Weight Management

The Rock Climber’s Training Manual is now available order yours here!

For hard climbing, it doesn't hurt to be skinny.  Mike ecstatic after sending "Before there were Nine" at Independence Pass, CO.

For hard climbing, it doesn’t hurt to be skinny. Mike showing off after sending Before there were Nine (5.13d) at Independence Pass, CO. ©Janelle Anderson

Controlling body weight is critical to maximizing climbing performance. Climbers go to great lengths to develop finger and upper-body strength, with the aim of improving their strength-to-weight ratio in order to resist the pull of gravity. They work very hard (and proud) on the “strength” side of that equation, so it would be foolish to ignore the “weight” side.

Athletes should strive to be generally fit, with body fat less than 10 percent for men and 20 percent for women. In most cases, exceeding these thresholds places excessive stress on the joints, increasing the risk of injury and reducing enthusiasm for exercise. During the Performance Phase of a training cycle, when striving to maximize performance, it is beneficial to temporarily trim down to as low as 5 to 6 percent body fat for men, and 12 to 14 percent for women. (Body-fat percentage is difficult to measure in practice; therefore, find your optimal climbing weight by tracking performance.) Each climber may need to experiment to determine where that point of diminishing returns is. Record your body weight in a training journal, along with notes about the corresponding energy level and quality of performance, in order to determine an ideal “fighting weight.”

At the end of each season’s peak, it is acceptable (and even desirable), to relax dietary restrictions and bulk up by five to ten pounds throughout the Rest Phase and into the following Strength Phase.

The Fundamental Diet Rule: The Caloric Deficit

I'm not always skinny as a bean-pole, and for strength training, it's helpful to be a little heavier (though maybe not this heavy).  This was in 2009 after a 4 month climbing hiatus following an injury. Fueled by a desire to climb, I dropped 30 pounds over 6 months.

I’m not always skinny as a bean-pole, and for strength training, it’s helpful to be a little heavier (though maybe not this heavy). This was in 2009 after a 4 month climbing hiatus following an injury. Fueled by a desire to climb, I dropped 30 pounds over 6 months. ©Janelle Anderson

The merits of various weight-loss programs have been debated endlessly, with new “miracle” diets appearing on the scene regularly — low-fat, Atkins, low-carb, Paleo, Zone, South Beach, the list goes on and on. It can be confusing trying to sort through the pros and cons of these diets, and very difficult to reconcile the misleading marketing with sincere testimonials from trusted sources.

Among all of the false claims and pseudoscience trolling the diet world, there is one universally applicable and indisputable fact: If more calories are burned than are consumed, weight goes down. Vice versa, and weight goes up. There is no way around this fundamental principle. No matter the chosen diet plan, if this “caloric deficit ” is accomplished, body weight will decrease .

How to Manage Weight for Climbing

Many of the recent innovative diets (such as Atkins, South Beach, and Paleo, among others) seek to control weight by accounting for the speed at which digested carbs affect blood sugar. Despite the marketing tag lines such as “you can eat until you’re full” and “no counting calories,” these diets still depend on the fundamental principle of caloric deficit to stimulate fat loss. However, they seek to skew the fundamental caloric equation in the dieter’s favor, and thus lessen the requirement for restraint and discipline. This is done by attempting to manipulate key processes in the body that control:

1. Metabolism
2. Appetite
3. Fat storage

Foods like these have a low glycemic index, and will make it easier to run a caloric deficit and lose weight.

Foods like these have a low glycemic index, and will make it easier to run a caloric deficit and lose weight. ©Mike Anderson

These processes are fundamental to how the body digests food, converting it to usable energy. These control mechanisms are used by the body to maintain blood sugar at an optimal level as food is consumed. However, climbers can use these control mechanisms in reverse to control their weight. By carefully selecting the foods eaten to control the body’s glycemic response, metabolism, appetite, and fat storage can be controlled, making it easier to achieve a caloric deficit and thus easier to diet.

With a few straight-forward substitutions, most climbers will be able to lean down by simply substituting calorically dense, processed foods with natural, high-volume, foods.

Learn more in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. Weight Management topics include:
• Comprehensive explanation of the body’s glycemic response
• What to eat after training to ensure optimal recovery
• How to use the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load to evaluate foods
Nutrition data for a wide variety of common foods
Recommended foods for optimal climbing performance
• How to adjust your diet to avoid injuries
• Suggestions for convenient, healthy eating when on a road trip
• Dozens of effective tips for improving your eating habits
• Proven methods for controlling your appetite during performance periods

RCTM.com Articles related to Weight Management:

  • Optimizing Post Exercise Recovery …It is a well-known and researched practice by even recreational athletes to ingest protein directly after both endurance and strength training as it has repeatedly shown to aid in positive protein balance and thus stimulate protein synthesis. This increases recovery rates and muscle adaptive response to each subsequent training bout, making training more efficient. Several research groups have and are still studying the optimal amount and type of protein. Read more…
  •  Where There’s A Will, There’s a Way to Weigh Less  Performance rock climbing is all about strength-to-weight ratio.  We tend to fixate on the “strength” side while ignoring the “weight”.  Perhaps because the strength side of the equation seems actionable, and the weight side is all about restraint.  The reality is that losing weight is probably the easiest thing a climber can do to improve.  Unlike strength and technique, body weight can be improved substantially in a matter of weeks.  However, many people just feel powerless to affect their body type.  There is also now a bizzare element of social pressure to discourage any form of dieting, or even any interest in healthy eating.  Read more…
  • Smarter, Not Harder  …those that try hard only when they’re literally on the rock are missing out on countless opportunities to improve their climbing.  Try hard to schedule adequate rest, stick to a healthy diet, get enough quality sleep.  Try hard to wake up on time so that you can get to your project when the conditions are ideal.  Even in the unlikely event it does come down to a simple matter of brawn, try hard to use your brain to develop an effective training strategy to develop the needed horsepower, as opposed to simply squeezing until your knuckles explode.  Read more…
  •  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.  Read more…

If you have questions or comments about Weight Management, please post them on the RCTM Forum.  We will try to respond as soon as possible.


3 thoughts on “Weight Management

  1. I just finished the chapter on weight management in the book. Both on the blog and in the book, you don’t recommend cardio for weight management as this leads to increased need for calories and running in particular will stimulate muscular development in the legs that can be a hindrance for climbing. Am I correct in understanding that this is your recommendation only for climbers are looking for a temporary weight drop in order to achieve a goal climb? Or would the same recommendation apply to a climber who needs to lose fat anyway (a male over 10% BF and a female over 20% BF)? In the case of the latter climber, what kind of cardio, if any, would you recommend to help achieve fat loss, greater overall fitness and put their ‘fighting weight’ more within reach??? Should running still get the boot for its potential to increase leg muscle mass in this instance? Or does the potential for fat loss outweigh the potential weight gain?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Betty,

      It’s not so much stimulating “muscular development” in the legs, as it is stimulating glycogen (and therefore water) storage in the leg muscles. But the bottom line is still: running/cycling/tele-skiiing/etc makes your legs heavier.

      Anyway, to your question, some amount of cardio can help some people lose weight, but I wouldn’t recommend it! There’s an expression “you can’t outrun your fork”, and I find it to be true (YMMV). That means, for most people, as soon as their workout is over they will eat back most if not all of the calories they burned during the workout. Most cardio stimulates your appetite making it very difficult to limit your food intake. That said, if you have monk-like discipline, and you can resist the urge to “re-fuel” after your workouts, cardio has the potential to burn calories.

      If you want to exercise your way to weight loss, the way to do it is through strength training, not cardio. Strength training doesn’t stimulate your appetite, and it causes “Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption”, which is to say, your muscles continue burning calories for many hours after exercise. Of course, you want your strength training to be climbing-specific so you aren’t putting on muscle mass you can’t use on the sharp end.

      In my experience, the best way for a climber to lose weight is through a combination of diet and climbing-specific exercise. Climbing is much more a strength exercise than a cardio exercise, so it will burn plenty of calories, but at the end of the day, restricting your calorie intake is a much better strategy than trying to outrun an unbridled fork.


      • Eek – someone who cycles for transport is always going to have heavy legs!

        What would those body fat percentages look like in terms of BMI? Or is it impossible to know given that BMI doesn’t know the difference between muscle and fat?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s