Weight Training: What it is and is not.

As humans, we all tend to use categories and observations about groups of things to understand the world.Puppies are cute. Fruits are sweet. Scarpa shoes are awesome. Categories.

It gets dangerous. Women are crazy. People with dark skin are dangerous. Liberals are weak. We learn through our culture, our parents, our schools that individual observation of each and every person or thing we come in contact with is not only impossible, it’s also probably a waste of time…because of the puppies and Scarpas that you can always count on.
The problem is that we can be terribly wrong in our preconceptions about a thing, and that makes the thing challenging to bring into our lives. Is wine good for you? Are snakes dangerous? Are women crazy? Closer to home: is climbing an activity for thrill seekers that will ultimately end in their death? That’s what your aunt thinks…and it’s going to take a lot of convincing to change her mind.

So…weight training. Will it make you bulky? Will it make you slow? Yes, it’s possible to build muscle using weights. It’s possible to just train heavy and slow lifts and lose the ability to explode. But it’s not the tool, it’s how you use it. Misuse the tool and you get bad results. Master the tool and the sky is the limit.

We use weights because they are an effective and efficient tool at creating overload. Yes we can use them to get uselessly strong or big, but we can also use them to get more stable, to create better endurance, or to lose weight…in fact, overwhelming research shows that weight training is substantially better for losing fat than steady-state cardiovascular training…which is another preconception that challenges coaches daily.

If you want to build more speed, go fast.

If you want to get really strong, lift heavy things.

If you want to build big muscles, do medium-load training for lots and lots of reps.

We’ve probably tired out the high reps for leanness examples, but let me hit it one more time: Cyclists do a ton of reps at very light load. They have big, thick thighs. Swimmers do the same and have large shoulder muscles. There is nothing wrong with either of these adaptations, but the way these changes came about should be noted. It was not through lifting weights for 3 sets of 3 reps.

In the 1970s and 1980s, bodybuilding really took off. The magazines popularized the ideas of “body part” workouts, of “splits”, of burnout sets…all ways to really wear out one or two groups of muscles at a time. The workouts focused heavily on isolation of one movement (such as the curl or the calf raise) in order to significantly develop that group. With enough volume, calories, and regular training, it worked…and still does. But what about NBA pros who lift 3-4 times per week? Track stars? The US Olympic Triathlon team? How can they possibly use the same tools and not get huge?

Strength training, as opposed to bodybuilding, is done to overload the ability of the muscle to generate force. People training for strength are not pursuing a feeling of fatigue or a pump – they are trying to push harder than they did last time. Where bodybuilding workouts focus on doing many sets and reps with one or two groups at (usually) under 70% of maximum, strength sessions focus on compound movements using multiple muscle groups for just a few (2-5) sets at 70% or more of maximum. The difference is profound.

One of my favorite climbing coaches and experts in the world is Neil Gresham. I look to him for information on almost all aspects of training, yet even he seems to have a profound ignorance when it comes to the difference between strength training and bodybuilding. In his article “Do This, Not That: Training Methods to Avoid” in Rock and Ice, he states, “Climbing is surely the most power-to-weight-oriented sport ever conceived, and the main requirement is to pull ourselves up using the small, fragile tendons in our fingers. The glutes and quads are the biggest muscles in the body, so I feel the potential losses from this sort of exercise outweigh the gains. Few of the best climbers have bulky leg muscles. Muscle bulk is difficult to lose, so be cautious in jumping on board with the current trend of climbers training their legs with weights. I suggest straight-legged deadlifting (in which you hold a bar with an overhand grip and stand with a straight torso, feet shoulder-width apart, and knees slightly bent) as an alternative for building overall body strength and power, and that you minimize strength exercises involving bending the legs. If you want to get good at slabs, simply practice them.”

I’ll reiterate: Strength training will not make you bigger. The goal is not getting super strong at slab climbing, but rather the ability to remain a functional athlete. Our number one goal in training should be to avoid injury. Secondarily, we should aim for longevity as a functional adult. Third? Improved performance in our sport.

To get strong, you need to generate high force – pull hard, lift heavy. You need to rest a lot between sets. You need to keep the workload low enough that you can have quality work straight through each rep.

You don’t need to get pumped. You don’t need to be sore. You don’t need to be tired at the end.

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