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This article was originally published in Gym Climber.
My teenage son is belaying me on a route I keep getting stuck on. Desperate for some insight, I shout down, “What next?”
“Up!” he replies.
That’s not what I’m looking for. I want something useful. Likewise, coaches sometimes give bad beta.
A climber asks, “What can I do to get better?” The coach’s reply: “Lose weight.”
Most climbers think that the simple act of losing weight will help them climb better. But is that bad beta?
A high strength-to-weight ratio is needed in climbing. Most climbers try to optimize that by losing weight. Anecdotes are ubiquitous. The message is clear and persistent: Shed weight if you want to climb hard. Chelsea Rude, professional climber and founder of She Sends Collective, agrees. “I stand firmly on the fact that climbing, for better or worse, is a sport that crowns those who have better strength-to-weight ratios … if they are trying to perform and find their potential. It’s fact.” But, Rude adds, “That said, I do not think that losing weight is the magic ingredient to suddenly be able to send your project, break through to the next level, or win that National Championship.”
Attitudes Toward Food
In 2019, researchers asked 605 climbers about their attitude toward eating and food using a questionnaire called the Eating Attitudes Test (EAT-26), which measures the risk of eating disorders. This test measures responses to statements like, “I am terrified about being overweight,” and “I feel extremely guilty after eating.” They asked participants if they agreed with, “My climbing performance would improve if I lost body weight,” and “I try to decrease my body weight and body fat to improve my climbing performance.”
Across the board, climbers agreed with these statements. The climbers who scored higher on the eating-disorder questionnaire also more often agreed that body fat or body weight is important to climbing ability.
For some individuals, losing weight may be helpful to performance. Imagine someone who was 50 pounds “overweight.” Would they benefit from shedding a few pounds? The answer is probably yes, as long as that weight loss is accompanied by preservation of or increased strength. But in light of evidence that shows us that weight loss is usually not sustainable, and can be a large stressor on mental and physical health, focus first on nutrition, training, experience, skills and strength.
Given the available studies, we have enough data that says training variables are much more important to climbing ability than weight, especially if you’re already a “normal” weight (BMI ranging from about 19-25).
Hayden James, a registered dietitian, recreational climber, and owner of Satiate Nutrition, agrees. “Perhaps weight loss could be performance enhancing to a certain extent for adults in larger bodies, but adult climbers will likely reap the most benefits from a consistent structured training regimen, and nutrition optimization … I’ve heard many comments from climbers sharing their desire to lose weight. More often than not, these comments come from very lean individuals. Body weight likely matters to a certain extent; I speculate that climbing is likely more challenging for those living in larger bodies.”
What about all those climbers that lose weight and say they climb better? There are a lot of confounding variables. Was it specifically the weight loss that made them climb better? Or was it the higher-quality diet? An intense focus on meaningful training? More kale, less cookies. More sleep, less beer. More training, less Netflix. The weight loss may have been ancillary.
It may be scientifically sound from a strength-to-weight ratio to tell a climber to lose weight. But is it morally and ethically appropriate? The answer depends on the climber’s health history, current weight, climbing ability, and other factors. Of course weight matters, but so do mental and physical health. Some climbers may do very well losing some body fat, while with others, weight loss may be contraindicated.
Many studies that take a look at anthropometrics—which refers to measurable body characteristics, such as weight, height, body mass index (BMI), ape index, and body composition—show that climbers are lighter than the general population, and even lighter than other athletes. Elite climbers are often lighter than other climbers. So, do you have to be thin to be better? Not necessarily. As they say in the research world, correlation does not equal causation.
In one study from 2018, published in the Brazilian Journal of Kinanthropometry and Human Performance, researchers examined climbers—measuring their body fat, BMI, ape index and leg span, plus fitness levels with tests like balance, grip strength, jump height, pullups, and bent-arm hangs to see which parameters could determine climbing ability. They found that body fat didn’t have a direct effect on climbing performance, particularly at the elite levels. In fact, “ … a large portion of the variance in climbing ability can be attributed to trainable variables.”
These findings are verified by other researchers who conducted similar studies. A 2015 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that only about 4 percent of climbing ability is due to anthropometrics. According to Mermier’s calculations, body weight and body fat have only a 1.8 percent impact on climbing ability.
In all the studies that pinch, prod and measure climbers, the climbers were already at a “normal” weight and “normal” BMI. The researchers were basically studying climbers whose strength-to-weight ratio was already pretty good. They simply found out that if you are already “normal” and you compare yourself to another climber that’s also “normal,” the difference in your climbing ability has to do with training, experience and strength—not weight.
All of these studies were also descriptive. This means they take a “snapshot” of climbers’ ability, fitness and anthropometrics at a certain time period. They did not study them over time or make any sort of intervention. The researchers simply measure climbers, put them through a battery of tests, and report the data. There is no randomized
control trial, which is the “gold standard” of research. There is no study where they took two groups of climbers—a control group and an experimental weight-loss group—to see if a group that lost weight improved their climbing.
Weight and Performance
We need to be careful with recommending weight loss for climbing performance. Adolescents are especially vulnerable. Coaches may perceive that adolescents are gaining weight or putting on body fat and be tempted to tell them to lose weight. But this can be incredibly harmful and short-sighted. Females gain about 40 pounds over the course of puberty, and often put on fat mass. This is healthy, normal and appropriate.
Emphasis on weight loss also puts climbers at risk for eating disorders and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), also referred to as low energy availability. Consider the sobering side effects of under-fueling your body. These consequences can occur at any weight, even in “overweight” bodies.
- Lost bone mass
- Lost muscle mass
- Decreased cardiovascular capacity
- Decreased immunity
- Hormone imbalances
- Lost or irregular period (females)
- Decreased testosterone (males)
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Reduced brain volume
- Increased risk for injury
- Decreased coordination
- Decreased glycogen stores
- Decreased training response
- Delayed or stunted growth and puberty (adolescents)
Ashley, a recreational climber I spoke with, said, “I have noticed that at my lightest weight, I did not climb at the level that I currently am … my energy levels weren’t the highest and my recovery times were awful … I would feel exhausted and pumped. Now at a ‘heavier’ weight, my sessions are longer and more effective.”
Rude agrees. Referring to losing weight and her period, she says, “I was afraid of continuing down that path because of injury and the fatigue I was feeling. I think I got scared because I knew better … Most, if not all, climbers … can improve without having to cut weight. More longer-term gains in climbing can come from improvements in technique, analysis and adjustment of specific types of movements, conditioning exercises, improvement of mental game, and for some, even more rest!”
Jeremy Artz is a climber in a bigger body trying to get the word out that all body shapes should climb. He writes, “I think body weight matters in the sense that climbing is
a power-to-weight ratio sport … Good technique makes up for a lot of sins, but at some point, strength-to-weight will become an issue. [But] I’ve seen some relatively bigger climbers climb difficult problems.”
If you’re wondering how to enhance performance and support training, go see a sports physician, qualified trainer, and sports dietitian. Avoid the knee-jerk reaction to lose weight. Never put an adolescent on a weight-loss diet or comment on their body. Coaches, fellow climbers, parents and trainers should avoid talking about weight with any climber at any age. Don’t comment on food choices. Do not forbid foods.
What can you do to send hard, crush it, and get better at climbing? When considering optimizing your strength-to-weight ratio, seek advice from coaches, physicians, and trainers, and dietitians to explore whether this is right for you and how to do it appropriately. Fuel your body. Eat enough. Train right. Sleep. Spend time learning skills. Get stronger. Be kind to your body.
From the Athletes
Molly Mitchell, 5.14 trad climber
I think it would be naive to say that weight doesn’t play a role in how you feel climbing. Climbing is by nature a strength-to-weight ratio sport. However, I do not think it’s as big of a factor as the strength part. You need to be able to build lean muscle, and that’s hard if you’re just trying to stay super light all the time. And you need your head to be less concerned about what you weigh and more present with learning, trying hard and having fun.
The focus should never be simply on how much you weigh—this is a slippery slope and has caused many eating disorders in our sport. Best answer I can give is to eat healthy, not less. I eat a lot but it’s o.k. because most of it is healthy (although I like treating myself to some cookies here and there!) and I train and climb a lot. My body needs the calories to recover. I think kids are particularly at risk for the eating disorders developing in our sport. It’s incredibly important to make sure that kids who start climbing young understand that it’s totally normal to gain weight during puberty, and maybe feel a little off for a bit. The weight will actually help them in the long run.
Also, for adults, I believe it’s completely acceptable to drop a couple pounds when you feel close to sending your project. Again, though, this can’t be taken too far or you will lose energy and injure yourself and that will outweigh the positives of the light feeling. And as in everything, once the project is complete, it’s beneficial to give your body a break and gain the weight back. I call it “fighting weight,” and I only go down to it when I’m close on a project. And I know my limit for what I absolutely cannot go below.
It’s hard to tell someone what works best because weight is a sensitive topic that should be handled carefully. We are all different, and our bodies work differently. So, to each their own. Most of the time, I don’t use a scale because I don’t want the weight issue to get in the way of me trying as hard as I can—if I know I’m a little heavier than previous days, I might be more likely to latch onto that and sabotage myself. I only bring out a scale if I am extremely close on my project and just am curious what I’m at, and if dropping a pound or two might be slightly beneficial.
Jon Cardwell, 5.15 climber
With climbing, it’s obvious that strength-to-weight ratio can play an important role in performance. It is, after all, the challenge, pulling up against the force of gravity.
However, in my climbing experience, I’ve thought little about weight being the most important factor, as climbing to me seems to be so much more complicated. Strength and endurance, recovery, plenty of sustainable energy, and having a focused mind, among many other things, are important, and all of these factors benefit from a healthy diet. If you restrict that diet, you probably will only get a short-term result until inevitably something gives out.
No doubt there have been times where I’m lighter, but that was a result of increased activity. For example, hiking to Céüse or RMNP to go climbing 4-5 days a week. And on those days and seasons it was especially important for me to give my body the necessary nutrients during and after. I felt good, and I was having a blast. My head was in a good spot. That being said, I remember departing from a trip in Spain a few years ago. I was climbing with Matty Hong, and he was trying Fight or Flight (5.15b). He stayed a few extra days because it was just too close to leave. The morning I left, I bought some gummy worms, left them on the table and said good luck! I was on the flight home when he sent later that day, and when I landed I congratulated him and asked if he ate the worms. He said he “crushed them” before they went to the crag. I’m not saying gummy worms are the key to success, and no doubt Matty is actually pretty healthy, but the moral stands, the less stress you put on yourself, the better you’re able to focus and eventually perform.