Indoor Rock Climbing : The Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Wanting to start rock climbing, but not sure how everything goes down?  Getting in to the sport can be intimidating, especially in a gym setting when there is usually a crowd (this is one of the reasons my wife doesn't climb more often!).  I've climbed for around 5 years now and started in a gym. If I did it, so can you!  I still love climbing in a gym vs outside due to a few reasons like convenience and safety.  Almost 90% of all climbers climb consistently in a rock climbing gym and seeing how it is on trend with inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, I felt a full guide would be helpful to new and aspiring climbers.


1)  Rock Climbing Terms

Abseil - also known as rappel, this is the process that a climber descends a route from a fixed rope.

Aid Climbing - a style of climbing, typically on a larger route, that involves using aid such as ladders.

Anchor - a point to attach rope along a route, whether you are top-roping or lead climbing.  It is a fixed point meant to support the weight of a belay or top rope.

Approach - the path to reach a base of a route or boulder.  This is often an easy hike but can involve long, technical routes as well.

ATC - a device used for belaying another climber on a sport route.  The rope goes through this device and allows you to handle rope with ease.

Back-clipping - a mistake when clipping in while lead climbing such that a fall may open the gate on a carabiner and release the climber's protection on the wall.

Barn-door - this happens when you are unable to keep all points of contact on the wall at the same time, and you swing open like a door on a hinge.

Belay - to protect the climber by maintaining an amount of slack on the rope so if the climber falls, they do not touch ground.  This is often done by a partner on the ground that passes the rope through a belay device such as an ATC or grigri.

Beta - advice from another climber for ascending any sequence of moves to complete a route or boulder problem.  Etiquette shows to not give beta unless it is asked by or approved by the climber.

Bicycle - a climbing technique where one foot is placed on top of a foothold and the other foot is placed underneath it, making for a squeeze.

Bouldering - the type of climbing done on smaller routes, typically 10-14ft tall for completion.  It is done without any protection such as ropes, so outdoor climbers will place crash pads for protection to land on.  In a gym setting, bouldering areas have fixed crash pads so there is little risk when falling.

Boulder problem - refers to a route on a boulder wall.  Boulder problems are often difficult to figure the sequence of hands and feet, which is why they are called problems (like in math).

Cam - a spring-loaded device of various sizes used for protection in trad climbing.

Campus - act of climbing using only your arms - no feet can touch the wall.  Often done to increase upper body strength and momentum moves.

Campus board - a training board used to increase finger strength with various depths of cavities to hang your body completely from your fingers.

Carabiner - an oval shaped device with many uses, but mostly for clipping your rope in to on a lead climb.  Carabiners come in many varieties of security such as spring loaded gates, locking gates, pinch gates, and many more.  You won't usually need to bring any to a gym as the carabiners are already mounted on the wall for you.

Chalk - a compound used to keep a climber's hands dry and keep optimal grip when on a route.  Essential for any level of climbing.  Available in both loose chalk or in cloth containers called chalk balls.

Chalk bag - a specialized bag, featuring a drag string top, for keeping your loose chalk or chalk ball in while climbing.

Climbing gym - an indoor climbing center specializing in bouldering and sport climbing.  Routes are often changed usually on a monthly basis and classes and other fitness activities such as yoga are usually hosted.

Climbing shoe - specialized footwear for rock climbing that is tight fitting and features a large rubber sole.  Various models exist with varying degrees of softness for rubber as well as the profile of the shoe (flat vs. downturned toe).

Clipping in - the process of the climber attaching to belay points or anchors along a route.

Crack climbing - a type of rock climbing that involves an ascent only using a crack in a rock face.  The climber ascends by jamming their hands, arms, and legs in to various positions along the way.

Cranking - to pull on a hand hold as hard as possible

Crash pad - a thick padded mat that is brought to an outdoor bouldering area to soften a fall or cover hazardous rock in a landing area.

Cutting feet - when a climber's feet slip off of a foot hold and the climber is left hanging only by their hands.

Downclimb - to descend a route by climbing downwards, usually using the same holds used for ascending.  Builds strength and climbing technique.

Drop knee - a technical climbing move that involves twisting your leg once placed on a foothold to gain leverage in ascending.  Here's a video showing an example.

Dyno - short for "dynamic move", a dyno is often a jump on a climbing route or boulder problem that involves losing all points of contact on the wall. Once the target is caught, the feet come back to the wall as well.  

Edge - a small ledge of a foot hold.

Edging - putting all body weight on a small foot hold using the edge of a climbing shoe.

Flagging - a climbing technique that involves kicking the non-dominant climbing foot out for balance to reach the next hand hold.

Flash - to complete a climbing route successfully on the first attempt without falling, usually after receiving beta from another climber. 

Grade - the difficulty of a boulder problem or sport climb.

Grigri - a belay device that uses assisted braking when a fall occurs, usually used in lead climbing.

Gumby - a derogatory term for an inexperienced climber that does not follow climbing etiquette.

Heel hook - a climbing move that involves placing the back heel of one foot on to a climbing hold to gain leverage or balance.

High ball - a taller than normal bouldering problem that has increased danger if the climber falls.  

Jug - a large lipped climbing hold.

Knee bar - a climbing move that involves locking your leg in between two climbing holds.  A knee bar is very secure and the climber can often put all of their weight on this move.

Laybacking - placing your body entirely horizontal, often using the same hold with both hands.

Lead cimbing - a form of sport climbing a route, often 50' high, that involves clipping in to preplaced carabiners or quickdraws along the way.  This form is more strenuous than top-rope climbing in a gym, but is great preparation for outdoor climbing which is almost always lead climbing (sometimes trad climbing).  In a gym environment, it's usually best to take a class on how to climb and belay for lead climbing. If you are trained in lead climbing but enter a new gym, you must usually get certified by the gym staff to climb on lead routes.

Positive hold - indicates that a hand hold on a route has an easy to hold cavity / edge.

Project - in a gym use, this would refer to a boulder problem or sport climb route that a climber tries repeatedly to complete.  It is often at the top range of the climber's skill, so they will break the climb in to separate parts to practice it in hopes of completing the project all in one go, without falling.

Send - describes when a climber completes a bouldering problem or sport climb route.

Sit start - often a bouldering problem that involves starting with all four points of contact on the wall as well as sitting on the ground and moving up from there.

Slab climbing - a type of rock climbing wall that is angled nearly vertical with emphasis on footwork and balance.  

Sloper - a hand hold with little positive hand surface.  Slopers often are a round hold that you must palm and use core strength to stay on.

Smearing - the climbing technique where the climber pushes the toe of their feet directly against the wall where no pre-set foot hold is.

Spinner - a climbing hold in an indoor gym that is not secure and can spin upon weight transfer.

Static - a style of climbing where the climber moves fluidly and keeps at least three points of contact on the wall at all times.

Spraying - often prevalent in a climbing gym, this is where other climbers will 'spray' beta whether asked for or not.

Top-rope - a sport climb classification where the rope is fixed to an anchor at the top of the climb and is hooked in to the climber and the belayer at the bottom.  Popular in climbing gyms for beginners to get started on longer routes.

Top-out - to complete a climb by physically stepping over and on top of the wall or rock.

Traverse - climbing in a horizontal direction for warming up or strength training.

Volume - a large climbing hold in various shapes.  In indoor gyms, other holds can be attached to a volume.


2)  Rock Climbing Gym Etiquette

Now that you've made the decision to make a trip to your local climbing gym, you want to feel like you belong there.  I remember my first time to a rock climbing gym, back in Jacksonville, FL (The Edge) and feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to do.  After a few trips back, it felt like home.  I was hooked.  

Since that first time climbing in 2012, I've learned a few things that are common expectations from the gym staff and other climbers:


Much like bowling, you don't start climbing a close proximities project at the same time that someone else does.  It distracts the other person and creates a general awkwardness.  If you can see that the other person's route goes in a direction away from yours, then use your best judgment, but you should be good to go.  I've seen many times where I go to hop on a boulder problem and once I establish the first hold and start climbing, someone else starts their own right next to me, in my own line.  Use common sense and don't get in the way of other climbers.


Chances are, you will have your chalk bag near you during the full climbing session.  That's great!  You should.  The climbing gym can be a busy place with both kids and adults, so let's avoid a chalky mess by simply closing your chalk bag after every use.  Falling climbers and people simply walking around could spill your chalk very easily.  


You'll find that climbing in a gym has an awesome community of like minded people.  Go-getters.  Ambition.  It's really a great group of down to earth people.  Since you're new to gym climbing, you may want to be eager to fit in - but don't do that by telling people how to climb a route.  It's a big no-no to give uninvited advice for climbing a certain route / problem, so only give beta if someone asks for it. 


When you first arrive to the climbing area, all ready with chalk on your hands and climbing shoes on, take a minute to observe if there are queues for routes.  If you're unsure, just ask the other climber that's staring down the wall if they are ready to climb yet or not.  Chances are, they are just studying the route (which you should do as well!).  Nobody likes a line-cutter so be sure to check out the situation before hopping on a route.


3)  Types of Rock Climbing Gyms 

All gyms are not created equal.  There's a few different varieties since the sport has exploded recently, all with their various specialties.  

Here's some you can expect to find:

Full service climbing and fitness

This kind of gym features everything you could ever want in a climbing center.  You can expect a top rope wall, lead climb wall, bouldering area, rock climbing training / fitness area, weight room, spinning / yoga space and more sorts of these amenities.  An example of this would be the gym that I attend here in Denver, Movement.  It is my experience that this is the most popular type of climbing gym. 

Strictly climbing only

Some university and community climbing gyms service just one purpose - for their users to have a place to climb and climb only.  And that's awesome!  It is refreshing to see colleges and city centers offer a climbing wall, seeing as indoor climbing was seen as a more abstract sport just years ago.

Climbing / Cross Fit Gym

This is a bit of a newer concept that is refreshing to see.  It combines a class structure similar to Cross Fit - full body workouts and cardio - with a climbing routine.  One example that comes to mind is another local group called Mountain Strong.

4)  Levels of Climbing Difficulty

In the USA, we use mostly two types of scales, one for bouldering and one for sport climbing.

Bouldering Grading Scale

Created by legendary climber John Sherman, the V-Scale (Vermin Scale), or Hueco Scale, is what is generally used for grading bouldering problems in the USA.  It is based on a system of V-number, with V0 (or VB) being the easiest and can go to V17.  After a couple months of consistent gym bouldering, you should be able to top out a V1 or V2 with V0 being an absolute beginner.  

Sport Climbing Grading Scale

For top-roping and lead climbing, the Yosemite Decimal System is used to grade difficulty.  This is generally the most accepted grading system in the USA and will be used in a majority of climbing gyms you would visit.  

For rock climbing, the system uses a "5." followed by a number indicating the difficulty.  For example, a beginner route would be around a 5.6, with 5.1 being technically the lowest.  Above a 5.9 grade, many routes also use a letter after the last number to indicate a sub-degree of difficulty, specified by letters a-d.  So, a 5.10d is slightly harder than a 5.10c.  The jump in difficulty from 5.10 to 5.11 was considered too great, so the YDS was modified as climbers and gear got better since its inception in the 1930s.

5)  Rock Climbing Gear You'll Need

Rock climbers should be well balanced in their skills between bouldering and sport climbing, so its a great idea to do both.  Bouldering and sport climbing both offer their own advantages to develop your climbing skills, so be sure to try both.  

Rock Climbing Shoes

For your first climbing outing, you may want to just rent whatever the gym has available.  Your first climbing experience will either hook you or not - so let's just be safe and save you some money in case climbing isn't for you.  

Now that you're hooked, let's get you some proper shoes!

You can read as many online shoe reviews as you like, however nothing beats just going to your local outfitter and trying on a few.  There will usually be a sales associate stoked to get someone their first pair of climbing shoes, so don't be shy to ask for help.  

Rule of thumb for your first climbing shoe is to make sure it is comfortable and snug.  You don't want an uncomfortable shoe to keep you from continuing your climbing journey, so make sure it is a great fit for you.  My first shoe was a pretty flat entry level shoe that was just the cheapest one I could find and it lasted me over a year before advancing to a more technical shoe.  

Harness & ATC

If you'll want to climb the longer sport climb routes, you'll need to invest in a harness and ATC.  Much like climbing shoes, I'd recommend renting a set of these on your first outing.  If everything goes well after that, then investing in your own harness and ATC will keep you coming back.  

Rock Climbing Chalk & Bag

If you've ever watched crazy climbing videos before, then you may have gotten a case of sweaty palms.  Well, imagine if you're actually the one climbing - your hands will get just as sweaty!  There's a lot of options on Etsy and maybe even at your gym, and of course a local outfitter will have options for chalk and special bags to keep the chalk in.  Side note: when climbing, make sure that your bag is cinched up so you don't spill chalk everywhere!


That's about all you need for gym climbing, besides the typical climbing fashion of a beanie, tank top, and capri pants!

6)  Ways to Improve your Rock Climbing Skills

The key to improving your rock climbing skills is really just determination. Like any sport, you have to invest time and make a commitment to yourself that you will stick with it.  We've actually already written a guide on how to climb better, specifically how to go from bouldering a V0 to V3 in a month.


Are you feeling good and stoked about climbing?  We are building a climbing gym locator tool to be the ultimate resource for locating a gym around you, so check it out and hit up one of our supported climbing facilities.  Spread the love and be safe out there!