The physiology of rock climbing

Sports Med. 2006;36(6):529-45. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200636060-00006.


In general, elite climbers have been characterised as small in stature, with low percentage body fat and body mass. Currently, there are mixed conclusions surrounding body mass and composition, potentially because of variable subject ability, method of assessment and calculation. Muscular strength and endurance in rock climbers have been primarily measured on the forearm, hand and fingers via dynamometry. When absolute hand strength was assessed, there was little difference between climbers and the general population. When expressed in relation to body mass, elite-level climbers scored significantly higher, highlighting the potential importance of low body mass. Rock climbing is characterised by repeated bouts of isometric contractions. Hand grip endurance has been measured by both repeated isometric contractions and sustained contractions, at a percentage of maximum voluntary contraction. Exercise times to fatigue during repeated isometric contractions have been found to be significantly better in climbers when compared with sedentary individuals. However, during sustained contractions until exhaustion, climbers did not differ from the normal population, emphasising the importance of the ability to perform repeated isometric forearm contractions without fatigue becoming detrimental to performance. A decrease in handgrip strength and endurance has been related to an increase in blood lactate, with lactate levels increasing with the angle of climbing. Active recovery has been shown to provide a better rate of recovery and allows the body to return to its pre-exercised state quicker. It could be suggested that an increased ability to tolerate and remove lactic acid during climbing may be beneficial. Because of increased demand placed upon the upper body during climbing of increased difficulty, possessing greater strength and endurance in the arms and shoulders could be advantageous. Flexibility has not been identified as a necessary determinant of climbing success, although climbing-specific flexibility could be valuable to climbing performance. As the difficulty of climbing increases, so does oxygen uptake (VO(2)), energy expenditure and heart rate per metre of climb, with a disproportionate rise in heart rate compared with VO(2). It was suggested that these may be due to a metaboreflex causing a sympathetically mediated pressor response. In addition, climbers had an attenuated blood pressure response to isometric handgrip exercises when compared with non-climbers, potentially because of reduced metabolite build-up causing less stimulation of the muscle metaboreflex. Training has been emphasised as an important component in climbing success, although there is little literature reviewing the influence of specific training components upon climbing performance. In summary, it appears that success in climbing is not related to individual physiological variables but is the result of a complex interaction of physiological and psychological factors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anthropometry
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Fingers / physiology
  • Forearm / physiology
  • Hand Strength / physiology
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Lactates / blood
  • Mountaineering / physiology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Physical Endurance / physiology
  • Pliability


  • Lactates