Fat Loss and Weight Management for Climbing (Part 2)

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:

  1. Metabolic Resistance Training
  2. High Intensity Anaerobic Interval Training
  3. High Intensity Aerobic Interval Training
  4. Steady State High Intensity Aerobic Training
  5. 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.”

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