By Steve Bechtel
Imagine, if you will, two friends that are the same age, same height, weight, etc. Imagine they both start climbing at the same time, both follow the same training program, and both show steady progress. They climb at the same crags, usually together, and start projecting the same route. You might think that they would both send at the same time, but one friend, let’s call him “Steve”, sends faster. As time passes, Steve gets better and better, despite the two friends’ still training and climbing together. No matter how hard the second friend (let’s call him “Jonathan Siegrist”) tries, he falls behind. Slowly, Steve starts to put distance on Jonathan, and the gap never closes again.
We tend to think that just getting out there climbing and doing some training are the only factors in performance. These are the factors easiest for us to grasp and control, so we focus on them with almost all of our conscious effort. But is there more? Are there other factors that are at play that mean as much as the training we do? Further, are some people just naturally gifted with the ability to pull?
In Stuart McGill’s book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, he touches on a lot of really great material having to do with back pain and performance. In the book, though, he covers an interesting array of issues that come up with program design. In this section of the book, McGill outlines seven variables that can limit ultimate performance. I have adapted from this list below:
1. Trainability – The ability to progress depends on many genetic factors ranging from chemical and cellular function through to anatomical variables. In addition, many previously trained adaptations can be re-obtained much more quickly. Did you know there are people that are “non-responders” when it comes to training for strength or endurance? It’s true: There are people that get no stronger on a training plan.On the flip side, there are high responders, too. If you give a training plan to a dozen different athletes, you’ll get a dozen different results…and trainability is part of the problem.
2. Neuromuscular Efficiency – Dr. Roger Enoka (1994) has documented extensively the science in understanding the enormous contribution of factors such as the ability to recruit / de-recruit muscle fibers, sections of muscles, etc. Improvements in strength for climbing are hugely affected by one’s ability to learn to recruit more muscle fibers at the right time, in the right order. It’s also about going from a max-tension state to a totally unloaded state in a moment.
3. Biomechanical Efficiency and Suitability – Leverage characteristics are determined by body segment length proportions to one another, muscle connection areas, and architectural features such as muscle to tendon length ratios. Of course, control factors overlay the biomechanical factors and influence joint stability and loading, and ultimately safety and performance. A key component in pulling ability is the flexor tendon insertion point above the elbow. Climbers that have a high insertion point will be able to pull more efficiently than those with a normal insertion.
As yet, the ideal rock climbing body proportions have not been identified. That being said, it doesn’t really matter: you’ve already got your body and you have got to (or get to) deal with how it’s built.
4. Psychological Factors – Factors such as aggression, motivation, concentration, pain tolerance, perception of spectator behavior, adherence to programs, event pressure, general mental toughness and the ability to relax are just a few of the variables that constrain performance. CLimbing performance is so mentally driven that physical strength almost doesn’t matter.
5. Social Factors – Societal influences and expectations impose perceived limits and define acceptable behavior often to the detriment of performance and in some cases, safety. We’ve seen countless examples of climbers rising to the level of a very accomplished peer simply because the limits were not known. We also see the opposite. How often is a talented climber held back by a performance-limited mentor? A woman who holds back so she doesn’t surpass her boyfriend?
6. Pain and Fear of Pain – Distinguishing between the pain of injury and the pain of effort is very important. Pain prevents injury when utilized effectively and limits performance when utilized ineffectively. Further, the presence of pain inhibits specific motor and muscle patterns that may be essential to both injury avoidance and and ultimate performance.
7. Fatigue – Mental and physical fatigue inhibit performance over a workout session, but can also build throughout a poorly designed, and poorly periodized, training schedule, so that the athlete remains continually fatigued.