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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Optimizing Body Composition for Peak Performance

If you've ever hiked with a heavy pack or carried someone on your back, you've experienced the negative effects of increased weight on physical performance. Conversely, a reduction in percent body fat or excessive nonfunctional muscle mass can have a positive effect on performance, especially in a sport such as climbing where a high strength-to-weight ratio is fundamental.

The optimal body fat percentage is 6 to 12 percent for men and 8 to 16 percent for women. If you're not sure how you measure up, consider having your body fat tested. Or you can use the economic pinch-an-inch method on your waistline (actually a good gauge). If you can pinch an inch (or more), you are not in the optimal range.

Similarly, excessive muscular weight is about as bad as excessive fat. In fact, since muscle weighs more than fat per unit volume, large muscles in the wrong place are worse than fat. Inappropriate training is the usual cause of unwanted muscle. For instance, the leg exercises performed by bodybuilders or bike racers are a waste of time for climbers since lack of leg strength is rarely a limiting factor on the rock. Biceps curls and heavy bench-press exercises will likewise have a negative impact on climbing performance. Sure, they will pump you up nicely for the beach, but they will also weigh you down on the rock. Fortunately, you can strip away unwanted fat and excessively bulky muscles (within generically encoded limitations) with disciplined diet and aerobic exercise.

The dietary strategy is to reduce empty calories from junk foods and high-fat fast foods, while maintaining a steady consumption of protein and carbohydrate. The ideal macronutrient caloric breakdown for an athlete is 65 percent carbohydrate, 15 percent protein, and only 20 percent fat. Consequently, you can toss out the high-fat fad diets such as the Zone or Atkins--these are absolutely the wrong diet strategies for a serious athlete!

An active male desirous of some weight loss might restrict his total dietary intake to around 2,000 calories per day (up to 50 percent more on extremely active days). This would break down to about 320 grams of carbohydrate, 80 grams of protein, and 45 grams of fat. Similarly, an active female wanting to drop a few pounds should limit total daily food consumption to about 1,500 calories (up to 30 percent more on extremely active days), striving for a macronutrient breakdown of around 240 grams of carbohydrate, 60 grams of protein, and 35 grams of fat. Upon achieving desired climbing weight, gradually increase caloric intake to determine the appropriate consumption to maintain a stable body weight. (Visit an online Calorie Calculator to estimate your needs and burn rate. Courtesy of

Regarding aerobic exercise, running is by far the most effective method of incinerating fat and shrinking unwanted muscle. Don't worry about losing your climbing muscles, however; they will be preserved as long as you continue to climb regularly and consume at least 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Other popular aerobic activities such as steep mountain biking and the StairMaster will yield mixed results: They do eat up body fat, but they also tend to maintain (or build) undesirable leg muscle. Swimming or fast hiking are good alternatives, if you can't run.

Frequency of aerobic training should be proportional to the magnitude of your weight loss goal. For example, if you are significantly overweight, then daily twenty- to forty-minute runs are an important part of your training-for-climbing program. As you near ideal weight, two or three twenty-minute runs per week are sufficient. Upon reaching your optimal weight, very little aerobic training is necessary since indoor climbing requires only modest aerobic fitness. At this point, your training time is better invested on actual climbing and supplemental sport-specific exercises.

Matt Bosley sending at Governor Stable, PA. Horst Photo.