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.

There’s a story circulating right now about former NFL Offensive Lineman Matt Birk.  Birk recently retired from football and sought a lifestyle change for the sake of his health.  He dropped 75 pounds over the course of eight months.  I found the before and after photos pretty inspiring; he looks like a totally different person:

Matt Birk, before and after.

Matt Birk, before and after.

I didn’t start paying attention to my weight until 2011, and that is probably the single biggest training mistake I’ve made in my career.  I would weigh myself before hangboard workouts, but that was just to better understand my training intensity for that day’s workout.  I never weighed myself during my performance phase.  And I used to eat garbage, mostly.  When I first got out of college, I would routinely consume an entire 12-pack of Dr. Pepper cans over the course of 2-day weekend trip to the Utah dessert.  My staples were pizza (usually frozen/cardboard) and spaghetti.  At the time I felt I was pretty fit and healthy (amazingly), because I excercised all the time.  While exercise certainly can help, its very easy to wipe out hours of exercise in a few minutes of over-eating.  Furthermore, often excercise increases your appetite, making dieting much more difficult (these days, when I’m trying to get lean, I limit my exercise to a few brisk walks throughout the day.  I save the intense cardio work for the months when I’m not concerned about my weight). 

This picture was taken around 1999.  I'm on the left.  Definitely not lean and mean.  When I look at pictures of myself from this period its easy to see why I was struggling to climb 5.11

This picture was taken around 1999. I’m on the left. Definitely not lean and mean. When I look at pictures of myself from this period its easy to see why I was struggling to climb 5.11

Any serious climber should have good muscle definition throughout their body.  If you don’t, you could probably stand to lose some weight, and the amount may surprise you.  For me, the difference between my mom thinking I’m skinny and actually being skinny is about 10 pounds.  Anyone with hangboard experience knows that’s a huge amount of weight to your fingers, and so, a tremendous variable in climbing performance (obviously the amount will vary from climber to climber).

If you’re already lean, you may be able to trim a significant number of pounds by shedding un-needed mass in your lower body.  If that sounds like you, see this post.

The rest of us just need to go on a diet! It’s easy to adopt a fatalistic attitude, but the fact is we have a great deal of control over our destiny.  The human body is amazingly “plastic”, meaning it can adapt and change to suit different needs.  Even for those at the advanced age of 37, like Matt Birk ;). 

There are many healthy and reliable ways to lose weight, but I think the biggest barrier facing most climbers is simply that they don’t believe its possible, or important. A lot of people think that weight loss can only be accomplished through copious amounts of suffering and self-denial, but making a few simple substitutions in your diet can go a long way. Our upcoming book has an extensive and thoroughly researched chapter on Weight Management, so I won’t go into too much detail, but here are a few quick tips:

  • Get a scale and use it daily; it can be very motivating
  • Eat lots of veggies, and most fruits are ok too
  • Protein and Fiber are your friends; eat a reasonable amount of LEAN protein each day (not a full rack of pork ribs), and eat as much fiber as you can stand
  • Avoid eating foods high in carbohydrates (basically anything that tastes good when you’re already full)
  • Don’t drink anything but water

For example, instead of whatever you normally eat for lunch, try a salad of spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and tuna, dressed in a modest amount of balsamic vinagrette.  You could eat these foods until your stomach is on the verge of exploding and still loose weight.  For dinner, eat a lean piece of grilled chicken breast or grilled fish, with sides of steamed vegetables (like brocolli or sparagus).  Skip the rice, potatoes, bread, etc.  If you crave lots of sweets like me, load up on fruits (watermelon is king, but canteloupe, grapes, apples and pears are good options too).

If you choose to go on a diet, remember there is a point of diminishing returns.  Your body needs energy to perform well, and constantly starving yourself will inhibit your performance more than an extra pound of lost weight will help. Experiment with different healthy weights until you find that “sweet spot” where you perform at your best.  For me, I’ve gotten down to 139 pounds in recent years, but I find I perform the best around 143-145 lb.  At that weight I’m more energetic, I have a better attitude, and I’m still resistant to illness and injury.

A leaner me, in 2013, age 35.

A leaner me, in 2013, age 35.

Excessive, persistent dieting can lead to injury and illness.  Most serious athletes will “cycle” their weight management on and off, as with physical training.  That’s great news for people like me who love food!  That means you can have periods of enjoying life’s many treats, and periods where you buckle down and send (that said, “yo-yo dieting” can wreak havoc on your metabolism, making weight loss extremely difficult, so keep your variations within reason). 

When I’m ARCing and hangboarding, I eat pretty much whatever I want within reason (although I have a fairly healthy diet now, even when I’m not on a diet).  I aim to stay within 10 lbs of my goal weight, but otherwise I will eat (and drink) whatever I please. During my power phase I begin adjusting my eating habits, with the goal of reaching my ideal sending weight near the end of my performance phase.

Weight is a tremendous factor in performance–as important as strength.  Fortunately its actually pretty easy to manage once you learn how.  If you have any other tips for healthy weight loss, please post them in a comment below.

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7 thoughts on “Where There’s A Will, There’s a Way to Weigh Less

  1. I’ve often thought that I could make more progress by losing 10 pounds than I could by any amount of training. So I agree with your post wholeheartedly.
    I just finished an interesting book, “Mindless Eating” by Brian Wansink which addresses many of the reasons we tend to eat more than we should. He is the researcher who did the study with the ‘bottomless soup bowl’ where diners continued to eat and eat as their bowl refilled itself automatically. His research suggests simple solutions to cutting back on calories- smaller plates, putting junk food in inconvenient locations, etc, all to cut back a few hundred calories a day. Which is enough for most of us.
    BTW, it’s great to see you posting more often. Looking forward to your book!

    • Mark,

      That’s a great book, and we discuss it extensively in our book. Smaller plates is a great trip, as well as just making food harder to get to. Another good one is to split up larger bags/containers of food into smaller containers, so you can tell how much your eating. A huge bag of tortilla chips is a sure ticket to over-eating!
      Thanks for the thoughts,
      Mark

  2. I was always unsure of “How much is too much” when it came to dieting. After cutting weight for a long time, I noticed weird muscle twitches/spasms that I had never had before. I was also constantly tired and my skin never healed fast enough (or even completely). The wake-up call finally came when I nearly fainted in the gym. I was 132 lbs and just shy of 6ft tall.

    After that I quit dieting, started eating when hungry and added on 13 lbs (it took less than a month) and it’s like being a new person. It just took so long to cut the last few pounds that I forgot what “Normal” even felt like. In hindsight, I just didn’t pay attention to what my body was telling me.

    Thanks for the post, looking forward to the new book.

    Tipton

    • Tipton,

      Thanks for sharing. I was a wrestler in high school and I used to “cut weight” for competitions. I was clueless about healthy weight loss in those days, so I know first-hand what you are talking about. That’s part of the reason I shunned weight management for so many years–I had very bad experiences with it early on.

      However, I’ve recently had an epiphany that has re-shaped my viewpoint, and it is simply this: If you eat the right foods, you can pretty much eat as much as you want. There is no need to “starve” yourself, crave food all the time, and feel generally miserable and irritable. The trick is finding the right foods, but its really not that hard: lean protein, fruits and vegetables are a great place to start. Stay away from foods that are high in simple carbs or refined sugar. Sugar in particular has the peculiar effect of increasing your appetite, so if you find yourself pounding a box of Oreos, never feeling satisfied, the reason is that your Glycemic Response is telling your brain that you’re still hungry, when in fact you’re stuffed. Foods with a low Glycemic Index, like lean protein and vegetables, make you feel full and satisfied, allowing you to eat less without constantly craving more food.

      I’m being overtly brief here, but this is all explained extensively in the book.
      Mark

  3. You can train your brain to feel full and not overeat, by eating same foods every day. Say granola and yogurt for breakfast, turkey sandwich for lunch and some protein + veggies for dinner. This way your brain doesn’t go “Wow, what was that? Can I have some more?”, but treats foods as simple fuel. Eventually your portions normalize and you just eat whatever you need. Also, besides sugar, two most addictive ingredients are salt and fat – so reducing your salt intake is not only for old people trying to control hypertension. Check out “Salt Sugar Fat” by Michael Moss. You can get the gist of the book in this NY Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html

  4. I basically did what you are talking about here a few months back (coincided with my first dedicated climbing training phase based loosely on your R.P. article). No sugar, almost no grains, no weekday beers, force myself to eat massive piles of veggies, and then as much fruit, eggs, and meat as I wanted.

    The other thing that I did was count calories. I didn’t set a limit, but just keeping track forced me to think about everything I ate, which helped a lot. I always ate as much as I needed and never felt hungry, in fact I enjoyed my food a lot! I dropped 20 pounds in about 6 weeks and felt better than ever while climbing!

  5. i was on the high carb endurance athlete diet for most of 20’s, but at 30 I hopped on a semi-paleo diet because of some general inflammatory issues. while my intent had nothing to do with weight, simply switching carbs out for fat allowed me to drop 18 lbs in a few months. i had climbed v10 at 170 lbs so the cut to 152 lbs was immense in terms of quantifiable strength and power gains. in addition, the glycogen sparing qualities of a low carb diet were very welcome on long days at the crag. my energy drink/energy bar friends would be dead by 3 PM while i was still working through projects.

    since then i’ve toyed around with different macro ratios and found a sweet spot (carb feedings x2 a week) where i can hold my weight and not feel like garbage. i tend to plump up a bit during the off season and then start a slow reduction in carbs to get ready for the season. if i start to feel bad i just do a carb night to reset my hormones and replenish the glycogen stores and then i’m right as rain.

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