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.
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.
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.
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.
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.