Though rock wall climbing can be seen as a resistance workout, there can be a good cardio component to this kind of activity, depending on some factors.

If you’ve witnessed a skilled wall climber working a route, they will appear to be expending only a small degree of effort, kind of like a highly trained person making a six minute mile appear easy, while you painfully push through it with labored breathing.

To that very skilled climber, the route is easy and not taxing their cardiorespiratory system. It’s no more a cardio workout than is, say, walking 4 mph is a cardio workout to a person who can easily run a mile in six minutes.

However, suppose that climber takes on a route that’s outside their comfort zone, not quite within their skill level? Their breathing rate will go up.

Another trigger of a faster breathing rate—or a sign that the cardiorespiratory system is being taxed—is when a beginner or recreational level climber is trying to work an intermediate level route.

For example, a climber who’s comfortable ascending routes rated 5.7 will struggle with routes rated 5.10 or even 5.9.

Struggling
When the body struggles, more oxygen is required to meet this demand. The heart rate is elevated. Respiration increases.

If the activity is sustained, vs. the climber quits every 10 seconds and sits in his harness for a minute, then technically, it qualifies as sustained cardio exercise.

Likewise, a solid 5.10 climber will find himself panting if he tries to make it up a 5.12b overhang without taking breaks.

However, the aerobic demands of climbing a rock wall route that’s above your skill level are not the same kind of aerobic demands of jogging up a hill, sprinting at fast speeds on a treadmill, bolting down streets or pedaling a bike as fast as possible up a hill.

Wall climbing routes still offer instances in which the athlete is going to take a pause, if for no other reason to evaluate the upcoming sequence or dip a hand into their chalk bag.

A good climber knows how to take these rests with minimally expended energy, such as hanging straight armed or sitting on a foot with a completely bent leg.

But if a climber has not yet learned how to economize both rests and movement, they will struggle, causing an increase in their body’s oxygen requirements. They will become winded.

A novice climber, though, will fatigue in the forearms and wrists before they become markedly winded.

In fact, though climbing walls can provide a cardio demand, you won’t get “out of breath” climbing a wall. During top roping, when climbers are forced to rest, it’s almost always due to fatigue in their upper body or to analyze the next several moves.

There will always be pauses when leading. If clips are made from below chest level, the climber gets a nice rest.

Routes on walls are very finite.
Often, even a not-so-skilled climber can get to the top before they must take a pause to rest burning forearms.

Outdoors, a person can choose a route that’s very long and attempt to climb it nonstop if on top rope, but even then, the degree of increased respiration doesn’t quite match that of trying to pedal up a tough mountain trail or sustain an eight mph jog for 20 minutes.

Depending on the conditioning of the individual while indoor climbing, their skill and the route, they may be breathing hard at the end of the route, but not the way they would if having just sprinted down a street.

Also remember that the ascent may be over in only five minutes.

Five minutes of respiratory effort, even if dotted here and there with brief pauses, will still work the cardiovascular system.

Nevertheless, rock wall climbing is no substitute for more classic aerobic exercise such as steady state cardio (hiking, jogging, pedaling, group aerobics classes) and high intensity interval training or Tabata.

In other words, never say, “I get adequate cardiovascular exercise because I go to the climbing gym three times a week.”

If that’s all you do, then test your theory:

  • Can you jog a mile nonstop in under eight minutes?
  • Even 10?
  • How do you feel after trotting up four flights of stairs?
  • How do you feel after dashing across a parking lot in the rain or chasing your kids around in the park for five nonstop minutes?

Novice climbers, particularly men, will try to “muscle up” a route by aggressively grabbing the jugs and pockets and pulling themselves up with their upper body while their legs clumsily flail. This will wind them quickly, while also burning out their forearms.

A more experienced climber may find herself fatiguing in a cardio sense while tackling a lengthy route or “bouldering” for extended periods of time.

If you boulder for 20 minutes straight, you may find yourself in a sustained state of increased respiration, and that will definitely score as a cardio workout.

So, the best answer to “Is rock wall climbing truly cardio exercise” is this: It depends on the condition of the climber, the relative difficulty of the route, and how long the route is or can be made (such as with prolonged bouldering and traversing).

If you do something that gets you out of breath, you just taxed your cardiovascular system. If this taxing is sustained for 20 minutes (as in bouldering), it meets the American Council on Exercise’s criterion for cardiorespiratory conditioning exercise of the steady state type.

If you spend a lot of time in climbing gyms, you still need to get in more traditional forms of aerobic activity.