As a young climber, I would frequently talk to my parents about climbing. They were genuinely interested, and my father even did a few climbs with me early on. They wanted to know enough to be sure I was safe and careful, but didn’t need to know more. As I improved, I started to talk route beta and movement with them and I usually missed the blank stares when it came to jargon they didn’t understand. They had no idea what a gaston was or a smear or a flash pump…and didn’t really care to know. It didn’t stop me from sharing, though.
Years on, I started teaching training techniques to athletes and although many of them understood the language of fitness, many did not. It wasn’t until the blank stares I’d remembered from my youth registered that I realized that we weren’t speaking the same language. Over the past few years, a large portion of the questions I get about my books have to do with simple notation. The error is mine – assuming someone understands how to read a workout or a plan is the worst first mistake. If they can’t even read the thing, how can we expect them to do it?
This notation is important. It is something that is easy to understand once you have the hang of it, and it opens up a valuable communication channel for athletes and coaches once both are on the same page. What follows are the most common terms, phrases, and notations you’ll see in our training plans and articles. These terms are used consistently in our work and although you may see some variation from other coaches or cultures, with a good grasp of the basics you should be able to figure things out soon enough.
This might seem obvious, but an exercise is a specific pattern of movements designed to overload the athlete in a way that improves her function either as a human or as an athlete. Exercises are grouped together to form training sessions. Examples of exercises might be a squat, an edge hang, or a campus ladder.
Sessions are groups of exercises. Also called workouts, sessions are primarily aimed at overloading a specific kind of fitness such as strength or endurance. Sessions are ideally grouped into a series that would then form a Training Plan, which is usually 4-6 weeks in length.
These are groups of sessions aimed at eliciting a specific response from an athlete. This is a fundamental building block of progression, but is sometimes ignored, even by very good athletes. A training plan is generally 4-6 weeks in length and will focus on improving only one or two fitness qualities at a time.
Programs are groups of training plans. Most programs are 6 months to 5 years in length, and are build around long-term performance goals. Programs are normally quite detailed in the near-future and become less-so the further we look down the road.
These are individual cycles of exercises within a session. Most exercises are repeated several times in a session. For example, you might do 3 sets of squats and 3 sets of pull-ups in a given session. This means you would visit each exercise 3 different times in one session. Sets are divided into reps, which are the individual performances of the exercise.
Reps (or repetitions)
Reps are the number of times you perform an exercise in a given set. A session might call for 3 sets of 10 repetitions of a pull-up. This would mean you’ll perform 10 pull-ups, then rest until recovered enough to do pull-ups again, do 10 more, rest, and then do 10 more. Static exercises such as planks or edge hangs on a board are usually noted in seconds, with each second held counting as one “rep.” If you are training limbs individually such as in a lunge or single-arm hang, reps are generally noted in terms of # + #, such as 8+8…which means 8 reps per limb.
These are groups of several different exercises done in sequence. In a circuit, you perform on set of an exercise before moving on to the next exercise. Once you have completed one set of ach exercise, you would start the circuit again. Sessions that feature circuits will usually call for 3-8 circuits of 5-10 exercises. These are typically more endurance/conditioning-based sessions.
Supersets are two exercises done in an alternating fashion. In many of our programs, we’ll superset a leg exercise and an upper body exercise, with the goal being a shorter, more efficient session. While exercising the legs, the upper body gets some degree of rest, and vice-versa. In a session, this might be noted as:
5 bench press
A1: 5 deadlift
A2: 5 bench press
Tri-Sets (or “Giant Sets”)
Tri-Sets are groups of three exercise performed in series. This can be seen as a “mini-circuit.” In tri-sets, it is best to alternate movement patterns, such as doing a tri-set of upper body, core, and lower body. This is a very efficient way to train in the weight room or on the hangboard. Our Integrated Strength sessions are based on this model, and usually follow the hangboard, weight exercise, mobility exercise model. If you need a testosterone boost, you can also call these “giant sets.”
3×3 or 4×5, etc.
A “number x number” notation is indicative of sets x reps. If an exercise calls for 3×5 you should plan on doing three sets of five reps. Recall that an exercise performed for reps on each side is indicated by the plus (+) sign, so you might see 3 x 8+8 to indicate 3 sets of 8 reps on each side. Reps might also be noted on a set-by-set basis. In this case, you might see 5-3-2 in your session plan, indicating that the first set should be done for 5 reps, the second for 3, and the last for 2. This is usually followed by an explanation of loading parameters.
RM stands for “repetition maximum.” This value is useful in determining the intensity of loading in weight training. For example, your program might call for 3 sets of 3 at 85% of 1RM. In order to effectively use this information, you will need to calculate your 1-rep max for a given movement, then take the percentages. We also use variations on this idea. %MVIC, or the percentage of maximum voluntary isometric contraction, is used in calculating holds of static positions. “Sec max” is also used. This number, such as “10 sec max” is used in prescribing static holds, usually on the hangboard.
#:#, such as 7:3
This notation is used to describe timed intervals. Simply put, the first number is the work duration and the second is the rest duration. So, then, 6 x 7:3 would mean 6 sets of 7 seconds work followed by 3 seconds rest. If the rest is not passive sitting on the floor or walking around the gym rest, it is usually noted. For example, in a Rhythm Interval, you have an active rest. The sessions are usually noted as follows: 4 x 30:30, but in the session’s description you are instructed to move up and down the board for 30 seconds then rest on a big jug for 30 seconds.
Rounds (or Series)
This is an indication of how many times you would complete a circuit or group of exercises. To use the Rhythm Interval example, you may be instructed to do 3 rounds of 4 x 30:30 with 4 minutes between. With this information, it is easy to figure out just how long your training should take, in the example above, you’d do 4 minutes of intervals in set 1, rest 4 minutes, do 4 minutes of intervals in set 2, rest 4 minutes, and do a final set of 4 minutes…20 minutes total.
The era of bodybuilding ushered in the idea of training to absolute failure. This was relatively safe to do as the exercises were highly isolated – curls, calf raises, leg extensions and the like. You keep trying to move a load with worse and worse form in search of the elusive “pump.” In the early 2000s high-intensity timed circuits became popular and with the advent of Crossfit so did including compound lifts in these circuits. Training to failure was encouraged and many injuries and serious medical issues were the result.
We encourage athletes who are trying to develop strength or power or skills to train only to the point of technical failure, the point at which you can no longer do the movement with the same quality or speed as you could at the beginning of the set. There is little value in going past this point except in the pursuit of hypertrophy. Since hypertrophy is rarely our goal, we rarely go there.
I plan to keep updating this post as questions arise. If you have any questions at all about notation please post a comment below and I’ll add this information to the text.
We get good at pushing hard into training. We all have been in that super-pumped zone or so sore we can barely move the next day, or so exhausted from a week’s training that we stay on the couch the whole weekend. As good as learning to go hard is, there is a critical Yang to that Yin that can make all the difference in training.
For most of us the opposite of training hard is simply not training. Taking it easy in the afternoon or having a couple of rest days or sleeping in on Saturday is about all there is to it. When you’re young, this can be all you need. But as we age or start to train harder, we have got to turn up the recovery dial.
You’ll often hear coaches caution against not going so hard and to recommend reducing volume or intensity to maximize gains. This isn’t bad advice, but I just don’t see avid climbers willing to do that. Since I know you are going to be hard to convince to do less training, what I want you to do is get serious about recovering. In fact, I insist that my athletes think of recovery training instead of rest. Once you’re as serious about recovering as you are about training, you’ll see gains you can’t believe.
Recovery is a huge growth area in sport science. Understanding that we can actually improve athletes quality and speed of recovery has led to some really good practices over the past couple of decades. From better tissue care, to better fueling, to better session design, there are many ways to recover better so you can train better. Below, I’ll outline the eight strategies that we’ve seen the most successful and easy to implement. I have only included strategies that are workable in the real-world with a normal person’s budget.
Sleep More. Most of us have a habitual sleep pattern, and will go to bed roughly the same time each night. At the other end, we wake to an alarm and race into the day. Although there are still many unanswered questions in the realm of sleep’s relationship to exercise performance, it’s been shown over and over that deprivation of sleep is exceedingly damaging to motor coordination and sport performance. Some studies suggest that adding as little as 15 minutes more sleep per day can enhance recovery by nearly 5%. We do know that sleep enhances protein synthesis and boosts immune function, so there are many reasons to help yourself to more. It’s hard to add sleep in the morning – most of us leave just enough time to race through our routines and get out the door. The best tactic is to get into bed just 15 minutes earlier. Believe it or not, climbing a grade harder should be more important than watching the last season of Narcos.
Eat After Training. You’ve heard the hype – “Eat a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein within 40 minutes of a training session, ideally in the form of x brand recovery drink.” Although simple enough, it’s hard to justify trying to get an exact ratio of macronutrients in a specific time window when you don’t really need to. The more research into recovery nutrition they do, the more flexible it seems to become. The current wisdom is simply to eat within a couple of hours after a session, and to make sure that you have a full serving of protein at that time. Although a recovery drink or a glass of chocolate milk are decent choices, a sandwich, a salad with steak or chicken, or even an omelet would be fine, too. Aim for 150-250 calories, unless your training falls right before mealtime, in which case a normal meal would be appropriate. Things to avoid would be alcohol in excess or a purely carbohydrate snack.
Drink More Water. I am not one of those obsessive hydration people who buy into the idea that somehow we’re always dehydrated. The thirst response, it turns out, is a good indicator of whether you are thirsty or not. That being said, many athletes drink very little actual water. Coffee drinks, energy drinks, soft drinks, and alcohol make up a huge percentage of typical intake. Although all of these drinks help us to stay hydrated to some degree, water tends to absorb better and is markedly less expensive. We’re sold the idea of electrolyte energy or recovery drinks so often that we take the idea as gospel. Here is a nice informational video on sports drinks, and here is a good study that looks at using water as a means of rehydration. Our concern is not improved cardiovascular performance, however. It turns out that being under-hydrated can prolong soreness and extend recovery times. The easy solution is to drink a bit more during sessions than you normally do, and then to drink 20+ ounces of water after a session. This ties in well with your recovery meal above. A sandwich and a glass of water after training will provide a good base for being able to train hard again tomorrow.
Take a Nap. The benefit of short naps during the day is huge, especially when it comes to recovery from exercise. More sleep at night is good, but naps are great. The major benefit of napping is an increase in anabolic hormonal activity, but getting you out of the “Go-Go-Go” cycle is probably good, too. A nap can increase release of hormones, increase protein synthesis, and improve cognitive function. Optimal napping for athletes occurs within 2 hours of your main training for the day, and should only be 15-25 minutes in duration – longer naps can negatively affect nighttime sleep.
Do Your Cardio. OK, I know this sounds crazy coming from somebody who continually argues against nonspecific training for climbing performance, but bear with me. When we look at recovery, one of the big keys is movement of “bad stuff” out of the muscles and movement of “good stuff” into them. One simple way to accelerate this process is to elevate the heart rate and body temperature slightly. It’s important that you look at heading out the door for these sessions as recovery rather than as a chance to burn a few calories or improve your endurance. As a general rule, you should look at doing 30-60 minutes of easy activity- such as hiking, easy cycling, or easy running – most days of the week. You should keep your heart rate below 60% of your maximum at all times, and most of your time should be spent well below even this mark.
Take a Cold Shower. This one sucks, but it is surprisingly effective, especially if your muscles are sore. Cold baths or showers (10+ minutes in duration) have been shown to improve strength and power recovery times, and should be part of your arsenal of recovery modes after especially intense training. You can also explore contrast showers or baths. In this recovery mode, you’d spend 2-3 minutes under the coldest water you can stand, followed by the same duration under the hottest you can stand. Repeating this cycle 2-3 times in a session, and ending with cold has been shown to have a greater effect on reducing soreness than cold alone. Some research suggests that it can help improve recovery times, but it doesn’t seem as effective as cold alone.
Back Off on the Beer. Although kicking back a few beers at the end of a climbing day can be called an integral part of our culture, it’s probably not the best way to recover. As much as we want our alcohol to be a good thing, research shows that consuming more than a couple of drinks will increase the time it takes you to recover from training. The good news is that one or two beers or glasses of wine seem to have no ill-effect on recovery. This one goes hand-in-hand with trying to drink more water. Before you hit the bar, drink a full glass of water…you’ll save money and climb better the next day.
Eat Protein Before (or During) Training. There is some benefit to consuming small amounts of protein before or during training to jumpstart the recovery process even before you’ve beaten yourself down. Researchers suggest consuming small portions (so as not to upset the digestion) slightly before or during exercise. Because protein digests slowly, you can only do so much…try starting with around 30-50 calories in the form of a small snack or protein drink, and work your way up from there.
Recovering from training is easy at first, but as you advance in what you can load yourself with, you should be advancing how you deal with it. This is not an exhaustive list, and the suggestions here are merely starting points. The point I want to drive home is that there is more to getting better than going hard. If you put some focus into what happens after training, you will get more out of each session, and it might be the secret sauce you’ve been looking for to gain that next grade.
If you’ve never done a 20mm edge static hang to absolute failure, you’re missing out. This pleasure cruise of forearm endurance is not to be missed. I had the chance to try out the Zlagboard Contest a couple of years ago. The contest involves one simple test: grab the “medium” sized edges on the board and hang from them for as long as possible. To add to the experience, your time is projected on a large monitor by the board, so the weaker your ego, the harder you’ll try.
The contest’s world-ranking is a who’s-who of the best climbers around, and you’re sure to recognize the names on the top of the list. Although deadhanging for those durations is probably of limited value for real climbing, the ability to display your endurance in such a way is challenging. The Zlagboard team have even correlated hang times with redpoint grades, and as you’ve guessed, the names at the top of the board have been up some of the hardest climbs in the world.
Since I don’t really have time to become one of the sport’s elite, yet I do want to improve over my time last year, I decided to build a training plan for it. If this seems like a fun challenge for you, give this program a shot. First, two things:
- This training will take time away from your other, more useful, training.
- This program does improve your static muscular endurance…but you might not need it for anything else.
Isometric endurance efforts are best improved by attacking them from two directions. First, you want to be able to go the duration at a lighter load. Second, you want to build up durations at the contest load. You won’t need to be able to execute at a greater-than-needed load. For the light-load hangs, we back off to a bigger hold, such as a jug or large edge or even a pull-up bar. For the contest-load, you’ll use the 20mm edge.
I set this up as a 4-week, 4 times per week session. We start with a test: hang the 20mm edges for your max duration. Since training isn’t miracle work, we look to add no more than 25% to your total the first training phase. Anything over a minute of hanging is pretty good, so let’s say you test out right at 75 seconds. Getting to 90 seconds will put you in the top 100 in the world, so 25% is a very good increase.
The plan is like this:
Warm-up well with some bouldering or climbing. You want to be feeling very warm (sweatshirt off) and loose.
- Start with the light-load hangs. We know you can do 90 seconds at this load, so we do 2 efforts at about ⅔ this load, or 60 seconds, separated by a few minutes.
- Do 10x hangs on the 20mm edge, 10 seconds on, 10 seconds off.
You can do some normal bouldering or climbing after this, because we still want to enjoy the day and not just be stuck on the hangboard.
Session 1 and 3
- Easy hang for the duration (90 sec), rest 2-3 minutes.
- 20mm edge 9x 10 sec on, 10 sec off, rest 2-3 minutes.
Session 2 and 4
- Easy hang for ⅔ duration (60 sec), rest 2-3 minutes
- 30mm edge 6x 15 sec on, 15 sec off, rest 2-3 minutes.
On the easy hangs, your goal is to keep your shoulders in the right position, keep your breathing going well, and try to keep your face relaxed. This will be especially good for your swagger when you step up to the Zlagboard “unprepared” and easily win the contest. We don’t add time or load or change the holds…we just hang.
On the edge hangs, you will progress them as you succeed. You will always be doing 90 seconds worth of hanging each set, but we reduce the rest between hangs on session 1 and 3 by one second if you are successful in the previous session. We’ll be increasing hang time on sessions 2 and 4 by 2-3 seconds per hang. Hold total hang times to 90 seconds per set.
A progression might look like this:
|Session #||Hang Time||Rest Time|
Your improvements won’t be linear – some sessions you’ll regress or fail early. This should be of minimal concern. Only when you trend downward for more than 3 sessions in a row should you reassess…and this downward trend probably means your training volume is too high.
After 4 weeks of training, your edge hangs will probably be down to 2-3 seconds rest between sets of 10 second hangs. At this point, you should take 2-3 days off and then plan a test day. Warm-up the same as any of the workouts, rest several minutes, then let it rip. Chances are you’ll hit your 25% increase on the first try. If you fall short, rest a few days and hit it again.
There’s no reason, other than the ridiculous nature of the challenge, that you couldn’t do this program for several cycles and continue to put up really good times. Just remember…it probably won’t help your climbing in the least.
Training is the thing that makes you stronger. Warming up right is the thing that makes training work. For most of us, warming up has an intuitive “feel” to it – we start easy, and after a few minutes of gentle activity we feel ready to go. Younger athletes do, and need, less warming up. Older athletes sometimes joke that warming up is all they do.
The warm-up functions as a way to get the body working right for hard activity. It increases blood flow and respiration, runs the body temperature up a couple of notches, and gets the mind in the right place. In climbing we usually just climb to get going, but there is probably a better and more effective ways to prime yourself for a good session.
The warm-up should be tailored to the requirements of the session. A long, pumping route first thing in the morning might help you get warmed up for other similar climbs, but might not be the best choice for a route that requires a lot of power. Likewise, bringing a hangboard to the crag to warm-up for endurance climbing is not the best choice. Just like your training, your warm-ups should be specific.
Most organized warm-ups consist of both general and specific components. More intense sessions also have what’s called a progressive warm-up, or one in which the athlete slowly ramps up the intensity doing lighter versions of the main exercises in the coming session. In this article, I’ll line out what each of these includes and what their benefits and limitations are.
STEP 1: General Warm-Up [5-15 minutes]
The general warm-up’s main goal is to raise the operating temperature of the body, prime the blood vessels for activity, and to increase your capacity for delivering oxygen. We do this part of the warm-up naturally, as part of the approach to most crags. For low-intensity activities such as hiking or easy alpine climbs, the act of walking from your tent to the cliff is more than enough to prime your body for the climb.
In a gym setting, it’s hard to get this same first step taken care of. When we’re psyched to climb or even to lift weights, it’s sort of a downer to start with this kind of low-intensity crap…there is not much that is more boring than walking on a treadmill for 10 minutes. Do it anyway.
A general warm-up consists of steady, easy activity ranging from 5-15 minutes. I like my athletes to feel warm by the end, stripping off warm layers and possibly starting to sweat a little. Breathing should be up, and your heart rate should start to make itself known. Keep it simple and conversational. This is the time to transition from the outside world to training time, to catch up with training partners, and to finalize the details of the session.
STEP 2: Specific Warm-Up [5-10 minutes]
The specific warm-up follows directly behind the general warm-up. For many of us, it will involve a movement preparation sequence, a set of 8-10 exercises that take you through full ranges of motion and start to cross over into strength training. Movements like bodyweight squats, inchworms, inverted rows, and toy soldiers are appropriate here. If you are going to be climbing, your warm-up should include progressively harder movements for the upper body, working on getting the fingers ready for small holds, and getting the hips and shoulders ready for full-range activity.
The specific warm-up should feature movements and durations similar to your coming session.
At the crag, warming up is a bit more complicated. It’s very easy to over or under-shoot your goal. Simply doing some easier pitches doesn’t always work, either. Although you’ll follow a slow intensification of the moves of the sport, this will vary a bit depending on what you’re training for. I’ll discuss this in detail in the Crag Warm-Up section below.
STEP 3 (variation 1): Progressive Warm-Up [10-30 minutes]
For especially intense sessions, we follow specific warm-ups with progressively more intense versions of the training exercises. This allows your body to ramp-up to the intensity required by the coming session and primes the movement patterns you plan to use.
A great example is a max-strength session. You’d spend the first 5-10 minutes with your general warm-up, then progress to some heavier work such as push-ups, light goblet squats, and swings. If your primary lift is the deadlift, you’d progress through a few reps at 135 (keeping the reps below 4 or 5 even though the weight is light to avoid leaving alactic metabolism), a couple at 225, and then a couple at 315. Take as much time between these lifts as necessary, and do some jumps and other quick movements between to keep reminding the body to be powerful and quick.
You might do one final warm-up set of two about 10% below your training weight, maybe 365. Finally you’d move on to your work sets, in our example a few sets of doubles at 405.
The same set up works for campusing and for hard bouldering: start easy, keep the durations below 10 seconds per set, and work your way up until you are feeling primed. This part of the session is critical to success and should take as long as you need…anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.
STEP 3 (variation 2): Crag Warm-Up [15-60 minutes]
At the beginning of the article, I talked about how the approach to most crags is an ideal general warm-up. If you’re roadside cragging, you might have to take a short walk before the “approach” begins. Remember, you should feel physically warm by the time you reach the crag. Once at the objective, almost all boulderers and climbers can plan on starting with an easy pitch or a few very easy boulder problems to start their specific warm-up.
If your day is going to involve a lot of pitches that are onsight-level or easier, simply ramping up the grades from your warm-up is appropriate: 10a, 10c, 11c, and then into the 12a and 12b (or whatever your level) routes for the day.
If you are projecting an endurance-oriented route (let’s say a 12c for this example), I suggest starting with one easy pitch (10a), followed by a back-to-back pair on a route 4-6 grades below your objective (maybe an 11b). The first time up, focus on climbing slowly and precisely, the second solidly and quickly. Take no break between the two laps other than to lower back to the ground. We want to build a slight pump toward the end of the second lap. Follow this with one more pitch, maybe 1-2 grades harder (11d), then rest around 20 minutes before you easily send your project.
Strength and Power Warm-Up
Warming up for power-oriented and strength-dependent climbs is more difficult. Bouldering on tiny holds is hard to prepare for by bouldering on big holds. For routes that feature hard moves or difficult grips, doing the warm-up circuit at the crag is also of limited value.
In the early days of the Wild Iris climbing area (an area notorious for tweaky pockets) climbers installed hangboards in several locations in the trees near the cliffs. Over time, though, various shitheads stole the hangboards and local climbers began doing warm-ups as much as an hour before climbing, at the gym or at the car.
These days portable hangboard are so well designed and light that warming up is a breeze. With a suspended hangboard we like an 8 minute warm-up sequence:
Minute 1: One pull-up every 10 seconds
Minute 2: Hang, large edge 20 sec
Minute 3: Hang, large edge 20 sec + 2 pull-ups
Minute 4: Hang medium edge 10 sec, rest 10 sec, hang medium edge 10 sec
Minute 5: Hang small edge 5 sec, rest 20 sec, hang medium edge 10 sec
Minute 6: Hang, large edge 20 sec + 3 pull-ups
Minute 7: Hang small edge 5 sec, rest 5 sec (x4 rounds)
Minute 8: Hang small edge 5 sec, rest 5 sec with elbows at 90 degrees (x4 rounds)
These grips can easily be substituted for specific grips on that day’s project.
STEP 3 (variation 3): Bouldering Warm-Up [15-30 minutes]
This is where you start climbing after your general warm-up and movement prep for a gym session. I like to split this up in a simple and fun series, which is longer and more intense for more advanced climbers. Using various boulder problems on as many angles and hold types as possible:
- Do as many easy V1/V2 problems as it takes to add up to your limit grade. For example, if you are climbing V9 for your limit problem, you might do V2, V1, V1, V2, V2, V1. These should be slow and in control. Rest and stretch for a couple of minutes, then:
- Do three problems in a row with little rest, which also add up to your limit grade. In our example, this might be V2, V3, V4. These should be done as quickly and explosively as possible. Rest a few minutes, then:
- Do two problems that add to the limit grade, so maybe V4, V5 in our example. These, you would do at your normal pace.
- Finish with some specific hold positions on the hangboard if necessary, depending on the nature of your work problems.
Simply doing some climbing is a fair warm-up. Optimizing performance takes a little more effort, but can mean the world to a climber who is pushing against the hardest climbing they’ve ever done.
By Steve Bechtel
Your fat roll is killing you. OK, as a climber, and especially one who is reading an article about training, I’ll bet your body fat percentage is pretty low. On the flip side, though, you are reading an article about weight management. Chances are you’re holding the same weight you usually hold, and those stubborn last few centimeters under the harness waistbelt are not budging.
Most fully-addicted climbers cover about 90% of the distance between novice and their total genetic potential within about three years. Spend a couple more years working power, doing hangs, bouldering, whatever…the point is you’re just not going to get those huge gains again. If you’ve been in the game long enough, you know the cycle. Some years you send two or three hard things, some years you don’t. The problem is, “hard” has become a fixed point or grade for you, and you’ve been there too long.
Climbing well is about “relative strength” or strength-to-weight ratio. Consider this (very oversimplified) example: A climber that weighs 200 pounds can do one pull-up. We would say this climber’s relative strength in the pull-up is 100%. Now, if he gets a little stronger or a little lighter, this ratio can change. Let’s say he hangs some weight on a belt and can eventually do a pull-up with 20 extra pounds. His relative strength is now 110%.
Same thing if he loses weight. Let’s say he gets no stronger (just like me!) but loses some mass. By losing 10 pounds, his relative strength goes up by (about) 5%.
Relative strength is the top predictor of high performance climbing. The real problem is this: training can only take you so far. If you’re maxing out your training and your technique is top-notch, your only way forward is to get lighter. And by forward, I mean way forward. By reducing your weight by just 5%, you’re looking at increasing your economy in a way you’ve not seen since you started climbing. How’d you like to advance a grade next year? How about two grades?
As much as I love climbing and talking about training for climbing, it doesn’t pay for shit. The way I pay for food and a place to sleep is helping people get skinny. Needless to say, I pay really close attention to what works and what doesn’t work.
Where you’ve failed in the past, and where you’ll undoubtedly fail again is to try and get light while also getting stronger. Like chasing two rabbits at once, you’re bound to fail. So how do you set it up so you can lose those pounds and kill it next season?
A few big, important rules that we are going to follow:
- Getting stronger and lighter at the same time is really hard to do. Because of this we are going to focus on fat loss when we’re not focusing on training hard for climbing. This is a simple enough concept: muscle building and hard training require lots of fuel. In order to get lighter we want to restrict fuel. Training under these circumstances results in lower performance and longer recovery times. For fat loss, just take a few weeks, maintain, but don’t advance your climbing, and focus on the scale.
- Calorie counting sucks and doesn’t really work. Eating the right foods is more important than how much you’re eating. I’m not saying calories-in doesn’t matter, I’m just saying there’s a reason people fail to make it by just limiting the amount they eat. This ties directly into the hormonal regulation of fat in the body. The super-simple version is this: eating simple carbohydrate (sugar and refined grain and a few other things) leads to insulin secretion which leads to fat storage, which then leads to more desire for simple carbohydrate.
Check out this study. Two groups of people were asked to eat either 1000 calories of nuts (protein and fat) each day or 1000 calories of candy (simple sugar). The remainder of their diet was not controlled. At the end of six weeks, the nut-eaters lost about 2.5 pounds each (1.1kg) where the candy-eaters gained around 4 pounds (1.8kg). This study, and several like it, help illustrate the hunger-producing effect of simple sugars and the satiating effect of fats and protein.
If you really want to lose, stick to vegetables, protein sources, and minimal amounts of fruits and even grains. Keep sugars and other “white” carbohydrates out. The grain and fruit thing varies, but for people who are really stuck, this can be a primary factor in losing weight. Remember, there are no essential grains.
- Long, slow, distance training doesn’t really work, either. This one always gets some resistance from die-hard runners. The fact is that plodding along on the road or trail burns very few calories, especially in comparison to the appetite increase seen from long-duration training. If you want to run, do intervals.
Interval-style efforts are superior for two reasons. One, the duration of the workouts is shorter and usually results in a lesser hunger response when compared to long efforts. Second, high-intensity training has a profound effect (both acutely and chronically) on resting metabolic rate. By changing your RMR, you burn more calories all the time, not just when you’re exercising.
That being said, I’m not a huge fan of running or cycling for climbers. If you love those sports, fine. But don’t take them up as a weight-loss method only. There are better ways.
- More training does not equal more weight loss. In almost all of our athletes, we’re concerned with only fat loss. With climbers, total bodyweight is a big factor, too. Training a whole helluva lot seems like a great way to get lean, but people frequently take this too far. Too much training can add to lean muscle gain, but more problematically, can lead to over-consumption of food.
For our climbers really trying to lose those last few pounds, we try to limit the training to short, hard sessions and no non-specific training. I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal examples of someone running a bunch and getting skinny. I’m just saying that’s not the rule.
Nutrition is about 80% of the war on fat. Training helps, but is not the key. You’re never going to train hard enough to outpace a crap diet.
In the second part of this article, I will outline some specific weight-management plans, and talk about how one can maintain a “competition” weight without losing too much strength.