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.
By Steve Bechtel
There is a war going on, and it’s not the one you think. The war is not between the right way to eat and the wrong way to eat, it’s between what’s right and what’s “righter.” Should we go low carb? Low fat? Paleo? Vegan? In the end, it doesn’t really matter all that much if you can take care of the basic keys to losing fat. The basic keys? Mobilizing existing fat to be used as fuel and controlling hunger while you do it. Simple, not easy.
First, let’s talk just a little bit more about hormonal regulation of fat storage. In the first part of this article, I gave an example of a study where scientists compared a primarily high-sugar diet to one primarily made up of fat and protein. It’s important to understand that the study I cited was not an anomaly, dozens of studies done with hundreds of different foods all point to the same thing: simple carbohydrate, particularly fructose, encourages fat storage. The culprit in this cycle is the hormone insulin, which is responsible for most of the fat storage that occurs in the human body.
I’m a kind of simple-minded guy, so I like a simple explanation of how this works – this comes from Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat:
You think about a carbohydrate-containing food.
You begin secreting insulin.
Insulin signals fat cells to quit releasing fatty acids and instead start storing them.
You start to get hungry.
You begin eating.
Eating carbohydrate causes you to secrete more insulin.
Blood sugar levels rise.
You secrete more insulin due to blood glucose levels.
Fat storage is accelerated and carbohydrate is converted to fat in the liver.
Fat cells get fatter.
Fat stays in the fat cells until insulin levels drop.
I’m not a big fan of kicking all the carbohydrate out of your diet, just all the bullshit food. Want to eat rice? Fine. 6 beers after climbing? You’ve earned the gut.
I am a big fan of high-fiber carbohydrate foods for fat loss. Our standard nutritional recommendations for our athletes call for protein and fat-based foods as well as carbohydrates containing at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. By following these simple guidelines, an athlete will feel full longer and probably perform better athletically, too. Here’s a diagram that makes a pretty clear picture of how our fat-loss clients eat on a daily basis:
Following our 3 grams of fiber recommendation, you can see we allow unlimited vegetables, one serving of whole grains, and one serving of fruits each day. Now before you go all crazy on me (I received a little over 200 comments on part one of this article, most vilifying my recommendation to eat less fruit) understand that this is a diet you’ll use to lose fat. If you’re at your Optimal Hotness Level (OHL) already, eat whatever the hell you want. If you’ve tried “everything” to lose fat and still aren’t happy, try some different tactics, even if it means dumping the banana and yogurt for breakfast.
If you’re not accustomed to eating high levels of protein and fiber when trying to lose weight, you might be pleasantly surprised that you aren’t starving and can actually train. This is probably the biggest key to holding weight-loss and still performing well.
Give yourself a break, too, when it comes to implementing new nutritional habits. Aim to lose a few pounds, then maintain for a month or two while you go climb your hardest routes. Once your peak climbing phase tapers off, try to hit a few more pounds. If you somehow lose more than 1-2 pounds per week, you might be risking a decline in performance; something we can’t afford. I’d rather have you look like the Russell Crowe on the left and climb well than look all gladiator and be toproping all day long.
As far as training goes, we see better fat loss results from higher-intensity training than we do from low-intensity steady state training. Cycling is fine. Running is fine (The other major category of hate mail is the “endurance sports are good for climbing” type). The truth: if you want to climb well you need to understand that there is almost no carryover from slow-endurance sports to hard rock climbing. Additional long slow distance activity might assist in fat loss and it might not actually hurt your climbing, but most of the people we work with have a limited schedule as far as training time goes. Fat loss expert Alwyn Cosgrove outlines the hierarchy of fat-loss training like this:
- Metabolic Resistance Training
- High Intensity Anaerobic Interval Training
- High Intensity Aerobic Interval Training
- Steady State High Intensity Aerobic Training
- Steady State Low Intensity Aerobic Training
If you have 3 hours per week, use only #1 above: metabolic resistance training
This can be three, one-hour training sessions, or four 45-minute training sessions. It doesn’t seem to matter.
However, once you’re getting three hours per week of total body resistance training, in my experience I haven’t seen an additional effect in terms of fat loss by doing more. My guess is that, at that point, recovery starts to become a concern and intensity is impaired.
This type of training involves barbell complexes, supersets, tri-sets, circuits, density training, kettlebell combos, etc.
If you have 3-5 hours, use #1 and # 2: weight training plus high intensity interval work
At this point, any additional work is usually in the form of high intensity interval training. I’m looking to burn up more calories and continue to elevate metabolism.
Interval training is like putting your savings into a high return investment account. Low intensity aerobics is like hiding it under your mattress. Both will work, but the return you get is radically different.
If you have 5-6 hours available, add #3: aerobic interval training
Aerobic intervals wins out at this point because it’s still higher intensity overall than steady state work so it burns more calories. There appears to be a fat oxidation benefit and will still be easier to recover from than additional anaerobic work.
If you have 6-8 hours available, add #4
If you’re not losing a lot of fat with six hours of training already, then I’d be taking a very close look at your diet. If everything is in place, but we just need to ramp up fat loss some more then we’ll add in some hard cardio – a long run or bike ride with heart rate at 75% of max or higher.
Why not do as much of this as possible then? Well, the goal is to burn as many calories as we can without negatively impacting the intensity of our higher priority activities.
If I have more time than that, I’ll add # 5.
Now, I’m not advocating dumping your climbing in favor of getting under a barbell. I think keeping high-intensity climbing such as bouldering or hard routes as the core of your training is critical. It seems like a huge number of the questions I get these days are some version of the question “What can I do besides climbing to get good at climbing?” At a low level of performance, of course anything would probably help. But as you get better, you have to get pretty damned specific to get any better at all.
Keeping up as much climbing as you can handle. Add metabolic resistance training where you can. Avoid doing too much stuff, or you risk upping the appetite. Keep in mind your goal for the 4 or 6 or 8 weeks you allot to this is to lose weight. Who cares if your climbing sucks? Who gives a damn how much your “cardio” suffers? As Dan John says, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.”
by Steve Bechtel
If you’ve ever climbed to the top of a strenuous route, you’ve felt the burn. If you’ve ever trained super-hard, you’ve felt the debilitating soreness the day after the session. Undoubtedly, you’ve also read or been told that one or both of these is due to lactic acid buildup in your muscles. In this article, I hope to explain why neither of these situations is true, and why lactate production is a useful and an essential part of training hard.
This has always been a confusing subject for me, so I was really pleased to find two great resources that could explain the complexity to a dummy like me: Special Strength Training by Yuri Verhoshansky and Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jamieson.
In an ideal situation, all of your training would be aerobic. It’s efficient, less fatiguing, and you recover quickly from it. But when things get strenuous, your body isn’t capable of delivering energy quickly enough by aerobic methods alone. Your body has two ways of generating energy beyond the aerobic system. These two systems are the Alactic (or ATP-CP) energy system and the Lactic (or Glycolytic) energy system. Both systems can generate energy much more quickly than aerobic means, but both cause much faster fatigue.
The Alactic energy system uses fuel present in the muscles themselves and can produce high levels of energy for 10-12 seconds before having to “pass the torch” to the Lactic system. The latter system is capable of being your primary source of energy for around a minute before you have to rest or slow down. Knowing that most routes (and many boulder problems) take more than a minute to climb, it’s important that climbers understand the critical importance of developing each of these systems optimally. Having a properly conditioned lactic system will mean the difference between sending and coming back to redpoint next month.
Lactic Energy Production
In order to understand how muscular fatigue occurs, let’s look a bit at how the lactic system works. Lactic energy production follows a series of chemical steps known as anaerobic glycolysis. The whole thing starts with a molecule of sugar. This molecule is converted to glucose, which is then converted to 2 molecules of pyruvate. The pyruvate can either be used oxidatively (not our concern here) or it can be converted to lactate.
The higher the intensity of workload, the higher the level of lactate in the blood. This initially led scientists to believe that lactic acid was responsible for the pain and fatigue associated with these workloads. We have also learned that any lactate present in the blood during high levels of intensity are all-but-gone within a couple of hours after exercise, showing us that it can’t be lactate that makes us sore. The fault then fell on hydrogen ions, which are also accumulated during intense exercise. Although this theory has also come under fire recently, the take home is the same: lactate is your friend, not your foe.
A great way to look at lactate is as a bridge between anaerobic and aerobic energy production. It can be used within the muscles in which it’s produced or transported to other parts of the body to be used as a source of energy for aerobic metabolism. Climbers, and other athletes who rely heavily on lactate metabolism, we often see accumulations of lactate as much as 50% higher than we see in athletes in aerobic sports. These accumulations reflect the body’s enhanced ability to tolerate intense exercise and do it longer than other athletes. These abilities are termed anaerobic capacity and anaerobic power.
Improving Lactate Metabolism
The balance between the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems is really the balance between anaerobic power and anaerobic capacity. Like I said above, anaerobic power is how quickly you can generate power, anaerobic capacity is how long you can keep it up. This is easily illustrated in your ability to do all the moves on a short route or long problem (anaerobic power) versus linking them (capacity). Improving your capacity is key for boulderers moving into routes, where improving your anaerobic power will allow you to do longer cruxes and sustained sequences.
There is a threshold level where you can no longer sustain high-intensity activity, known as the anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold. This is easily marked by the accumulation of lactate in the blood, though as I said earlier, lactate is not responsible for the fatigue. At anaerobic threshold (AT), the body’s need for energy is simply overwhelming its ability to produce it. Once an athlete is over this line, there are only moments before the intensity of activity has to back off before the athlete has to stop activity altogether.
How does one go about improving these factors, though? The truth is that anaerobic capacity is dependent not only on training in the nauseating and painful world above AT, but also in building sub-maximal endurance just below the threshold. Depending on your specific needs, you’ll need to parcel out your training: if you are doing 10-12 move sequences or problems, then much of your training can be intervals, boulder links, and the like. If you’re doing routes that are more sustained, such as the sport climbs of Indian Creek or the Red River Gorge, you’ll need more time below threshold.
Training for anaerobic capacity causes a few distinct changes in your body’s systems. You’ll see an increase in pH buffering capacity, in the rate of waste product removal, and an increase in the availability of energy substrates. On the other hand, anaerobic power adaptations include increases in the amount or percentage of glycolytic muscle tissue, and increase in glycolytic enzymes, and improvements in “recruitment” or CNS pathways.
There are, of course, limitations to how much you can develop this system. The metabolic pathway involved in anaerobic energy production is significantly less involved than that of the aerobic system, and thus there are fewer qualities we can improve. Science also shows that there is a significant genetic component to your ability to develop power or capacity in this system…some people just don’t have it. Because this system is fairly simple, the potential methods for developing it are limited.
To improve your anaerobic power, you need to do as much work as possible as fast as possible. Improving anaerobic capacity involves working anaerobically for as long as possible each session. Below are a couple of exercises adapted from Jamieson’s great book.
Anaerobic Power Exercises
Lactic Power Intervals – These are performed on a steep bouldering wall or on a continuously overhanging route. Movement has to be continuous and fast, and the problems should lack cruxes or tiny holds. In fact, most climbers will need to start on pretty easy problems with very large holds. Start with 30-40 seconds of hard, fast climbing followed by 3x as much rest (90-120 seconds) Do three repetitions of this, then rest 5-8 minutes. After resting repeat the same protocol for three more sets, resting 5-8 minutes between each. 1-2 days per week during a PE phase. We reduce the volume to once per week during redpointing, and then only if you can’t get to the crag.
These can be done with weights or kettlebells or even running, but remember that anaerobic adaptations are extremely specific to the muscles used in training. As always, climbing is best.
Anaerobic Power Resistance Combos – This method is complex and requires a facility that has a weightroom close to your bouldering wall. We do 30 seconds of sustained anaerobic steady state activity, 30 seconds of total body resistance and finish with a boulder problem. Try to take less than 15 seconds between each exercise. Total work will be about 100-120 seconds, which is followed by 3 minutes rest. Start with 3 rounds of the circuit, rest 8-10 minutes, then do another circuit with different exercises.
Anaerobic Steady State modes:
Total Body Resistance Modes:
Hang Power Snatches
Sled Pushing / Dragging
Front Squat / Push Press Combos
Static Dynamics – As strange as the term is, these are actually pretty cool. We tend to use a pull-up bar with a kickboard or chair below it, an inverted row, or a pair of large holds on a system wall. Pull on, do three pulls through a full range of motion, then rest in the straight-arm position for 10 seconds. Repeat this series for 3-6 minutes. Rest (actively – jogging or walking) for 10-15 minutes, then repeat, preferably with a different exercise mode.
To improve anaerobic power, you’ll intensify the exercise by doing more pulls or making the holds worse. For capacity, you would extend the set, or add additional sets to the workout.
Anaerobic Capacity Exercises
Lactic Capacity Intervals – This exercise is similar to the power intervals, but you change the work to rest ratios a bit to force more work time and reduce rest. This method is appropriate for building capacity for long, sustained routes that lack significant cruxes and for building overall day-long power. Training hard for lactic power costs; long endurance and max strength have both been shown to decline when training is focused on lactic capacity. We use the same methods as outlined for Power Intervals, a 30-45 degree wall or route.
For these intervals, you’ll climb for 1.5 to 2 minutes non-stop, and I mean non-stop. Rest is decreased to be exactly as long as the climbing takes. Do four repetitions of this, then rest 5 minutes before starting the next set. Do 2-5 sets per workout.
Anaerobic Capacity Resistance Combos – These are exactly like the power combos, except we change the work to rest ratio and the workout volume. Each exercise in the circuit is performed for 45 to 60 seconds (for a total of 3-3.5 minutes per circuit), and you rest just 60-90 seconds between efforts. Do three circuits, rest 5-7 minutes, then do three more with different exercises if you like.
Yes, there’s more to life than just getting pumped. Although your ability to improve your anaerobic fitness is fairly limited, it can be done. And if you’re going to bother to train this energy system, you might as well get something out of it.
By Steve Bechtel
Once upon a time, there were no climbing gyms. There were good climbers, among them my friend Todd Skinner, who did a fair amount of hard training off the rock. During the late 1980s, Todd and some friends developed a freestanding “box” of slats with several different sizes of wooden edges attached to them. Later called the “Skinner Box,” this was a primary tool these climbers used to develop finger and back strength.
Although a device like this is no longer necessary (a steep cave in a climbing gym serves the same purpose), the training program that they wrote nearly 30 years ago is still valid, and REALLY hard, today.
From Todd’s Notes:
This is a workout that we developed after talking to trainers and sport physiologists, and is our winter program. It is used at a time when performance is less important than strength and power gains. You MUST adjust it or rest completely if you are experiencing any chronic joint pain. Always warm-up extensively prior to workout. Discipline, whether it means working out when you’d rather not or resting when you’d rather work out is, as always, the crux. Ease into the full workload if you haven’t been training regularly for at least 6 months.
TUES: Do many difficult routes or boulder very hard. At the end of the day, do laps on a route that is pumping, but does not isolate any fingers (top rope). As soon as you hit the top, lower off and start again. Repeat until failure. Rest while your partner goes into meltdown and repeat.
Back at the gym, start with 200 seconds of “power hangs” on a 3/4″ edge. These consist of 20 seconds hanging without thumbs followed by 20 seconds rest for 10 sets. Hang with slightly bent elbows to avoid tendon damage.
Next we do 10 trips on a ladder, either static or “Bachar,” to train for 1-arm lock-offs, etc. Be very, very careful to stay in perfect control. If you can’t do all sets well, use your feet for the remainder. Monitor your elbows and shoulders carefully.
This is followed by 200 more seconds of power hangs.
Next go into the box, grab the top hold, and swing your feet up to the other end of the box. Keep your back arched and pull your chest up to the top hold, simulating a pull on a horizontal roof. Repeat 8-12 times. If failure doesn’t come within this time frame, add a weight vest. Stagger out and rest while your partner gets in. When he’s done, get in and change your hand position 180 degrees to an undercling. Do the same 8-12 reps. You’ll do each of these positions 3 times for a total of 6 sets.
You can be doing dips between each of these sets.
Next comes the endurance part of the workout. Get a barbell and do heavy wrist rolls until your forearms are blown. Crawl immediately into the box and hang on the 3/4″ edge without thumbs until failure. I mean complete failure! Crawl out and get another pump with the barbell, and crawl back in and hang again. Repeat for 5 sets of each. You’ve got to love the pain!!!!
WED: Lots of miles climbing on moderate (5.11-5.12+) ground.
THUR: Repeat of Tues.
FRI: TOTAL REST!
SAT: Climb on hard routes but not to destruction.
SUN: Perform on hardest routes. Peak day of the week. Work out that night.
MON: TOTAL REST!
Best of Luck!
By Steve Bechtel
In a perfect world, we’d redpoint hard routes every weekend, all year long. We’d always feel recovered, and we’d be able to boulder at our limit one day and free big walls the next. But in this world, we have obligations, injuries, and seasons that keep us from climbing well for large portions of the year. Although there are natural cycles to performance, we can find them frustrating especially when coming off a long break. It can be hard to get back into top form quickly.
The typical pattern is to work slowly back up through the grades, wading our way back into the deep end. Depending on how old you are, how well you climb, and how long you’ve been off, this can take a month or more to occur. Here’s a short list strategies we use to help build our athletes back to maximum performance after a short layoff. A note: If you’ve been totally away from climbing for more than two months, these strategies are likely to cause more harm than good, and you’d be better off on a standard pre-season training plan.
- Add it up. You’re coming from little or no activity back to full-time climbing. You need to get your body used to doing the work again. If you normally spend 10 hours a week bouldering and you’ve just been exercising 1-2 hours a week, you need to make a big leap. Plan on doing about a third as much volume the first week (3-3.5 hours), two thirds as much the second week (6-7 hours), and a full 10 hours the third week.
- Load it up. Get used to moving again, and not just on the rock. For most of us, a major hurdle in building back into climbing shape is our skin, fingers, and forearms. You should consider building fitness via resistance training, cross-training with other sports, and climbing for mileage on bigger holds. Although I think Crossfit is mostly a load of crap, this type of workout is great for adding some intensity to a plan.
It’s critical to really load the system here. Week 1 should be at “medium” intensity, Week 2 should be about half medium and half hard, and week 3 should split the same way. This is going to make for a lot of sore muscles and some heavy sleep.
- Shovel it in. Eat a lot. Eat plenty of lean protein, loads of vegetables, and plenty of fruit. And load up on the water, too. Shorting yourself on fuel or sleep is a quick way to derail your return to fitness. Don’t worry about getting fat by eating a lot of these food, either. It’s not eating too much broccoli that makes your leg loops tight, and you know it.
- Climb right. Build your volume climbing the same way you built total training time in step 1. Try to get a number of pitches/problems in and resting plenty between. If you’re going to be at the crag, consider lapping a route or two to build up total climbing time. Although these routes are probably nowhere near your limit, your body is getting a ton of stimulus to adapt back to being a climbing body.
- Hang. From your fingers. Consider spending 20 or so minutes about three days a week reminding your fingers what they’re meant for by doing some edge hangs on a hangboard. It takes remarkably little stimulus for your finger strength to come back, but it does take some.
Employing just 2-3 of these strategies will get you back in the game in just a couple of weeks. It’s not uncommon to have an easy week after a few weeks of this training, but that easy week can be filled with lots of good sending.