Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Why You Should Stop Running

Running excessively in terms of distance, duration, and frequency, that is. And replace it with High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT!

Case Study 1: Wilson Kipsang, winner of the 2012 London marathon.
Photo: Telegraph UK

Case Study 2: Polish powerlifter Vitek Wolnowski, who had a 935 kg (2061 lb) total (bench, deadlift, and squat).
Photo: Starting Strongman

The difference is striking. Although both men have significant muscle definition and excel in their respective sports, Wolnowski weighs more than twice as much as Kipsang, most of that weight coming from lean muscle mass. What gives? And why can Wolnowski never be as good as Kipsang at running marathons, and vice versa? This brings me to the topic of this article: concurrent training.

Photo: Estrella Mountain
What exactly is concurrent training? Concurrent training, the general term for combining strength and endurance programs, is one of the most hotly-debated topics in exercise science. Since the early 1980s, much research has been done on the so-called interference effect, which refers to the observed decrease in strength gains during concurrent training.

Let's go back to the powerlifter and the marathoner. What is the primary difference between the two sports? In two words: energy systems.

Of course, the human body needs a way to produce energy from fuel. It does this by using glucose in the foods we consume to generate a functional energy unit called adenosine triposphate, or ATP for short. It does this either anaerobically (without oxygen) or aerobically (with oxygen). The duration of the exercise determines which system (anaerobic or aerobic) is used. As a rule of thumb, anything up to 2 minutes (be it a powerlift, a lap around the track, or five pull-ups) utilizes the anaerobic system while anything above 10 minutes (including running a marathon) relies primarily on the aerobic system:
Note that the "crossover" point is at around 2 minutes (Photo: UTPB)
So while the marathoner relies primarily on the "long-term" aerobic system, the powerlifter is constantly working his "short-term" anaerobic system. 

Photo: Child Sleep Science
Concurrent training is of particular interest for sports that involve a combination of these aerobic and anaerobic systems, including rock climbing. Sport-climbing routes in particular consist of intervals of low (active rest), moderate (easy sequence), and high (hard “crux” sequence) intensities. Though these intervals vary greatly in duration (anywhere from less than 30 second to several minutes), the primary energy system involved is anaerobic. However, since a climber can be on a route for upwards of an hour, the aerobic system becomes an important component. As such, the dilemma most sport climbers face at one point or another is how to effectively train both systems, without one superseding the gains made by the other—otherwise, the interference effect.

There are a number of factors to consider when attempting to sort through this.

#1: I'm training the opposite system...so what?

As I mentioned in the previous post, there are two main types of muscle cells or fibers: type I ("slow-twitch"), type IIx ("fast-twitch"), as well as an intermediate type IIb fiber. A critical distinction between aerobic and anaerobic training is the type of muscle fiber that is utilized. Aerobic training engages the slow-twitch fibers while anaerobic training relies on fast-twitch fibers. Although fibers cannot inter-convert, the intermediate fibers can develop the characteristics of either slow- or fast-twitch fibers, depending on the type of exercise in which you partake. From the difference in body size alone, you can tell that the powerlifter has a high ratio of fast-twitch fibers while the marathon runner is more slow-twitch. Of course, the powerlifter has also dedicated a lot more time to building muscle; however, even if we put the marathoner on the same lifting program that the powerlifter was on, he could never put on the same amount of mass, and would remain relatively slim.

Even in climbing, boulderers tend to be a bit bigger and more built than route-climbers. Take Jan Hojer, a World Cup boulderer, and Sachi Amma, a World Cup sport-climber:

Photos: Tiffany Hensley and Gripped

 If you are still asking yourself how all of this is really relevant, and why muscle fiber-type matters, take a look at the chart below. Slow-twitch fibers are...you guessed it, slow. Additionally, they cannot generate very much power and are only really useful in long-duration endurance situations. Fast-twitch fibers are both fast and powerful, even if they do fatigue quickly. Climbing, even sport-climbing, is all about power and contact strength--being able to throw and latch onto a hold. And even though we can't change what we were born with, we can train the intermediate fibers to be more like the fast-twitch fibers--a configuration inherently beneficial to climbing. Or we can continue running and make them more like the slow-twitch fibers.

Type I (Slow)
Type IIa (Intermediate)
Type IIx (Fast)
Energy System

#2: Is climbing even aerobic?

If you are a boulderer: no. If you are a sport climber: a bit. If you are a multi-pitch climber: yes. Since boulder problems generally last less than a minute, you are relying entirely on the anaerobic system. In other words, running is essentially useless unless you are trying to lose weight (and even then, you are better off lowering your food intake rather than upping the cardio). 

#3: Specificity, specificity, specificity!

Specificity is the key to excelling in any sport. The best way to get better at climbing is by climbing. The best way to get better at running is by running. The best way to get better at climbing is not by running. And if you are concerned about your ropes-season endurance, climbing routes, not running, is your solution.

Approaching "Lost in Space" in the South Platte of Colorado (Photo: Min Kim)

When I climbed minimally but ran almost every day last winter break, my climbing went down the drain. I could barely get to the top of a V7 (or a 5.12 for the matter, even though my aerobic endurance was impeccable). When I stopped running altogether and focused more on actually climbing, I quickly found myself back in the V9-V10 range. Coincidence? I think not.

#4: ...But I enjoy running!

If you enjoy running, by all means, keep running. All I am saying is it will not be of any real benefit to your climbing. 

Personally, I like running, but I also care about climbing performance. So rather than doing what exercise physiologists have dubbed LSD (Long Slow Distance), I try to do a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout once or twice per week. Although there are a number of methods to go about it, HIIT involves alternating bouts of low and high intensity (my current workout is 60 s at 5.0 mph and 30 s at 10.0 mph, for 2.0 mi). Personally, I prefer to do this on a treadmill because you can easily switch between speeds, however, you can go outside, sprint up and down a hill, or do a different exercise altogether, even climbing! I will eventually get this down to a 1:4 (work:rest) ratio in order to focus even more on the anaerobic system, but only when I am comfortable enough running a bit faster or on a steeper incline.

If you're still not sold, HIIT also burns more fat and more calories than LSD, due to an extended EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) period following training. It can also help your climbing as it works the anaerobic system, essentially simulating route climbing. And it's more fun than zoning out at 6.0 mph.

Assessing my aerobic endurance in the lab...definitely not zoning out

So next time you are debating going out on a five mile run, maybe just take a rest day instead. As climbers, we don't get enough of those anyways (-:

Friday, July 10, 2015

Summertime Bulking

I. Introduction
For most climbers, the term “bulking” (gaining weight, particularly lean mass) is uncharted, dangerous territory, as the single most important aspect of the sport is strength-to-weight ratio. However, although climbing when you are super lightweight has its perks and is at times quite fun (particularly the ability to so easily cut your feet and swing them back in and hold onto the tiniest crimps), I personally don't enjoy being very skinny. For one, it’s not attractive. It’s always refreshing to see girls (and guys!) with muscular rather than stick-like physiques. More importantly, having a low body fat percentage is not all that healthy (women should try not to fall below 15-25%, men 10-20%), but we as climbers tend to forget that in our never-ending quest to send, send, SEND--just look at 50% of the World Cup boulderers and 75% of the sport climbers! Either way, I decided I wanted a muscular physique over the stick-like frame, and that I needed an off season anyways, after taking no more than a week off (bagel-slicing accident) since I started eight years ago.
Body types, courtesy of MenStyleFashion.com. I happen to be an ectomorph, which means my fast metabolism makes putting on both fat and lean muscle mass somewhat difficult. At the other extreme, endomorphs have a slower metabolism and as a result build mass easily.

II. Procedure
And so, for three months (May through July), I decided to learn the art of weightlifting. More specifically, I followed this program:
Photo: BodyBuilding.com
Sounds like a real bro gimmick, doesn't it? But, with the exception of preacher curls, the ridiculous amount of protein consumption (1.5-2.0 g/day), and nowhere near enough ab-work for my personal satisfaction, Dr. Stoppani had a pretty good protocol, particularly for a beginner looking for something equatable to step-by-step instructions.

The program itself followed a very standard and very much proven protocol of periodization. The entire program (macrocycle) consisted of three identical blocks (mesocycles), each of which was made up of four one-week microcycles. Each mesocycle started off high volume/low intensity and ended in low volume/high intensity:

Photo: BodyBuilding.com

In other words, the number of repetitions varied from week to week: week 1 was always 13-15 rep, week 2: 9-12, week 3: 6-8, week 4: 3-5. And since I didn't have to do as many repetitions in subsequent weeks, I would naturally increase my work load by 5-15 lbs per week to hit the desired range. D
ue to both strength gains and neuromuscular adaptations, I was able to lift more weight in the same microcycle of each mesocycle.

Drop sets with my bro Min (-:
I also did minimal cardio, of which Dr. Stoppani (and any "bodybuilder" for the matter), makes a very big deal. I will save the reasoning and scientific jargon behind this for a later post, but just keep in mind that if you are trying to build muscle, don't get on the treadmill, or limit it to a 20-minute HIIT (Hit Intensity Interval Training) workout. More on that in the near future!

In addition to these training guidelines, there were also very specific nutritional guidelines, because it is nearly impossible to get any results without proper fueling. Among these, the following are prioritized:

1) Protein (at least 20 grams) and fast-digesting carbs (white bread, fruit, even candy, to help the protein metabolize faster) are a MUST before and immediately (30-60 min) after a lifting (*coughcough* or climbing) workout.

2) For a bulk, aim for 0.75-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. In other words, if you are a 150 lb male, try to get around 150 g of protein per day. And don't be afraid to supplement with protein powders, especially whey. They are metabolized faster, which makes them ideal as part of a post-workout meal!

Each of these foods contains 20-30 g of protein (Photo: Experience Life)

      3).That being said, you can't JUST eat protein. Carbs and fats are also very important! And if your caloric intake is below your daily energy expenditure (estimate yours here), you will NOT make any gains. For tracking macronutrients or macros (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats), I used MyFitnessPal, especially at the beginning of the program, when I had no idea how much 20 g of protein or 40 g of carbohydrate was. While at the beginning the whole concept was a bit time-consuming and stressful, it has become very easy and enjoyable, and more of a guideline than anything. Right now, I track about 75% of my meals, and rarely if I'm traveling or eating out, unless it's a chain like Chipotle that posts their menu online. And that's the great thing about IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros)--you can eat some junk food and still hit your macronutrient requirements for that day, making it more of a lifestyle than a diet. Because really, who wants to eat chicken and broccoli for every meal?
Sample day of eating where I "hit my macros" and got all my protein from natural sources.

III. Hypothesis
So how exactly does periodization work in helping us gain strength very quickly and overcome plateaus? Well, let's take a look at the following chart, courtesy of the Resistance Training Specialist RTS Manual:

%1 RM
Rest (min)
Length (s)

Without getting too technical, keep in mind that your muscles are made of two types of fibers: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Let's think of the slow fibers as the "endurance fibers" and the fast fibers as the "strength fibers". When more muscle fibers are activated, a greater force is generated. Unfortunately (or not), we are born with an X amount of slow fibers and Y amount of fast fibers. And, since one type of fiber does not magically convert into the other, we are very-much genetically limited, at least in this sense. (This is why elite marathon runners have a relatively high ratio of slow fibers whereas world-class power lifters have more fast fibers.) As such, Strength or Power workouts involve primarily fast fibers while Endurance workouts use both types, since fast fibers must always be activated before slow fibers. By utilizing different repetition ranges (in this case 13-15, 9-12, 6-8, and 3-5), a periodized program is able to target both types of fibers and allows sufficient rest for the fast fibers. As a result, you can increase muscle strength and size while avoiding overtraining and plateaus (Kraemer 76).

So as a climber, if you are looking to get stronger without adding mass, stick to the 3-7 rep range and use heavier weights.

IV. Results
Through this program, I gained 18 lbs of muscle and fat (mostly muscle based on skinfold measurements after the first mesocycle, which indicated that I had gained about 6 lbs of muscle and 1 lb of fat). Put simply, the program accomplished the initial goal of bulking. See for yourself:

4/19 and 4/26
5/03 and 5/10
5/17 and 5/24
5/31 and 6/07
6/14 and 6/21
6/28 and 7/07
High contrast photo to emphasize back bulges (-:
For those of you who are also big numbers nerds like myself, here is a graphical depiction, courtesy of MyFitnessPal:
All measurements in pounds. Although you can't really tell from this chart, there was a pretty big spike at the end of May, due to the fact that my home scale is off by a pound or so. So realistically I am probably closer to 118 right now.

I'm still very lean, but this is definitely a huge step up from before. I will probably continue to bulk for a while, though on my own program (now that I have a good concept of the various exercises for each muscle group), then maybe do a mini-cut for a few weeks, just to be able to really see the gains I have made. Regardless, I will post any updates on this blog.

So the critical question then becomes, what effect did this have on my climbing?

Unfortunately, this is nearly impossible to judge. Because these workouts were so time-consuming and it was my intention to take a break from climbing, my days at Prime Climb and City Rock decreased to about once every one or two weeks. Naturally, I lost a good amount of forearm and finger strength, since you don't generally use those muscles for normal day-to-day activities. However, my foot cuts stayed pretty much the same thanks to biweekly core work, while my power improved significantly. The bottom line is, I didn't wake up at the end of this unable to climb anything. After a couple weeks of getting back into it (climbing maybe twice a week), I am now back to a V7-V8 level. And who knows  what the results would have been had I been climbing consistently throughout the bulk. 

V. Conclusion
A few last bullet points to sum everything up:
  • Dr. Stoppani's "Shortcut to Size" is a very neat and concise program with lots of cool hybrid exercises, such as these Smith machine hip thrusts:
  • However, you still have to be highly critical of every exercise and every nutritional and training guideline! Don't be lazy, do the research.
  • Likewise, both MyFitnessPal and BodyBuilding.com are great resources for anyone looking for advice/ideas on nutrition, exercises, structured workouts, and pretty much anything health- or fitness-related. Just because you're a climber, doesn't mean all your sources have to be climbing-specific! In fact, non-climbing-specific sources tend to be more reliable and backed by scientific studies.
  • Your climbing won't suck if you gain a couple pounds. That being said, going through cutting and bulking phases can be very beneficial for a climber prepping for a trip or a competition. In other words, keep that training weight on as long as possible, cut down a month or so before the trip, then put the weight on immediately after the trip (though be careful making any drastic, 300+ calorie changes, as that may slow your metabolism and cause you to keep the weight on or speed it up and cause you to keep the weight off). Is this the healthiest option? Definitely not, but still better than hovering at that single-digit body fat all year round.
  • Lifting is fun and I will definitely stick to it even though the program is done. I never thought I'd live to hear myself say, "Wow, that was such a good benching sesh" or, God forbid, anything vaguely positive related to leg day. Yet, here I am, having a blast doing front squats. On top of that, resistance training is necessary. Muscle-wise, climbers tend to be extremely unbalanced and constantly dealing with injuries. Yet all this is easily avoidable with a couple hours each week dedicated to antagonistic muscles, with exercises such as the shoulder press, chest press, and tricep work. Also, let's not entirely disregard legs, those are kinda important, especially as you get older and your muscles start to atrophy.
  • I learned so much just from doing this program. Lifting, nutrition, body building, power lifting, antagonistic work, how awful dips are for your arms, how awful preacher curls are for your biceps, etcetera! Don't let climbing be the end-all. You won't die from taking a small break and trying something new. On contrary, it will probably help heal those overuse injuries. Personally, I came out of this with a new-found appreciation for climbing, feeling as though I had fallen in love with the sport all over again.
  • And I did manage to get outside (-:
Photo: Ana Moiseyenko
Thanks for reading!


Optimizing Strength (2007) by William J. Kraemer

Saturday, June 20, 2015

New Training Page

Finally got around to making a Facebook Page for training/coaching. Shoot me an email if you are interested in either a Skype or in-person consultation!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

First Vlog!

Though I must admit I feel rather dirty having entered the egocentric world of vlogging, filming your day is also really freakin' fun! Definitely planning on making more! PS: Glog for Galina (-:

Sunday, April 5, 2015


I've been working on this sequence for about 2 months now. The goal is to be able to do 1.5-2.5-1.5 on both sides without any mantling. Coming up: Bishop and RMNP photo blogs!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Stay Tuned

The start of many more posts to come, this is a video filmmaker Hunter Pedane (who also did all the filming for Advanced Training for Climbing) just released, featuring some of CT's newest lines!