donderdag 18 december 2014

Strength training recap

Last week I enthusiastically wrote about starting a periodized training schedule. Truth is that I had already started it weeks before and this week I've completed the strength phase. The core exercise of this phase was doing isometric deadhangs on the fingerboard. I've approached it quite differently though compared to how I used to perform deadhang training. Previously I followed up the advice of Dave McLeod and Eva Lopez and aimed for a very small volume of very short, maximum intensity hangs (in my case a set of 12 single hangs I could hold for up to 8 seconds and then take several minutes of rest before the next hang). Such a routine aims for neurological adaptations exclusively.

In my current training program (based on the The Rock Climber's Training Manual by the Anderson brothers) neurological adaptations are primarily addressed in the power phase. In this case they are trained in the context dynamic movements, which is much more sports specific than isometric hangs and therefore makes a lot of sense to me. As the strength phase precedes the power phase, aiming for hypertrophy first is sensible and therefore a different approach to the exercises is required. So I switched to doing 'repeaters': sets of 7 second hangs separated by just 3 seconds of rest. Sets contain 6 or 7 hangs and are separated by 3 minute rests. With a harness, some weights and a pulley system the load can be carefully adjusted to aim for muscular failure at the last hang of each set and progressively increase the intensity through the strength phase. The basics are described elaborately in The Rock Climber's Training Manual and partly in this article plus video by Ned Feehally from Beastmaker fingerboards (see also the second part about the advanced routine).

The result of this regimen is a much higher training volume at a slightly reduced intensity, aiming for hypertrophy in the forearms (it should be noted though that most strength gains in this phase are still from neurological adaptations). I did 10 workouts, consisting of about an hour of progressive warming up (mostly by bouldering) followed by 13 sets of repeaters in varying grip positions (although I had to start with less, but could increase the volume quickly in the first 4 workouts) and finally some upper body and antagonist exercises. As predicted, I was able to increase the load consistently between the first workouts, but the gains started to diminish towards the end of the phase, which is the cue to progress to the power phase.

As hangboarding is extremely quantifiable, it's easy to keep track of progress and analyze workouts. I've made the following graphs from the data I collected during my trainings and they nicely show the progress through the strength phase. A list of the grip positions and their abbreviations can be found below.
Time Under Tension (T.U.T.) and Volume per workout. T.U.T. is the actual time spent hanging and volume equals the integral of total load over time. Initial gains in volume are mainly due to the increasing T.U.T., after workout 4 primarily due to increased load.
Added load for each grip position per workout. Negative numbers imply weight has been substracted. Chronological order (as shown by the legend) is important, as is demonstrated for example by the open handed 4 finger hangs: small hold, high load at the start of a workout and a lower load on bigger hold at the end due to fatigue. The initial decrease observed in load for the latter is because I started too high and had to keep adjusting it down during the first 5 workouts.
Total load equals body mass plus added mass and is actually a more interesting number than the added mass, as this is the total load the fingers have to support. Fluctuations in body mass are visible and explain for example the small volume drop in workout 9.
List of the grip positions (in chronological order):
  1. 'Big sloper': open handed hang on big sloper
  2. '4f open 18 mm': open handed, four finger hang on 18 mm edge
  3. 'front 3 24 mm': open handed, index/middle/ring finger hang on 24 mm edge
  4. 'back 3 24 mm': open handed, pinky/ring/middle finger hang on 24 mm edge
  5. '4f h. crimp 24 mm': four finger half crimp hang on 24 mm edge
  6. 'mid 2 28 mm': open handed, middle/ring finger hang on 28 mm pocket
  7. '4f open 24 mm': open handed, four finger hang on 24 mm edge
Some valuably things I've learned during this strength training phase:
  • Repeaters are punishing on the fingers and if a grip position is only slightly unergonomic, the results are devastating. Already after the second workout I had a mildly inflamed collateral ligament on the PIP joint of my left index finger due to a tweaky grip position. I performed an open front three hang (ring, middle and index finger) on a set of edges that's too close to the centre of my board, forcing a tilt in my arms (pushing the elbows out) and putting strain on the PIP joints of the index fingers. By responding quickly, taking a few days off and moving this particular hang to a different, wider set of holds allowed to continue training without further problems. The take away message: (almost) all boards have holds close to the centre that are potentially dangerous for two handed hangs. Try to position the hands above the shoulders to avoid injuries.
  • Power breathing is a great way to enforce a state of high arousal and push trough the extremely uncomfortable final hang(s) and really reach muscular failure. I'm trying to apply it to hard climbing moves as well, but still struggle with the fact that coordination seems to suffer in a state of very high arousal. Maybe it simply needs some practice...
  • Starting a strength phase turned out to be very exciting and the rapid initial gains were very motivating to push through the workouts. Towards the end of the phase, the workouts became more and more mentally challenging. Hangboarding works best when you dig deep, really deep and I've consistently managed to push myself to the point of being slightly dizzy and nauseated (thanks to power breathing). During the final workouts it became hard to keep doing this and I'm happy - almost relieved - to switch to a new phase now. Obviously periodization is not only beneficial for the body, but also for the mind!

zondag 14 december 2014

Attic upgrade: Campus board!

I've almost finished the strength phase of my training cycle, doing a lot isometric deadhangs on the fingerboard. Next up is a power phase and the key concept for power training - plyometrics (i.e. going explosively from a forced eccentric contraction to a concentric contraction) - requires a special training tool to target the forearms: a campus board. The concept was developed by the legendary Wolfgang Güllich to train for his then futuristic, powerful test pieces in the Frankenjura. He was the first to apply plyometrics to forearm training and his campus board has been embraced by the climbing community ever since. Every gym has one nowadays. My attic didn't...

And now it does! Having a training plan that requires me to train on a campus board finally made me construct one. I contemplated doing it for months, but I've always avoided campus board training. I was put off by the relatively high risk of finger injuries that is inherent to the activity. But truth be told I really suck at campus board training, which didn't contribute to its appeal either. It should though, because apparently there's huge improvement potential in it for me. Two more hangboard sessions and I'll start training on the campus board for power. I can hardly wait now that the board is finished!

Constructing my own campus board allowed me to make all design decisions myself and I wanted it to be as good as it could possibly be. The biggest constraint was the available space in the attic. Additionally, it had to be mobile, as the only big enough space was right in front of my climbing wall. So it should be possible to put it up relatively easy after thoroughly warming up by bouldering and take it down afterwards, without sacrificing stability of the board to cope with the dynamic moves I'll be making on it. The result exceeds my expectations and it's ready to use.

The board is 1.90 m tall, allowing for 9 rungs at Moon spacing (22 cm centre-to-centre spacing). This should keep me busy for a while: the 1-5-9 is considered the ultimate expression of power and is a challenge for the elite (except for gravity defying machine Jan Hojer). Between rungs 3 and 9 I've added rungs at half spacing to allow for easier progress to larger campus distances. The board is 16.0 degrees off vertical. The guideline here is to aim for 15 to 20 degrees, where smaller angles tend to make the campus exercises harder.

What I dreaded the most was choosing the depth of the rungs. The smaller, the better, but it should still be possible to perform the exercises from them. Given more space, I could have installed two or three rows of rungs with varying depths, but that's not the case. A rule of thumb is that you should be able to do at least 5 pull ups on one rung. I knew I could easily do that from the smallest rung on my hangboard, which is 18 mm deep. That's not 16 degrees overhanging though... Eventually I decided to buy the rungs from same supplier as the rungs on the board in Cube Bouldergym: Woodpecker Holds from Poland. Ordering directly from the supplier was no problem at all and the service provided was great (and quick!). I knew for a fact that the quality of the rungs would be good and the curvature of the edges would be ergonomic and skin friendly. Additionally, in Cube I was able to test the different sizes Woodpecker makes: 20 mm, 25 mm and 30 mm. Of these, 25 mm seemed ideal for me. 30 mm feels difficult enough, but exceeds the size of a finger pad and is therefore tough on the calluses. 20 mm feels terribly hard, but 25 mm perfectly corresponds to a single finger pad and feels the most ergonomic. It still feels uncomfortably hard, but at least possible. And hey, isn't campus board training supposed to be hard?

dinsdag 9 december 2014

Plateau Syndrome

All climbers are familiar with 'Plateau Syndrome': getting mentally (and physically) trapped on a ledge in a climb - often just before a hard crux section - that's so debilitatingly comfortable compared with what's to come, it feels impossible to step off and continue climbing. On a larger time scale, a similar thing can occur in training, the ledge being a training routine that we've executed so often that we became so good at it, that doing anything else (in which we logically suck badly by then) is so uncomfortable for the ego that we'd rather avoid it. It happened to me repeatedly.

Having had quite a bit of time not climbing outdoors, I've been thinking a lot about the strong start and disappointing finish of the route climbing season. In the past years - I started climbing seriously in the summer of 2010 - I've progressed from climbing my first 7a to my first 8a (routes), but on the way I have experienced several plateaus, sometimes even regressions.

The first plateau occured around 7a/7a+ during the 2011 route climbing season. In December Cube bouldergym opened and I switched from three weekly route climbing session in Arque to three weekly bouldering sessions in Cube. Immediately at the start of the next season I climbed my first 7b and 7c. Sticking to this 'winning' bouldering diet seemed a logical choice.

The second plateau occured right there and then. It took more than a full year to climb another 7c and during the entire 2013 season I didn't manage to break through the ceiling. In januari 2014, after moving to a new house and not climbing for three months, I installed my woody and started bouldering there. Occasionally I did some hangboarding and I started including more full body exercises for antagonist training and joint stability. At the start of the 2014 route season I climbed my first 7c+ and 8a. Again, sticking to this new 'winning' routine seemed to be the logical way to go.

The third plateau occured right there again... I haven't managed to climb more 7c+ or 8a routes and struggled on 7c's during the remainder of the season. Are you seeing the pattern?

Changing routines (dashed green lines) breaks plateaus. Not included is the third plateau I've experienced this season.
It's easy to point out ones mistakes in hindsight and I've become exceedingly good at pointing out my own while failing to notice them consistently when I'm making them (let alone predict them beforehand...). Obviously, every step up I made followed a dramatic change in my climbing routine. When I switched to Cube, I jumped from 7a+ to 7c, when I starting training on the woody from 7c to 8a. It doesn't necessarily mean that climbing in Cube beats climbing in Arque (although as a training facility I tend to consider Cube more complete than Arque) and that climbing on the woody beats both. It's the change that matters and there's a solid body of sports science explaining (and proofing!) it perfectly clear.

Every time a new routine has given me gains, I clinged onto it for dear life, failing to realize that the switch in routine rather than the routine itself made me progress. The result is that I kept doing the same thing over and over again for way too long and plateaued. It's an easy pitfall and I've stumbled into this mental trap several times now. To keep progressing, doing the same thing at an increasing intensity (progressive overload) is good up to the point where gains are diminishing (duh..). That's the time to switch activities to a new one that is sensitive to progressive overload and reap the rewards of supercompensation again. After switching a few times it's feasible to get back to the first activity again. The starting point will be lower than the previous highpoint, but applying progressive overload again should push it past that previous highpoint this time. This cyclic process is called 'periodization' and it's at the root of any good training regimen aiming at progress in any sports.

Periodization in climbing training as a cyclical process.
Adapted from 'The Rock Climber's Training Manual' by M.L. Anderson PhD and M.L. Anderson (2014)
My mistake in the past years has been thinking that my focus on bouldering and bouldery sports routes didn't require me to train endurance at all and that training by just bouldering was fine. With this monotonous approach a plateau is inevitable. I even failed to distinguish between strength and power and at least cycle between those two aspects. So it's (way past...) time to start applying periodization to my training and keep stepping out of my comfort zone to achieve the next step up. I've made myself a schedule for the coming months, covering one training cycle going through a strength phase, a power phase and a power endurance phase leading into a performance peak. I'll document everything in a training log, allowing me to evaluate afterwards and keep track of progress through the cycle. I can only hope the peak really occurs. I'll let you know in March...

vrijdag 5 december 2014

Food for (vegetarian) climbers part 3: creatine

I promised to be a bit faster with this third post on food for veggies and to keep it shorter than the previous one. So here it is, within a few days and all about creatine. Luckily, the story on creatine is much shorter. I have to admit though that I cheated a bit: most of it was written already before publishing the previous post. Anyway, here we go.

About creatine
So for starters, what's creatine? It is an amino acid that our own body produces constantly. As all vertebrates produce creatine, we consume it when eating meat, raising creatine levels significantly above levels that our own body can produce. Consequently, vegetarians - like me - usually have lower creatine levels than meat eaters. Without dwelling into scientific details, let me explain why creatine can be important for athletes. Remember the three different systems that produce ATP - the fuel in our muscle cells - that I discussed in part 1? The 'phosphagen system', providing ATP at high rates for a short duration, needs creatine phosphate. It's the fastest energy supplying mechanism and the first our muscles will resort to. A higher level of creatine phosphate means a bigger capacity of the phosphagen system. And the body needs creatine to form creatine phosphate (open door, isn't it?). Additionally, creatine is believed to speed up the recovery process after training. In summary, effects of increased creatine levels are:
  • An increased capacity of the fast energy supplying phosphagen system during high intensity exercises and therefore an increased ability to perform them. That means a few more push ups or bench presses per set if you're into that. By increasing the training volume you can handle (imaging doing the same number of exercises, but with a few more moves/repetitions in every single set), creatine will help you build up muscles. For climbers it could also mean an increase in power endurance. The more creatine phosphate we have stored in our muscles, the more very hard (crux our boulder) moves can be done relying on the phosphagen system before the glycogen lactid acid system has to take over and the pump clock starts to tick. In other words: higher creatine levels will increase strength, power and to some extent (indirectly) power endurance.
  • Creatine is osmotically active and will draw more water into your muscles. This will make you heavier. It also aids in the regeneration and recovery of muscles. Faster recovery means that shorter rest periods between training session suffice and more training is possible (this relies on more effects than just water being drawn into the muscles).
Opinions collide on whether this is good for climbers or not. I'd say for climbers two effects of creatine supplementation are interesting: an increase in strength, power and anaerobic endurance and faster recovery, allowing more training. The third effect is less favorable: an increase in weight, partly due to water retention and partly due to the additional muscle mass your body might start building up if you milk the extra few reps that the extra creatine allows you to perform. As ultimately the strength-to-weight ratio is what matters in climbing, it becomes a trade off: will the additional weight drag you down or will the increased power and power endurance launch you to the next level? This balance will be different for everybody. The only way to find out if it works for you, is giving it a try. Finally I should mention that there are non-responders to creatine supplementation. Some people notice strong effects, some don't. Again, you'll have to try and see how it works for you. Nevertheless it is reasonable to assume that in a low-creatine diet (like a veggie diet) stronger effects from additional supplementation can be expected than in a high-creatine diet.

Legendary Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert have pushed the bounderies of sports climbing like few others and make most climbers look like twigs. The strength to weight ratio of Güllich was good enough to climb the world's first 9a nevertheless... Simply looking at this picture makes me feel much less worried about my weight again.
As a vegetarian, I was inclined to expect a response to creatine supplementation. I spent days reading about possible side effects and health risks associated with it. It turned out that after being popularized in the early 90's (after reportedly paving the way to some Olympic gold medals), creatine became the most studied food supplement for athletes and stood all tests and scrutiny. Some early reports of kidney damage and other health effects were later discredited and in 2004 the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) published a report stating that a long-term oral intake of 3g creatine per day is risk-free. Curious about the results of the trade off between strength and weight and puzzled by the low training volume I could handle, I decided to give it a go. I ordered a can of high quality, pure creatine and started taking the prescribed daily 4g supplement.

Initial results of my increased creatine intake
In the first week of supplementation, I didn't notice any difference in my training. But towards the end of the second week, the first results were undeniable. I could clearly hold up better in my antagonist & fitness workouts and I could do significantly more hard bouldering within a short training session. Additionally, my (perceived) strength increased. That's all rather vague, unquantified and subjective, but here are some numbers to chew on: in the second week I was able to increase the additional load I could carry in a typical deadhang session on my fingerboard by 7 kg. That may not sound like a lot, but those familiar with deadhang training will know that (provided you're not new to hangboarding) gains here usually are very small, come tediously slowly and require inhuman patience and persistence. Clearly my strength to weight ratio had increased (as predicted by several studies, I measured a weight gain of about 1 kg in the first two weeks).

Weeks later I measured some more weight gains: adding up to about 3 kg in total. I think it's mostly gains in bigger core muscle groups that I regularly address in my training. Although my perceived strength and power increased, I also got the rather subjective and unquantifiable feeling that my power endurance suffered a bit, probably due to the additional weight. As it pushed me past the psychological barrier of 80 kg, I started trying harder to achieve a small caloric deficit and over nearly two months I lost about 2 kg again. I am almost back at my old weight now, but obviously I would have been lighter had I done the same without creatine supplementation. Focussing on power endurance training for a few weeks restored my power endurance to a level I haven't had the entire season, so overall I feel like the additional creatine gave me the sharp edge I missed before and hasn't given me significant disadvantages in the end. But again: most of this is hard to quantify and quite subjective.

In conclusion
Among many other nutrients, proteins and creatine affect climbing performance and our ability to endure and recover from hard training sessions. A vegetarian diet is prone to be low in both without some extra attention. Although it's relatively easy to consume plenty of proteins while refraining from meat for most, vegetarians have to rely only on the creatine their own bodies produce. I turned out to be a responder to creatine supplementation (but there are plenty of accounts of non-responders as well). I feel stronger and fitter during training, but haven't really had the chance to test these perceived gains on real rock. I'll let you know when I do. Based mostly on the deadhang statistics, it seems my strength to weight ratio has increased, tipping the balance to the beneficial effects of creatine. It might be different for you though. There's only one way to find out. That is, if you care to bother.

I would recommend a vegetarian diet to everyone. For me it has made weight control much easier and made me feel healthier. Cooking and eating became more interesting and it has affected my eating attitude positively. But with or without meat, making varied meals from clean, unprocessed ingredients is what's most important. For me starting to eat veggie simply triggered a change of mindset regarding food. I'll stick with it for sure, because it makes me feel good and healthy. But during periods of hard strength and power training I will supplement (just a bit of) extra proteins, as it seems to help my body recover. And for now I'll keep supplementing some creatine as well for the reasons described above. After a while I do intend to stop it briefly though and see what difference that makes. Despite all guidelines, studies and good advice about eating, the way an individual body responds to eating habits remains unpredictable, making dieting above all a matter experimenting. Only through trial and error you can find out what works for you and what doesn't. If you suspect that an eating habit is holding you back somehow, simply change it for a few weeks and evaluate the results. You might end up pleasantly surprised, just like me.