Get a Grip
Climb your way to full-body strength and a rock-solid physique with pro climber Robbie Phillips’ best advice
Carve a rock-solid physique with indoor climbing
If you’re looking for a whole-body, functional workout that gets your adrenaline pumping and gives you physical challenges to solve, indoor climbing is as good as it gets. Whether you prefer bouldering on low-rise problems, or roping up and scaling 12m walls, climbing is a versatile workout that can help you achieve any number of body goals.
“As an all-round functional body movement that works strength and flexibility, climbing is the perfect exercise,” says Robbie Phillips, a professional climber and former Team GB coach from Edinburgh.
“You can train aerobically by running around circuits of easier climbs,” Phillips continues, “or you can work maximum power by choosing boulder problems on
steep overhangs, which work your shoulders, biceps and triceps. You can make it as intense as you want.”
Climbing is about problem-solving, making it as mentally challenging as it is physically demanding, but to improve at the mental side of things, says Phillips, you should put your technique and movement skills first…
WATCH YOUR FEET
The first thing most people tend to do when attempting a new climb is to look up at the handholds, because it seem the most logical approach. However, climbing requires a lower-body-first approach: 90 per cent of your power comes from your legs, and your feet provide the platform for that power.
“Focus on only using the inside edge,
outside edge, and toe of the foot,” says Phillips. “Lots of people don’t trust their feet when they first start out – they want to put the balls of their feet on the footholds, but if you want to move with freedom you need to be able to pivot your foot on a hold without it rolling off.” Rock climbing shoes are designed to grip with the very edges and points of the sole. “Nailing being able to use these, by rolling a full 180° from the inside edge to the outside while staying on the foothold, will give you the full range of motion throughout your whole body, giving you a longer reach,” adds Phillips.
STRAIGHTEN THOSE ARMS
Many beginner climbers make the mistake of pulling their upper bodies into the climb, as if bicep-curling themselves up the wall, but that is a fast-track to fatigued, pumpedout arms.
Phillips recommends countering this trend by consciously keeping your arms as straight as possible. “Always try to reach handholds without pulling too hard on your arms,” he says. Save your arm strength for those really marginal moves, or locking off (with arms fully bent), as you move to the next hold.
FOCUS ON FORM
It can be easy to get drawn into the physical challenge of climbing and forget all about technique, which is why Phillips recommends doing low-intensity climbing moves as a ten-minute warm up – every time you climb.
“Start with some dynamic stretches,” he says, “then do some super-easy climbing moves. Find a slab or vertical wall, and just traverse back and forth for three to four minutes, focusing on placing your feet really precisely on the holds. “Then, for three to four minutes, focus on body position and using the flowing movements to reach the next hold. Finally, spend a couple of minutes on more dynamic moves: include more momentum, using your legs to power through moves and swing more between holds.”
PUSH DON’T PULL
“Even when you see very explosive moves in climbing, it’s because the big muscles in the legs have pushed and then the arms have directed that power,” says Phillips – and the biggest mistake indoor climbers make is generating power from their arms. “You need to be able to put as much weight through your legs as possible,” Phillips continues, “and for that you need flexible hips, which allow you to get into a ‘frog’ position on the wall.” A lot of men have tight hip flexors, so working on hip flexibility after every session will pay dividends in the long run. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE In a world of online training programmes, Phillips is old school. “I actually have not followed a set training programme in a long time,” he says, “and I’m climbing the best I ever have. For me, climbing is the best training for climbing – what you want is a high level of specificity in the training that you are doing.” So if your goal is to climb a tricky slab, or steeply overhanging boulder problem, spend the majority of your time on the wall working those specific kind of routes. But if you do want a bit more structure to your sessions, Phillips recommends simple protocols, like pyramids…
Keep your arms as straight as possible – you don’t want to be bicep-curling your way up the wall
BUILD A PYRAMID
“is session structure is a great way to get a lot of climbing mileage, but also build up to a peak,” says Phillips. “As an example, you might do your traversing warm-up, then start with ve V0s, then do four V1s, then three V2s, then maybe one or two V3s [these V grades are for boulder problems of escalating di culty, marked on climbs at UK gyms]. en you’ll work your way back down again.”
Phillips points out that this gets you climbing hard, but also tapers the intensity o towards the end of the session. “At that point you don’t want to be pulling hard,” he says, “but this still gives you some mileage to nish o your session.”
Climbing can take a lot out of your muscles, so you need to allow enough recovery time between sessions. “I de nitely notice my body feeling tired the day after a climbing strength session,” says Phillips, “so if you want to do two bouldering sessions in a week, allow an absolute minimum of a full day’s rest between each. Listen to your body.”
MASTER MOVEMENT SKILLS
Phillips recommends doing 95 per cent of your training on the climbing wall itself, because that’s going to give you the technique to apply any strength gains as e ciently as possible:
“If you want to improve nger strength, for instance, identify if it’s crimps [small edges] or pockets [holes for one or more
ngers] that you need to get better at, then nd climbs on the wall that have those speci c things.
“If I found a crimpy boulder problem, for example, that’s four moves of pure
ngers, and I give that problem ve good attempts – taking rest in-between – that’s a really good nger-strength workout.”
DON’T DO TOO MUCH TOO SOON
It can be tempting to throw yourself at harder and harder routes, but you may be holding yourself back. “Spend 60-70 per cent of your time doing those mid-grade (for you) problems and climbs,” advises Phillips. “ese are the ones that you wouldn’t do rst go, but you might do within two to ve tries. “Your rst question when you fall o should be: what did I do wrong? Climbing is a perfect feedback loop, because if you fall o you know you de nitely did something wrong. at gives you the perfect opportunity to x your mistakes, and if you get to the top, you know you have!”