Four Strength Training Myths Debunked: Lifting for Climbers

“Don’t squat if you’re a climber”. “All you need to do is pull-ups.” “Climbers don’t need to lift.” “Lifting will make you heavy.” “Why are you deadlifting?” “Do lots of core exercises.” “Beginner climbers don’t need to strength train.” “High weight, low reps will make you bulky – look at power lifters!” “You don’t need to train until you can climb 5.13”.

Heard any of this before? I’ve heard all of it. And frankly a lot of it is total bullshit.

This post will dismantle four common strength training myths. I am not here to say that every climber should spend half of their time squatting to climb better – not at all, in fact. Rather, I would like to debunk the limiting beliefs around strength training that may be stunting your progress to becoming a better climber.

MYTH #1: Lifting Heavy will Make you HUGE

First of all, if you’re a woman, no matter how much you lift and eat, you are not going to gain lean muscle at the same rate as your male counterparts. Additionally, as long as you do not engage in hypertrophy type strength training, you are not going to gain tons of muscle that will “weigh you down”.

If you’re doing reps of five and under you’re basically training your muscles how to work better. You’re not actually going to be building your muscles as much…. For me, I’ve been lifting two days a week for the first two months then spent the last month just lifting one day a week and I haven’t – I don’t know about body composition but as far as actual weight, I haven’t gained a pound.

Nate Drolet – TrainingBeta Podcast Episode 32
lauren miller fork
Yep. You can tell from this picture that all the heavy weight training is making me absolutely gigantic.

Let’s start with defining “Heavy lifting“: it’s the kind of lifting where you can only perform 3-5 repetitions before failure. If you are familiar with it, power lifting may come to mind. And yes, power lifters are pretty huge, but the competitors in professional power lifting are required to lift insane amounts to be competitive in their sport, so naturally they need to be larger to be competitive. They still have outrageous power to weight ratios, it’s just that they go big in the “weight” portion of that equation. As a climber, you are free from these burdens. You are after maximized power to weight ratio, not absolute feats of strength.

Our goal as climbers is to gain maximal strength while gaining minimal muscle mass.

But how does one maximize power to weight ratio? I’ll tell you right now that it isn’t by “toning”, “lengthening” or doing tons of reps with non-challenging levels of resistance. It’s by lifting heavy loads and doing so briefly.

Sciencing the Shit out of This: Myofibrillar vs. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy

Quick biology lesson: there are two parts of a muscles fiber that we are interested in as climbers. You have the myofibrils, which are long skinny filaments. These are what contract and create movement. Surrounding the myofibrils is the sarcoplasm. You can think of the sarcoplasm as the storage space for fuel to help the myofibrils keep going. The sarcoplasm contains glycogen stores, mitochondria and mitochondria for production of ATP. (Ferriss, The Four Hour Body pg. 123).

So why is this a big deal? Well there are two types of hypertrophy: myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic.

Myofibrillar Hypertrophy

Myofibrillar hypertrophy results from the heavy load, low repetition style of strength training we have discussed: 3-5 reps at 80-90% of your max. It increases the density of your myofibrils and creates dense, strong muscles capable of increased maximal output.

Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy

Conversely, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the result of training at higher rep counts with lower intensity: 8-12 reps at 60-70% of your max. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy will result in increased muscle mass, while presenting a less significant increase in absolute maximal output compared to the myofibril hypertrophy discussed above.

Please note that this is a simple explanation to a complex topic. It is likely that a little bit of each of these forms of hypertrophy is occurring when engaging in any type of strength training. However, you can obviously trigger which type of hypertrophy dominates based on your training protocol.

VERDICT
Heavy lifting at high resistance (80-90% of your max) with low rep counts (3-5 reps for 3-5 sets) makes you strong. It does not make you large.

MYTH #2: You don’t need to strength train until you are climbing at an elite level

I hear this all the time. I get emails about it. I even feel a little judged when I’m weight training instead of climbing (during my one session a week that I do it). If I don’t have the strength to pistol squat on a tiny foot hold on my project, who cares if my body knows that I should put my foot there? I simply won’t have the strength and power to execute.

Climbing is not always the optimal stimulus for gaining the strength needed for difficult moves. This is where lifting can help.

Here is a brief overview of my lifting, bodyweight, and climbing performance since October of 2018. Please note that my personal record in both the deadlift and my 1RM in the pull-up increased significantly while my bodyweight is actually lower than it was in October 2018. Additionally, my redpoint grade has also had a significant increase, with my first 5.12 occurring in May 2019.

Lauren Abernathy Deadlift
Me surprising the shit out of myself with a 215lb PR.

But don’t just take my opinion. Listen to what Kathryn Sall had to say about it in her article in Rock and Ice. Kathryn went from a redpoint grade of 5.10b to 5.12a in seven months. And spoiler alert, Sall didn’t stay out of the weight room because she “wasn’t a good enough climber yet”.

By now this should be old news. Lifting weights makes you stronger, and you can lift without hypertrophy. Your muscle isn’t dead weight or bulk, it’s tissue that works for you and your climbing…. Lifting in a programmatic way—developing overall strength with systematic, deliberate workouts—made me a better athlete, which made me a better climber. I got to work on my deadlift, bench press and front squat (among others).  And with consistent practice, I can now do a pull up!

Kathyryn Sall – Rock and Ice Magazine, February 2018

For the beginner climbers

Climbing is extremely demanding on the upper body as I am sure you have figured out. If you are like me, when I started climbing the prospect of doing a single pull-up seemed wildly out of my reach. At that point, and overhanging V0 boulder was basically impossible. I truly did not have the strength.

Fast forward through summer 2015. I couldn’t climb because of the location of my internship. All summer I did P90X in my apartment (which was a truly ridiculous amount of working out). No real climbing technique gains were made, but I got a LOT stronger. Despite hardly climbing at all, I came back to school in the fall smashing routes and boulders that I wasn’t strong enough to do before. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Steve Bechtel to sum up this observation:

If weight training makes you better at climbing, you probably really suck at climbing.

Steve Bechtel

So the good news is, for beginner climbers, especially if you’re new to fitness altogether, a little strength will take you a long way (looking at all of you who haven’t done their first pull-up yet). But don’t spend too much time in the weight room. To get better at climbing, you should be climbing. Strength training is a beneficial supplement to your climbing training.

A quick note for males under age 30:
Presently, many of you have the hormonal profile to gain and maintain muscle mass and not worry too much about it. You might be able to get pretty strong by just climbing and you may truly not need to weight train. Unfortunately this will not last forever. According to Harvard Health, “after age 30, you begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% per decade. Most men will lose about 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetimes.” It is very likely that you will have to incorporate targeted strength training if you want to have a long-lasting climbing career.

MYTH #3: Climbers should never perform resistance training with their legs

It is true that climbers do not need legs the size of an alpine skier to climb well. In fact, when you look at most elite climbers, especially sport climbers, you generally will not find oversized glutes, thighs or hamstrings. However, does this mean you should have weak, scrawny legs and campus up the wall? No. Think about the last time you climbed outdoors or inside. Were there any moves where you had to put your foot up really high on something really small and push off? Did you have to use your hamstrings to suck your hips into a steep overhang or compress an arete? What about heel hooking?

lauren abernathy gravity vault
Me working on my heel hook skills during a limit bouldering session.

The fact is that climbing requires strong legs for multitude of reason. The catch is that you want your legs to be very strong and not very large. Sound impossible? It’s not.

Meet Barry Ross, a world class sprint coach responsible for developing new techniques in the world of training sprinters. Check out the stats on a few of his past athletes.

Smal but Mighty

His best female multi-event athlete had deadlifted 405 pounds at a bodyweight of 132 pounds.
His youngest male lifter, 11 years old, has lifted 225 pounds at a bodyweight of 108 pounds.

Nearly all of his athletes including women can lift more than twice their bodyweight without wrist straps, and all have gained less than 10% additional bodyweight to get there.
The kicker: these results were achieved with less than 15 minutes of actual lifting time (time under tension) per week.

The Four Hour Body, Tim Ferriss, Pg. 408

Deadlifting and Squatting as Climbing Movements

Think about the actions of deadlifting. Now consider the last time you were on an overhang. Did you ever put your foot into the wall, push up on it, and subsequently straighten your leg? Looks a lot like a deadlift, doesn’t it? And what about squatting? Ever high step to a tiny hold and pistol squat on it to stand up? You’ve done all of these things because they’re critical movement patterns in climbing. And fortunately with two simple lower body exercises as a basis, you can get really strong at these movement patterns without gaining tons of weight in the lower half of your body.

So the next time someone tells you that climbers don’t need strong legs, please kindly tell them to stuff it.

In summary, work out your legs, but remember what we learned in Myth #1. In order to not get HUGE, you must lift heavy and keep the reps low.

MYTH #4: Strength Training Doesn’t Make You a Better Climber

Personally, I have made strength training a part of my routine for nearly all of my years of climbing. My strength workout is done one day per week: 3 sets of 3-4 different exercises. Every 6-8 weeks I switch up the lifts I am executing. Has my climbing improved? Yes. Has my overall strength increased? Yes. It is hard to parse out how much of my improvement is from practicing climbing and how much comes from strength training? Of course.

I firmly believe that becoming a stronger athlete has made me a better climber. Additionally, I have been training consistently and climbing consistently for two years now and I have been completely injury free.

From a more global perspective, I dare you to find an elite climber that does not have some sort of strength training protocol. Even the ever-outdoor, training minimalist Johnathan Siegrist keeps a set of weights at his home in Estes Park because he acknowledges the benefits of resistance training.

Open up the training tool box of any popular climbing trainer and you will find that their books include references to resistance training. From the Anderson brothers, to Eric Horst, to Steve Bechtel, to Kris Hampton, to Paxti Usobiaga, resistance training is commonly utilized to supplement and fortify a climber’s training regimen.

So get on board and get in the gym – for reasonable amounts of time, of course.

Resources, Further Reading & Listening

Research on differences in muscle mass between men and women.

The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss

Power Company Podcast – Kettlebell Episode

Myofibrillar vs. sarcoplasmic hypertropy

Strength Training for Rock Climbing Series from Steve Bechtel

Power Company Climbing: 4 Strength Movements you should be Doing

Lifting Guidelines with Steve Bechtel

What’s your opinion on strength training? Do you do it? Do you not do it? Are you unsure of what you should be doing? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at senderellastory@gmail.com. I would love to hear your thoughts!

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Happy Climbing!

Senderella