Friday, November 18, 2016

Strength Foundations for Climbers by Markham Tuck

And now for something a little different.

Below is a guest post by my friend and rock climber, Markham Tuck. Although this is focused towards climbers, it has relevance to those in many other sports as well.


If there is one thing you can count on a climber for, it is being injured. If not currently climbing through an injury, you can damn well bet they have a laundry list of issues or a few scars for show and tell. By nature, climbers tend to be pretty intense & possibly a bit of a masochistic bunch. Once the climbing bug bites, psych for the sport is high & time dwindles so that there is not much else outside of climbing.

The same tenacity that leads to success can lead to problems over time.

One:  Climbing relies on the strength of connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, fascia, etc) in addition to muscle tissue. “Great!”, you say. Well, connective tissue has a limited blood supply compared to muscle or skin. What this amounts to is connective tissue adapts to load significantly slower than muscle tissue. Around ten times slower. “Shit!”, you say.

Two:  Climbing as a sport is on “the fringe” & relatively young. There is not a lot of training information out there & many climbers lack any formal training from other sports. Ultimately, the foundations of athleticism are highly under utilized.

I grew up playing all the typical American sports & even enjoyed some of them! I found climbing during my undergraduate studies. Needless to say, it has stuck & like most climbers, I have sustained a few injuries along the way. Fast forward to my doctorate studies where I learned to love weightlifting just about as much as climbing. I have consumed more literature than I care to recall on both of these disciplines. What I will review here is what I believe every climber should be doing to have a long & healthy climbing career.

  • “Do No Harm” - D.F.Y.U – see reference below

  • Go on a walk daily, take the stairs, & make a habit of the 5-minute flow – see reference below.

  • Practicing the specific without the general usually leads to short term gains followed by injuries. Sound familiar?

  • Spend your time wisely - 80% on your sport, 10% on strength, 10% on everything else.

  • Getting strong is easy, so do it the easiest way possible.

  • Your strength regimen should deliver great strength gains without exhausting your energy or time.

  • Aerobic conditioning has value for all types of athletes, but dose varies.

  • There is value in bilateral lifts, unilateral lifts, & bodyweight exercises.

  • For self trained athletes, some level of coaching has value. Don’t totally go it alone.

  • “A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.” Get screened & tested.

  • Be careful mixing up sport specificity and strength training. If you aren’t sure, do your sport & get stronger in the basic lifts/movements. Skip all the junk.  Do the basic human movements listed and go climb. Anything added to that, you should be more wary of.

  • Keep the goal, the goal.

  • Train barefoot when possible or as close as possible. (i.e. vans, converse, etc.)

If you have made it this far, you are probably wondering, “Now where the hell should I start?” Let’s go through this stepwise to ensure you leave with something actionable.

Logistics: Time & Equipment.
Okay, what do you have? This part I cannot answer for you. Take stock of what equipment & time you have available. You do not need much of either to develop & maintain a strength foundation. Remember, keep it simple. Ideally, access to a set of rings, barbell, dumbbells, &/or kettlebells would be great, but you can get away with little else outside of your bodyweight. If you are looking to purchase equipment of your own, nothing is superior to a couple kettlebells & a set of rings. They are cheap, portable, versatile, & compliment climbing well. Will you be training at home or in a gym? How many times a week will you go? 2 times a week is a good minimum and you can even do a 5 day a week program like Even Easier Strength.

This will go hand in hand with your time commitment. Remember how total training time should be allotted: 80% climbing & 20% for strength, mobility, & flexibility work. Let’s say you climb 3-4 times a week for a total of 6-8 hours. Roughly 5-6.5 hours should be spent dedicated to climbing & the rest should be spent on your strength, mobility, & flexibility work. For instance a gym session could be: you warm-up with strength, mobility, & flexibility work, climb, & then finish with strength, mobility, & flexibility work as well.
How Much:
  • A total of 10-30 reps of any movement broken into a few sets is fine. Don’t go to total failure on any set.
  • Do mobility work in between sets of strength exercises – bird dogs, stretching, joint circles, anything from the Groundwork category below.
  • Get the technique correct, THEN start adding weight or difficulty.
  • Remember, to perform your lifts AFTER climbing so that you don’t pattern poor climbing technique.

For more information on programming, consider the “Easier Strength” & “Even Easier Strength” from Dan John. These could be done year round & I am willing to argue this is all an athlete needs during their “on season.” During “off season”, focusing more time on strength gains may be beneficial, but that is outside the focus of this particular article.

Below you will find a list of the fundamental movements everyone should be training. A session should have a mix of ALL of these movements with proper technique. There is no need for isolation of body parts unless you are looking to compete in bodybuilding. If that is the case, then this article is not meant for you.

  • 1. Push – Push Ups, Bench Press, Kettlebell Shoulder Press.
  • 2. Pull – Batwings, Pull-ups, Chin-ups, Rows, IYT’s.
  • 3. Hinge – Bridges, Bulgarian Goat Bag Swings, Deadlift, Kettlebell Swings.
  • 4. Squat – Goblet Squats, Front/Back Squats, Split Squats, Pistol Squats, Lunges.
  • 5. Loaded Carry – Farmer Walk, Suitcase Carry, Waiter Carry, Sled Push/Pull.
  • 6. Groundwork – Bear Crawl, Crab Walk, Get Back Ups, Bird-Dogs.
  • 7. Core – Ab Wheel, L-Hangs/Sits, Windshield Wipers, Windmills.
  • 8. Climber specific – Forearm Antagonist Work & Shoulder Work.

***The majority of these exercises are able to be performed in some variation no matter the equipment you have access to & if done with proper technique, “core” will be worked in all movements. Using tension properly will transfer over to climbing. Climber’s should be doing forearm antagonist & shoulder work daily or at least before & after every climbing session. Climbers typically have pull covered, stick with IYT’s, especially on climbing days.

During a climber’s (or any type of athlete’s) “on season”, “Even Easier Strength” by Dan John is king. Find more on this type of training in Dan John & Pavel Tsatsouline’s book “Easy Strength” – see reference below.

Are you getting better or just tired?
  • Progression in climbing grades; Ease/Efficiency of movement.
  • Standing broad jump. Should jump body height. Landing measured at heels.
  • 30” dead hang to strict pull-up. Repeat. How many can you do?
  • “Know Thyself: A Climbing Self-Assessment” – Steve Maisch
  • Strength Standards

Strength standards to strive for – see Dan John’s article for progressions.
Push (Bench Press)
1.25x bodyweight
.75x bodyweight
Pull (Pull-Up)
bodyweight + 75%
bodyweight + 50%
Hinge (Deadlift)
2x bodyweight
1.5x bodyweight
Squat (Single Leg Squat)
5 reps at bodyweight
5 reps at bodyweight
Loaded Carry (Farmer Walk)
.5x bodyweight per hand
.5x bodyweight per hand
Strict Hanging Leg Raise
10 reps at 3 sec count
10 reps at 3 sec count
***Groundwork – you either do it, or you don’t. No standards to measure.

In closing, I want to touch on a few last items:
  • Remember that you don’t need to feel exhausted in order to gain strength. In fact, it is better to leave a little in the tank. Why exhaust yourself in the weight room when you really want to be performing while climbing?

  • Check your ego at the door. Is lifting heavy rewarding? Hell yes. Is lifting heavy with poor technique rewarding? Hell no. Poor technique with load ends with injury. The whole point of this is to prevent injury & perform well. Do not be afraid to regress or re-learn the basics. The best of the best know the basics better than anyone. “Move well, then move often.” - Gray Cook.
  • Remember to be intentional about what you are doing. I often see climbers performing antagonist movements with limp wrists, lazily flopping around weight. If you cannot execute technique, then back off the weight. Once again, check your ego. I can assure you, no one gives a shit how much weight you are using for wrist extensions.

  • Developing & maintaining a foundation of strength will aid with injury prevention & promote endless health benefits. Strong is healthy.

  • Climbers like to think climbing is such a unique sport, but we have a great deal to gain from looking at what has worked in other sports. Especially when it comes to foundations. When it comes to sport-specific strength training (i.e. finger strength) trust the experts who have excelled before you. I focus on foundations here since they are largely overlooked in the climbing community.

  • Keep a training journal. For yearly planning, write out goals, dates, & a general plan based on what has worked in the past & what has worked for others. Acknowledge times of year you cannot train much. Make checklists and follow them. Keep your brain free.

Countless discussions with John Karrasch have inspired me to put this down on paper. I owe him a great deal of thanks for contributing to this & for always engaging in a good conversation.

– Dr. Markham P. Tuck, PharmD

“Easy Strength” – Dan John & Pavel Tsatsouline

“Intervention: Course Corrections for the Athlete and Trainer” – Dan John

“3 Flexibility Exercises Everyone Should Do” – Max Shank

“D.F.Y.U.” – Andy Kirkpatrick

“Climb Strong: Strength: Foundational Training for Rock Climbing”  – Steve Bechtel

“Know Thyself: A Climbing Self-Assessment” – Steve Maisch

“Strength Standards” – Dan John

Videos for forearm antagonist work, shoulder work, & IYTs

Basic Movements and Mobility Work Guide from Dan John

Monday, October 24, 2016

2016 Oak Ass 50. DFYU.


That is probably the number one rule leading into a race or any important event, really. It is why people say to not change things on the bike or try new supplements before a race. People ask me about carb loading before a race and I always laugh a bit. I have no idea how many carbs are in my dinners any given night and am not sure how I would go about further loading that upwards. Eat until full, have a beer or two, go to sleep. I'll be opening my nutritional coaching services any day now, thanks.

But anyway, D.F.Y.U. If you don't get that look at Andy Kirkpatricks article here:

I wasn't totally sure I would be racing or volunteering Oak Ass (Cahaba 50 for you tender eared folk) but in either case, a jacked up back is a bad thing. I woke up in the middle of the night early Friday with exactly that. Wonderful...Saturday left me pretty sore still and I had unintentionally broke my rule of not messing myself up pre race. We had an influx of NICA teams to help with the race which meant I was off to race. I chose the 50 mile option so I would have time to help volunteer afterwards.

I chatted with Jason Bierly and Nick Kirby pre race. They were both worse off than me with some cracked ribs so I kept my pre race excuse making to a minimum. Nobody really cares how anyone slept or ate before a race. That is why prizes are given for placings...not stories!

We had a smaller field this year with about 7 riders for the 100 mile, 50 or so 50 milers and 20 or so in for the 25 mile option. I promised myself I would go hard at the start to avoid the ever frustrating singletrack backlog. I ran a 34/20 gear on my new Superfly and it was pretty perfect for this course. I am not in great shape right now but didn't want to waste my technical ability piddling behind nervous riders. I sucked wheel pretty hard all the way to the singletrack. One geared rider even laughed at me and gave me a push on a slight downhill! The group had some tension to it and that helped break it up some.

Once into the first mile or two of seven bridges I was happy I made the hard effort on the road as I only had one SS rider in front of me: Chad Brandon. I have not met Chad but when I rode at Monte Sano recently his name came up pretty often with nothing but good things mentioned. I made a few passes and was amazed by how dusty the trail was. Hm. I hadn't worn glasses but I think the only helpful kind would have been ski goggles. One rider I passed had a loud, loosely affixed seat pack which was amplified by an erratic riding style. Stiff as a board this fella was. As unsure as he was of the trail, he was pretty set on making me work to make a pass. Thanks, Loose Jangly Seat Bag Guy. Never ride behind someone with a carelessly installed seat bag. You'll wish you hadn't.

My back and hamstrings were really sore and stayed that way most of the race so I won't mention those items again. I focused on the task at hand: not getting passed by Jason Bierly.

Jason is a good rider and I was happy to be in front of him. I was feeling good so went hard through the rest of the singletrack and up the fire road climb. The dust and cool temps were really hurting my vision once we entered Jekyll and Hyde. Hyde was as miserable as I expected. I could barely see where I was but know the trail well and only unclipped once each lap through the rockier parts. Total dusty moonscape action up there. Jekyll brought its own challenges with some loose pine straw about. I have crashed through there before so took it easy and popped out on the road with the lone 100 mile singlespeeder. He was from ATL and we had a good chat up to the top of the Peavine climb. He had a good 100 pace going but I dunno if he finished.

I got away from him and Robin Wilkes on the Blood Rock descent and rode through to the end of the 1st lap alone. 2:09. Oops. Too fast. I started feeling some heavy leg fatigue about 30 miles into the know, like you are racing a bike. That sort of feeling. It sucks but is the price of actually trying and not just surviving. I realized soon enough why I felt so bad...not enough food. My calorie math was off and it was time to play catch up. I grabbed the Lemon Larabar from my pocket and was pretty bummed to see it had been sitting unwrapped for at least a few weeks in my car. A couple bites and I tossed it in a ditch where it belonged. I walked part of the climb. I felt so bad. I never really walk the fire road but it seemed appropriate and nobody was watching, so what the was a nice walk and I felt a bit better after. I saw Lon Cullen at the top walking his broken bike. He gave me some kind words and really lifted my spirits. I felt grateful for being on a bike in the woods regardless of how shitty I felt.

Jekyll and Hyde was much better this lap but I rode totally alone the 2nd lap. Pretty weird for middle of a race. The Peavine climb sucked again and I was happy to have my TOGS thumb rester things. The extra position really helps on longer rides. My legs came back around for the last 45 minutes or so and I was feeling good once back in the singletrack. Still no Jason or singlespeeders and I wanted to keep it that way so went a bit harder than my legs were happy with. I have been passed in the last couple miles of races before and it is never a good spot to be in. Out on the road and over the timing mat for a 2nd place Singlespeed spot and 10th or so overall. 2nd lap was a 2:30 which felt incredibly slow. It felt like the hardest race I have ever done but I think they all feel like that and I forget the pain really fast or something like that. I had a pretty awesome time and it felt good to get a solid placing on the course I designed. Eddie and Chainbuster did a great job keeping things smooth as always and the volunteers I came across were all awesome.

I have no idea what will happen with Oak Ass next year...I'll update everyone with info as it comes to me but springtime might be a nice spot with it slotted as a training ride to prep for Skyway Epic.