Date: January 10th, 2018
About Zahan Billimoria
I met Zahan at Steve Bechtel’s coaching seminar in Lander, Wyoming last May. I was struck by his friendliness and his willingness to learn more about coaching and training. While “Z” is an adventure skier, climber and mountain guide, based in Jackson Wyoming, he’s also a dedicated trainer and coach to mountain athletes of all kinds.
He started Samsara Mountain Training in 2015 to offer his clients an individualized approach to training for the vertical world. He creates training plans for people all over the world, and he has specific experience with alpinists and mountaineers, a population that’s been under-represented on this podcast. I wanted to talk to him about training for those disciplines, even when you don’t have mountains near you to train in.
Zahan Billimoria Interview Details
- His specialty is athletes who do more than 1 sport
- Why strength is the foundation you build from
- Minimal equipment you need to train in your garage for alpine
- Exactly how to train for mountain objectives
- How to avoid overtraining
- His new home gym (see photo below)
Zahan Billimoria Links
- Zahan’s website: www.samsaramtntraining.com
- Climb with Zahan as your guide: exumguides.com
Training Programs for You
Do you want a well-laid-out, easy-to-follow training program that will get you stronger quickly? Here’s what we have to offer on TrainingBeta. Something for everyone…
- Personal Training Online: www.trainingbeta.com/matt
- For Boulderers: Bouldering Training Program for boulderers of all abilities
- For Route Climbers: Route Climbing Training Program for route climbers of all abilities
- Finger Strength : www.trainingbeta.com/fingers
- All of our training programs: Training Programs Page
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Neely Quinn: Welcome to the Training Beta Podcast, where I talk with climbers and trainers about how we can get a little better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn, and I took a little bit of time off for Christmas and New Year’s. I had a really great time with my family- well, Seth’s family, who is also my family. We played a lot of games, did a lot of puzzle, I ate tons of sugar, and it was super fun. I hope you had a really great time too.
It’s New Year’s resolution time, and a lot of times people make climbing resolutions. Like, I want to get to this level, I want to climb this route, or whatever. Hopefully these podcasts and our training programs at trainingbeta.com can help you reach those goals. I remember back in the day before shoulder surgeries, when I used to get really psyched every January, when I would make my climbing New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes they were really lofty goals. Sometimes I achieved them and sometimes I didn’t, but I know that it kept me really psyched in the middle of winter when all I could do was climb in the gym. Maybe you have those goals, and I hope that you reach them.
For me, I don’t have lofty goals. I’m six months out from my shoulder surgery now, and my shoulder is doing pretty well. It’s not doing as well as I’d hoped that it would, and I have some other little compensatory injuries. Other parts of my body started compensating for the lack of any strength in my shoulder. I’m not climbing as hard as I would have liked to, but I am climbing mostly pain free, and I’m really psyched about that. I’m increasing my ability every week, or every month at least, which is fine with me. I’m just remembering that this shoulder surgery has been yet another way for me to feel more humble and more grateful for little things, like just being able to climb at all. I love climbing, I love the movement, I love hanging out with my friends, I love going to the gym. Maybe sometime later this year I’ll be able to have loftier goals, and at that point I will keep you updated. For now, I’ll just keep enjoying climbing and talking to people who enjoy climbing, like my guest for this podcast episode, who’s name is Zahan Billimoria. Zahan introduced himself to me as “Z”. I met him in May of 2017 last year, at Steve Bechtel’s training seminar in Lander, WY.
Z is a climbing guide. He’s a skier, he’s a mountaineer, and he’s a climber. He sees clients all over the world, and helps them get stronger using minimal equipment, and that’s what I wanted to talk to him about mostly in this interview. We ended up talking about a bunch of stuff, but especially about multi-sport athletes who don’t have very much equipment, and don’t have mountains to train on more importantly, like people living in New York City. We’ll get into some nitty gritty details about how to train for that, and so hopefully it’ll help you if you don’t have mountains nearby, or you don’t know where to begin if you have a big mountain objective.
So here’s Z, enjoy, and I’ll talk to you on the other side.
Neely Quinn: Alright, welcome to the show Z, thanks very much for being with me today.
Zahan Billimoria: Absolutely, thanks for having me.
Neely Quinn: For anybody who doesn’t know who you are, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Zahan Billimoria: Sure. I’m a mountain guide, I live in Jackson, WY with my family, and I’m also a coach. I primarily coach mountain endurance sports and rock climbing.
Neely Quinn: Cool, alright. So I have heard that you were an endurance athlete- are. You are an endurance athlete, but you have a history as an endurance athlete.
Zahan Billimoria: Yeah, that kind of was my entry point into the mountains. That’s the first form of mountain travel that I got really passionate about. In 2003 I took a ground fall climbing, broke my back and shattered my wrist. That kind of reset my course for how I was going to be in the mountains. I couldn’t climb for almost two years, and so I started running. That kind of just led me towards pursuing endurance sports in the mountains. I always loved being in the mountains ever since I was a kid, so merging that passion for running- which was really the only thing I could do in the years after the accident- with the mountains. It led to ski mountaineering, mountain marathons and those kinds of events.
Neely Quinn: Okay. When you say running, were you doing long races up there?
Zahan Billimoria: I was kind of in the medium distance, I would say. I always really mostly enjoyed running marathon and sub-marathon distances because I really enjoyed the speed. I was never good enough where I would run a fifty or hundred miler with much speed. But at the sub-marathon distance I could perform pretty well, and I just love moving through the mountains fast. I think that’s really fun.
Neely Quinn: When did you become a guide?
Zahan Billimoria: I started guiding in 2005. I first started ski guiding on Teton Pass for a company called Yostmark Backcountry Tours. I moved over to Jackson a couple of years later and that’s really when I started guiding year round, full time, for Exum Mountain Guides.
Neely Quinn: So you started guiding in 2005, and that’s when you were able to climb again?
Zahan Billimoria: No, I started climbing again- well I supposed it was around 2005. 2004, probably the year before I started guiding for Exum, I was able to start working my way back into the mountains.
Neely Quinn: That must have been nice. First of all, I want to acknowledge that that accident sounds heinous, and I’m glad you’re okay and climbing now. It seems like you probably have a lot of experience with rehabbing injuries as well.
Zahan Billimoria: I do. [laughs] I have a lot of experience particularly with rehabbing left wrists.
I’m really good at that.
Neely Quinn: Right, when I met you back in May of this year, you had recently had surgery on your wrist, right?
Zahan Billimoria: That’s right. I think that was the third and hopefully final surgery on that wrist. But actually, it probably won’t be the final one. My wrist is doing quite well right now, so I’m pleased about that.
Neely Quinn: So you’re able to climb right now?
Zahan Billimoria: I am able to climb right now, yup.
Neely Quinn: We’re going to talk a lot about your coaching, who you coach and why, all of that good stuff. But I would like to know a little bit more about your own climbing experience, and maybe some highlights of your career so far.
Zahan Billimoria: Sure. Well, I started climbing in high school in Switzerland, which is where I grew up. I was drawn to the mountains and drawn to climbing really early. I had this one partner in high school who shared my interest. My climbing really began in the Alps, and it was very Alpine style climbing, so there was very little difficulty. It was mostly about adventure and traveling through the mountains. That’s what really led me towards guiding, and introducing others to the mountains.
When I moved to the states for college, a couple of people introduced me to bouldering, but that really didn’t make any sense to me at all at the time. I was so obsessed with climbing mountains. It wasn’t really until I moved to Wyoming, of all places, and met a bunch of climbers from Casper and Lander, that I really got turned onto hard sport climbing and pursuing difficulty. Up until then I was mostly interested in trad climbing and in adventure-style climbing.
Neely Quinn: Okay. And so you started bouldering and doing routes as well?
Zahan Billimoria: Well, I’d love to be bouldering more, and I certainly would be, but there isn’t very much bouldering available around here. When I make the trip to Lander, it’s usually for sport climbing. It’s really been sport climbing that’s been a switch, that has kind of expanded my climbing. I still love being in the mountains of course, and adventurous climbing, but if you are climbing better and are more confident, you just have such a larger scale of things that you can get into.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. What would you say have been some of your most favorite climbs that you’ve done?
Zahan Billimoria: Well, ironically as a previous trad climber, and this stage I just totally love cave climbing. The steeper the better almost. Samsara, the route that I named my company for, was definitely a breakthrough climb for me, in the Killer Cave. I recently went to Spain and experienced some of the climbing there, and Rodellar in particular really blew my mind, and really shut me down. It was a great experience, and I’d be really psyched to go back there.
Neely Quinn: Nice. Samsara, tell me more about that. You have a company called Samsara, and that’s your guiding and coaching company?
Zahan Billimoria: That’s right. The guiding company is called Samsara Mountain Experience, and that’s the company through which I take clients around the world on skiing or climbing adventures. I spend a fair bit of my winters on these days up in Canada. I work for TGR under Samsara as well, they’re a film production company shooting high-end ski action. We did a sixteen day on a remote trip into the Canadian coast range that was amazing.
Neely Quinn: That’s fun.
Zahan Billimoria: Yeah, it was so fun. So fun. I’ve been involved with them for a few years. And then I do a lot of education through Samsara Mountain Experience as well, avalanche education or training people who are trying to develop a more alpine skill set, maybe who come from a more pure rock climbing background. Samsara Mountain training is obviously the training arm, and that’s the company through which I coach and train people who are preparing for big missions in the mountains, or rock climbing, or some combination of both.
Neely Quinn: So you’re like a whole outfit. You do it all.
Zahan Billimoria: Yeah, it has really been a pretty fun couple of years. Things have really been growing and I really love that my work encompasses both training for the mountains and then adventure in the mountains. That’s really what my life has been about, so to be in place in my career where I do both of those things as part of my work is so fun.
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Zahan Billimoria: Yup.
Neely Quinn: So you do training with people. I’m wondering when you figured out- it seems like most trainers for climbing figure out some training that works for themselves, and they do a lot of research, and a lot of reading, and then they decide that they want to train other people. How did that happen for you?
Zahan Billimoria: Well, I came from a background as an endurance athlete, and when I first started training for ski mountaineering and endurance running events, I had an acquaintance who was a coach, and he came from a Nordic background. I came into my life in the mountains with a very high level of confidence in how to prepare my body to perform well in the mountains. I guess it’s also just the way I’m wired. I read a lot around that subject and became very obsessed with it.
Making the step from having a really solid physiological understanding of how to prepare for endurance events to how to train for hard rock climbing is actually a much bigger step than I anticipated. I definitely spent a couple of years testing and finding what worked and didn’t work. Really, the role that I feel that I play as a coach is that I synthesize the research that people like Steve Bechtel and Eric Harts and the Anderson Brothers and Paxi and people like that who are really on the forefront of understanding how to train the body for maximal performance in rock climbing. I synthesize a lot of that information.
I think another role I play, and that a lot of other coaches play, is that of organizing that information. It’s one thing to understand the Rock Prodigy training method, but it’s another thing to understand how to fit this in to my New York lifestyle when I’m working seventy hours a week and I live forty-five minutes away from the gym, for example.
Neely Quinn: Right.
Zahan Billimoria: So synthesizing that, making decisions that reflect an understanding of a variety of different training methodologies, and a variety of different periodization methods. Doing the groundwork for somebody so that they can hit the ground running on day one, and not have to spend weeks or months testing and failing at a variety of different training protocols.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. Your specialty is with athletes that are kind of doing a couple things, or several things. Trying to train for different sports at the same time, right?
Zahan Billimoria: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that because of my endurance background, I meld those worlds of training for a sport like climbing that really benefits from true maximum strength efforts, and maximum power efforts, all the way through to twenty-four hour endurance alone traverses, which obviously are very different demands on the body.
Neely Quinn: Can you give me an example of one of your clients? Obviously you don’t have tell us anything about them, besides their goals and sort of their situation.
Zahan Billimoria: Sure. I recently started training a client who lives in South Carolina, who is in his late fifties. He actually has a background in training, because he was a former college football player. Since he endured a number of injuries in his football career, he switched modes and ended up becoming a surgeon. His passion is for cycling, endurance cycling. His course record on Lotoja, which is a very famous western road cycling event, is thirty minutes off the course record, at almost sixty years old. Super impressive. I started training him recently, and that’s been really fun. He’s high performer in the first place, but my focus, especially for endurance athletes, and something I’ve done a lot of research into, is how to integrate strength training into endurance performance. That’s really been the focus of his last six months, and every time he picks up the phone he’s just tripping on how much better he’s performing as a cyclist now that he’s really integrating a cycling specific strength training protocol into his program.
Neely Quinn: That’s interesting- so he’s just a cyclist? I mean, not just, but he’s not a mountain guy at all?
Zahan Billimoria: He’s totally a mountain guy as well, but what brings him into the mountains, and what allows a sixty year old surgeon from South Carolina to be able to perform well in the mountains, is that he has this very regimented training background and this passion for cycle racing that has just endowed him with this pretty significant aerobic engine. It’s so cool, because it allows this sixty year old to be like “Hey, I want to climb this six thousand foot peak in a day”, and that’s what we did this spring for example. Snow, rock, ice, and we were down by like 4pm.
Neely Quinn: Oh so you-
Zahan Billimoria: The guy is sixty years old.
Neely Quinn: So you guide him as well?
Zahan Billimoria: I guided him as well, and that was kind of the entry point for talking about training and coaching. Then he began hiring me as a coach as well.
Neely Quinn: Got it. So you’re training people from a distance mostly?
Zahan Billimoria: It’s about half and half, but my coaching is very much set up to be be online coaching. About half my clients live around the country, and then the other half live here in Jackson.
Neely Quinn: Okay, I want to talk- I want to ask you about one other client, just to give us a better idea of the kinds of people you work with, and then we will get into training stuff.
Zahan Billimoria: Sure. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m training a young client who is in his mid twenties. He’s a 5.13 rock climber, and he’s always just had a lot of time to dedicate to climbing, and he’s super talented. Climbing in general comes easy for him, but he’s also pursuing his life now as a guide, and the summers are incredibly busy and demanding. Contrary to what some people might think, guiding does not prepare you very well for rock climbing. It’s a really hard job actually. You’d be much better off, I think, doing a desk job and training for climbing, as evidenced by every 5.14 climber that works in IT and then goes to the Front in Salt Lake and crushes 5.14 all weekend. Guiding is hard because it depletes your body so heavily, and so you have very little room, time, or energy left to dedicate to the specific needs of climbing. So I’ve started working with him and integrating a more strategic approach to climbing into his training, since he is not always going to have fifteen, twenty hours a week to go rock climbing.
Neely Quinn: Right. Okay. Let’s actually talk about that client, if you don’t mind. Can you talk about what you are doing with him? What kinds of training and workouts and timing you are having him do?
Zahan Billimoria: Yes, absolutely. With that client, one of the things that has really transformed my climbing- and I have to give credit heavily to Steve Bechtel here who has really influenced my thinking on this- is that at it’s most essential, on the ground level, I think there is no physical attribute more important than strength, when it comes to training. Of course climbing is always going to be a movement based sport, and no amount of strength can compensate for weakness of your movement patterns. But when we talk specifically about the physiological needs of climbing, I think there is no attribute that is more important than strength. I think strength is more important than endurance, and I think it is more important than power. I think strength is the foundation that you build the whole house on. That is kind of where I really begin.
With that client in particular, we started with a periodization program that really reflected a focus on building max strength, and so that carries through all the way from developing finger strength in relatively low repetition, high load fingerboard activity, all the way to one arm pull-up strength, lock off strength, and just trending more and more towards developing that maximum force output. That’s definitely something that I have experienced in my own climbing, is that I’ve gone through long periods where I focus on campusing and trying to develop power, and finding that I plateau at a certain level. Then returning back to a focus on strength and slow, either isometric or ecentric, concentric motions, but more in that slow control environment. I find that the improvement of my strength contributes so much more significantly to power, because power is just an expression of strength with speed. Power is limited if you don’t have the strength to create the foundation underneath it.
Neely Quinn: So you’re saying that if you were to train campusing, and then you stop campusing to go train strength, you would have better numbers and better performance?
Zahan Billimoria: Exactly, that was sort of like a personal experiment that really reinforced this notion that I think strength is really the foundation for power, and that sometimes you can tap out your power, because you don’t have enough force to produce. By increasing that pulling strength through more targeted strength exercises in a slow, controlled motion, and then going back to campusing, you increase the bandwidth you have for expressing that power, because you have more strength.
Neely Quinn: Is that the kind of thing that you are having this particular client do?
Zahan Billimoria: Well, so it kind of touches on a larger conversation about how we organize our training. What I’m finding is that at least once a year, in a training cycle, I’ll go back to a form of periodization where I’m really focusing almost exclusively on strength. Then throughout the rest of the year, cycling strength with power, with endurance, and with power endurance. Going back to that once or even twice a year block, where I just increase strength in a climber, I think can be really, really effective. For this climber, when he started with me, that first periodization block was like “Hey, let’s just focus exclusively on strength for three months, and then we will start to integrate these other attributes”.
The way I think about it is that it’s a lot like training a dog. You can train a dog to do almost anything, but you can really only train a dog to do any one thing at a time. If you are trying to train “sit” and “fetch” at the same time, you are going to have confusion. It’s sort of the same thing in training. We can get strong, we can get powerful, we can develop the ability to climb for a really long time, we can develop endurance. But it’s most helpful to our bodies if we are trying to develop one attribute at a time. That can either be in a micro cycle over the course of a week, where your Monday session is heavily focused on building your finger strength, and then you’re building your explosive power or your power endurance on another day. Or it can be over the course of several weeks, where you can dedicate a block of time to developing one particular attribute. I think that kind of strategic approach is really how our bodies respond best, as opposed to a smattering of different demands on the body, all mixed together, or in a very confusing way.
Neely Quinn: Okay. It seems like one could argue that if you are doing strength on one day of the week, and power on another day of the same week, and power endurance on another day of that week, that could be confusing. I know that’s exactly what Steve Bechtel has introduced in his book Logical Progression.
Zahan Billimoria: That’s right.
Neely Quinn: Do you want to talk about that and how it is good for the body?
Zahan Billimoria: Well, I think one question is “Is it good for the body?” and then the other question is “Does it fit with your life?”. With climbing, that’s a really important question. I think one of Steve’s arguments for his book Logical Progression, is that if you look at even Olympic athletes, they rarely peak, they rarely perform their very best in the moment that they need it- in other words at the Olympic event. That raises a bigger question of the ideal world versus the real world. In climbing there are so many more variables than there are for an Olympic athlete training for a specific event on a specific day of the year that he or she can plan for years in advance. The argument there is that even though some form of block periodization might be ideal, in the real world we get colds, we find sub-optimal conditions, we plan on traveling but life throws a curve ball.
So, coming back to your original question. Sometimes the value of having a program that cycles through those different physiological demands within a week, while some might argue that it does not on paper deliver the best results, in the real world, it does keep the athlete tapping into a variety of different physiological attributes that will allow him or her to perform if a day presents itself for climbing that they didn’t expect.
I think for most people who are training for a life of climbing, not one particular project eight months from now, provided that the conditions are perfect- that sort of makes the approach more realistic, and allows them to enjoy climbing throughout the year, or whenever they’re able to perform at a relatively high level throughout that time period.
Neely Quinn: In general, it can be effective is what you are saying.
Zahan Billimoria: Yes, I do think so. I think it can be effective. What I’m trending towards now, like I was talking about earlier, is I really think that developing maximum strength is so important for climbing. It actually, I think, contributes to the other physical attributes that we need, whether that’s endurance or power. I think that strength, in a way, even though physiologically you could argue it doesn’t, I think strength does contribute to endurance. If making that movement is 15% of your maximum output versus what it used to be, say 30%, you could make that move relatively easier and therefore you’re able to move through that movement with less effort, and you endure the climbing better.
Neely Quinn: Right.
Zahan Billimoria: So because I think strength is so important, I’m building a lot of my programs around this idea that I take a block of the year, which could be anywhere from two or three weeks all the way to even few months, depending on where that person lives or how much climbing they have in their vicinity, and taking maybe one to two blocks a year where I just train strength. Then cycling all the other training attributes throughout the rest of the year.
Neely Quinn: I think what a lot of people listen to these podcasts for is to get really practical information for their own training. I think there are probably a lot of people who are mountaineers, they’re boulderers, or whatever. They work, and they have normal jobs, and maybe they have limited training resources. They want to know what a guy like you would do with them. Let’s take an imaginary situation, where we have a guy who boulders v7, and he wants to do some big mountain traverse, I don’t really know. I’m not familiar with any of those, so… He wants to do something high though. He has a job, he works fifty hours a week, and maybe he does live in New York City. So he has the gyms that are available in New York City, and that’s it. What kinds of things would you do with him, if he had an objective in three months in the mountains, and in the meantime wanted to continue bouldering?
Zahan Billimoria: Sure. Well, if he boulders v7, then we are probably not going to spend a lot of time on his climbing ability, because there are not a lot of routes that a first time alpine climber would do that would involve 5.12 or 5.13 climbing at altitude. So that client is really going to need to develop an aerobic base, and they are going to need to develop muscular adaptations in their legs to make traveling over miles and miles and thousands of feet of alpine terrain manageable. I’d go back to I start with strength. Since in the mountains all of our movements are based on single leg movements, we don’t generally do a lot of bounding and hopping, or things that are based on both legs operating at the same time. I think that there are really three strength training exercises that are foundational for moving in the mountains. The first is a step up. In order to do any of these exercises, you can do them at home. They don’t require a lot of equipment- they do require certain very specific equipment, but for a couple hundred bucks you can get yourself set up pretty easily.
The first thing is you need a box, a step-up box. You want that step-up box to be somewhere between 70-75% of your lower leg height. If you measure from the bottom of your patella to the ground, whatever that is multiply that by .7, and either build or buy a box that is at that height. That’s going to be very useful for a lot of different movements. The single leg step-up is a very technical move. It’s actually quite a difficult move, because it requires a lot of balance, and there is a lot of technical proficiency that has to be developed before the athlete can start to apply really heavy loads that are going to give him or her the benefit that they need.
Just even in this podcast, I think there are a couple of things we can mention. One is you step your target leg up onto the box, and as you rock up onto that leg, you want to pressure your foot really evenly. You don’t want to roll your weight onto the forefoot, because what that tends to do is accentuate the knee angle, which will likely result in injury to the patella tendon. You want to pressure the foot really evenly, and then as you stand up, the goal is to control every single centimeter of the movement. The more momentum you have, the more you are cheating. You are really trying to control your body’s ability to move through that range of motion, and sometimes the hardest part is actually the very beginning of that motion. You want to avoid that little toeing off, or bouncing off of the leg that is staying on the ground. You want to really roll your weight evenly across the target foot, and step onto that target leg. You want to avoid letting your knee go in front of your toes. Again, that is sort of that same thing where you are creating that overly acute angle on your knee that tends to result in injury. If you’re finding that your knee is tracking in front of your toes, you can see it in the mirror, if you set your mirror up in profile. The key there is the just gently roll your weight back towards your heel, and that usually will correct it. So avoid letting your knee go ahead of your toes, and as you add more weight, avoid letting the knee collapse inward, which is another tendency that we have with the step-up.
Lastly, make sure that the load is being transferred through your hip. Use your hip as the hinge- don’t use your vertebrae as your hinge. If you are rounding your back, and you are lifting those weights off the ground with a rounded back, you are much more likely to get injured. Use your hip as the natural hinge of the body, and maintain that natural curvature or arch of the spine, roll your shoulders back, and then keep your knee tracking straight. I’d sa if you are new to that exercises, it will take a couple of weeks, nine sessions I’d say. If you are doing three sessions a week, that’s still going to be three weeks before you really perfect that movement. It’s really important to do that movement in front of a mirror, because otherwise you just don’t know if you’re doing it correctly. You can’t see the muscular imbalances, you can’t see that your right arm is dropping, or your shoulders are off kilter, or you are using your vertebrae instead of your hip- those kinds of things. Plan on taking a couple of weeks with pretty low loads and higher repetitions to really develop that movement. It’s almost like learning a new sport. You need to learn that new movement and you need to do it really well.
Neely Quinn: When you say low, about how many reps would they do, and would they add weight in their arms? How would they add intensity?
Zahan Billimoria: I think the easiest, simplest, and first way to add weight is to carry either some dumbbells or kettle bells. As you get to become really proficient with that movement, you are doing to soon approach, or maybe not soon, but you will eventually approach to be able to lift your bodyweight. If you are 140 pounds, carrying 140 pounds, 75 pounds in each arm, is really pretty awful. At that point, dispersing the weight becomes really useful. So a weight vest, a 45 pound weight vest, now you’re down to only needing to carry 95 pounds split between your two arms. You are down to sub 45 pounds, or about 45 to 50 pound weights, it’s much more manageable. For the first part of that progression, as you are slowly building up loads, and you are carrying maybe 20, 30, 40, or even 45 pounds in each arm, for most people that is very manageable.
Neely Quinn: What kinds of reps are they doing and how many sets?
Zahan Billimoria: I think that to start, your main goal is not the strength adaptation yet, because you haven’t actually learned the movement. If you start applying heavy loads before you have that movement down, you are so likely to get injured and you are not gong to get the results you want. You need to plan on six to nine sessions of just practice sessions essentially, of learning that movement pattern. During those sessions, doing more reps is going to be useful. If you are doing ten to twelve reps, or twelve to fourteen reps, and you are dong them really slowly in front of a mirror, you are going to progress really rapidly. You’ll find that your balance improves, your form improves, you start looking better in front of a mirror. For my clients, I have an online portal that has these really detailed videos that go through these common mistakes, and that sort of document what it should look like to do that movement really well.
That’s a single leg step-up, and there are a few other movements that are very similar. I think the reverse lunge is a really useful movement pattern for moving through the mountains. That one is pretty hard to explain with just audio, but I can certainly give it a try if you like.
Neely Quinn: Um, yeah maybe briefly, and then people can look it up if they want.
Zahan Billimoria: They can look it up if they want, totally. So the reverse lunge doesn’t require the box. You start with both feet planted in front of you. You’re looking straight at the mirror, and you have whatever load level you are choosing in two dumbbells or kettle bells in your arms. The idea is that you are going to step one leg behind you, and what you want to do is step that leg behind you as far as it can go, and bend the knee almost to where the knee touches the ground. The real trick of the movement is to not transfer any weight onto that back leg. As soon as you transfer weight onto that back leg, the exercise becomes really elementary and useless. The idea is that you are really focusing on that target front leg as it maintains your body’s equilibrium and moves through that range of motion of that deep, almost squat in the front leg, and not transferring the leg to the back leg.
Again, keeping your spine long, your shoulders rolled back, hinging at the hip, making sure that your knee doesn’t collapse inwards or track in front of your toes. I’d say that technically to do it well, that is one of the hardest strength training movements. In general, leg strength requires much more technical proficiency than other strength training movement patterns, because it requires your whole body’s equilibrium, and you are really relying on that technical proficiency and that balance as you very, very slowly move across this large spectrum of movement.
Neely Quinn: Okay. And same thing, ten to twelve reps, and how many sets?
Zahan Billimoria: You know again, I think for that first six to nine sessions, you might be going all the way up to fifteen reps, you might not be using any load at all, or if you are it is a very light load. You might go as high as four sets, because ultimately what you are trying to do is practice that movement. The more repetitions of that movement you get the better.
Neely Quinn: It seems like there is a third exercise that you have people do commonly?
Zahan Billimoria: Sure. That one goes back to the box. You’re back on that box, and you want to stand on the side of the box. One word of caution there, is you either want a box that is tapered, or you want to be really damn careful that you don’t tip the box over. Not that I’ve had any person experience with that, or anything [laughs]. You can tip that box over and if you are carrying weight on top of it, you can really hurt yourself. So you stand on the side of the box, one foot planted, one foot is hanging in the air off the side of the box, and you are just going to do a single leg squat dropping down until the toes of the lower leg touch the ground. Again, no weight transfer. You are not applying any weight or had to that lower leg, and you are trying to keep the toes of the both feet in line. If there is an imaginary horizontal line running in front of your foot, both feet would be in the same horizontal plane. That is actually really quite difficult to do. It requires a lot of weight transfer into the heel of the target leg. Good back posture also really ends up being important there. There is a lot of balance in that movement. Again, that can be anywhere from ten to fifteen reps, up to four sets for the first six to nine sessions.
Through those six to nine sessions, you can definitely progress gently and slowly towards higher loads. As you really are observing yourself in the mirror or potentially videoing yourself and seeing that you are hitting those targets of where your knee is, where the curvature of your spine is, how well you are able to balance on that target leg. Once those things really start to come into play for you, you can really start to add more load.
For the mountains, what happens a lot with endurance athletes is they come in thinking “I can climb eight, ten, twelve, fifteen thousand feet of ground in a day, I’m really strong”. But the reality is that most endurance athletes are really weak, they just have exceptional endurance and are really efficient. For me, the purpose of spending any time in a gym for an endurance athlete is to develop the attribute which the mountains won’t develop for you, and that is strength. There is no strength to gain from a movement that you repeat thousands and thousands of times. If you’re running up the Grand Teton in the summertime, seven thousand feet of vertical, you’re not going to develop any strength because the movement is too easy and you are doing it too many times. The purpose of being in the gym is to develop that pure strength. When you do that, what you find is that each and every step that you take in the mountains is now, by some percentage, becoming easier. Slightly, incrementally easier. If lifting your own bodyweight on a single leg squat was a hard effort for you, and you strength train appropriately with high loads and low repetitions, you are going to move that needle. You are going to increase the threshold of your maximum force. If you do that and go back into the mountains, bopping around the boulders and sprinting up the trail, each and every step you take is just that much lower percentage of your overall maximum ability. That is a real game changer in the mountains.
Coming back to that New York client, in an ideal world, if they haven’t done any leg strength training, I think it would take about two months of focused and targeted strength training to really move that needle and threshold upwards, and that could look like two or even three strength training sessions a week. Throughout the rest of the week you are peppering in some endurance work, but it’s at a lower level of priority. Once that strength phase is over, then I kind of again use Steve Bechtel’s analogy- I switch the pots on the burners. So you have four burners, and whatever is on the front burner is you priority, and whatever is simmering on the back is lower priority. In the beginning, because I think strength is so important, I’m going to put strength on the front burner and you are going to train that three days a week. Then you are going to maintain and develop on a lower level some endurance, and that’s going to be on the back burner. Then we are going to say, hey let’s hold the strength where we’ve got it, let’s maintain that strength and not lose it, and go down to maybe one or two strength sessions a week. We are then going to bring endurance and energy system development onto the front burner and start increasing those over distance days. We’ll start to integrate intervals and tempo work into the overall aerobic training plan.
Neely Quinn: And if they are in New York City and they are wanting to do an alpine ascent of something, what kinds of things are they going to do for endurance training?
Zahan Billimoria: Specifically, I have a number of clients in New York. I’d say of all American cities, that is one of the hardest ones to live in to develop that attribute. I have other clients who live in LA and they at least have access to hills, and that is really helpful. That said, a number of clients of mine who train in New York perform really well. I had one guy who trained in New York City last year, and we went and spent five days backcountry skiing in the Coast mountains, and we were skiing five to six thousand feet a day, back to back. I know when I came back to Jackson I was tired, and I was so impressed with his performance.
All that to say, yes it absolutely can be done. From an aerobic point of view, in New York there is a couple of options. One is cycling. I do think that road cycling seems to be the cycling of choice for New Yorkers, and there are good loops to be done there in Manhattan even, or if they are living off the island then it is even a little bit easier. But cycling has the benefit of being a very complete leg extension exercise, and a lot of people tend to train for the mountains thinking “I need to do foot powered movements in order to train for the mountains”. While that is true, and there are some real benefits to that, cycling has a much deeper flexion of the leg muscle. A stride as you pedal involves more degrees of change at the knee joint, and that is really important for vertical movement, you know when you are grinding your way up a steep hill, if all you’ve been doing is running, which is a much shallower flexion, it can be really, really taxing. So for New Yorkers, cycling can be really effective. Then, much less fun, is the Stair Master. But the Stair Master is a tried and true endurance building machine. It is really arduously boring, it’s really rugged to do, but for those who are dedicated and willing to, it is a very effective tool I think, and most gyms will have one. So that’s not the stair climber, right? That’s not the one where your arms are pedaling up and down unnecessarily as you do this vertical drawing motion. It’s just legs. It’s like a treadmill, but it’s a Stair Master.
Neely Quinn: And then what would they do for the climbing aspect of it? If they are going to do some multi-pitch something or another, how would you have them train for that?
Zahan Billimoria: Well the v7 boulderer going to to an alpine climb is probably not going to need to increase his maximum threshold or overall climbing ability. I would say that climber should probably just keep climbing for fun, climb a couple of days a week. If their focus is an alpine route and they have limited time, they absolutely need to focus that time on building their aerobic capacity and their leg strength. Those are going to be limiting factors.
As a guide, I see that all the time. Clients who are coming out to climb in the Tetons, and they want to do some massive mission. Maybe they are trying to do the Grand Traverse, or the East Ridge of the Grand. Those are all big alpine climbs. They all buy memberships to the local gyms and they train on their climbing. I get that, because it’s so much more fun, but that is absolutely not the real world of long alpine climbing. What stops most people is they just don’t have the engine. It’s not that they can’t crimp their way up the crux 5.9 pitch, they are going to get up that just fine. But if you are really seriously training for an endurance alpine climb, and the climbing isn’t any harder than say 5.8, don’t spend a lot of time in the climbing gym. That’s bonus time, that’s fun, but that is not what is going to make or break your route. Now if you are training to climb Fitz Roy or a hard route on Cerro Torre, that is obviously a totally different deal. But I think that’s really important to know, that the thing that seems to stop and kind of shut down most people if you are doing a high ridge traverse in the Sierras, or a route in the Tetons, you are going to have to have a very serious aerobic engine.
Neely Quinn: If they were going to do something harder, it seems like that training is basically double what you just said, because they have to train legs, and aerobic capacity, and they might have to training climbing, at least on a volume level.
Zahan Billimoria: Sure, absolutely. So like for example, this summer my friend Ben and I tried to do this route called Bean’s Wall that Greg Collins established on the southwest face of the Grand. It’s about a six thousand foot- not it’s about five and a half thousand feet of vertical gain to approach the route, and then the route is probably about a thousand feet, and there are two crux 5.12 pitches that come in at over thirteen thousand feet. So that would be an example where in order to do that in a day, you really have to be able to move really efficiently on the approach, get to the bottom of the route, and you can’t get there smoked, because all the pitches are 5.10 or harder, there are a few 5.11 pitches, and then these two 5.12 pitches. You need to get there with a lot of juice left in the tank, and then you need to be able to climb at a moderately decent level to get through the route. Certainly training for routes that require both a serious aerobic engine as well as the ability to climb hard, those are for most of us only moderately talented athletes, those are pretty challenging objectives for sure.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. It seems like a lot of the challenge is getting through the pain. If you didn’t train doing a thousand feet of vertical climbing in a day, after walking on your feet all day, it seems like- that seems to me like the thing that you would want to train for- being in your climbing shoes a whole lot [laughs].
Zahan Billimoria: Yeah, that is certainly part of it. A training program for a really complicated, complex route like that, is a really delicate dance between reaching those thresholds to where you are improving the performance of the athlete in these two very, very different realms of performance. It’s the delicate dance of not spending too much time in the red, especially not in the aerobic training. When you start to flirt with overtraining, or training for a long time at your threshold, the demands on the body are massive, and the demands for recovery- they’re just enormous. It becomes very difficult, especially if the athlete doesn’t have a history of regimented training. It becomes difficult to increase, to move the needle in both those different areas, while not completely destroying that athlete. Obviously, that is going to be a high level athlete. A lot of the times, you’re doing doubles in a training program like that, doing doubles four to five times a week, both in the aerobic side of the equation as well as the strength side of the equation. You’re training twice a day.
Neely Quinn: Hmm.
Zahan Billimoria: Then you really have to start thinking, it’s sort of like planning a meal. What does best with steak? Is it going to be steak and potatoes? You want to tax them, but you have to be really careful how you tax them. Things that I have found that don’t go well together are energy system development work- so intervals, tempo work, that is I think the most crushing type of training that I ever do. Like four times four minutes of uphill intervals. That workout might only last fifteen minutes, but I need to take a nap when I’m done. Those are so taxing on the body. Doing those with any kind of really targeted strength training doesn’t go too well together.
I think that the low end of endurance training in the morning- and by the low end I mean on a volume scale, so that usually is somewhere between sixty and ninety minutes- can go really well with strength training in the evening, because you can recover very well from sixty to ninety minutes of zone one. The important thing is actually keeping your heart rate in the target zone, because we all tend to enjoy and feel like we are getting more out of charging harder. But, if your target is to develop your aerobic endurance, you really don’t want to be spending any time going much faster than your zone one pace, which for most adults is somewhere in the 120-135 beats per minute. If you are keeping your heart rate there, sixty to ninety minutes in the morning, I find that most athletes who are- and again, this is a very high level athlete that would even be attempting something like that this- so with that assumption, you can have a very effective strength or power session in the evening.
Neely Quinn: Got it. Okay. It sounds like you know what you are talking about, and if people want to train with you, how do they do that?
Zahan Billimoria: Well, all of the training that I do, the only way that I am training is one on one. So I don’t have any programs that I sell to the public at large, and for the moment, I’m not really interested in that style of training. Where I think I shine is that when an athletes starts training with me, and I sign on to train with them, I am essentially making a commitment to see them succeed that their goals. It’s a fairly personal and intimate process. The way it happens is they sign up to start training with me, and we go through a baseline survey, and for most folks that’s over the phone. It takes about thirty minutes to an hour, there’s no real time limit on it. It’s just kind of me getting an understanding of who they are as an athlete, what their background is, what their relative strengths and weaknesses are, what their history of injuries are, what their goals are, what specific training facilities do they have available- and that can have a huge impact, of course. Whether it’s somebody who maybe has stadium stairs and a gym, and that’s all they have available, or if it’s someone who lives in a mountain town and has hills and a climbing gym. Those ingredients are essentially all mixed together for me to them go back and start formulating a plan that reflects the access to the amenities that they have, their goals that they have, and the time that they have available. I generally tell athletes that I can’t really do much with you if you don’t have a minimum of five hours a week. I think at five to six hours a week you can achieve some great goals, but below that it becomes fairly difficult.
Then I put together a plan on this Google Drive based format that I’ve developed- it’s a calendar format. The workouts are prescribed in a three month block, and then below that is space for the client to log. For me, that’s a requirement. If the clients don’t log their workouts, their not really… I can’t contribute to their development. I think that’s where I can really stand out, is that I don’t just cut them loose and say “Hey good luck with this plan, see you on the flip side, I hope you accomplish your goals”. I really stay with them throughout the process of their training. Life throws curve balls at everybody. We get sick, our kids have graduation ceremonies, our spouses are traveling, whatever. All those things affect our travel. Or maybe you didn’t sleep well this week, maybe work was really demanding. Throughout the process of those three months, they’re logging, and I’m checking those logs. I have a space where I can comment, and often through the ups and downs of their lives affecting their training, I’m able to adjust the volume buttons to adapt their training on a week to week basis, to the specific things that they have going on.
A lot of my clients are business people who travel all over the world, and if you’re in Singapore you can train, but it’s going to look a lot different than when you are in Denver. As those changes happen, I really help them adapt their training to what’s going on in their lives. Because of that, I don’t take on a lot of clients. My maximum is probably around twenty clients, because I do invest a lot in each person, and there is a lot of work to be done with each person. About every two weeks I have a call with my clients to check in, and answer questions and maybe adapt. Usually, so far, virtually all of the clients that started with me a couple of years ago are still training with me, and it keeps rolling on a three month clock.
Neely Quinn: Cool. It sounds like you have quite a system down, which I’m sure your clients really appreciate.
Zahan Billimoria: Yeah, it really seems to work. It’s definitely one of the more time consuming ways of coaching, but it’s really what I am passionate about. For me, the real joy of coaching is watching other people achieve these goals. If I’m not a part of it on a week to week basis, then I don’t get to be a part of their accomplishments. It just wouldn’t be as satisfying to me. For me, it’s really about seeing them through the whole journey, and watching them accomplish these amazing things, and watching them surprise themselves. Ultimately, for you and I, that’s what is so fun about climbing and being in the mountains, is when you slap the chains on a route that you didn’t think you could do, and you just totally shocked yourself. People all across the spectrum experience that in their own way, whether that’s breaking their PR on the 5k, or besting their time up a local peak, or climbing their hardest route, or completing a palisades traverse in the Sierras. Whatever it is, it’s that joy of holy cow, I can’t believe I did that. That’s what’s fun about being a coach, right? It’s enabling people and being alongside them as they do that.
Neely Quinn: Awesome. Well I really appreciated your viewpoints and all of your knowledge. One quick last thing, is when we’ve been e-mailing you’ve been telling me about your new gym. You live in Jackson where there is no climbing gym, so you’ve basically created your own. I think that could be really inspirational for people, so can you describe what you did to your garage?
Zahan Billimoria: Yes, totally. To add to what you said, we don’t have a gym. To the humor of many people in Wyoming, we actually don’t have any climbing either. Jackson is pretty starved for rock climbing. There actually is really good rock climbing, but it’s not very easily accessible. It’s a super hard place to be a climber. I have a two car garage, and it measures- let’s see. I think it’s 22×20 wide. I kicked one of my cars out of the garage, and I have one car in there. That left me enough room to build a few things. The center piece of the whole thing is the MoonBoard, which I am so stoked for. Actually, as we talk, I have friends in my garage starting to put the holds on the wall, which we’ve been waiting for and are super psyched for. So the MoonBoard is kind of the center piece, and that really very much fits with my training philosophy of having a really big focus on building strength and power, and focusing on movements that are at or near your maximum ability. I think the MoonBoard is going to be really effective in that regard.
Then I have 9’10” ceilings, and I was barely able to squeak in a full size campus board, so that means you can go 1 through 9, and I have two sets of rungs. I got the new XL rungs and the medium rungs. I’ve got a pull-up bar, I’ve got gymnastics rings, I’ve got TRX, I’ve got two Rock Prodigy hang boards, the original one and the new Forge board. Oh yeah, and this is probably mostly for fun, but I’m really psyched about it. I got those wooded 3” power balls and I mounted them on a 30” spacing, all in a row. So it’s like American Ninja Warrior style, where you grab and are essentially doing a horizontal campusing movement back and forth between them. It’s a lot harder than you think- or it’s a lot harder than I thought I would be, but it’s definitely really good lock-off strength training. A lot of it is also in the timing. My nine year old daughter absolutely slays on that thing. She can do six laps where I can only do four.
Which is a hard pill to swallow. But yeah, that’s kind of the set up. And a really sweet sound system, that’s pretty key too.
Neely Quinn: Well you sent me a really good picture of the whole place and I’ll put that on this episode page so people can see and be inspired for themselves.
Zahan Billimoria: Yeah, totally. I got a lot of inspiration from Andrew Bisharat, who posted when he built a MoonBoard in his garage, and the size of his garage was almost identical to mine, so it was really helpful. I think he has a post up on eveningsends.com that would be worth checking out. I learned a lot there, and then the Anderson Brothers Training for Climbing website was really helpful as well, as well as the Metolius site.
Neely Quinn: Cool, well thank you again. I really appreciate it and I wish you the best with your clients, and your own personal goals.
Zahan Billimoria: Thanks so much Neely, really fun chatting with you.
Neely Quinn: I hope you enjoyed that interview with Z. If you want to train with him, you can go to samsaramtntraining.com, that’s S-A-M-S-A-R-A. If you want to check him out on Instagram, you can go to @samsaramtnexperience. And, what else? Coming up on the podcast I have two really cool interviews that I enjoyed a lot. They’re both about the mental side of climbing, which gets a little bit neglected I think. The first one was with this woman, Roanne Van Voorst, and she wrote a book about fear, so we are going to talk a lot about fear. Then I did another interview with Chris Heilman, who is a sports psychologist. She wrote a book all about sports performance, and using imagery and dealing with nerves, and all of those things. So stay tuned for those coming up in the next few weeks.
Remember, if you want any very structured, guided information on how to train for your goals, or trips that you have coming up, go to trainingbeta.com, and we have training programs made by professional trainers. They’ll tell you what to do, step by step, when you go into the gym. So trainingbeta.com, at the top there is a tab called “training programs”, and there’s a bunch of stuff in there- something for everybody. Check that out, and whenever you do purchase programs, it’s helping support this podcast, the website, and everything we do, so we really appreciate it.
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