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Habit Climbing

Dropping Weight and Improving Body Composition

Losing Fat without Losing Strength


Unless you’re a naturally strong, ultra-thin climber, you’ve probably considered dropping weight for rock climbing. However, though weight loss can improve climbing performance, not all weight loss is good weight loss with respect to climbing and overall well-being.

Most climbers wishing to lose weight for the sake of performance should first understand that they are looking to lose body fat. Because climbers don’t want to part with any strength, and because muscle mass is inextricably linked to strength, they must preserve their muscle mass as much as possible in any weight-loss cycle.

Common methods for weight loss set athletes up for disappointment. As many people already know, crash dieting achieves a totally undesired effect—that is, crash dieters often lose weight, but shed a horrible amount of muscle mass in the process and therefore see an increase in body fat percentage. Worse still, when crash dieters invariably rebound to at least their original weight, they—having lost significant muscle mass in their diet—have a much higher percentage of body fat than they did before they lost any weight at all.

Another common method for weight loss, low-intensity, aerobic exercise, burns fat by definition. Yet it does next to nothing to preserve muscle mass. 

So—if dieting and jogging won’t influence body composition in a positive way for climbers, what will? It turns out that losing fat and maintaining muscle mass is possible. However, weight loss among climbers should be undertaken in a deliberate way if it is to be an effective tool for increasing performance.


Simply stated, the goals of those looking to lose weight for climbing and improve body composition are twofold:

  • lose body fat and
  • maintain or increase strength (and therefore muscle mass, which is inextricably linked to strength)


In order to achieve these goals, you must subject yourself to a caloric deficit. However before you go crazy, you must first understand how the body works with respect to body fat and amino acid storage. If you plan your weight loss correctly, you can maximize your fat loss and minimize muscle loss, and therefore strength, by adhering to these principles:

Keep caloric deficit low; don’t crash diet.

There are infinite reasons not to crash diet. Firstly, severe caloric restriction almost always causes equally severe nutrient deficiencies—vitamins, minerals and macronutrients, all of which are vital to a healthy body. Crash dieting, therefore, is a gateway to long-term health problems.

One of the many nutrients that crash dieters miss is protein. Though the lack of protein contributes to numerous health problems, we’ll focus on only on the negative effects it has on body composition.

The human body must maintain a certain concentration of amino acids in the bloodstream. By depriving the body of ingested protein, crash dieters force their bodies to maintain blood amino acid levels by drawing amino acids from skeletal muscles—thereby shrinking the muscles and decreasing strength.

Beyond protein considerations, crash dieting is not sustainable, and leads to the famous yo-yo effect. That is: dieters lose a large amount of weight, but fail to keep up with their impossible diet. After this, they typically gain weight—usually ending up at least as heavy as before they started the diet in the first place.

Not only have they returned to their original weight—but they have also worsened their situation. This is because when they lost the weight by dieting, they invariably lost muscle mass. So now, at the same bodyweight as before the diet, they now have less skeletal muscle and therefore more body fat. (Once again, this is only from a body-composition standpoint; from a health standpoint, crash dieting is even worse.)

Maximize nutrient density.

Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance asserts clearly that diet quality is a critical means for losing weight healthfully and effectively with respect to athletic performance. “With a high-quality diet, you can rest assured that you are optimizing your body weight, minimizing your chronic disease risk, slowing the aging process, maximizing your performance, and much more.”

The basic principle is that a nutrient-dense diet full of high-quality foods rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and healthy macronutrients—while also being void of empty, processed, and otherwise unhealthy or useless calories—has the best chance at delivering the body with enough fuel and nutrients to maintain health and performance in the face of restricted caloric intake.

Essentially, if you dilute these nutrient-rich foods with junk food (or even reasonably healthy, but still less nutritionally dense food), you’ll have to consume more calories in order to get the nutrients your body needs. Maximize your nutrient density by filling your kitchen with fresh vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and some fruits.

Pay attention to the timing of food intake.

Not only is the quality of the food critical to successful weight loss, but the time at which you consume the food is critical, as well. Well-timed meals and snacks not only make weight loss more comfortable, but they also aid in performance and recovery.

With respect to performance and recovery, it is critical to fuel yourself before and during athletic activity. Low blood sugar levels are extremely detrimental to athletic performance, both mentally and physically.

It is also critical to eat after exercise. Carbohydrates consumed after exercise allow the body to replenish glycogen—that is, glucose stored in the muscles. Protein ingested after training aids in muscle repair—thereby helping the body with recovery, allowing it to become stronger. Thinking along the lines of nutrient density, you might consider a lean-meat sandwich on whole wheat bread as a recovery snack. However, if you’re feeling the pressure of convenience, you might take a whey protein shake and a few pieces of fruit instead.

Finally, Fitzgerald presents a body of studies that show that athletes (and people in general) are well served by eating breakfast, and eating frequently—in the form of small meals and snacks.

Do not overestimate your caloric need.

A common occurrence in active persons is to overestimate the energy they expend during exercise, and therefore consume more food than they actually require. In the weight-loss scenario, this leaves these persons in a worse state than they would be in without exercise.

In order to monitor this, you needn’t count calories on a daily basis. However, you would certainly find it useful to track your food intake for an average week, and analyze how much you typically eat. There are many online tools which give the calorie count and nutritional content of individual foods—a good chance to double-check the nutrient density of your fuel.

While online, you can also obtain crude estimates of calories burned per unit time for many type of exercise. If you haven’t done this before, you’ll probably find yourself surprised by how little energy you actually spend exercising.

Keep your amino acid balance positive.

What does that mean? Simply put, the body can be thought of as a pool of amino acids: they can be found in the blood, vital tissues, and in muscles. Like any other system in the human body, the amino acid collective is never static—that is, the amino acid-containing tissues, like all others, are constantly repairing and regenerating themselves. They do this by drawing from a pool of circulating amino acids in the bloodstream.

Like any other material in the blood—say blood sugar—the body has mechanisms to keep these blood amino acids at a certain concentration. If blood amino levels drop too low, usually for lack of protein consumption (through food), the body is forced to correct the concentration by drawing amino acids from the its least vital reservoir of them—the skeletal muscles (called “protein breakdown”).

You must keep enough amino acids in your bloodstream to prevent protein breakdown, and you must also ensure that the body is sufficiently motivated to keep directing amino acids toward the muscle tissue. In other words, climbers looking to maintain their muscle mass must ensure that their muscles undergo at least as much protein synthesis as breakdown (see below).

Weight train to encourage the maintenance of muscle mass.

When the muscles are properly stimulated by training, and the blood has ample amino acid levels, the body repairs and grows its skeletal muscles (“protein synthesis”). As Nicklas Neuman and Jacob Guidol state in Forma Kroppen och Maximera din Prestation,

Muscle mass is the sum of protein breakdown and protein synthesis. In the case of caloric deprivation over a long period, the risk is large that the ‘muscle balance’ will become negative as the muscle breakdown process overtakes the muscle building process. To counteract a negative ‘muscle balance’ you therefore must strive for a high rate of protein synthesis. Strength training is the most potent factor—with regard to increasing protein synthesis—that we are able to influence ourselves, and that isn’t dependent on food.

But not all types of strength training achieve the same potent effects when it comes to protein synthesis. Neuman and Guidol assert that the most effective form of strength training with regard to encouraging protein synthesis is also the form which causes the most gains in strength: high-intensity, low-rep sets—sets of roughly 1–6 rep max.

True, high-rep-style weight training causes the most hypertrophy (muscle growth) in the human body. However, this type of muscle growth is superficial, and not functional; high-rep hypertrophy essentially fills the muscle cells with fluid—not with functional, contractile components like high-intensity, low-rep training does. It can therefore be disregarded when it comes to increasing protein synthesis rates. (For more information on this, see this article.)

Furthermore, though high-rep-style strength training might maintain muscle mass in a neutral caloric situation, we’re concerned with maintaining muscle mass in a caloric deficit—when protein synthesis rates are jeopardized by lack of food intake.

Don’t worry about using weight training as a tool to lose weight; its function is to preserve muscle mass and strength.

While calorically deprived, you likely are not in the state to perform large, heavy sets of weight training—say 8–12 reps per set. Chances are that you might feel like you’re not working out enough to lose weight. That’s OK; the reason for weight training is not to deplete the body of calories—that goal can be achieved by limiting the intake of food. According to Neuman and Guidol, “Strength training serves to stimulate the muscles; you take care of your body fat stores through your diet.”

After a period of weight loss, you might wonder whether you actually lost muscle mass in the process. Of this, Neuman and Guidol say, “If you have maintained your strength [after a period of weight loss], this is the best proof that you have maintained your muscle mass.”

Keep your body’s pool of amino acids “full” by ingesting sufficient dietary protein.

In order to encourage your body to maintain its muscle mass, it is critical to keep a sufficient amount of amino acids in the bloodstream by consuming sufficient protein through food sources. According the Neuman and Guidol, “The effect [on protein synthesis] of an increased protein intake is not as large as for strength training, but it nevertheless has a positive effect on body composition and so matters more than carbohydrates and fat.”

And though the effect of a high-protein diet on protein synthesis isn’t as substantial as in strength training, it is absolutely critical to address every controllable detail in the weight-loss equation in order to push the delicate balance of body composition in your favor.

Numerous studies have been done on the subject of high-protein intake and body composition—and the results are varied regarding the exact quantity of dietary protein required to be effective. However varied the results, the studies do agree that the more protein consumed, the better—within reason. Neuman and Guidol suggest, upon analysis of multiple studies, that amounts of 2.5 grams per kilogram of body mass per day is an ideal amount for the purpose of weight loss in athletes.

This means a 150-pound (68-kg) person should eat approximately 170 grams of protein each day. That’s a lot. But even if you don’t manage to eat this much, you can still keep this theory in mind when making food choices. If you are interested in trying to choke down this much protein, but don’t want to fill your face with steaks, eggs, chicken breasts and fish at every meal, you can consider supplementing with a high-quality whey protein.  

Certain researchers posit that too much protein in the diet can be dangerous for the nervous system. And most of this belief is based on theory, and on non-human, animal studies. However, even if this belief holds true, the dangerous level of protein consumption exists at around 3.5 or 4.5 grams per kilogram body weight per day—well above Neuman and Guidol’s suggested intake.

Focus on weight training more than aerobic activities.

Weight training outdoes aerobic training in the realm that people have always praised it for being best: fat burning. And though aerobic training undeniably burns fat (by definition!), it is not as effective a tool for weight loss and body composition improvement for climbers as weight training.

For one thing, burning fat doesn’t mean that the body won’t redeposit it upon the ingestion of a large meal. Additionally, non-fat burning activities have an equal chance of reducing body fat, owing to the fact that these activities require the body to direct ingested calories toward fueling the muscles and post-exercise recovery, therefore redirecting food energy toward away from adipose tissue. Knowing that fat-burning isn’t the only way to decrease body fat, you should consider the most intense activities to be the best with respect to weight loss.

Many people use jogging, for example, as a way to burn calories and still be able to consume a reasonable amount of food—that is, they use it to exist in a caloric deficit whilst continuing to enjoy a substantial intake of food. As Neuman and Guidol say, “In other words, aerobic training is in this context, simply a tool for burning energy, and it hasn’t nearly the same muscle-sparing effect as strength training.”



For excellent information on weight loss and athletic performance, see Matt Fitzgerald’s Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance. For information related to weight training, see Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore.



Questions? Comments? Curious about a certain topic? Let us know!

© 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. 



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