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Rock Climbing a Great Way to Reach Peak Fitness

By Leslie Albrecht | January 26, 2012 7:39am

MANHATTAN — Looking to shake up your exercise routine with a full body workout that's also a mental challenge? Try indoor rock climbing.

To the uninitiated, rock climbing can look like it requires only brute upper body strength to haul yourself up a wall, Spiderman-style. But it's far more complex than it looks, say trainers at Manhattan's indoor climbing walls.

Scaling a wall engages the entire body, including the core, legs, and brain. Climbers must carefully consider each move they make or they run the risk of falling — though a safety harness catches them to prevent injuries.

"Climbing is a different kind of sport," said Sarah Walmsley, an employee at Chelsea Piers, which has two climbing walls for adults and one just for kids.

Kali O'Mard, manager of fitness services at New York Health & Racquet Club, demonstrates the bouldering wall at the club's Cooper Square location.
Kali O'Mard, manager of fitness services at New York Health & Racquet Club, demonstrates the bouldering wall at the club's Cooper Square location.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

"It's a little bit of a rush in that moment when you take your foot off a (hold) and then reach for the next one. It's kind of something very primal."

Here's a look at some of Manhattan's indoor climbing walls:

Chelsea Piers

Location: West 23rd Street and the Hudson River.

Chelsea Piers, the mega sports and fitness complex perched on the Hudson River, has two indoor climbing facilities to choose from, one in the Field House and one at its Sports Center health club.

The 11,000 square-foot Sports Center wall, which reaches almost 50 feet high in some spots, is the largest indoor rock climbing wall in New York City, according to Chelsea Piers officials.

But don't be intimidated by the nose-bleed inducing size. Chelsea Piers offers instruction to everyone, from timid beginners to seasoned veterans looking to keep in shape between outdoor rock climbing trips.

Chelsea Piers has private climbing lessons for members, and sells climb cards to non-members who are certified in belaying (using ropes and harnesses). Frequent climbing cards range from $112 for three climbs to $425 for 20 climbs.

The Sports Center climbing facility has a few special features to challenge climbers. One is a "roof" — a section of wall that juts out and hangs in space, where brace climbers can dangle about 50 feet off the ground. The Sports Club facility also has a bouldering cave where climbers can climb upside down without ropes.

At the 30-foot high climbing wall at the Chelsea Piers Field House, kids as young as 5-years-old can test their skills at open climb sessions, and adults can use frequent climbing cards that cost $180 for 10 sessions. The Field House recently started offering a parent-and-child rock climbing class for children aged 4 to 6 and their mom or dad.

"It's just this incredible feeling when you get to the top of something, of accomplishment," said Alexa Marcigliano, a climbing instructor at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center. "I have pure joy when I get to the top of a good climb. Essentially, it's a full body puzzle where you have to figure out move by move what to do with your body."

Reebok Sports Club/NY and Sports Club/LA

Location: Reebok Sports Club/NY is at 160 Columbus Ave. and West 67th Street. Its sister location is Sports Club/LA on 330 E. 61st Street between First and Second avenues.

At the swanky Reebok Sports Club/NY, where comedian Jerry Seinfeld met his wife Jessica, you can reportedly rub elbows with celebs like Chris Rock and Taye Diggs, but climbing instructor Matt Matera says the real stars are the expert trainers at the club's 36-foot high climbing wall.

The club's sister location, Sports Club/LA on the Upper East Side, has a 30-foot wall and the same top-notch trainers, Matera says.

"A lot of them have worldwide experience," Matera said. "They've climbed in China, Africa and Europe, and they can offer that experience to the beginner climber and get them excited."

Matera, a New York State licensed climbing guide who's summited peaks more than 19,000 feet high, including Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro, says he's tried all the indoor walls in the city and thinks Reebok Sports Club/NY's wall is the best.

Manufactured by the French custom wall builder Entre Prises, the wall mimics a real rock, with "hidden nooks and crannies," Matera said. Like Chelsea Piers, the Reebok Sports Club/NY wall has a roof overhang, which Matera said is excellent training for climbers who want to visit The Gunks — the Shawangunk Mountains near New Paltz, N.Y., famous for roof formations.

Matera likes to tell clients that rock climbing is a combination of yoga and dancing. It requires the balance, strength and flexibility of yoga, and it's like dancing because there's a sequence of steps to follow to complete the route.

"It's also like dancing because it's a partnership," Matera said. In rope climbing, your partner — called a belayer — stays on the ground feeding rope to you, and grabs the rope to stop you from falling should the need arise.

"You trust your belayer to keep you safe," Matera said. "It's two people working together to overcome a puzzle. It requires mental agility and physical prowess."

Manhattan Plaza Health Club

Location: 482 W. 43rd Street

Manhattan Plaza Health Club is a full-service gym with the standard line-up of cardio machines, group classes and a pool. The climbing gym operates inside the health club's sprawling West 43rd Street complex, but it's open to the public and you don't have to be a member of Manhattan Plaza Health Club to use it.

Manager Bill Baer says the climbing gym's goal is to build a community where climbers can hang out and meet each other. With a staff of 16 "passionate climbers," the MPHC climbing gym caters to serious climbers who use the wall for training, but it welcomes newbies with open arms, Baer said.

"Climbing has had a positive effect on all of us," Baer said. "We're not in this for the money. We do it because we want to share it with others."

Though the 20-foot high wall isn't as tall as some others in town, Baer says his staff works hard to keep it challenging.

Baer, who started climbing 14 years ago because he was bored with counting reps in the weight room and running a certain distance for exercise, has staff change the holds on the wall weekly, so climbers are forced to find new ways to complete each route.

"We come up with ways to make you feel like you're getting a workout," Baer said. "We encourage people to do laps."

The MPHC climbing gym, which was once two racquet ball courts, has one room for "top roping" (climbing where the climber is attached to the wall with a rope) and another room for bouldering, rope-free climbing.

Beginners can get their feet wet with an introductory one-hour lesson and a one-month membership, including equipment, for $100. The climbing gym has a weekly women's clinic.

New York Health & Racquet Club

Location: 62 Cooper Square

The two-story climbing wall at New York Health & Racquet Club's Cooper Square location is for bouldering only, not rope climbing, but it's still a "huge selling feature" of membership at the club, said Kali O'Mard, manager of fitness services.

For a full body workout, you can't beat the wall for effectiveness, O'Mard said.

"Some people don't want to use weights, some people get bored coming in day in, day out, running on the treadmill," O'Mard said. "They want something that's effective, challenging, and physically and mentally stimulating."

The club's wall, which is for club members only, has even won over some fitness skeptics, O'Mard said. He had three clients who were focusing on weight lifting to build muscle. O'Mard suggested they try out the wall to help build a strong core, but they were hesitant.

"They just thought it was silly," O'Mard said.

They changed their tune after their first climb quickly tired them out and made their ab muscles shake, O'Mard said. Now they're on the wall twice a week, and their non-wall workouts have improved as a result.

"It identifies muscular imbalances and forces you to activate your core," O'Mard said. "There's constant tension, so you're getting a phenomenal workout."