The Uphill Athlete Strength Series
By Steve House, Uphill Athlete co-founder and Master Coach
Increasing complexity is a problem. Does this progression sound familiar? You start off wanting to be stronger on steep routes, so you climb more steep routes. You want to run faster, so you buy a GPS watch and run faster. That works for a couple weeks, but then you plateau and don’t get stronger, or faster, or maybe end up injured. I’m a big advocate of simplicity and a big fan of getting it done. So let’s put the two ideas together and talk about strength training.
Endurance athletes and climbers do not tend to come from strength and conditioning backgrounds. They don’t hang out in globo-gyms and few know an olympic bar from an Airdyne. However, as soon as you start reading a word about strength training, the terms and protocols come rapid-fire: Reps, sets, 1RM, OHS, and of course, the dreaded TGU.
Gym-oriented strength and conditioning people love this stuff. They love the math, the terms, the precision of it all and in a well-intended effort to improve, they often succumb to complexity creep. The athletic world does not work this way. Strength training for all the sports we address is critical. And we’ve talked about that here, and here, and here. But the important thing to know, for 99% of us, is the basics.
Core strength: Everyone knows about it and everyone has to do it. There are a million exercises, videos, and protocols being sold out there. and most of them are over-thought, over-specialized, and oversold. We only have so many muscles in our core, and from the perspective of improving their strength, the main problems are that they are composed almost entirely of slow twitch fibers and they lie deep in our bodies. Slow twitch fibers are slow to respond to strength protocols. Deep muscles are hard for many people to activate without hands-on coaching.
KIS (Keep It Simple) says that you can hit all these core muscles with about 10 exercises that you can do almost anywhere. There are many good ways to do it, here is ours basic version and here is a slightly more advanced version.
Everyone should do core strength training twice a week. Additionally, typically at the same time, you should do one of the following:
First 4-8 weeks of consecutive training: General Strength protocols. Go look at the social-media videos of your favorite pro athlete training in the gym during their off season. They’re doing this. You should to. A balanced menu of multi-joint movements, done circuit style, 10-12 at a time. This is General Strength.
Optional Hypertrophy protocols. A word you don’t know is always a warning-sign of imminent complexity creep. So excuse me for this quick diversion. Hypertrophy means muscle growth. Some people need it. Many don’t. In our sports we have to haul everything around. So there is an optimal size and weight to an endurance athlete. Kilian Jornet is about 5’7″ and weighs about 125lbs (57kg) when he’s racing. I am 5’10” and weighed 160lbs when I climbed Nanga Parbat (and 148 when I got back down). Typically the ones that need to gain muscles are youth athletes, most often young women, and those new to sport. Most of you skip this, but it is important to understand how it works: Repeating a movement with a lot of resistance until you can’t do it anymore stimulates muscles to grow larger. Remember that! Have you ever attempted the crux move on a sport-climbing project repeatedly until you got weaker and weaker…guess what you were doing that night when you slept? Growing bigger muscles and by extension, making your body heavier. Probably not what you intended. Athletes in our sports don’t want to be big.
Repeating a movement with a lot of resistance until you can’t do it anymore stimulates muscles to grow larger. Remember that!
For 8-16 weeks of consecutive training utilize Max Strength protocols. Max Strength refers to a simple protocol that was originally designed by Russian coaches many decades ago (from whom we inherited the bulk of what is known today about strength training). The beauty of this is that the training stimulus is largely neurological. It’s teaching existing muscle fibers to work in a more coordinated way. No new muscle fibers (read: Weight) required.
A fool-proof program is, surprise, simple. Choose four multi-joint exercises using free weights (rocks or sacks of rocks work in a pinch) performed as two couplets. A couplet means that you do one exercise, switch to the other and repeat until you’re done with all the prescribed sets and reps. The key to this protocol is increasing the weight as the number of reps drop. This is where self-coaching comes in, increasing the weights appropriately as the number of movements (reps) drop so that you’re at about 75-90% of failure on the last one. Not to failure. Never go to failure (see Hypertrophy above) unless you need more muscle to carry around.
Here is a typical Max Strength couplet we use with many of our coached athletes: Weighted Pull-ups and Box Step Ups, alternating between the pull-ups and box step-ups.
Six sets of: 4 reps, 4 reps, 3 reps, 3 reps, 2 reps, 2 reps.
Rest intervals: The decades-old rest-recommendation for this protocol is 30 seconds (a minimal rest) when moving from the pull-up to the box-step-up, and about 2 minutes rest (a significant rest) before starting the next couplet.
In this example, for the weighted pull-ups, you might use 10kg for the two sets of four, then 12kg for the two sets of three and finally 15kg for the last two sets of 2 reps. For box step-ups you might use 30kg, 40kg, and 45kg loaded in a backpack. (I stage the backpack on a table so I don’t have to pick it up off the ground.)
Push-up/Lunge using same couplet, rep and weighting protocols:
Six sets of: 4 reps, 4 reps, 3 reps, 3 reps, 2 reps, 2 reps.
For the push-ups I wear a weight vest and I hold a weight to my chest for the lunges.
4-8 weeks. Muscular Endurance. Everyone loves Muscular Endurance because it works and it’s fun. (Sometimes called power endurance or strength endurance, multiple terms are another sign of creeping complexity) This has been discussed here and here and defined it here, and we’ll go into it in even detail in future posts.
Bottom line? Don’t split hairs with your strength workouts. Keep it simple, and most importantly, do it.