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Lead Climb Induces Higher Heart Rate Responses Compared to the Top Rope in Intermediate and Advanced Climbers.


High-risk sports or extreme sports associated with emotions, discoveries, and fame, such as rock climbing, have never been so popular (21,26). Climbing, particularly indoor climbing, showed a marked increase in the number of practitioners since the 1990s due to the increase in the number of sports facilities (climbing gyms), improvement of safety equipment and its inclusion in educational programs (13,18,23). The growing popularity of climbing as a recreational sport or competitive sport has increased the interest of the scientific community regarding its demands. Initially, scientific investigations sought to characterize the climbers and the requirements of the modality, thus addressing anthropometric aspects (3,9,23,27,30,33,34) and the physiological demands (5,19). Later, they developed an interest in the physical and psychological demands associated with the different styles of climbing and competition, among others (9,13,16,20,31).

Researchers have observed that different conditions may alter physiological responses during climbing, such as: slope of the climb (24,32), the surface and the types of holds (4,25), the speed and direction of the movements (4,6), the size of the route and the style of ascent (13,12,14) among others. Comparing the different styles of ascent, researchers have observed the responses from physiological parameters such as volume of oxygen (V[O.sub.2]), heart rate (HR), and performance parameters with climbing time (2,14,16,17). These comparisons often use Top rope (TP) style of climbing, where there is always a safety rope anchored above the climber, and the Lead (LD) style where the climber needs to connect the safety rope to a series of bolts while moving along the route (31).

Studies that compare the Lead and Top rope styles of ascent correlated with the level of the climbers present different responses for HR and climbing time. While studying beginner climbers, Hardy and Hutchinson (16) found a significant difference in the physiological response of HR when comparing the two styles of ascent (16). However, observing intermediate (12), elite, and advanced (7,14) climbers, no significant changes were found in V[O.sub.2] or HR considering the Lead and Top rope styles of ascent, although Fryer et al. (14) found significant differences in climbing time.

Studies with beginner, intermediate, and advanced climbers were conducted on artificial walls (7,12,14,16) where holds are predetermined for each route. In rock climbing, the holds are determined by the terrain, forcing climbers to decide on the position of the hands, feet, and body in order to continue climbing. Another important aspect to be verified is the degree of difficulty of the climbing routes in the studies (10,11). Researchers have compared the responses from the two styles of ascent with the group of climbers climbing routes with the same degree of difficulty (7,12,14). In this way, the lowest level climber determines the grade of the route for all climbers, facilitating the ascension of climbers with the highest grade.

There are still doubts about the physiological responses of climbers of a higher grade in rock climbing when using different styles of ascent. The purpose of this study was to determine the heart rate responses, and total rock climbing time of intermediate to advanced climbers using two styles of ascent (Lead and Top rope).



Ten healthy climbers aged 15 to 34 yrs (mean age = 22.9 [+ or -] 5.6; weight 71.9 [+ or -] 9.7 kg; height 1.80 [+ or -] 0.06 m, and BMI 22.2 [+ or -] 2.1 kg x [m.sup.-2]) participated as volunteers in this study. The climbers self-reported their on-sight grade levels being VI sup. to VIIIb on the Brazilian scale, corresponding to 22 to 25 on the Ewbank scale, classified as intermediate to advanced climbers (10,11). On average, the climbers had 4.8 yrs of experience, and all were involved in climbing activities with a weekly frequency of two to four times, being able to climb using the Lead style of ascent. All subjects were informed about the nature of the study and signed a consent form. The study was approved by the human ethics committee of the University Center of Belo Horizonte (UNI-BH) before the beginning of the research, under protocol no. 090/2006.


Pilot Study

A pilot study was performed with a non-participating climber. The aim of the pilot study was to test the data collection procedures and to verify possible failures. The climbing difficulty was standardized for each individual, being 3 grades below the maximum grade on-sight for the warm-up route and 1 or 2 grades below the maximum grade on-sight for the routes using the two styles of ascent. It was established that a heart rate monitor would be used in the harness pack, near the waist, in order to avoid damage to the material and possible loss of data collected. A second rope was added to Top rope with the aim of balancing the demands of physical effort in the two styles of ascent. The volunteers in the Top rope scenario must have placed the quickdraws and run the rope along the route as in the Lead scenario.

Experimental Sessions

All volunteers participated in three test sessions, the first one being in the UNIBH laboratory for the characterization of the sample, and the next two were in the Gruta da Lapinha mass climbing complex in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Each volunteer climbed 3 different routes according to their grade level, the first being the warm-up route, which was 3 grades below their on-sight grade level, and 2 more routes for the test (routes 1 and 2), with 1 to 2 grades below their on-sight grade level. The test sessions had an interval of seven days and were performed on the same day of the week and time. Climbers were instructed not to perform physical exercises for 48 hrs prior to data collection, to sleep at least 8 hrs the day prior to collection, not to consume alcohol or caffeine, and to have adequate nutrition and hydration.

Session 1

In the first session in the UNIBH laboratory, the climbers were weighed, measured (WELMY - W300 stadiometer scale, with a precision of 0.5 cm for height and 0.05 kg for mass), answered a climbing questionnaire, and defined the routes to be climbed according to their level, based on the Escaladas de Minas - MG / Brazil guide (30).

Session 2

In the second session, held at the climbing site, climbers performed their warm-up that consisted of 5-min of free stretching. Then, they climbed their warm-up route with the HR monitoring equipment (POLAR S610i - emitter strap + receiver clock, Polar Electro, Finlad). After the warm-up, a 10-min recovery was carried out in the sitting position for HR stabilization. Then, half of the climbers performed the climb for their route 1 using the Lead system, recovered for 30 min and re-scaled the same route using the Top rope system. The other half of the climbers performed the climbs in the opposite sequence for styles of ascent, first Top rope and then Lead, to avoid the effect of order in the study.

Session 3

In the third session, performed at the climbing site, the climbers performed the same protocol for Session 2: warm-up, climbing the route with 30 min recovery and then climbing it again, using the sequence opposite to the second session (Top rope and then Lead or vice -versa). During the sessions, the climbing speed was auto-selected. Pre-climbing HR (1 min), HR every 5 sec during climbing and post-climbing HR (after 3 min - to remove the equipment and assume the seated position) were recorded in addition to the total climbing times in seconds in each one of the routes.

Statistical Analyses

The HR and total climbing time variables presented normal distribution in the Shapiro Wilk test for 9 of the 10 climbers. Descriptive statistics were used (mean and standard deviation) to characterize the HR responses and total time in the two styles of ascent used in the climb. To verify differences in HR and total climbing time between the two ascent styles, the paired sample t-test was used. The alpha level was set at 0.05 to test the statistical significance of each inference test. All analyses were carried out using the statistical package for social sciences (SPSS) (version 20.0, Chicago, IL, USA).


All 10 subjects completed the 4 climbs in this study with data from the 9 subjects who had a normal distribution (18 ascents in Lead and 18 in Top rope). The subject who did not present normal distribution for the climbing time was excluded from the sample.

Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics of the climbers. Regarding the physiological response, HR, the climbers did not present statistical differences for the Lead and Top rope styles of ascent pre-climb (108 [+ or -] 15 beats x [min.sup.-1] and 103 [+ or -] 11 beats x [min.sup.-1], P=0.19) and post-climb (116 [+ or -] 7 beats x [min.sup.-1] and 112 [+ or -] 13 beats x [min.sup.-1], P=0.13) conditions, respectively, demonstrating similar climber conditions in these two styles of ascent at rest. However, significantly higher values of mean (P=0.001) and maximum (P=0.005) HR responses were observed during climbing in the Lead style of ascent ([HR.sub.average]: 146 [+ or -] 13 beats x [min.sup.-1], [HR.sub.maximum]: 162 [+ or -] 14 beats x [min.sup.-1]) when compared to Top rope ([HR.sub.average]: 139 [+ or -] 13 beats x [min.sup.-1] and [HR.sub.maximum]: 157 [+ or -] 16 beats x [min.sup.-1]).

The total climbing time was statistically different (P=0.02) when climbers used Lead (357 [+ or -] 133 sec) compared to Top rope (299 [+ or -] 122 sec) style of ascent. Differences in physiological and performance response (HR and total climbing time) were observed in the comparison between the two styles of ascent.


The main finding of this study was that the HR responses and total climbing time are dependent on the style of ascent used. Considering that all climbers participating in this study were intermediate to advanced, the physical requirements for the two different rock climbing styles influenced the physiological response and performance.

The results showed that the climbers presented higher average HR (146 [+ or -] 12 beats x [min.sup.-1]) and maximum HR (163 [+ or -] 13 beats x [min.sup.-1]), as well as a longer climbing time (399 [+ or -] 262 sec) using the Lead style of ascent, when compared to the Top rope style of ascent (HRAverage 140 [+ or -] 14, [HR.sub.maximum] 156 [+ or -] 16 beats x [min.sup.-1] and time 322 [+ or -] 166 sec). Similar maximum HR values as those of the present study were described by Booth et al. (1999) in climbers of the same age group on rock using the Top rope style of ascent (157 [+ or -] 8 beats x [min.sup.-1]) (4).

Hardy and Hutchinson (16) also reported higher HR values in 3 different experiments comparing the Lead and the Top rope (16) scenarios. In experiment 1, the authors compared the route climbing at the limit of the grade of climbers with a route below the limit of the grade of the climbers, finding a higher HR in the Lead scenario (154 [+ or -] 10 and 138 [+ or -] 13 beats x [min.sup.-1]) compared with the Top rope scenario (138 [+ or -] 10 and 130 [+ or -] 12 beats x [min.sup.-1]). In experiment 2, they compared more anxious climbers with less anxious climbers at their climbing limit and both groups presented higher HR values in the Lead scenario (146 [+ or -] 17 and 145 [+ or -] 13 beats x [min.sup.-1]) compared to the Top rope scenario (135 [+ or -] 21 and 132 [+ or -] 15 beats x [min.sup.-1]). In experiment 3, the authors compared the scenario of scaling the same route two times in two sequences, the first sequence Lead and Top rope (150 [+ or -] 17 and 133 [+ or -] 18 beats x [min.sup.-1]) and the second Top rope and Top rope (133 [+ or -] 20 and 132 [+ or -] 20 beats x [min.sup.-1]). The results of experiment 3 demonstrated that the climbers only presented higher HR values in the Lead scenario of the first sequence. The study by Hardy and Hutchinson (16) was conducted on an artificial wall, and its findings are in agreement with the present study, conducted on rock. However, the study by Hardy and Hutchinson (16) used the Lead style of ascent first and then Top rope, which may have influenced higher HR values, since in the second ascent the climbers already knew the route and could have made the ascent with less effort. In the present study, the difference in HR cannot be attributed to the ascent sequence, since half of the climbers used the Lead and then Top rope on the first day and Top rope and then Lead on the second day, and the other half of the climbers did the reverse.

Comparing the physiological responses (V[O.sub.2] Lactate, and FC), psychological (CSAI-2R questionnaire), and performance (climbing time) of intermediate climbers, climbing the same route in the Lead and Top rope scenarios on an artificial wall, Aras and Akalan (1) and Draper et al. (12) found no differences in HR (1,12). Draper et al. (12) found differences in climbing time, which was higher in the Lead scenario (193 [+ or -] 30 sec) compared to Top rope (87 [+ or -] 22 sec) (12). The degree of difficulty and the size of the routes are factors that may have contributed to the absence of differences in HR values. These studies used the same route for all climbers, which represent a lower requirement for climbers with higher grade levels within the group. In the present study, the degree of difficulty of the routes varied according to the grade level of the climber. The routes ranged from VIsup to VIIIb in the Brazilian grading scale, and the ascent always ranged from 1 to 2 levels below the maximum grade level of the climber. Draper et al. (12) used a 9.38 m route, smaller than the 25 m routes used in this study (12). The longer climbing time in the higher degree of difficulty leads to greater increases in HR values (24,27), which may have occurred in this study.

Higher HR values in the Lead compared to the style Top rope style of ascent has been attributed to the need to fit the quickdraws and pass the safety rope at the various anchor points along the route (14). These procedures lead to a longer climbing time and consequently to a longer isometry and positioning of the upper limbs above the level of the heart (14,27). In the present study, the demands of the Lead style of ascent were balanced when climbers performing the Top rope style of ascent were asked to perform the same actions as the Lead style of ascent. As such, it is not possible to attribute the HR increase to an increase in the isometry time and work with the arms in a position above the heart level, since in the two styles of ascent, the same actions were performed.

Draper et al. (13) found differences between the artificial wall climbing time in on-sight lead climb (OSLC) and Lead, but found no differences in the HR variable (5). The higher total climbing time can be attributed to the OSLC scenario in which there is a need for planning the first ascent on the route. In this study, the greater climbing time in the Lead cannot be attributed to the need for planning. The climbers made two climbs on each route, alternating the order of the style of ascent (Lead and Top rope or Top rope and Lead). Another possible reason for the increase in rock climbing time would be a greater possibility of hold variations in the route, which could lead to an increase in the geometric entropy. Watts et al. (31), however, found no differences in geometric entropy in experienced climbers, when comparing the Lead and Top rope conditions, on rock climbing (31). Another hypothesis would be the self-preservation instinct (35), in order to avoid falls, the climber would take more care in climbing, increasing his climbing time, with an increase in isometry time and a consequent increase in HR values.

As the increase in HR seems not to be related to a higher physical requirement, this may be associated with psychological stress or anxiety caused by the Lead (27) style of ascent. Climbers use coping strategies to deal with stress or anxiety, and the autonomic nervous system changes associated with these strategies are predominantly mediated by sympathetic activation (28). As a consequence, we will have greater cardiovascular stress with increased blood pressure and HR (8,15).

As such, we suggest that new studies be performed comparing different styles of ascent that observe the climbing speed, as well as the influence of psychological aspects through specific tests.


The findings of this study indicate that intermediate to advanced level climbers, when climbing on rock 1 to 2 grades below their declared maximum grade, presented higher HR and a longer climbing time using the Lead style of ascent compared to the Top rope style of ascent, even when performing the movements of connecting the rope to the safety points as in the Lead scenario.

Address for correspondence: Andre Scotti Rabelo, Rua Jornalista Guilherme Apgaua, no.164--apt101, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brasil. CEP--30575270, Email:


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Josiane A. Zarattini (1), Daisy Motta-Santos (2), Edgardo A. C. Abreu (1), Herikson A. Costa (4), Guilherme L. Carvalho (3), Thiago T. Mendes (4) Andre Scotti Rabelo (2,4)

(1) Federal University of Minas Gerais--UFMG, Laboratory of Biomechanics--BIOLAB of EEFFTO, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, (2) Federal University of Minas Gerais--UFMG, Laboratory of Load Analysis - LAC, of EEFFTO, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, (3) University Center of Belo Horizonte-UNI-BH, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, (4) Federal University of Maranhao - UFMA, Pinheiro, Brazil
Table 1. Heart Rate Responses and Total Climbing Time in Lead and Top
Rope Styles.

Conditions                                 Lead Climb

[HR.sub.average] (beats x [min.sup.-1] )   146 [+ or -] 13
[HR.sub.maximum] (beats x [min.sup.-1])    162 [+ or -] 14
[HR.sub.pre] (beats x [min.sup.-1])        108 [+ or -] 15
[HR.sub.pos] (beats x [min.sup.-1])        116 [+ or -] 7
Tim[] (sec)                     357 [+ or -] 133

Conditions                                 Top Rope Climb

[HR.sub.average] (beats x [min.sup.-1] )   139 [+ or -] 13 (*)
[HR.sub.maximum] (beats x [min.sup.-1])    157 [+ or -] 16 (*)
[HR.sub.pre] (beats x [min.sup.-1])        103 [+ or -] 11
[HR.sub.pos] (beats x [min.sup.-1])        112 [+ or -] 13
Tim[] (sec)                     299 [+ or -] 122 (*)

(*) Significant difference (P<0.05) between styles of ascent.
Abbreviation: HR = Heart Rate
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Author:Zarattini, Josiane A.; Santos, Daisy Motta; Abreu, Edgardo A.C.; Costa, Herikson A.; Carvalho, Guilh
Publication:Journal of Exercise Physiology Online
Article Type:Report
Date:Feb 1, 2018
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