Bulking Up: How not To

Bulking Up: No Worries

All climbers know: climbing is a sport in which a person’s strength-to-weight ratio plays a huge roll. We’ve all seen massive, muscle-bound dudes in the gym flailing on easy problems. Likewise, we’ve watched tiny, string-bean guys crushing nails-hard routes.

Intuitively, the difference is easy to see: if you’re going to have to drag your body up a wall, it’s best if you’re strong and light. The big guy, though extremely strong, is burdened by his enormous body. And though the string bean is likely vastly weaker than the beefcake, he seems to float up the wall. This is just an example, and skinny guys won’t always outperform larger guys; however, all other things being equal, a light girl will outperform her bulky counterpart.

So it’s easy to understand why many climbers cringe at the idea of weight training; they’re afraid that if they train, they’ll bulk up. After all, the stereotypical weightlifter is a bulky person covered in oversized, veiny muscles. However, what many people fail to realize is that different types of weight training elicit different results—both in terms of muscle growth and strength gain—and that these enormous, stereotypical bodybuilders lift specifically to get large.

In fact, serious bulking up requires a very specific style of weight training—one which enlarges the muscles greatly, but only moderately increases strength. On the other hand, people lifting for maximum strength will see little increase in muscle size, but will enjoy great grains in strength.

And though muscle size increase is an inevitable result of strength training, those training in the correct fashion will enjoy strength gain results that greatly overshadow their newly acquired muscle mass. Additionally, those who struggle with body fat in any way will likely replace excess fat with muscle; therefore even if they maintain their weight, they will have a much improved proportion of muscle in their body, which will benefit their climbing performance.


Muscular hypertrophy (growth) occurs in two ways, by the addition of:

a) structural (working) components of the cell called myofibrils (which are composed of contractile proteins)—called myofibrillar hypertrophy. This causes relatively little gain in muscle size, but is responsible for all strength gains, as the addition of more contractile units to muscle cells inherently means increased capacity for force production.

b) sarcoplasm (intracellular fluid; the cytoplasm of muscle cells), metabolic substrates (stored fuels like phosphates and glycogen) and various other substances (water, fat droplets and enzymes) to the cells—called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Though this causes a great increase in muscle size, the addition of sarcoplasm to cells does not increase strength like myofibrillar hypertrophy does. Stored energy substrates (glycogen) provide working muscles with fuel; however, they do not directly contribute to force production.


Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the functional type of hypertrophy; it adds relatively little bulk to each cell, and what it adds is the very working units of the muscle, the myofibrils. This type of hypertrophy is caused by low-rep (1–3/ set), high-intensity (90–100% of one-rep max weight) training methods. This is convenient because this type of training, which causes relatively little muscle growth, is also the type of training that best increases strength.


Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is what we all associate with body building. This type of muscle growth also carries with it myofibrillar growth; however, it also adds significant fluid accumulation to each cell, making the cells (and therefore the muscles) much larger. Those looking to body build should put each muscle group through several working sets of fairly high-rep (8–12 reps/ set), relatively low-intensity (65–80% of one-rep max weight) training, with little rest between each set. Climbers, therefore, should avoid lifting in this style!  


Neither type of hypertrophy occurs by itself; whenever you strength train, both types occur. However, the type of training you perform will determine the relative proportion of each type of hypertrophy. Focusing on high-weight, low-rep training will give you the most “bang for your buck”—that is, the most strength relative to muscle mass.


Pure muscular adaptation aside, strength training benefits the body through a “sharpening” of the nervous system. The nervous system connects to the muscles with units called motor neurons. An activated motor neuron causes the contraction of the muscle fibers to which it is attached. Together, muscle fibers and their controlling neurons are called motor units. Over time, heavy and powerful training causes better “recruitment” capabilities (the number of motor units actually working or producing force during a contraction).

A person engaged in a strength training program—particularly a strength training novice—shows marked and rapid gains in performance with very little muscular growth. This is because, especially at the beginning of a weight training career, the body improves its performance simply by way of neuromuscular adaptation. That is, the muscles don’t actually get much stronger (or gain significant amounts of myofibril proteins), but the person lifts (or climbs) harder simply because the body learns to fire the muscles more effectively (and nearer to the full potential of each muscle). So, if you’ve never strength trained before and embark on a new program, you’ll likely see gains in performance if only by activating more of your motor neurons.

On a similar note, power training—i.e. strength training with a significant speed component—is capable of producing great gains in motor unit firing and strength with relatively little musculoskeletal strain. Power training involves the explosive lifting of weights. The body cannot lift its one-rep max weight in exercise very quickly. Therefore, to do power training, you must go down in weight (to roughly 50–75% of your one-rep max weight) and lift the weight very quickly.

Due to its high-velocity component, power training requires a lot of force to lift a weight, even though the weight is relatively light. Because it involves lighter weights by necessity, power training stresses the musculoskeletal system much less than very high-intensity weight training. Yet, it increases strength by improving the recruitment of high-threshold (fast-twitch) neurons—gains which are also enjoyed during slower, higher-weight movements.


Don’t be afraid to strength train. But if you are going to strength train, be sure to carefully plan your program so that you gain the most possible strength and power from your program with the least possible gains in mass.



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© 2013 Christine Balaz Sjöquist 

The information presented in this article and on this website are in no way meant to replace the advice of medical experts. Please consult with a physician before embarking on any training program.