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Mountain Athlete: Weight Training for Climbing
Posted on: June 4, 2008
Exum Mountain Guide Christian Santelices hauling rocks at Mountain Athlete, an experimental training facility in Jackson, Wyoming, opened by self proclaimed gym rat Rob Shaul.
Editor's Note: Thanks to Rob Shaul for his commitment to physical fitness as it relates to climbing, and specifically for sharing this introspective, in-depth look at his evolving regimen and facility. Visit www.mtnathlete.com to learn more.
Serious alpine firepower inhabited the gym Monday night.
Teton climbing legend, Avalanche Institute Founder, and Exum Senior Guide Rod Newcomb, in his mid-70s and shirtless, was firing through sets of sit-ups holding a 25# plate.
Rob Hess, third American to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen, 2007 AMGA Guide of the Year, and part owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides pounded out sets of ten body-weight dips, eyes blazing.
Up-and-comer Andy Bardon, 6'4", 190 pounds, whose sole reason for living in Jackson is to mountaineer, attacked the tire drag—having loaded it with 80-pound sand bags—while carrying a water-filled keg over his head.
Brendan O'Neill suffered through walking lunges holding 75 pounds in kettlebells. The two-time North American ski-mountaineering champion has climbed El Cap in a day and redpointed 5.13, but this was just his third session in the gym, and he's still acquiring an appetite for this intensity of training. On the platform Nat Patridge pulled set after set of light dead lifts, drilling form. The senior Exum Guide is an incredible skier—the former director of Jackson Hole Alpine Guides, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Avalanche forecaster/guide for High Mountain Heli-Skiing, Jackson Hole and Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, Alaska. Nat can strap on a pair of boards and drop off into a 55-degree couloir no problem, but he's a relative newbie in the iron game, and he's still dialing his dead lift technique.
My own mountain resume is pathetically thin. I've rock climbed maybe six times in my life. And even though I grew up skiing, I'd rate my ability after three decades as "stuck in the intermediate range."
Yet there I was barking instructions, coaching, cajoling and encouraging these world-class alpinists and Jackson Hole mountain elites to add weight, lift more, drag faster, work harder and demonstrate some friggin' mental toughness.
I grew up in Pinedale, Wyoming, an hour south of Jackson, and have been a gritty gym rat since I was 12 years old. Over the years I've helped dozens of new lifters with technique and programming in the gym, and eventually I was certified as a strength and conditioning coach. I looked to Jackson to open a gym and got it into my head that I wanted to train mountaineers. I rented an industrial warehouse, put down rubber flooring, bought a few barbells, and named my gym "Mountain Athlete Strength and Conditioning."
Christian Santelices climbing a notch on Mt. Shuksan in the Cascades during his AMGA Alpine Guide’s Exam. Santelices notes that his endurance and recovery time greatly improved due to training at Mountain Athlete, helping him stack big days in the mountains. [Photo] Christian Santelices collection
This wasn't a "build it and they will come" type of deal. There is no strong tradition of alpinists conditioning themselves in the gym for events on the rock. Indeed, even now when many of the top US climbers and mountaineers are asked how they train, they respond, "I just climb." And perhaps they go for long cardio runs or bike rides.
There are exceptions. Back in the day John Bachar managed his own outdoors gym complete with barbells and other weight-lifting equipment in Yosemite. I understand Todd Skinner hammered the weights, and I've heard stories about Alex Lowe's brutal training sessions.
I owe Mark Twight greatly. In Extreme Alpinism Twight outlines a gym-based, strength and conditioning program for mountaineers, and has since enhanced that greatly through his Salt Lake City gym, Gym Jones, and website, www.gymjones.com. Mark's mountaineering accomplishments, and his connected belief in gym training, helped give my program a thread of credibility when I first started out and spoke with skeptical mountaineers. From the beginning Mark and his wife, Lisa, have been very supportive.
It took some convincing. The Jackson climbers I initially approached to train in the gym blew me off completely, put off by my own mountain inexperience and an aversion to weight training.
So I approached Exum Mountain Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides offering to train their guides in exchange for feedback on how my programming affected performance in the mountains.
Even with this deal, just a handful of guides from Exum, and only Rob Hess, owner of JHMG, took up the offer. Many came into the gym bringing decades of high-level athletic accomplishment, but little to no weightlifting experience. Just about all had a bias against training inside, and stereotypes of what "weight lifters" looked and trained like.
The fact that my gym lacks the mirrors, weight lifting machines, aerobics room and cardio equipment of typical commercial gyms helped. Also, we only train in small group sessions, so the doubtful mountaineers trained alongside others just like them. Camaraderie blossomed.
But for the uninitiated, our training sessions can be simply crushing. Some leave the gym after their first workout with the look of shock on their face and never come back; others walk out with that same shock, know our stuff is the real deal, and can't get enough.
Soon after opening we began to draw inquiries from local climbers not involved in guiding. The most persistent was Andy Bardon, a young mountaineer. Andy hit it hard, liked it, and started dragging two of his climbing partners, Will Wetzel and Neil Grimwaldi, to the gym. I sponsor all three of them—they're my best guinea pigs. I push them harder than any other athletes.
Two female climbers, Tina Flowers and Connie Sciolino, are attached to Exum through marriage but aren't guides themselves. Connie, especially, is a driven climber, and joined the gym with the sole purpose to improve her climbing.
Mountaineering is physically demanding in various ways. Heavy packs and long approaches take strength. Long, vertical, challenging leads demand power endurance. Bad weather, route challenges and pure hunger require mental toughness. Climbing itself, and being ready for the unexpected, require full-body strength and well-rounded fitness.
Neil Grimaldi working hard at Mountain Athlete. Rob Shaul utilizes traditional as well as creative strength and conditioning techniques when designing workouts.
In response I created a hybrid training program designed to increase an athlete's work capacity and build his or her horsepower. I drew on methodology and programming gleaned in part from coaching giants Dan John, Mark Twight, Greg Glassman, Mike Boyle, Alwyn Cosgrove, Mark Verstegen, Louie Simmons, Ethan Reeve and Greg Everett.
We employ classic barbell exercises such as the dead lift, front squat and bench press to build strength. Power cleans, push presses, and basic plyometrics are used to increase explosive power. CrossFit-inspired, super-intense circuits and classic interval training drive metabolic conditioning and cardio. Long, moderate weight, high-rep "grinds" develop strength endurance.
Overall the goal is to build horsepower and staying power so our athletes can go faster farther, feel stronger longer and be mentally tougher on the mountain.
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