I was honored and excited to interview the great Steve Bechtel, a long-time climber and trainer who knows his stuff when it comes to getting strong, catering to individual training needs, and staying lean, among many other things. Steve runs ClimbStrong.com, a website where he writes articles and training programs for climbers. You can subscribe to the site to get full access to all of his info. He also runs a gym in Lander, WY called Elemental Fitness, where he works with climbers and athletes of all kinds.
I’ve been following Steve’s stuff for a while, and I post his articles on our own Facebook page because I consider him an expert in a field that has very few experts (climbing training). But I wanted to interview him partially for selfish reasons – I’ll be honest 😉 We took a few minutes of the interview to use me as sort of a guinea pig. I asked him how he’d suggest I train right now while I’m trying to send a powerful, pretty short route at my limit. He gave me some great advice.
I also asked him as many other technical questions as I could, and tried to make those questions applicable to as many people as possible, so you can take some usable advice from this conversation. After all, that’s the mission of TrainingBeta: practical training advice. Steve has worked with a lot of climbers through the years, so he doesn’t have any problems rattling off big scientific words and answers to all of our common climbing training questions. Hopefully we’ll talk again on the show soon!
What We Talked About
- How and why he learned so much about training
- How he approaches new training clients
- How to train power endurance and overall fitness
- What he’d do with me as a client to help me send my current project
- Whether or not running is good for climbing
- How to lose weight for climbing
- That our conversation was really awesome and we want to do it again soon
- Steve’s website is Climb Strong at www.climbstrong.com
- Climb Strong on Facebook: www.facebook.com/climbstrong
- Steve’s gym in Lander is Elemental Performance and Fitness at http://lmntl.net
- Steve’s book (on Amazon) about training power endurance: LINK
Support The Podcast
- This podcast is made possible by the training programs on TrainingBeta here. Check ’em out if you need some help sending!
- If you’d like to sponsor the podcast, just email us at email@example.com.
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Intro and outro song: Yesterday by Build Buildings
Portrait of Steve Bechtel by Mei Ratz
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the TrainingBeta podcast where I talk to climbers and trainers about how we can get a little better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn. I’m a climber, a nutritionist, and a traveler.
I’m talking to you today from Mesquite, Nevada where I never thought I would still be living on the 18th of May because it’s very frickin’ hot here. It turns out, though, that even when it’s 100° at our house in Mesquite, it’s totally climbable at the Cathedral and the Wailing Wall, just 40 minutes away.
I’m currently nursing a shoulder injury so my project is put on hold until next year. Seth, however, is making great progress on his project, Golden, which is this classic, beautiful, long .14b on perfect yellow limestone. As soon as he sends we get to go to Boulder so I can have some much needed work done on my shoulder by my favorite body worker, Dave Sheldon. Then, we train for a couple weeks at the Boulder Rock Club and then we’re off to Rifle for the summer which I am very excited about. It’s my favorite place.
As always, I really hope you have been getting outside climbing yourself. Today I was up at the crag just lying around on a crash pad all day and even though I wasn’t climbing, I thought to myself that there wasn’t any other place in the world I would rather be. Being out there is good for the soul so I hope you get out there.
Alright, so we’re on episode seven today. Before we get into this awesome interview I want to let you know that if you’re liking what we’re doing at TrainingBeta and you want to support the site and our work, please check out the training programs that you can purchase on TrainingBeta. Under the ‘training programs’ tab there are two downloadable training plans on there, a six-week power endurance program by Kris Peters that will get you up those powerful routes and boulders and an eight-week endurance program by Kris Hampton that will build your forearm stamina and teach you how to rest on routes better.
Again, they’re at www.trainingbeta.com under the ‘training programs’ tab. There are more programs coming soon, too, including a weekly overall climbing fitness plan you can subscribe to, which I’ll tell you more about when that comes.
Speaking of training programs, this podcast interview is with a guy who creates climbing training programs of his own. Steve Bechtel is a longtime climber and trainer who runs www.climbstrong.com, a website where he writes articles and training programs for climbers. He also runs a gym in Lander, Wyoming called Elemental Fitness, where he works with climbers and other athletes of all kinds.
Steve is smart. Let’s just start there. He has a lot of experience working hands-on with climbers who want to get stronger and climbers who then get stronger because of what he tells them to do. Honestly, some of the things he tells them to do were really surprising to me. A lot of people have suggested that I interview Steve but I didn’t know him at all so I was a little nervous to contact him. Luckily, when I did contact him he was happy to be on the show. Lucky us because he had so many interesting things to say that we couldn’t fit even half of what I wanted to talk about into this conversation. We may be making this a regular thing, fingers crossed.
Alright, so here’s Steve. I hope you like it.
Neely Quinn: Okay Steve, thanks so much for joining us on the TrainingBeta podcast.
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, great. I appreciate you contacting me and I’m really excited. I think TrainingBeta is such a cool idea. I’m excited to be part of it.
Neely Quinn: Well that’s good because when I created TrainingBeta I was kind of like, ‘Well, are other trainers going to feel like I’m trying to compete with them?’ Or whatever, but all I’m really trying to do is get people the most information that I possibly can about climbing training, so I’m really happy that you agreed to be on the show and I’m actually really excited to pick your brain about some things.
I first just want you to introduce yourself a little bit to the people who may not know who you are and what you do, where you live, where you climb, stuff like that.
Steve Bechtel: Yeah. I’m a recreational climber. Maybe ‘retired’ would be a good way of looking at it. I started climbing in central Wyoming back in the mid-1980s when I was real young and was exposed to hard climbing from the get go. I really had a great opportunity as a young person to see people at the cutting edge of the sport.
Through the 90s I did a lot of route development and a lot of traveling. I was very fortunate to climb with Todd Skinner and a few of our friends from Lander on about half a dozen expeditions and big wall climbs.
I’ve lived in Lander pretty much straight through, since I graduated from college and at this point I own a climbing gym and a training center. My wife and I run it together so it’s a pretty great set-up for us.
Neely Quinn: Great. Can you tell me more about that gym/training center? What sorts of people do you guys work with there and what do you do?
Steve Bechtel: Lander is a town of about 10,000 people and so we work with anybody that will come through the door but really, what’s cool is we’ve got about 8,000 square feet. Only about a quarter of it is dedicated to a climbing gym. The rest of it is what you’d see in a typical modern training facility including barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, boxes, lots of pull-up bars, general fitness stuff.
Neely Quinn: So do you guys do any sort of CrossFit type stuff or what kind of – are you doing classes?
Steve Bechtel: We do classes, we do a lot of conditioning-type classes, a lot of strength classes. Most of our stuff is pretty carefully programmed, planned training. I’m not a huge fan of the CrossFit mentality as far as the group training goes so we kind of stay away from that.
Neely Quinn: That’s good. [laughs] Do you get quite a few climbers that come through?
Steve Bechtel: We do. We have a lot of climbers here in town and the same reason that we love living in Lander is also the reason that running a business, in the climbing gym business, is terrible. The weather is so good so we generally don’t have an off season where everybody has to be in the gym. Most of our income comes from people with regular old gym memberships coming in to lift weights, get stronger, or get thinner, but we do a lot of training with some of the local climbers.
We also train people that will come in for a short period of time and we’ll go through an assessment of their skills and say, “Okay, here’s what we need to work on to get you to the next level.”
Neely Quinn: Got it. I know that you have a pretty strong background in personal training. I see that you have a lot of certifications and I think that you went to school for exercise physiology?
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, I graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in exercise science. Really, for the most part, those are sort of a load of crap just because it tells you that I know the names of all the muscles but what happens is you come out of school with this degree, and I remember – I graduated in ‘95. I came out of school and I knew everything there was to know about training climbers or any other athlete and that’s getting close to 20 years ago now. I think now that I know almost nothing so it’s sort of interesting.
We’ve gone through a lot of certifications but more, those aren’t as important in a small town or in a small sport like climbing. Nobody cares if I have a CSCS. As a climber, they just want to know, ‘Am I going to be better after I hire you?’ I think that a lot of that is for marketing in a city. It may be a little more important.
I got interested in training a long, long time ago, studied it in college, and have really studied it ever since. Everything from endurance sports to power lifting and of course my main interest is rock climbing.
Neely Quinn: I know that there’s not very much research out there on climbing-specific training, right? I’m sure that you’ve had to do a lot of deduction, maybe using other sports as models?
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, sure.
Neely Quinn: What other sports would you say most closely resemble climbing?
Steve Bechtel: Well, it’s an interesting thing. We look at those and over the years that answer has changed. The way I’ll put that is you look at specificity as sort of the golden rule in training. We go, ‘Oh, specificity means doing something like our sport,’ right? It makes sense but specificity needs to be looked at in two regards. One of them is motor specificity, meaning you’re doing movements similar to your sport. The other one is metabolic specificity. Are the metabolic demands on your body specific to the sport?
You could say – well, a really great example is: bouldering is motor-specific to route climbing but it’s metabolically different, right? You’re using a different energy system. It’s short, intense whereas a lot of times you’ll be on a long, hard endurance redpoint for 20-25 minutes. When we look at other sports as research, we look in terms of the metabolic stuff. We would say sprinting activities, wrestling – wrestling is great. Wrestling is total body, it’s short bouts of activity. Gymnastics are really good.
Motor specificity for climbing is really hard to replicate. That’s one of the big issues I have with any sort of external resistance training program, CrossFit, whatever. Yeah, it might make you tired but it’s so different metorically than climbing that it’s probably doing more harm than good.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I was doing CrossFit for a little bit trying to cross train for climbing, or trying to improve my fitness. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Steve Bechtel: Well, okay, let me put it this way. Again, CrossFit is a fine thing. It’s a very good novice training program because it teaches a lot of difficult lifts and movements and things like that but if CrossFit makes you better at climbing, you suck at climbing. What I mean by that is it’s such a general fitness program and climbing is a skill sport. It’s one of these things – I think when we talk about building general fitness for climbing, it needs to be as this background to climbing.
We have a real hard rule there, Neely. We say 80% of your training needs to be climbing and skill acquisition and 20% or 25% can be your strength training, mobility, conditioning, all the other stuff that you want to do. You still need to year round be working on movement skills and improvement and whatnot.
Neely Quinn: Right, so what are your thoughts on weight training in order to improve climbing in general?
Steve Bechtel: I think weight training is a really useful tool. It still falls within that 25% though. You can’t do too much of it. Like, there are a couple of these outfits like Mountain Athlete or the Alpine Training Center and they do a lot of modified, high intensity strength stuff which is fine, but again, for rock climbing it’s probably mis-aimed. Rock climbing is such a high skill thing so your weight training, I think, needs to be built around some big bang exercises such as presses, deadlifts, some squats, but at a pretty reasonable volume.
The other thing that we are working on a lot is the idea that climbing – again, going back to specificity. Climbing is a concentric-only sport, and this is sort of dweebing out with the movement stuff, but if you think about climbing, you climb up the wall and you contract your muscles and then you relax, move your hand up to the next hold, contract, relax, move your hand up to the next hold as opposed to weight training or doing a pull-up, where you contract to pull yourself up and then you’re contracting as you let yourself down.
All of your releases to make the next movement are unloaded, so when we do that in our weight room we try to do contraction-only exercises or concentric-only exercises. A good example would be to do a pull-up and then at the top, step off onto a chair, then go back in and do the pull-up. We do that for a couple of reasons. One, it teaches the motor patterns to function correctly but two, it also halves the volume of the training so it keeps my athletes from being tired for climbing days. We’ll have them do walking lunges across the floor, for example, or a loaded carry up some stairs and then unload them when they come back down. We don’t really have the negative part.
Two things happen there: they’re less tired and they’re also less prone to putting on any kind of mass. Most of my athletes don’t put on any mass anyway but it’s a big fear climbers have.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it is. Okay, so getting really practical here. Would you be willing to take us through a successful client of yours and what they came in looking like – not what they looked like but their performance coming in, what you worked with them on, and how they ended up?
Steve Bechtel: One of the things that’s really interesting in personal training is that it’s not that personal. All of us have the same basic motor needs or ability to move so we build all of our training on movement patterns. You’ll take a look at an athlete and say, “Okay, we need this person to be able to push with their upper body, pull with their upper body, hinge at their hip, squat down.” Then, we look at how strong you are. Say you come in and you can probably pull like crazy because you’re a really good rock climber but maybe you don’t bench press all that well or do push-ups all that well. Then maybe your hip hinge is really strong and your squat is really bad. We try to pattern the strength after those things.
I can give you an example. I have a guy who is a pretty good climber. He climbs mid-5.13 but one of the things that was happening was at the end of the climbing day, he was just totally tanking. Like, he would have warm-up, one or two good burns on a project, and then he was done. He tried to answer that by doing laps at the end of the day on a route, slightly easier than his project level. What we really found was that he was more neurologically tired because it’s exhausting climbing at your limit.
What we did is we put him on a typical strength program. Two days a week he would do deadlift and overhead press and then he would do pull-ups and squats on the second day. He’d have two basic exercises with a lot of mobility training in between and we’re talking pretty heavy. We would do four sets of each exercise, maybe three reps. It made him a lot stronger but it also helped develop his work capacity and then we were able to transition that into a little bit more endurance for the day.
Then, during these training days we would add a non skill-oriented burnout set. I’ll talk to about that in a second but anyway, we could have him burnout at the end of a strength day and slowly he could build that day-long endurance just by adding a little bit of general work capacity in there.
When you talk about the non-skill burnouts, one of the things that’s interesting about your neurological system is that your body learns the movements that you do and it learns the last movements that you do in a session better than it learns the ones early on in a session.
Neely Quinn: Interesting.
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, so if you and I went bowling and we rolled the ball down the lane 250 times, the last 15 times are the patterns that we would groove. If we go to the crag and burnout and just flail on a route, and I know you’ve done it because I’ve done it, at the end of the day your body actually learns bad movement. I would rather have you get totally burned out somewhere where you’re not trying to do a highly-skilled movement like deadhangs on a hangboard until you fail or ladders on a system board or a rhythm board so that your footwork is not going and you’re not getting tired like that. I think that’s where adding some kind of resistance training or some gym-specific board training is pretty useful for most climbers.
Neely Quinn: So you’re saying that instead of having him burnout on rock climbs, he would come back from a day of outside climbing and burnout on the systems board or something.
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, exactly. We do a set of exercises called ‘rhythm intervals’ and you get a set of good holds on a systems board, like four of them in a big square, and you’ll start on the bottom ones and climb up and down. Reach up with your right, reach back down, reach up with your left, reach back down, and going back and forth on these four holds for, say, 30 seconds. Then, we’ll have him rest actively on a jug, like the biggest hold you can imagine for 30 seconds, and then they go back and forth. We’ll have them do four-minute sets of that which is similar in loading to the way we climb but your feet aren’t trying to move, you’re not having to change body position, so we can really wear out those forearm muscles without grooving bad patterns. I think that that saves a lot of people from learning to climb badly.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, especially because some people will choose to burnout on routes that are really cruxy which seems like it’s exactly the opposite of what you would want to be doing at that point.
Steve Bechtel: Right, and it’s an interesting thing. We have to look at climbing on the sport continuum. It’s way, way over on the skill end. Even though we call it ‘training for climbing’ I would much rather see us call it ‘practice’ and to develop skills specifically, like to spend a half hour working on your heel hooking skills or your ability to drop knee or do compression moves, whatever it is.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. I have sort of/this might be too general of a question but I’m wondering if you have specific advice for people who climb 5.10 who want to jump into 5.11 and people who climb 5.11 who are wanting to break into 5.12, and likewise for people wanting to break into 5.13. Are there specific things that you would have them work on?
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, so the first thing is if someone is climbing 5.10 and they’re yet to break into 5.11, it’s probably a factor of just basic climbing volume. Most average fitness people can get into 5.11 if they climb enough. The other thing is going from 5.11 to 5.12, we really start running into some specific strength issues like: is this person’s upper body strong enough to make these longer reaches? Are their fingers strong enough? I think a chronic long term hangboard program or something that’s going to continue to develop finger strength is important in getting into the higher grades.
The other thing, in general, anyone trying to break between these big, major grades is to not look at them in terms of the number grades but to really believe in the letter grades. One of the cool things about the website 8a is they have this little graphic of everybody’s – when they mark out all of the sends that they’ve done, you’ll see the top 30 or so climbers in the world will have a real huge base. They’ll have done 50 5.13a and then they’ve maybe done half as many .13b and half as many .13c and they’ve got a real solid base.
I see a lot of climbers coming up through 5.11 that they’ve sent an .11c and now they’re psyched to do a .12a because it’s .12a. They don’t think about doing half a dozen .11c’s and then three or four .11d’s and then a .12a. We’ll see people waste whole seasons just trying to get to a certain grade when they should probably be working on what I call ‘second tier’ routes, two or three grades below your max. You can’t always be peaking.
Neely Quinn: You can’t?
Steve Bechtel: One of my favorite quotes is, “The first step off a peak is down.” It really is true. You know about redpoint pyramids and things like that. I don’t think that a redpoint pyramid necessarily, like, when you build up to it over a long time, like our normal periodization programs or the great program that Mike and Mark have come up with, the Anderson brothers, in their new book. You work up to this thing for three months. Hell if you want to stop and just do one route at that grade.
Usually when I get someone up to a peak, we can hang out there for about a month and sometimes you’ll get two or three really hard sends but you’ve got to do the groundwork. Going back to the 5.10 or 5.11 climber, I think redpointing is an absolutely critical skill to develop. If you don’t feel like you can redpoint, say you’re climbing .10a and you get freaked out or you can’t go and redpoint every single .10a you get on, you need to back off the grades until you’re comfortable leading that and redpointing.
The other thing is a one-hang ascent isn’t okay. You’ve got to take those less difficult ascents and take them as seriously as you do your hard sends. If you’re trying to move forward you’ve got to get in the habit of climbing from the bottom to the top of routes. That’s physiological as well as psychological.
Neely Quinn: Right. Do you work much with the psychological aspects with your clients?
Steve Bechtel: Well you know, here’s something that’s really interesting: I don’t ever purport to be an expert there. Arno Ilgner and Eric Horst have both written great books on it and they’re both way more knowledgeable than I am, but I think the psychological aspect is critical because if you look at it like you would the basic anchoring systems that we all learn as climbers, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. It doesn’t matter how good you are at bouldering or how strong you get, if you’ve got a weak link that’s upstairs, you’re going to hamstring yourself every time.
One of the strongest climbers I have ever seen is just paralyzed by fear, even at the top of boulder problems. Here you go. This is somebody if you could give them a new brain, they would be climbing 5.14 but we’re talking somebody that you can barely get onto a top rope because of fear. At that point, we’re not even talking visualization, we’re talking go see a psychologist.
Neely Quinn: Wow. I thought I was bad. Speaking of me, I’m going to get a little selfish here but partly just to be more practical about this. I want to use myself as an example here and see what you would do with me. I am trying a 5.13c very power endurance-y route. It’s 21 moves long, not completely but from where it starts being a rock climb to the end is 21 moves. There’s hardly any rest there. It’s on mostly crimps. What kinds of things would you have me do to send more quickly?
Steve Bechtel: Well, there’s a couple of things there. You need to prepare to where the movements are reasonable for you because if you look at it – I like to look at power and power endurance and endurance like the gears in a car. You might be able to go up there and, in first gear, going bolt-to-bolt, do the moves, the powerful moves, easily each time. You get up there and you’re like, ‘God, I can do this section from the hang. Why can’t I do it on the go?’ It’s the same thing as driving up a steep hill. It works and it’s great in first gear but in third gear, back down in power endurance, your car doesn’t have the juice for it.
We can improve power endurance through any number of things. 4x4s, linked problems, lots of time on the route, but I really hate my athletes to have to spend way too much time on a project because if you spend two years on something or 350 goes or something, it really starts to eat at you.
What I would rather have is you be able to develop the skill to do it real quickly. It’s probably in-season for you, you’re probably close to sending it. One of the things to really consider is: is your power up to snuff? One of the things we really look at is trying to train strength and power through season, all the time, because when we get out into training endurance and power endurance, we start to lose a little bit of that power. Power endurance is hard enough that it really tires you out but it’s not difficult enough to improve your power. Does that make sense?
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Steve Bechtel: What’s your performance on it right now? Like, are you one-hanging it? Two hangs? Can you do all the moves?
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I can do all the moves and I’m making links through. Maybe I’m three-hanging it? I’m in the beginning phases.
Steve Bechtel: Are you falling and you’re pumped or are you falling off because the moves feel hard? There’s a little bit of a difference there.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it’s because the moves feel hard.
Steve Bechtel: That’s actually a really good sign. That tells us that probably metabolically you’re going to be okay. What I would do would be to look at the number of moves you’re doing, like maybe you get six moves and then you’re falling off on a crux. There’s just a little bit of tactical stuff that goes into that, like starting one move lower or starting just one move before you fall and trying to climb through that. Just not building the pattern of failure in there.
One of the things you want to look at is the duration it’s going to take you to climb it. You probably know. It’s 21 moves so it’s probably going to be two and a half minutes or something. Your training on other days should reflect that, two and a half minutes of all out effort. There’s really no reason you should be doing 10-minute burns on something semi-pumpy or whatever. Again, this is more four-wheel drive than that. It’s harder so you need to get into that sprinter’s mentality.
Neely Quinn: So maybe treadwall and would you do campusing in this situation?
Steve Bechtel: You could, or even foot-on campusing, especially when you get tired. It’s like I was talking about earlier, when you’re getting fatigued, you don’t want to groove bad patterns. Treadwall – you could do two-minute interval and a two-minute rest and maybe do five rounds of that. Then, we don’t need to increase the duration of the workload, right? What we want to do is start increasing the intensity of the climbing. There’s a few different ways that we could make the intervals more difficult. We could make you work longer, we could reduce your rests, we could add the number of sets, or we could make the work more difficult.
Neely Quinn: The climbing, the actual climbing, more difficult?
Steve Bechtel: Right. What I would do would be to take your treadwall – do you have problems set up on the treadwall?
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Steve Bechtel: Or routes? Okay. Pick a route that a two-minute effort is just going to almost knock you out. Maybe you make it, just barely, the first two or three sets and then you start falling off of it. Get it to where you can climb something for five sets of roughly two minutes on, four minutes off, or something like that, and then, slowly make that problem slightly harder. Replace the best hold on it with a crimp and then the next time, once you can finally do all five sets again, replace the best hold with a crimp again. We’re slowly making that climbing more and more difficult for you but we’re keeping within the metabolic pattern that you need for this route. That two minutes of all out effort.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, that’s great.
Steve Bechtel: One of the problems with trying to do too many things at once, like, I want to be awesome at alpine climbing, crack climbing, ice climbing, and bouldering, but the more qualities you’re trying to pursue, the harder it is for you to neurologically achieve those things. For me, personally, I’m 44 now and it’s harder and harder as you get older. When I want to do a really hard redpoint, I have to kind of build the whole season around that one specific physiological trait. My most recent one was pretty much a straight on endurance route so eight months of training kind of aims at that. The efforts are all 15-minute long efforts but always with this underlying level of strength, bouldering, hangboard.
Neely Quinn: Cool. The strength aspect is incredibly important to all climbers it sounds like, no matter what they’re trying to achieve.
Steve Bechtel: Well, let’s look at this way: climbing is for sure the coolest sport there is but you look at any high level sport like basketball, track, badminton, everybody is doing supplemental resistance training. I don’t think we’re special, I just think we’re still in the early stages of the development of the sport. Again, it’s not a lot. You don’t have to do a ton but I think it’s important and I think it’s something that needs to happen at least part of the year for most climbers, women especially. Women have about 1/20th as much testosterone as men do so they have a harder time maintaining muscle mass and strength. A good, solid, short resistance program is probably going to go a long way.
Neely Quinn: Okay. So, I know I only have you for 15 more minutes. I want to talk about nutrition but I also have some Facebook reader questions and I’m going to start with this one: “I’ve been deadhanging for two months pretty consistently, using a timer and four grips: pointer + middle, middle + ring, middle + ring + pinky, pointer + middle + ring + pinky. I’m hanging seven seconds on with about three seconds off. I have not seen any noticeable gains. What could I be doing wrong? I weigh about 220 so I’m still using the footboard for all of the hangs aside from the four-finger grip so adding weight is not an option at the moment. Some of the training videos I have seen talk about possibly adding up to five pounds per week. How can I increase my gains?”
Steve Bechtel: A couple of things there: 220 is pretty heavy for a climber. Not to dis the climber but he or she probably doesn’t have a much different tendon size than you do, Neely, and you’re probably half that. There’s a lot more to overcome with the soft tissue of the hand, the finger joints, tendons, and all those sorts of things. I think it’s fine to not feel like you’re adding weight to it because hangboard and building finger strength is this long, long, slow affair of this slow overload, let it recover, slow overload, let it recover. I like to look at it more like you’re brushing your teeth. You’re not brushing your teeth because of what’s going to happen tomorrow, it’s so they don’t fall out 40 years from now.
The same thing with hangboard. It’s a great program, that seven seconds on, three seconds off, or 6/4. Those are all great protocols but I think it’s just keep after it, keep the overload going. I would even consider unloading it. They make these little pulley systems, you can get one at a hardware store but I think Trango makes one now, and unloading a little bit might make it feel like you can make gains because the climber could go to a smaller hold and then unload less and less and less, until he gets to body weight.
Neely Quinn: That’s what I had suggested to him because I had just started using the pulley system, too. It’s pretty amazing.
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, it makes a lot of difference. I think it really needs to be looked at long term, like you’re not looking for big gains in strength. I think tendon strength comes along about 10% as fast as muscle strength and we all know how slow muscle strength is.
Neely Quinn: So that question is actually sort of a good segue to this question: “How about asking which phase to incorporate weight loss into a training program.”
Steve Bechtel: That’s a great one. My first one is all of them but that’s really not true. When you’re trying to perform well you need to put all of your energy into performance. Depending on what kind of training program you’re on, I would say in a base phase is the best time to do it. In a base phase you’re doing a lot of general training, you’re not climbing super hard, you’ve got a lot of volume in there, so volume really equates well to weight loss.
One of the things we look at with training and nutrition – and I own a gym so I probably shouldn’t say this, but if you can picture the pyramid on the back of a dollar bill with the little eyeball at the top, nutrition is the pyramid and training is the eyeball. You can’t outtrain a crappy diet so the real thing is to get on a diet that’s going to support both your training and your fat loss. Don’t expect miracles. If you lose a pound a week that’s great but you’ve got to be willing to suffer for it.
One of the problems I think all of us have is we’re really used to being comfortable so being a little bit hungry and feeling a little bit hammered by not eating enough is kind of what happens when you’re losing weight. I think that the base phase is the best time to do that.
Neely Quinn: Right, so you’re not losing strength and power while you’re trying to send.
Steve Bechtel: Right, then be real disciplined. Say you weigh 220 pounds. Let’s lose five pounds over this next base phase of training then hold that. Hold at 215 all the way through power, all the way through your sending season, then when you get back to base try to lose another five until you’re down to a reasonable body fat percentage.
Neely Quinn: Do you have any specific tips for people beyond just eating less about losing weight?
Steve Bechtel: Yes. The thing that’s really cool and I’ve gotten really into watching mixed martial arts as far as weight loss goes because they are very athletic and they have to be very, very strong but then they get real light. We’ve really been enamored with a diet called the Warrior 20. It’s in a book by a guy named Martin Rooney, but the diet was written by John Berardi for courses in nutrition.
It’s really simple. It’s basically lean meats, vegetables, a couple of whole grains, some beans, really good, high quality training food but with the avoidance of a lot of processed sugars. Not a ton of fruit because fruit does pack a lot of calories and messes with your metabolism a little bit, and drinking a lot of water.
Neely Quinn: Have you seen success with that with your people?
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, and I myself have seen success with it. I kind of – I’m fine. I hang out at kind of the same weight over and over but over this last winter I lost about 10 pounds and was able to send a lot of hard routes. Harder routes than I had ever done in my life so I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe this weight thing is really a big key,’ and it can be if you’re borderline there.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I think so, too. I even just went through a weight loss period when I was trying to send something in Vegas a couple months ago. It was just a matter of eating less and like you said, it is uncomfortable and I don’t think I was being unhealthy about it but when you don’t get to eat as much as your face wants you to eat all the time it’s uncomfortable. I do think, and in my experience as a nutritionist, that really is what it’s all about, just eating less.
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, as long as it’s something where you’re still feeding your body the necessary things, enough protein, you’re getting enough vegetables so you get vitamins and minerals, and then you don’t get to be a nut about it. It can be really damaging to an athlete, especially if they get into this chronic thin cycle, you know? Staying lean is staying healthy. There’s a lot of health issues that come with carrying even just a little extra weight.
Neely Quinn: In your opinion, what is too far for weight loss and how do you know if you’ve gone too far?
Steve Bechtel: Well, it’s really individual but I would say when you can’t complete your training sessions, when you start to lose sleep, when you start sleeping less and you’re kind of getting insomnia, that’s usually an indication that a person is catabolic and they’re starting to ramp up metabolism at night to eat up some muscle. Probably when you’re not making it through a full day, like you’re getting tired on approaches, you’re starting to do fewer pitches, that sort of thing. That’s usually with rapid weight loss.
I think Mike Anderson has had huge success by losing weight over the last couple of years. He’s gone up three letter grades in three years, and that’s really good for a veteran climber, but one of the factors is I think he lost 15-20 pounds but over three seasons, so about five pounds a year which is fine for a lean athlete if they can still sustain their health.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it’s something that I’m trying to get into with all the people that I interview, about women in particular, because we seem to be a little bit more prone to going overboard with it. Any advice to women, knowing when they’ve gone too far?
Steve Bechtel: The thing is, you can’t change your body type so much that if you look at where you tend to store fat, a lot of women will store it in their butt and thighs and others will store it in their arms and their gut. Women have about 10% more body fat pretty much straight across the board than men do for the same kind of athlete. I think going, ‘Oh, my butt looks big, my butt looks big,’ well look at your mother and your grandmother and your great-grandmother. It’s probably a genetic thing there and it’s probably not something wrong with your diet.
That’s the thing: you’ve got to make sure you stay ahead of health. With women we really look out for problems with menstruation, energy level problems, and both of those things, if we have a change in menstruation based on weight loss, it’s a big red flag because then you’re looking at major health problems coming down the road. We want to really try to avoid that.
The thing is, most women can do better by getting a little stronger than by losing weight.
Neely Quinn: That’s another thing and I know you’ve written about that on Crux Crush, about the myth of bulking up if you start weightlifting and strength training for rock climbing.
Steve Bechtel: Right. I think if you’re smart with your weight training program, you’re not going to gain any mass. I know high volume, medium load stuff, like bodybuilding-style things, you can see some mass building going on with people but really, if we look at pure strength training it’s not going to happen.
Neely Quinn: By strength training you mean high weight, low rep?
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, somewhere in the realm of less than five repetitions in general. Then, lots of rest in between. That’s a great time to do all your mobility training.
Neely Quinn: Yep. Well, I think we’re out of time, right?
Steve Bechtel: Oh man. We’re going to have to talk again.
Neely Quinn: I have probably 100 more questions for you.
Steve Bechtel: Well, you know I’d love to get on the phone again. We could maybe split it up or maybe we could get together a month or two down the road.
Neely Quinn: Let’s plan on that for sure.
Steve Bechtel: I want to make sure we get everything talked about that we can talk about.
Neely Quinn: We had one other question from a Facebook fan about running intervals. Can you just give us your really quick thoughts on running? For climbing, obviously.
Steve Bechtel: Yeah, running for climbing is as important as climbing is for running. You can see how ludicrous that sounds. If you want to get better at the Boston Marathon you should hit the rock gym? No.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with running except that if we look at motor specificity, it’s very different than climbing. The metabolic pathways, although you’re doing intervals and you’re soaking your blood with all these anaerobic enzymes, that’s great but it’s not upper body anaerobic training and anaerobic interval training is really specific to a muscle group.
If you want to do intervals I’d say get on an Airdyne or a Concept 2 and that’s going to be more appropriate for climbing than running intervals.
I’m not anti-running, unless you want to get better at climbing.
Neely Quinn: Got it. Perfect answer. I agree with you and I think we can wrap it up with that. Tell people where they can find you online.
Steve Bechtel: Oh yeah. You can check out/I have a website called www.climbstrong.com. You can also reach me if you have any specific questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m pretty good at answering emails.
Neely Quinn: Great. Anything else you want people to know about you before we say goodbye?
Steve Bechtel: You know, anybody that’s coming to the International Climbers’ Festival here in Lander, we are doing a two-hour clinic on strength training for climbing and I think it’s free. Normally the clinics are expensive but this one will be free and I think it’s open to all the festival participants. If you’re coming, that might be a good opportunity to get some questions answered.
Neely Quinn: That’s great. What a treat. Cool. Thank you very much, again, for joining me. I will definitely be contacting you again to do this again because there’s plenty more to talk about.
Steve Bechtel: Great. That sounds good. Anytime, Neely. I really enjoyed it.
Neely Quinn: Alright, well have a great day, Steve.
Steve Bechtel: Okay, thanks.
Neely Quinn: Bye.
Thank you so much for listening to the seventh episode of the TrainingBeta podcast with trainer Steve Bechtel. I hope you liked our talk and hope you learned a few things. I know I did. I’m really looking forward to having more talks with him. I wish I could use his advice for my own climbing right now but I guess it’ll have to wait till my shoulder heals up.
One thing, could you please do me a huge favor and leave an honest review on iTunes of the podcast? The more reviews it gets, the more people the podcast will reach which would be awesome. Also, remember that if you’re wanting to improve your own climbing, definitely check out our training programs under the ‘training programs’ tab on www.trainingbeta.com.
One last thing. If there’s anyone that you would like me to interview, let me know in the comments section and I will try to make it happen. Next week we have Alex Johnson, female. I interviewed her last week and it was great. It was very informative and she’s an awesome girl. I’ll let you know as soon as that comes out.
Okay, thanks for listening and until next time, happy climbing.