Brooklyn Boulders opened its original graffiti-adorned gym for climbers in Gowanus, Brooklyn, in 2009 (the space is currently undergoing facility upgrades, which means new capacity restrictions are in place), the company has expanded to four sprawling locations—in Somerville (across the river from Boston), Chicago, and now Queens—boasting about 8,000 members altogether. There were climbing gyms and walls in New York before it, like at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers and Manhattan Plaza Health Club, but mainly in Manhattan. And since it debuted others have followed, like The Cliffs at LIC in Queens and Steep Rock Bouldering on the Upper East Side. In spring 2017, New England-based MetroRock will open a location in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

climbing NYC
(Photo: Chris Connolly for Brooklyn Boulders)

Brooklyn Boulders co-founder Lance Pinn says it all started because he and his friends from entrepreneur-focused Babson College needed a place to climb. “To get the experience we were trying to have, we had to go to upstate New York or to New Jersey,” he says. They started looking for spaces and, in the meantime, made a Facebook page called “NYC needs a climbing gym” to gauge interest in the project. “Over 300 people became our friends within a weekend, and almost none of them were people that we knew,” he remembers.

So Pinn and co-founder Jeremy Balboni set out to create a climbing space that would appeal to New Yorkers of all ilks, not just the “older white guy REI customer.” Filling the original Gowanus location with murals painted by local graffiti artists was the first step, and then as they began to see how people used the space, they built in new ways to foster community at each new location.

Those include co-working and event spaces, gym equipment so you can get your cardio in or work on strengthening your climbing muscles, yoga classes, and locker rooms with saunas. And members get together for regular social events. “We basically tried to make it a place we’d never want to leave,” Pinn says.

climbing in NYC
Photo: Lisa Elaine Held for Well+Good

Of course, the draw is still the act of scaling the walls, and they have tons of space for both bouldering and climbing with a harness, either via top-roping with a partner or by using auto-belays (which allows you to go at it solo).

While I moved across the walls, my instructor kept bringing up how much of the sport is about mental concentration and problem solving, and I felt that immediately: You map out a route visually before you start…and then suddenly you’re hanging there and everything you planned goes out the window. You have to keep readjusting and refocusing, all while plotting your next step. Oh, and focus on not falling off.

It made me think that climbing may be the mind-body workout many people are looking for

It’s like yoga, but with more adrenaline. And it’s definitely physical; my limbs tired quickly and then ached for a few days after.

It made me think that climbing may be the mind-body workout many people are looking for, especially since it takes you to a place that’s far outside of your city routine and comes with a real sense of accomplishment. “It allows for measurement of progress in a more meaningful way,” Pinn says, “and it’s super fun.”

I mean, monkeys always look like they’re having a blast, right?

How fit are you? Take this fun workout test before you try a new sport, like climbing. And to get in belay shape quickly, try some of our at-home Sweat Series workouts

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