27 November 2008

Review: Climbing-Training for Peak Performance by Clyde Soles

I was interested to pick up a copy of this American climbing training manual. Out of the training for climbing manuals I’ve reviewed on this site so far (most of them), none have managed to serve as a single complete reference, and the variations in quality were pretty dramatic.

I was a little confused as to what I’d be reading after seeing the cover image of some snow plodding, and flicking through and seeing more images of snow, skiing, cycling and a lot of weight training. Was this a fitness book for alpinists or what?

The book is actually aimed at the broad spectrum of climbers from boulderers right through to snowy mountaineers. Its real purpose is hidden in the first chapter – it is intended as a supplement to the other books on training for climbing, focusing on ‘conditioning’ where the other books focus on ‘coaching’, according to soles. The problem here is that conditioning for climbers should involve mostly climbing related activites, which this book doesn’t deal with in detail (but the others do!). The bulk of it deals with supplementary weight training for climbers, with sections on general fitness, nutrition, flexibility and planning your training program.

I my opinion, and those of many other climbing coaches, weight training is of very limited usefulness for the vast bulk of climbers out there. It’s value for climbers lies when there is no access to any climbing (like if you work on a oil rig), if you have a muscle imbalance that needs specifically targeting to eliminate injury, or where the climbing you have access to has insufficient variety to work the prime movers hard.

Almost all climbers will be in one of the above situations at some point in their careers, and they will find the content of this book useful. But I found the opening section of the resistance training section where soles extorts the value of resistance training for climbers more than a little cringeworthy and misleading. Apart from this, there is useful information about the use of weights and other resistance devices for climbers and the practical issues surrounding it. But far more detail was needed in the sections on two of the most important basic resistance devices for climbers – the fingerboard and campus board.

The central opportunity with this title is to inform climbers exactly when and how much they should use resistance training. Soles attacks this task in the section on planning training programs for different climbing goals. But in my opinion he has advocated far too much resistance training and the detail on the climbing activities is sketchy to say the least. The result of following one of these programs, I think, would be good weight lifter, but not as good a climber as one could be on a more sport specific program.

Thankfully, the book isn’t all about weights. It real value comes in the nutrition section, which is well written, practical and informative and this is where it earns it’s place on a committed climber’s bookshelf. Good advice on shopping and meal strategies, body mass and composition, supplementation and dietary pitfalls. It would be good to see a committed nutrition for climbers title from Soles maybe? I might disagree a little with the minimum body mass figures for performance climbing given, in fact I’ve proven them wrong myself. But no one has any empirical data to go on here yet.

There are a lot of useful facts generally and Soles writing style is easier to read that some other books out there. If you are already convinced you need to be doing some weights for some specific reason, this book will help you make the best progress, but I would be wary of using this book solely to plan your training, or you will be spending way too much time pumping iron and not enough learning to climb. I think this book will help a great deal of climbers get a better handle on good nutrition specific to climbing situations, as well as some other useful training related facts. If you already own four or more of the climbing-training titles out there, get this one too. If not, stick to something that is aimed more at what’s important for climbers.

Footnote: I mentioned above that I found the opening section on the value of resistance training a bit scary – what specifically?

It’s the notion that if you don’t do weight training to supplement your climbing you are putting yourself at risk of injury. This is not at all necessarily true. Sure, unbalanced climbing that has insufficient variety in one aspect such as hold type, angle move type or movement style often sets up the conditions for dangerous muscle imbalance or overuse syndromes. But varied and sensible climbing need not create these conditions at all. In fact, climbing movement is so varied that it can actually protect against imbalances rather than cause them. I would suggest that self-coached weight training is far more likely to result in imbalance problems that just going climbing.

Poor technique and variety in climbing are the problem, not climbing per se. But Soles opening section gives a different message. Soles also tells us not to listen to “the number one myth about weight training is that you will get too big. Since climbing is a sport where strength-to-mass ratio plays a significant role in performance, this fear is understandable, if misguided”. But then no satisfactory argument is provided for it being misguided. I do not think it is misguided, generally speaking.

I feel that following the programs of weights based resistance training advocated by Soles would indeed lead to some excess muscle mass for climbing as well as a missed opportunity to use this training time for more specific training activities that contributed much better overall to climbing performance.