The No-Effort Plan to Improved Performance

At a certain point (the point where the cliffs start to overhang) climbing performance is all about strength to weight ratio.  Most of what we focus on as climbers is the strength part.  In some ways, that’s the easiest thing to do, because it requires action, whereas dieting, or whatever else we might have in mind for weight-loss, often requires restraint from action.  If you’re already skinny in all the right places and sporting six pack abs, pat yourself on your tight butt and skip to the next post.  For the rest of us, there is certainly some room for improvement in the weight area, and reaping the benefits might be easier than you think.  Obviously if you have a beer gut and rolls of flab hanging over your gear loops you can start by seeing a nutritionist about your eating habits.  This post is for folks that are already relatively fit, but looking to eek out a few more pounds of extra performance by cutting out some dead weight.  And there is no greater source of dead weight for the fit climber than the thighs.  For whatever reason, many climbers have thick, tree-trunk thighs.  Thighs designed to dead-lift automobiles, when pushing 100 punds of lean bone & muscle is all that’s required.  How did that happen?  How did our legs get so disproportianately large? Probably a lot of different factors, including genetics, athletic background, and eating habits, but lets cut to the chase.   

Not a lot of leg muscle in this room, yet somehow both of these guys managed to climb 8c+ in the early ’90s.

There is no doubt that reducing your leg mass will have significant benefits to your climbing.  Look around, 90+% of the world’s top climbers have sickly skinny legs.  The steeper the route gets, the more leg mass is a hindrance and the less use it is.  How much leg strength do you really need to rock onto that foothold?  Hardly any, certainly not so much that it requires ten times the muscle mass required to execute a one-arm pull up.

If you are like me, you are probably somewhat skeptical of these comments, but I was fortunate.  I was forced, against my better judgement, to undergo an accidental thigh-shrinking experiment.  The result was the greatest single-season improvement I’ve experienced since I started training. 

Fabian Cancellara, 6’1″, 180lb. The world’s greatest Time Trialist, but can’t hang with the best pro “climbers”

As far as how, there are multiple ways to skin this cat.  Its interesting to note that the top pro cycling “climbers” all have (relatively) skinny legs.  So apparently its possible to ride a bike like a maniac and maintain skinny legs.  I think this relies somewhat on restrictive dieting, combined with high reps at very low weight, but I also think genetics is the primary factor.  If not, why wouldn’t Fabian Cancellara just “deceide” to get skinny and become a badass climber to win the TDF (which he says is his greatest dream)?  All of the freakishly skinny climber types have zero muscle mass anywhere on their body, so my guess is whatever they are doing, beyond genetics (I suspect starving themselves), will be somewhat detrimental to rock climbers, because we need some amount of muscle mass in the right places. 

Andy Schleck, 6’1″, 150lb. The world’s best “climber”* (*that hasn;t been busted for cheating)

Climbing is not an endurance sport in the sense that cycling up Alp D’huez is.  You need muscle that can generate power & force, and given typical genetics, that is going to come with some amount of muscle mass.

The solution for me turned out to be exceedingly simple.  I just stopped using my legs.  My athletic career began when I was ~12, as a long distance runner.  I ran competitively for more than ten years, and maintained my 60+ mile-per-week habits for another five years as I began to seriously pursue rock climbing.  My body tried to warn me of my folly by giving me a foot injury in 2007, but I stubbornly replaced serious running with serious road-cycling, maintaining my disproportianate frame.  Finally when Logan was born I just didn’t have the time or energy to train for climbing and cycling, so I decided I would take a short hiatus from the cycling until I could better juggle the new demands on my time & energy.  I stopped cold turkey the day Logan was born, and within 2 months I lost 10 lbs without even trying.  I didn’t even realize I had lost the weight, I just noticed I was suddenly crushing all the projects in my gym that had shut me down for several seasons.  I couldn’t understand what was going on until I jumped on a scale.

If you currently engage in some form of leg-training (such as running, biking, tele-skiing, step aerobics, speed skating, rowing, weight-lifting, P90X, Crossfit, etc) several times a week, I recommend you stop, at least for a couple of months to see what happens.  You might be pleasantly surprised by the results.  Maybe you will find the cross-training is vital to your over-all happiness and well-being, and eliminating it is not worth the extra gains in climbing performance.  For those that want the best of both worlds, you can resume your aerobic passion from time-to-time and still reap the benefits of skinny legs.  You just need to plan your cross-training in phases that allow plenty of time to slim-down for peak climbing phases.  For example, I “got skinny” for the Spring and Summer seasons of 2011.  As my summer climbing season was winding down, I began training on my bike to ride down the Oregon Coast, which I did in early August.  I spent the rest of August & September training to climb, and by early October I was lean and mean and sent the hardest route of my career.

From “Grampians Selected Climbs” by Simon Mentz & Glenn Tempest. Copyright 2001, Open Spaces Publishing.

Finally, to answer a common question, in my experience, hiking to the crag is fine, no need to do the Frenchy rest-step on the trek from the parking lot to the Ruckman Cave, place your legs in a cast a la Tony Yaniro, or have your wife push you around in a grocery cart.  Just eliminate the obvious endless hours of quadricep training that serve no purpose for rock climbers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer:  Obviously, there are many health benefits to aerobic conditioning.  Use your own judgement when weighing the risks and benefits of such training.

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11 thoughts on “The No-Effort Plan to Improved Performance

    • In the pre-Sharma era of Sport Climbing, the French climbers would walk really slowly to the crag (using a high-altitude mountaineering-like “rest-step”) believing that it would prevent their legs from getting big.

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  1. Interesting and true. I started playing pickup ultimate again after not playing for 10-15 years and fell in love with the sprinting and cardio workout. I figured it could only help my climbing to cross train and I was having fun playing sports again so I went all out and started playing in leagues and with traveling club teams. I was still climbing once a week and noticed a decline in my abilities, especially the steeper routes. I dont believe it was the actual bulk(since I’m a skinny guy) but more the fact that my legs were hooked up to my heart and lungs better than my upper body was. I have since moved to another state and dont play ultimate, dont run at all and my off the couch(once a week) climbing abilities have improved quite a bit.

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  2. Hilarious, and pretty damn practical. I don’t think I’m quite ready for the NEP (No Effort Plan), but it’s a brilliant read … and all too true. Great article. Thanks Mark!

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  3. Pingback: Where There’s A Will, There’s a Way to Weigh Less | Lazy H Climbing Club

  4. HaHa! this made me laugh! I just went through this last year. I decided about a year and a half ago to see what would happen if I focused primarily on sport climbing (after 30 years of trad!!). I shifted all my training from preparing for long-ass High Sierra days to finger stregth and power. I quit doing squats, lunges, box jumps and Kettle bell hikes. I also stopped cycling and skateskiing cold turkey. You can read about it on my blog (www.garagegymtraining.com) but the end result is I lost 30lbs and went from 5.10a to 5.11+ and counting. I’m really close to redpointing my first 12a in a decade. Great site. I’m looking forward to your book.

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  5. I stopped lifting after the start of the last ski season, I have noticed a drop in body weight of 5-6lbs without dieting. My cardio and trail speed for long approaches are still fine. Definitely the easiest plan to better climbing, if you have some bulk to lose from previous experience with weight training.

    Betyy, not sure there is much you can do if that is your genetics. I have a giant frame overall for my body size, I am built to be a competitive rower, rather then a climber. Work with what you got, learn to use those legs well for upward movement.

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  6. Arter my first season of skiing, this winter, I gained a lot of weight in my legs. The results were a huge drop in climbing performance. (From high 5.12 to 5.11)After that I tried a couple of months of long duration, low intensity running, but my legs were still huge. Now I just try to use them as little as possible. Am I doomed? I’m the guy who easily puts on big , heavy muscle, and I’m seariously worried that this doesn’t come off…

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    • Johannes, I think your mistake was in thinking that running would slim down your legs. I personally think that running is counter-productive to climbing, and should be avoided if climbing is the most important thing in your (athletic) life. That said, a few pounds of leg muscle shouldn’t be solely responsible for a full number grade regression in your climbing. Weight is a factor, but not that much! Take a look at other factors, such as the crags and routes you were trying, the timing of your training etc, and see if there is another reason contributing to your reduced performance.

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  7. hi mono,

    This is a pretty interesting article. I was wondering what your thoughts are on the relative weights of the pros/cons of both sides of the argument. That is, do you reckon that the benefit of X pounds dropped outweighs the benefits of aerobic conditioning (decreased heart rate, increased aerobic capacity, etc.)? For example, I’ve never had proper skinny legs (and therefore can’t comment on their benefit to climbing), but I can notice a difference in my ability to regulate my heart rate and recover while resting on a route when I’m well-conditioned vs not. In this case, I wonder if it would be more beneficial to to be a few pounds lighter or to be able to recover at rests more efficiently. All thoughts are most welcome! Cheers!

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