In terms of full-body exercises, there might not be one more mentally and physically imposing than rock climbing. If you can get past the thought of ascending upwards, the benefits are plentiful: increased muscle strength and improved balance and flexibility to name a few.

For professional rock climber Sierra Blair, it was love at first climb. As a child, she visited a portable climbing wall at a mall near her Scottsdale, AZ, home. She had never climbed up to this point but was hooked immediately by the joy she felt once she was on the wall. She enjoyed it so much her mom would find herself driving back to the same venue almost every day afterward.

It got to a point where Blair told her mom she wanted to make a career out of it. Her mom was supportive but didn’t know if that was a possibility until a couple of weeks later, she discovered an article in their local newspaper highlighting a youth climbing team in Arizona that had just gone to Youth Nationals, and some of that some of the members had qualified for Youth Worlds. Mama Blair asked her daughter if she wanted to sign up and that’s when the journey started.

“Something about it just feels right to me,” said Blair. “It’s fun and works my brain. I just love climbing and I love how it feels. It’s a good way to relax but it also helps me focus at the same time. It gives me a good workout and it always feels like there’s something to accomplish in climbing no matter what.”

Blair spoke with M&F on how you can get started on your own rock climbing path, important pointers before getting on the wall, some of the foundational exercises that are a part of her training, and how she’s found a way to refocus during difficult climbs.

Sierra Blair at a rock climbing gym
Sierra Blair

Keys To Getting Started In Rock Climbing

Just get in the gym. Rock climbing gyms tend to have particularly friendly staff. If anyone is ever nervous about trying to climb, the staff is usually incredibly helpful and will really help you more than you realize. If people don’t just want to feel like a fish right out of the water, I also encourage people to see if the gym has an intro to climbing classes or private lessons you can take. Once people actually decide they want to climb and want to be in there, a lot of it boils down to what you can handle. I think two days a week is a pretty good amount to go in there and climb for a beginner. It will definitely get you sore, but also help you to get better.

There are a lot of good climbers who only climb two days a week—not necessarily on a professional level because we’re in there about four to five days a week. But you can really have a lot of fun and a lot of improvement climbing two days a week. I think it’s important just to stick with it. A lot of people in climbing develop these friend groups because it’s a very social sport. You really can make it fit what you want it to be.

How to Keep Climbing

What’s really helped me throughout my career is working 90 to 100 percent for a long time. I see a lot of people come in and out of climbing on all different levels and a lot of them will work at 120 percent all the time for a couple of months but then they drop off. It’s so important to have that long-term consistency. I think that’s why I’ve been able to not burn out with climbing and continue to get better. You don’t have to go crazy when you’re working hard. There’s an acceptable level of working hard and if you just maintain that, I think that’s where you’ll see the most gains.

Checkpoints Before Rock Climbing

I’m someone who packs their bag before a climb—even if it’s just a training session because I want to go into the climb having everything covered and be relaxed going into it. The crucial things that I need are my climbing shoes, my chalk bag, and liquid chalk. We use brushes in climbing. They look like toothbrushes but the bristles are made out of horse hair and you use them to brush chalk for a better grip. I’ll have a couple of snacks, and some Perfect Hydration and that’s really everything I have in my climbing bag. It’s a light operation unless you’re going to be gone a long time. Once I’m actually ready to get on the wall, the standard thing to do is put my shoes on, your chalk bag, chalk up my hands, and look at what you’re going to climb.

You try and figure out what you’re going to do from the ground. It’s actually a pretty quick process for the most part because at a certain point, you can see what it’s going to be from the ground. When you’re on the wall, sometimes you have to adapt because even if you can see everything from the ground, you don’t always positionally know how it’s going to feel on the wall. So, you have to make changes on the way.

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

I’m from Arizona, so hydration is one of our main tenants of life out here. Being an athlete, I feel when I’m hydrated, I feel so much better, and I perform better. I think the tricky part is you don’t always know when you’re getting dehydrated. Now I really focus on trying to keep track of how much water I drink every day. It’s just to make sure that I’m getting everything that I need. It definitely makes a huge difference in my climbing and recovery.

Nerves Are OK

Because I do compete a lot, nerves can be a big factor. Sometimes they can really hit hard in one competition, even though I’ve competed in several. Whether the competition is going well or not well, the nerves can kind of all stay the same, which is crazy.

One of the things I do if I feel like I’m getting stressed out—and sometimes I can even do this on the wall when I’m climbing, depending positionally where I’m at—is count backward from 10. If I’m on the wall, I’ll count backward from five or three just to think about something else for a second to give me time to calm down. That’s been a small thing I’ve done over time. I think has really helped me calm down when necessary.

Rock Climbing Can Be Scary…Sometimes

The thing that is important to remember is there are a lot of safety precautions in place, so it really is in your head. So that’s a lot of just kind of forcing or reminding yourself that everything is going to be ok. One of the things I did struggle with recently is about a year ago, I had a slipped disc in my back. For the past year I’ve just been getting it treated and still training for climbing.

For about six months, I was not following climbing at all. I would stop if I felt like it was getting too risky on the wall. I’d climb down because the impact of a fall was just too much. There were quite a few times when I would talk myself into doing a move because I was so afraid to fall on it and that was very difficult to go through.

Scaling The Mental Hurdle

What was really hard was there was a certain point in which I was in just a low-grade level of pain almost constantly. That was hard for me mentally because I am a believer that your body can only take so much low-level pain until you’re just in a bad mood all the time. You’re cranky and you also have an injury you’re working through. Climbing was unfortunately the thing that really irritated my back the most.

I had to learn what positions I could climb in and which ones I couldn’t. With my lower back hurting so much, I couldn’t use it as well as some of my ab muscles. I just felt like my arms were taking everything on because my lower body just wasn’t cooperating. So, I was climbing a lot easier than I normally would but it felt a lot harder. Oddly enough, the thing that really helped me is that whenever I was climbing,

I still felt like I was getting a great workout because I had to try so much harder in a different way. It was true even with the climbs being easier than what I would usually climb. To me, I think that helped me mentally. I could still feel like I was working hard even though it wasn’t what I would normally do. I really love the feeling of working hard. That helped me not totally lose my mind with the injury.

Train Like a Rock Climber

For most climbers, climbing takes ups a majority of their training. I think that’s because it’s so specialized and you have to be familiar with so many movements that are always changing. After that, you train for a lot of finger strength. We have these things called hang boards that we hang on. You can do pull-ups if you wanted but it’s not shaped like a pull-up bar. It has a bunch of different grips on it that you can work from different positions. You hang on to them for certain time intervals. You can add weight to it, hang with one arm, two arms, and two different grips for your hands. There are so many ways you can mix it up.

We also do something called campusing. People who aren’t climbers usually think it’s cool because it looks like they are little strips of wood on a slightly overhanging wall. That’s a really good one for your fingers and arm strength. As far as general exercises that we do, it’s a lot of core, planks and hollow body holds. Some people can do front levers in climbing and some can’t. For arms, it’s a lot of pull-ups and weighted pull-ups. People are actually working their legs now, which is cool. That’s squatting, deadlifts, squat jumps, lunge walks, and a lot of plyometrics as well. Climbers are actually turning into pretty well-rounded athletes as far as fitness goes. For a long time, people would only climb and not do anything outside of that. Now, it’s gotten so competitive that everyone has to hit everything from all angles.