There has been remarkable development in the scope and quality of rock climbing in recent years. However, there are scant data on the anthropometry, strength, endurance and flexibility of rock climbers. The aim of this study was to compare these characteristics in three groups of subjects-elite rock climbers, recreational climbers and non-climbers. The 30 male subjects were aged 28.8 +/- 8.1 (mean +/- S.D.) years. Group 1 (n = 10) comprised elite rock climbers who had led a climb of a minimum standard of 'E1' (E1-E9 are the highest climbing grades) within the previous 12 months; Group 2 (n = 10) comprised rock climbers who had achieved a standard no better than leading a climb considered 'severe' (a low climbing grade category); and Group 3 (n = 10) comprised physically active individuals who had not previously done any rock climbing. The test battery included tests of finger strength [grip strength, pincer (i.e. thumb and forefinger) strength, finger strength measured on climbing-specific apparatus], body dimensions, body composition, flexibility, arm strength and endurance, and abdominal endurance. The tests which resulted in significant differences (P < 0.05) between the three groups included the bent arm hang (elite 53.1 +/- 1.32 s; recreational 31.4 +/- 9.0 s; non-climbers 32.6 +/- 15.0 s) and pull-ups (elite 16.2 +/- 7.2 repetitions; recreational 3.0 +/- 4.0 reps; non-climbers 3.0 +/- 3.9 reps); for both tests, the elite climbers performed significantly better than the recreational climbers and non-climbers. Regression procedures (i.e. analysis of covariance) were used to examine the influence of body mass and length. Using adjusted means (i.e. for body mass and leg length), significant differences were obtained for the following: (1) finger strength, grip 1, four fingers (right hand) (elite 447 +/- 30 N; recreational 359 +/- 29 N; non-climbers 309 +/- 30 N), (2) grip strength (left hand) (elite 526 +/- 21 N; recreational 445 +/- 21 N; non-climbers 440 +/- 21 N), (3) pincer strength (right hand) (elite 95 +/- 5 N; recreational 69 +/- 5 N; non-climbers 70 +/- 5 N) and (4) leg span (elite 139 +/- 4 cm; recreational 122 +/- 4 cm; non-climbers 124 +/- 4 cm). For tests 3 and 4, the elite climbers performed significantly better than the recreational climbers and non-climbers for any variable. These results demonstrate that elite climbers have greater shoulder girdle endurance, finger strength and hip flexibility than recreational climbers and non-climbers. Those who aspire to lead 'E1' standard climbs or above should consider training programmes to enhance their finger strength, shoulder girdle strength and endurance, and hip flexibility.