The Climber Athlete: An Argument for Weightlifting

I not-so-recently listened to an episode of The Enormocast podcast that has left me thinking for over 2-months. In this particular episode, Dave Allfrey was discussing his recent trip to Baffin Island as well as his thoughts on what it meant to be a climber. More so, Dave and the host (Chris Kalous) talked about a subtle trend amongst the sport ( … or is it a lifestyle?);

Are climbers climbers? Or, are they athletes?

They further discussed the potential for athletic development and whether high-end climbers should train under an “NFL trainer”—basically, referring to the lack of a strength and conditioning authority outside of the competition scene. I distinctly remember Dave making a comment where he half-jokingly suggests that perhaps he should do some deadlifts.

Our favorite free-soloist, Alex Honnold, is a training nut. I wish I knew what his exact routine was (besides climbing tons and tons of pitches), but from what I’ve gathered from various videos and anecdotes from other climbers is that he does a lot of hangboarding, running, pushups, and pullups. All legit and worthwhile exercises, especially for a climber.

My question is:

Why not do the deadlifts?

The most common reason I hear for climbers not to lift weights is that it will result in unwanted muscle mass. Bigger muscles weigh more and thus you’d have to carry this additional weight with you up the pitch/route/mountain.

However, I’d argue that it is both possible and beneficial to gain full-body, functional, athletic strength, using “traditional” strength and conditioning methods that will ultimately make you a better climber and overall athlete.

A case for weightlifting

I always found it interesting that almost all Division 1 athletes do the exact same exercises: squats, bench press, deadlifts, snatches, clean and jerks, and a variety of derivatives of these core* exercises. Why was the track team snatching? Why was swim team squatting? It’s not wrong to be strong, and a stronger athlete is a better athlete. Period.

*In this case, “core” refers to the lifts being at the “core” of a solid strength and conditioning program due to the complex, multi-joint nature of the movement.

First and foremost, lifting weights, particularly the Olympic lifts, does not guarantee that you will gain a significant amount of lean mass. You can adjust your training regimen to focus on strength development and recruitment instead of hypertrophy (muscle growth).

In general, to gain mass, reps in the 8-12 rep range with a challenging load (approximately 70-75% of your one-rep-max) are the recipe for muscle growth. This scheme results in increased time-under-tension and forces the muscles into the glycolytic energy system (think: the pump or the muscle burn). This also results in the formation of lactic acid, a potent stimulator for muscle growth.

If you keep the volume low and move the weight quickly, you reduce the time-under-tension, minimize lactic acid formation, and the training stimulus focuses on increasing strength, not building size. To get strong, you have to lift heavy weights. But remember that weight is relative. The goal is not to get you to a 500-pound squat. The goal is to make you relatively stronger, without gaining additional mass.

For an athlete that is new to weightlifting, significant strength gains can be made by reducing what is called the strength deficit. Simply put, the strength deficit is the difference between your “potential” strength and your “actual” strength.

Another way to think about this concept is the question:

How strong can you be without gaining any additional mass?

The secret is training the body to recruit more motor units (non-jargon: more muscle fibers). A motor unit consists of a motor neuron and all of the muscle fibers innervated by that neuron.

Using electronics as an example, think of a motor unit as an electrical circuit. The circuit can only power devices plugged into that circuit. So the motor neuron “powers” all the muscle fibers that it connects to. Interestingly, untrained individuals can have strength deficits of 45-50%. This means that they are only using half of their strength potential.

Why this matters: you can add serious strength gains through training your nervous system to recruit more motor units and maximize the strength you already have. All without adding any additional body weight.

Weightlifting can also be used to elicit a hormonal response that can be levered for climbing-specific exercises. When athletes perform compound lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, snatch, clean and jerk, weighted pullups) large muscle groups are used. When large amounts of muscle fibers are recruited, this can result in increased serum (aka blood) levels of testosterone. Testosterone’s main effects on muscles include increased protein synthesis and interaction with muscular neurons resulting in an increase of neurotransmitters (think of this as making the neurons super conductors).

The magic here is that this testosterone is systemic, and is not localized to the muscles being used. This means that the entire body will benefit from the increased levels of testosterone, as it travels through the entire circulatory system. So you can “juice out” testosterone with the core lifts and then couple these with climbing specific exercises (hangboarding, campusing, bouldering, etc … ).

For example, you could perform a set of heavy deadlifts immediately followed by hangboarding. The circulating testosterone will act upon the climbing specific muscles of the forearms, resulting in more strength gains were the climbing exercises done in isolation. Science.

Olympic weightlifting* for climbing? Why not?

The Olympic lifts are the snatch and the clean and jerk.

To perform these lifts properly and safely, the athlete needs:

  • strength
  • speed
  • flexibility
  • mobility
  • kinesthetic awareness
  • and good ol’ fashion toughness

These lifts also teach the athlete how to create full body tension as well as stabilize and protect their spine. Of note, these lifts force the athlete into “normal” range of motion, specifically, deep squats and full shoulder flexion.

Just to perform an overhead squat—let alone a snatch—the athlete must have full mobility in the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, wrists and elbows. Add in the speed required for a properly executed snatch and mobility becomes even more important.

I mentioned recruitment above. The Olympic lifts train the body to recruit as many motor units (again, think: maximal muscle tissue) as possible in the shortest amount of time. This rapid recruitment is what allows for explosive power. Also mentioned above, since the Olympic lifts are so fast, the muscles experience very little time-under-tension and thus the training stimulus remains focused on neurological efficiencies and recruitment versus hypertrophy.

Furthermore, these lifts are especially effective at training the neuromuscular system, which can help further reduce the strength deficit. Lastly, the Olympic lifts ‘”excite” (activate) essentially the entire neuromuscular system. This can help break through the early-workout-funk as well as acting as a warm up** to climbing and climbing-specific training.

*The Olympic lifts are extremely technical movements. You would be best served to work with a coach who is an expert in these exercises versus trying to teach yourself from an internet article or video. DO NOT attempt these exercises with anything heavier than a wooden dowel or PVC pipe if you have no idea what you are doing. Taking the time to learn the lifts with perfect technique will make sure that you do not get injured and ultimately, will greatly improve your athleticism.

**The lifts themselves are NOT a warm up. Make sure to do a proper warm up before any intense exercise, especially when performing the Olympic lifts.

Full body strength for all-around athleticism

Another training reflection from time surfing cyberspace comes from the video featuring Emily Harrington, Training: Emily Harrington’s Mountain Life. Emily talks about her evolution from a hyper-focused competition climber to becoming an all-around mountain athlete.

I’ve noticed this trend here in Boulder as well as pretty much every outdoor town across the country. It seems like everyone does everything: sport climbing, ice climbing, alpine climbing, mixed climbing, trail running, bouldering, skiing, snowboarding, cycling, and of course, yoga.

I believe that pursuing this myriad of activities is only more the reason to train like a climber-athlete and get strong. Having a solid level of general physical preparedness makes it exponentially easier (and more fun) to switch seamlessly between activities.

Increasing your full body strength means that less effort and less energy is required for the approach hike. If the approach gets easier, maybe you can go faster and get in some extra pitches. Or, maybe you can drive off a tiny foot hold .5% harder to stick a crux that has been shutting you down.

If you have not seen videos or photos Peter Croft’s route, The Venturi Effect (The Incredible Hulk, CA, 5.12), there is a beautiful 5.12 stemming corner. It does not appear that you can climb this pitch relying purely on finger strength.

When you heel hook, you are basically doing a biceps curl with the hamstrings. What exercise makes your hamstrings evil-strong? Deadlifts.

I recently climbed an off-width pitch in Utah that left every muscle in my body screaming except my forearms. I do not think I could have gotten up it if I was not regularly weightlifting (besides being only a mediocre climber at best …).

Stronger legs can run up mountains faster and with less effort as well as help absorb the shock during a rapid downhill descent. And remember, you can get strong, without adding additional muscle mass. Is that wrong?

Putting weight training into practice

“What is this guy talking about and how should I put this into practice?”

Strength circuits

When training specifically for strength, I’ve been experimenting with combining a weightlifting exercise, a core exercise/antagonist exercise, and a climbing-specific exercise into a circuit. This does not need to be done at a rapid pace, rather, move through the exercises focusing on producing maximal force and quality movement.

The results have been promising thus far. I’m climbing at a harder grade than I ever have and I 100% attribute this to the strength training. I’m looking forward to continuing to refine the protocol as I continue to experiment on myself. Get strong and get out there.

Sample 1

7 rounds:

  • 2 clean and jerks at ~65-75%
  • 8-12 second weighted hang (should be hard)
  • 4 one-leg front levers*
    • Alternate legs. You are doing a sort-of mountain climber, except you face upwards.
    • *4 total reps. Attempt to hold each leg extended for 1-3 seconds. Increase the time by 1-second as you improve.

Sample 2

5 rounds:

  • 3 deadlifts
    • Try and increase load over the 5 sets to a final and heavy set of 3
  • 1 set of fingerboard repeaters 8 x 5-second hang + 5-second rest
    • 3-5 second hang with exactly 5 seconds of rest. Holding on for 3-5 seconds should be hard.
  • 8-12 windshield wipers

Sample 3

5 rounds:

  • 3 squats at 75-85%
    • Start at 75% and work up to a final set around 85%
  • 3 fingertip pullups + campus laddering
    • 8-12 total movements
  • 10 dips

Sample 4

7 Rounds:

  • 2 power snatches at 65-70%
  • 3-5 weighted fingertip pullups
  • 8 straight leg raises from dip support

Sample 5

  • 5 bench presses
    • Work up to a heavy set of 5
  • 6-8 one arm lunges on campus board
  • 8 strict toes to bar

Strength program

Here is a 5-3-1 strength program for the squat, deadlift, and press. Ideally this program is done 3-days/week. You do just one lift each day. It runs in 4-week cycles: 3 weeks of loading, followed by 1 week of deload.

  • Monday: squat
  • Wednesday: deadlift
  • Friday: press

To begin, find a 1RM (one rep max) for each lift. If you are new to weightlifting, I suggest stopping well before reaching muscle failure. Rather, work up to 1 heavy rep where you might be able to do more.

Next, take 90% of your 1RM for each lift. To find your training max.

Example:

  • 100 pound 1RM Deadlift x 90% = 90-pound training max
  • Perform 3-4 warmup sets working up to your working weight each day

Week 1

  • Warmup, 75% x 5, 80% x 5, 85% x 5

Week 2

  • Warmup, 80% x 3, 85% x 3, 90% x 3

Week 3

  • Warmup, 75% x 5, 85% x 3, 95% x 1

Week 4 (Deload week)

  • Warmup, 60% x 5, 65% x 5, 70% x 5

After completing a full 4-week cycle, add 5 pounds to your Press 1RM and 10 pounds to your deadlift and squat 1RM. Take 90% of this new 1RM and apply the %’s as prescribed.

Example:

  • Deadlift original 1RM 100 pounds + 10 pounds added = 110 pounds
  • 110-pounds x 90% = 99-pounds
  • You will apply the weekly %’s to 99-pounds

Dan Vinson is a mountain athlete from Boulder, CO. He holds a degree in Human Science from Georgetown University where he was also a NCAA Division I athlete. After college, Dan spent 5 seasons working as a Wilderness Ranger and Wildland Firefighter. He is the founder of monkii.co and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist as well as a Crossfit Level-1 Trainer.


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  • Cully Wiseman

    This is a great article that attempts to answer a training dilemma I have had for years. I am a climber, skier (mostly BC), ski mountaineer, and mountain biker. I also try to make it to CrossFit 3-4 times per week. I’ve often felt like my XF training was at odds with my climbing and endurance training. If nothing else, I often only have an hour to train each day, and have a hard time deciding whether I should climb stairs with a weighted vest to prep for a Mt Hood ascent or do the WOD that would have me doing snatches or C+J’s for time. Then, if you consult something like the Rock Climber’s Training Manual, they will tell you to avoid ANY exercise that bulks up your legs. Clearly, the answer is as you suggest: a mixture of various forms of weight training, climbing, campus boarding, etc. Lately, I have been relying on XF and supplementing some ARC training (aerobic restoration and capillary training). I still use the RCTM as a guide, but I certainly don’t agree that stronger legs make you an inferior climber. Anyway, this article seems to support that hyposthesis. Its not easy to decide how one should spend their valuable training time. But I agree that general physical preparedness is more likely to improve your outdoor pursuits when compared to highly specific training exclusively for climbing. I may not do as well in the CrossFit open this year, but I hope to up my climbing game this Spring after adding all this new climbing training in the mix.
    Thanks again for the article and all the work you put into writing it.

    • Dan Vinson

      Hey Cully,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment! I was also doing a lot of XF a few years back and my climbing seemed ‘stuck’. I’ve been using the routine described in the article for a while now and the results have been quite promising. I’d be curious to hear how it works out for you. Keep training and stay strong!

    • Chris Rikli

      Cully you may also look into the training plans put together by Rob Shaul at Mountain Tactical Institute (formerly Mountain Athlete). The programming is a blend of sport specific training with XF style movements.
      http://mtntactical.com/product-category/fitness-plans/mountain-athlete-plans/rockice-climb/

      I don’t have any relationship with MTI, I’m just a average athlete who has seen amazing results.

  • David Brockway

    I’ve been doing single leg deadlifts (SLDL) for the last few months and it has resulted in a radical improvement in my bouldering. I had weak hamstrings so it helped build general strength for heel hooking and compression moves – which was previously fairly poor. It also really helped with my toe contact strength on long reaches in overhanging / cave routes, i.e. when you’re at full stretch and have only a tiny bit of toe touching the hold. The logic of SLDL’s and squats is also useful for a climber as when on a route / problem you rarely have both feet level, so need to generate power / strength from one leg / one leg more than the other. Doing the SLDL with a single weight and then experimenting with holding it in the same arm as the used leg vs. the opposite arm also helps to address imbalances one has on hip flexor-to-glute strenght, but you’ll want to look at that with the help of a physio to stay safe.