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Mountain Athlete: Weight Training for Climbing
Stephen Koch swinging a kettle bell at Mountain Athlete.
Strength is King
Most of the guides and climbers looked very fit and moved well but were pathetically weak by gym standards.
My guides could easily handle back-to-back one-day ascents of the Grand Teton, but struggled to dead lift their body weight, or do three sets of ten basic push-ups. Classic exercises like Turkish get-ups and one-arm bench presses identified glaring strength and muscle imbalances. Several were even weak doing sport-specific exercises like pull-ups.
The best thing I can do for my athletes is get them stronger. Strength is the foundation of athletic ability, and I saw it as not only increasing performance, but also adding durability, or resistance to injury.
I do not train body builders or power lifters. I understand that mountain athletes must not only be strong, but also light to move well on rock and snow. I aim to get them stronger without making them heavier.
As a result our strength goals revolve around relative strength—that is, strength in proportion to body weight. My strength standards for men include a 2x body-weight dead lift, 1.5x body-weight front squat and bench press, 1.25x body-weight power clean, 1x body-weight military press, twenty strict body-weight pull-ups, and forty strict body-weight dips (strict meaning full range of motion; no cheating).
Dead lifts, front squats, power cleans and push presses—the classic barbell exercises for developing full body strength—formed the cornerstone of my strength-training program. We drilled body-weight pull-ups, push-ups and dips to begin developing upper-body strength. I have a dozen body-weight and loaded mid-section exercises that often employ kettlebells for improving core strength.
Strongman training complemented classic barbell and body-weight strength training exercises. My athletes drag tires, throw sledgehammers, sprint with sand bags and walk carrying heavy rocks.
Both male and female athletes do the same exercises.
Power Endurance, Strength Endurance, Mental Toughness
Stronger, longer is the goal. Developing the ability to stay strong for extended periods of time can be as much a mental task as physical ability and stamina. Extended bouts of cardio-respiratory and muscular stress at high, but sub-maximal levels perhaps best mirror mountain events. Muscles burn. Chest heaves. The mind grows weak. Power endurance and strength endurance give the alpinist the ability to keep on moving, no matter what.
Stephen Koch digging into Nightmare on Wolf Street (M7+ WI6+ l80m), Stanley Headwall, B.C., Canada. Climbed on March 10, 2008. Koch began training at Mountain Athlete in the spring of 2007. Koch had been dealing with a herniation of his back for several years before working out at Mountain Athlete. He believes his increased core strength from attending Mountain Athlete training sessions has resulted in less injuries. [Photo] Jack Jefferies
Our power endurance training focused on intervals and intense metabolic conditioning circuits. These events often last fifteen to twenty minutes and, in a word, suck. A good example is a workout we call "Girl Farts," which involves rowing 5500 meters on a Concept 2 rower, and doing fifty-five "Renegade Man Makers"—a push up, squat and push/press combination exercise performed holding two 25# dumbbells for men, and two 15# dumbbells for women. (Note: Women do the same exercises and same number of reps as men, but usually with lighter loads. Some of my female athletes use higher loads than new male athletes.)
When done all out, the athletes' muscles and lungs fail at just about the same time. Pushing this intensely is very uncomfortable. This type of training takes serious mental toughness.
Taking the lead from Greg Glassman and CrossFit, I used the stopwatch and competition as an effort motivator. One thing climbers are is competitive. All I had to do to push the intensity level was give a handful of them the same workout, pull out the stopwatch, and say "3-2-1-GO!"
Mountaineers know how to suffer, but this was something different. It took time for some of the guides and regular climbers to grow accustomed to this level of intensity before they developed the mental toughness to truly push as hard as they could.
Monitoring the results of our training program revolves around frequent one-rep maximum strength tests of our core barbell exercises, and timed results on intense benchmark power endurance workouts.
One of the great things about being a new lifter is your strengths come fast and easy. My athletes were no different.
Exum Guide Brian Harder is a good example. With just six months of training, his maximum bench press went from 190 pounds to 235, his front squat increased from 115 pounds to 235, and his dead lift grew from 185 to 360 pounds.
Kim Young pushing through the pain at Mountain Athlete. Women do the same exercises and same number of reps as men, but usually with lighter loads. Some veteran female athletes use higher loads than new male athletes.
Rob Hess saw his front squat increase from 145 pounds to 215 and his dead lift increase from 235 pounds to 305.
Stephen Koch's bench increased from 150 pounds to 195, his front squat from 135 to 225, and his dead lift from 250 pounds to 335.
Andy Bardon and Will Wetzel have each added significant horsepower, especially in overall upper-body strength. Connie and Tina are two of my best performers, often crushing men unlucky enough to train in the same session and foolish enough to try to keep up.
We saw similar improvements, though not quite as dramatic, in the performance on our power endurance workouts. Rarely, during a regular benchmark workout, is an athlete's time not improved significantly over the previous effort. Increased strength has a lot to do with this. Between benchmark power endurance workouts—usually moderate weight, high-rep strength exercises—we will have several training sessions aimed at improving raw strength by lifting heavy. This makes my athletes stronger. Also, the more of these power endurance workouts my athletes complete, the more they become accustomed to working this intensely. Their mental toughness increases accordingly, and they are able to complete workouts faster.