The Rubik’s Cube: Mental Training For Climbing?

Can the Rubik’s Cube take your climbing to the next level?

Rubik's Cube Mental Training For Climbing

We have all heard of campusing and hangboarding, but what if I told you the Rubik’s Cube might be the tool that can take your climbing to the next level? 

The cubing/climbing crossover first appeared on my radar when Stefano Ghisolfi made the comparison in a short video featured back in 2020. Again a year later, after doing some background research on this year’s Olympic athletes, I came across one or two climbers who made a passing comment about the Rubik’s Cube. 

Do professional climbers have superior problem-solving abilities than the average person? And for us non-professionals, would learning to solve this popular puzzle help with our mental training for climbing?

I am sure there are climbing veterans and trainers that are lining up to tell me this is total BS. They are probably right. Nevertheless, my curiosity was piqued. I decided to dig out my old cube, do some research, and dive into this theory with an open mind.

A Brief History of Cubing 

When the first cube was created in 1974 it took Erno Rubik, the puzzle’s inventor, over a month to solve it.  With 43 quintillion combinations, it didn’t take long for the perceived difficulty and unique nature of the puzzle to capture the imagination of people across the world.  

Within the first three years of its release, over 200 million cubes were sold worldwide. The world was gripped with cubing. At one stage in 1981, three of the top 10 books sold in the US were guides on how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, one of which was written by a 13-year-old English school boy.

Nowadays, the impossible illusion shrouding the Rubik Cube has disappeared, especially if you have seen this video of a 3-year-old girl solving the Cube in under two minutes. The learning curve was also made infinitely easier when you were able to follow along with someone on YouTube. 

However, even if you understand ‘the secret’ to completing the cube, it doesn’t take away from the critical thinking and cognitive skills that we use to successfully solve this popular puzzle. 

Can Professional Climbers solve the Rubik’s Cube?

If you have ever thought about competition climbing and speedcubing, then you might have noticed a few similarities. In both, competitors have a viewing period to observe the problem, process it, then use their knowledge and experience to solve the problem. 

Stefano Ghisolfi was the first climber I recall making the correlation between cubing and climbing, but he wasn’t the last. Colin Duffy is an American climber heading to the (postponed) Tokyo 2020 games. While is certainly a very talented climber, being the youngest climbing competitor and having multiple podiums at various Youth World Championships, he is also an avid cuber.  

He isn’t the only Olympian that can solve the Rubik’s Cube either. From the 16 Olympic climbers that I spoke to, 75% of them could solve the cube. Some of them have even got pretty good at it, with Sean McColl and Michael Piccolruaz’s cubing record being 30 and 45 seconds respectively. 

Climbing & Cubing: The Crossover Benefits 

Rock climbing is just as much a mental game as it is a physical one. The ability to read a route, understand movement patterns, and visualize outcomes are just as important as having the strength to execute the moves. 

Various studies have been carried out on how puzzles and other cognitively stimulating leisure activities enhance our cognitive abilities. It’s therefore, not out of the realm of possibility that these benefits could help improve your climbing too.  Here’s a few crossover benefits that could help out your climbing.

1) Spatial Reasoning 

Spatial reasoning refers to your ability to visualize and manipulate objects in three dimensions, a skill used extensively in both cubing and sport climbing.

Your ability to successfully read a route or boulder problem essentially comes down to how good your spatial reasoning skills are. When reading a boulder problem, we visualize a lot of different things: The position and pattern of holds, the sequence of moves we need to execute the problem, our body position.

If research has shown that playing with the Rubik’s Cube can improve two and three-dimensional problem-solving at a secondary-school-level education, then I see no reason why it can’t help develop your visual problem-solving abilities either.

2) The Perception-Action Cycle

When trying to understand what makes a good climber,  I came across a video by Udo Neumann. Udo is perhaps the world-leading expert on climbing training and theory.

In this particular video, he suggests that the Perception-Action Cycle is one of the fundamental contributing factors to a competition climber’s success. The theoretical framework looks something like this.

Perception Action Cycle

The model essentially depicts the continuous process of how we interpret a problem, and use our existing knowledge and experience to apply to the situation we face. This is a continuous loop that we use until we find an appropriate solution to the problem we are faced with. 

Of course, we subconsciously use the Perception-Action Cycle for any problem-solving task we face. That said, the Rubik Cube perfectly simulates an environment where we can hone our perception-action cycle to make quick and effective decisions.

Should I start practicing the Rubik’s cube?

Now, I’m not saying that adding the Rubik Cube into your regular training regime is going to secure you a spot at the Paris 2024 Olympics or help you climb the Dawn Wall.

But, if we can all agree that climbing is just as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one, why then, do we focus our training on our physical strength whilst completely disregarding the mental aspects of the sport?

From my own personal experience, I know my finger strength and bouldering shoes isn’t what’s holding my climbing back. Perhaps it’s time to put the weights down and start solving the cube.

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