Pablo Scorza: Holistic Climbing

13 March, 2023

It’s testament to Pablo Scorza’s work as a physical therapist, that some of the biggest names in climbing, repeatedly turn to him for treatment in his Cornudella de Montsant studio.

Pablo initially trained as a physiotherapist in Brazil and fittingly for a passionate sport climber his home is now below the world-famous Catalunya cliffs of Siurana and Montsant.

Having studied several areas of therapy he has developed his own approach to treating chronic pain and injury prevention using climbing as a vehicle to understand the biomechanics of the human body. His mantra is: “Take care of your body, it’s your most valuable climbing gear.”

Ray Wood visited Pablo in his studio to hear about his journey and philosophy for ‘healthy climbing’.

How did you end up in Spain starting a new life? 

I studied and graduated in Brazil, finishing in 2000, and started working in a San Paulo climbing gym. The owner organised a social event for the regulars with an evaluation from me, where I developed some exercises they should do before and after climbing. The owner didn’t want his clients to get injured, as it was obviously bad for them and bad for him, because they would stop paying to come to the wall.

It was here in 2007, where I met Dani Andrada at a boulder event. Dani saw me doing biomechanical, not physiological, warm–ups with the climbers—awakening of the co-ordination and mobility. Dani was curious and asked what I was doing as he hadn’t seen it before. I explained that part of my job is the preventative aspect but mainly what I do is manual therapy, treating people with my hands. “Ahh, that is cool as I have an issue with my neck”, he replied. So, I did a treatment on him which must have worked. At the end of his trip he made a proposition to me that changed my life forever and I am so thankful to Dani. He invited me to be his physio here in Spain for two months. So, I came here in September 2007, and it was an amazing time working with him while he was trying a 9b project.

And you decided to stay?

My eyes were opened to the incredible climbing in Catalunya. People coming here from all over the world, and I had the potential to learn so much. I couldn’t go back. I left my family and friends behind in Brazil, my life and job, to start again. And now I live in Cornudella, below the magnificent cliffs of Siurana and Montsant, where I have my studio and home with my wife Anabel and our two sons. All because of Dani’s invite. The knowledge I have now is not really from what I studied. Yes, it is the basis, but it has mainly come from the practice over the years of the day-in and day-out work of treating people. It’s like a musician, you learn all the notes and chords but the sound that touches people comes from playing a lot. The older I get the more experience and practice I get. I’m almost 45 and I love getting old because I am still learning new things.

Its difficult to pigeonhole your work?

Yes, because I work in-between disciplines. In climbing, I found a source of inspiration to discover how the human body works and its biomechanics. Yes, I did my graduation as a physical therapist but that isn’t how I now see myself after working with climbers for over 20 years. I try to understand why you have a certain chronic pain or inflammation that doesn’t go away. If a climber damages a finger with swelling, then I tell them to go and see a physio who understands climbing injuries and do the rehab. If they still have pain some time afterwards then I say come back. I am more dedicated to the system, the whole-body perspective, it is an integrated issue. Maybe it is also related to your emotions or how you identify with the limitations that the pain brings?

So, psychology is involved?

You may think I’m a psychologist but no. Although I did three years specialisation in the subject it comes more from my experience. People also say: “Ah Pablo, I’ve heard you’re a good masseur, I want to get a sports massage.” Yes, I also studied that, and what I do may look like a massage, but it isn’t a relaxing massage, it’s a technique that I call therapeutic neural massage, working on the nerve system, where I am mainly dedicated. My passion is treating pain through the autonomous nerve system. Combining all my studies I now find myself helping people with chronic issues, pain that disturbs you for months or years.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?

My job is my path. I feel it is my destiny for sure. It is so fulfilling when you can help people. The other day, Sean Villanueva, who had been struggling for two months with a painful finger, came to see me and I realised it was a nerve issue. The next day, after treatment, he hugged me, saying: “I don’t have pain anymore”. It gave me a feeling like I was floating. After the climbing festival here I treated the Brazilian climber, Felipe Camargo, who had had pain in his elbow for more than a year. I said: “Felipe you are young, why is this not healing, why the inflammation, there is something wrong. You are seeing good physical therapists. I don’t think it is in the elbow anymore?” So, I worked on his autonomic nervous system and all the frustrations he deals with as a professional climber. He called me two days later, saying: “I don’t feel the pain anymore, it’s weird”. I tell you I was so happy.

You’ve treated many well-known climbers over the past 15 years?

Yes, that is true, lots of climbers that were my heroes back in Brazil, like Yuji Hirayama, Edu Marin, Patxi Usobiaga, Hazel Findlay, James Pearson and Caroline Ciavaldini and Dave Graham among them.  But I don’t have heroes anymore. I think that this is a potential problem with our society. We are always looking for heroes. they are like performers, the strongest, the fastest, the prettiest. I am victim of this and try not to have heroes anymore. This is not good for them or us. It puts pressure on them. What exists are people struggling to do their best. We are a community growing together. A climber that climbs better than you isn’t necessarily a better person. We need to remember that.

Pablo at work
Pablo at work

In your work you say everyone is looking for the perfect protocol?

People are looking for a recipe, the perfect training plan. People ask me how can they prevent getting injured? What is the best warm-up? And normally, I say I don’t know because it depends on what kind of climber you are, your bio-type, the style of climbing you mostly do and what rock you climb on.

If it’s mostly wall climbing on small crimps, then someone with poor hip mobility, needs to work on being able to place their hips and centre of gravity close to the wall. Otherwise, there is a risk of overloading their fingers. For example, a dangerous combination is a short climber with weak fingers and bad hip mobility crimping on a vertical wall, and then having to use poor footholds because of their reach.

Working on your weaknesses and balancing your body is key. If you’re strong but not flexible, then you need to work your flexibility. It’s not all about the range of movement but about the quality of movement, how elastic your muscle is, how it feels. Too much flexibility can also be a problem. It is a balance between flexibility, mobility, stability, co-ordination, awareness, and the emotional identification that you have with your expectations. And the pressure you put on yourself. How connected is your body and mind? This is also very important to prevent injuries.

Can you elaborate on the mind body connection?

This connection is a mechanism that goes through everything, especially your nerve system. Are your thoughts, emotions in certain patterns? Have you realised your breathing patterns change when you’re nervous? Have you examined the way it affects your tonus and ability to relax or contract. Aligning your body and mind is important, being present, connecting to your breathing, rather than being overly focused on physical alignment.

A psychologist can give you tips on changing your behaviour. What I do is give a release of the body. I look at how the autonomous system connects, how your body activates. I have seen climbers over the years who are really dedicated to the biomechanical prevention, healthy diet etc. but are always injured. I see other climbers who don’t warm up well, don’t stretch and never get injured. What is going on here? The problem I see here is the mental aspect. Sometimes it’s better to feel relaxed—just having fun may reduce your risk of injury, rather than feeling pressure and a lot of stress because you identify with the results of the performance. We need to combine everything.

Fear plays a large part in the mental game of climbing?

Fear is one of the main reasons I rock climb. When I first started, I was so afraid at times that I couldn’t move. Climbing is a huge opportunity to control your fear. If you are not afraid sometimes, it can be a dangerous thing. But you need to have the real fear not the emotional fear. Falling into space from a well-protected overhanging wall is harmless and nothing to be afraid of, but on an easy angle route with ledges to hit, that is a different matter.

Fear is a tool to help you.  What I do with my fear is to change it from a frustrating energy to a liberating energy. Moving in control I feel alive. To manage fear, we need to become an observer of our sensations and identify the limitations it brings to you. When I’m afraid I over-grip and lose the feeling of the footholds, my breathing becomes fast and shallow. I need to remember to relax my hands, trust my feet, breathe slowly. People also have the fear of failure, not realising expectations.

Pablo falling on Planete Fumus (8a), Totxus de La Morera, Montsant.
Pablo falling on Planete Fumus (8a), Totxus de La Morera, Montsant.

You explained in some videos we posted on how to minimise the chances of a finger injury?

Ah, this is a big one. Strong fingers for sure depend on our muscle strength but critically we need to understand the importance of the deeper connective tissue [tendons and ligaments] being strong enough to support these muscles. It is the foundation. To make these foundations strong you need to train in a different way. Muscles have good blood flow and oxygen whereas connective tissue depends on mechanical stress for strengthening. You need to do frequent and small low-intensity movements—like a constant drop of water making a hole in a rock—to grow the necessary collagen and elastane in a good proportion. 

I don’t have good pulleys, When I moved to Spain I went to Rodellar and did a lot of tufa climbing, endurance style, steep and open handed. But when I moved to Siurana all my strength and the crimps worked against me. In one year, I damaged three pulleys. They weren’t strong enough for my muscular strength. So, I had to spend a year–and–a–half building up the foundation. We need to understand where our weakness is, especially with fingers. Is it coming from muscle weakness or your deeper connective tissue? People need to remember to do the boring repetitive easy exercises. We all like to see people hanging off one arm with weights but that is how you can get injured if the foundation is not there. Some climbers naturally have strong pulleys and may never get injured.

How do you build these foundations?

Fingers are my weakness. I just work them using a portable finger board with my body inclined, using 20% of my strength going from open hand to crimp, a recommended minimum of three times a week. But I try to do this daily. It also works as a warm-up. Neurologically, I prefer a solid edge, where your body is moving, as the movement is more akin to climbing, rather than an elastic where you’re bringing the hold to you. When you climb you want to lift your body up, not pull the rock down.

It’s true that training strength isometrically (joint doesn't move) compared to a concentric/eccentric movement is safer. And that’s why when we do strength training on fingerboards with weights, we keep our fingers still. So, here I train them as a gentle movement, using only 20% of my strength, in a way that makes the connective tissue strong. It is an important preventive measure because as climbers we may will find ourselves doing this movement on the rock. Preventive training is about accumulation, over a long period of time, not at our maximum level.

It's about respecting your body and building the foundation over many months. If you don’t get injured, you will get better. Everyone wants to get strong as fast as possible but then they risk getting injured. Many climbers are trapped in a cycle of getting strong, then injuring themselves, and going backwards. Why is that? Without a foundation you get injured. We need to take development slowly and not build rigid fingers with fibrotic connective tissue.

Do you think there is too much emphasis on performance in climbing?

Performance is a big issue in society. For me it is about not damaging your body. A climber who performs well is one who tries their best and comes home feeling great. What matters is doing my best and waking up the next morning feeling good. If I send a route or not, let’s remember it is just a game. I aim to climb in a way that makes me happy: connected and enjoying the moves. I would recommend people to think of performance with a long-term healthy perspective. So climbing is helping you have a healthier body. But today people are often damaging their bodies. They are not taking the biomechancial benefits of climbing but simply the sport aspect of it—focusing too much on getting stronger and winning. So, if you want climbing to bring you a healthy lifestyle then you must focus much more on the process rather than the result and to enjoy this path.

A fair point but it is a difficult balance when we see so much about grades in the media and now it is in the Olympics?

Every day I see people with chronic pain. It affects all your life. My job is to help people avoid this situation. I don’t take people who want to become Olympic athletes. In fact, my perspective might be bad for their ambition. That is for another kind good professional. I don’t like Olympics. I don’t believe in this cold war where you use people in the name of a flag and see how many medals a nation has. I like climbing to bring you to nature, to travel and as self-discovery.  I’m not saying Olympics is bad. I’m not saying it is the wrong path; it is not my path. Not what I’m looking for. I am not the therapist for a climber who wants to be the gold medal winner. I care about realising your dreams without hurting your body.

We’re in your studio and I’ve heard you talk about the importance of being an example? 

Doing what you say is better than saying what you think. Personally, I need to stretch my hips, relax my tonus, need meditation and a good diet. I come here 3 - 5 times a week for an hour and focus on these aspects. Some days I work more on my fingers and mobilisation. So, I have a routine to not get injured, climb well and feel good. The best I can hope for as a climber.