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How to climb at the gym … without pulling down
Because I work 9,000 hours a week and — fattening with age — am increasingly cowed by real, outdoor rock climbing, I’ve become an unrepentant gymrat. But a wondrous thing has happened since sport climbing’s Dark Ages (the 1980s), when avant-garde course-setting consisted of slapping two one-finger pockets in a row (¡craz-eee!) on some monkey slab and capping it off with a nine-foot sideways leap. Verily, today’s gyms own, hone, and rock your dome.
To wit, grip shapes and texture have become more innovative, complex, and skin friendly, with volumes, outsized holds, and macro features introducing a rock-like chaos. And routesetters have become cannier, too, avoiding finger-wrecker stopper cruxes in favor of consistent, power-resistant climbs that let you train, not flail. Gyms also feature a few semi-constants: movement is point-to-point, and the climbing surface is much more monolithic than your average rock route. As such, gym walls are a canvas for a specific kinesthetic idiom, one that, should you become fluent, translates into smarter, smoother climbing … inside and out. Use these tips to help learn the vocab.
On rock, the blank space between grips is often just that: blank. But in the gym, that space serves as one giant grip. Why? Because modern-day gym texture is awesome — tacky, like the rubber-loving iron rock at Hueco, say. (Note: six coats of paint slathered onto beater plywood do not constitute “sweet” texture.) In fact, today’s walls make smearing, flagging, and posting a snap — no excuses, brau-holio. Whether inside flag or out, toe, edge, arch, or heel, your shoe will stick if you press with the quickness and with authority. The same goes for posting — tapping/smearing your unengaged foot up the wall to ootch to a handhold while highstepping with the other foot.
Slop StyleThe smart (read: weak) climber quickly learns to drape as much of his body as possible over the climbing surface. Slap an elbow or forearm onto a macro, hug that tufa volume, check a swing with a shoulder, throw your whole leg around an arête, and belly-flop with panache. The net idea is to use as much of your skin as possible — it’ll grow back. Another sloptacular trick I use is to put my foot an inch or two above a jib, and then let it skid down to the foothold — this saves the effort of proper footwork
KneeBob Mungepants Here’s a dirty little something I’ve learned: when you do a drop knee or turn a foot in, to stand outside edge, your knee grazes the wall. When it does that, that’s a hold. You won’t shed more than a whisper of weight this way, but you can temporarily outstrip gravity (try it with both the inside and outside of your kneecap) by using your knee as a fulcrum. And if no one’s looking, I might even lay my knee atop a macro . . . or kneebar against it.
On vertical climbs or those that follow a flat panel, at any angle, stabilize an off-balance move and/or keep your hips aligned with the wall (the least strenuous climbing position) by pressing the palm of your “off-duty” hand flat against the surface. A species of outrigger, this maneuver quickly checks barndoors or even generates upward motion, as a “vertical mantel.”
Gym footholds — 3-D bumps on a 2-D surface — provide a unique opportunity to study how positioning your feet close to and away from the wall affects mobility. I.e., just because a foothold sits flush doesn’t mean you should stand in the crease . . . despite any false feeling of security.
By toeing onto each foothold’s tip, freeing your ankle to articulate, you can actually extend your reach — the play along the arch and into the calf lets you stand tall, like a ballet dancer in plié. On the other hand, with macros and larger grips, sometimes just slopping the middle (meat) or back (heel) of your shoe onto the guts of the hold best does the job. And most sneakily, you can also pop an impromptu heel-toe on larger grips by plunking your heel down and camming your toe directly against the wall.
Addicted to coffee, Twizzlers, and chalk, Matt Samet is also a Halo 3 “Headshot Honcho.”