Spend a bit of time reading about climbing online and a recurring topic starts to come up: the strength to weight ratio. More specifically, ‘optimising’ it. Due to climbing’s core concept being pulling your body up rock, some have the idea that the less you weigh, the stronger you feel. The higher your strength to body ratio, the better your climbing performance.
A quick google of ‘strength to weight ratio’ quickly shows the huge number of results talking about ‘optimising’ and getting a high ratio.
Look deeper at climbing forums, such as the subreddit r/climbharder, and you begin to see many focus on the weight side of the ratio – specifically people looking at weight loss. And many of the discussions also include users commenting on the issues it causes, such as problems with mental health or eating disorders.
So where does this obsession with weight come from? Climbing coaching company Lattice released a YouTube video called ‘Climbing: Stay Light or Get Strong?‘, where two of their coaches look into, amongst other things, the idea of the strength to weight ratio. Coach Ollie Torr states in the video that: “In climbing we’ve normalised skinny, how much we weigh and how being light is a key thing.”
Ella Russell is a coach for Lattice and featured alongside Ollie in the ‘Stay Light or Get Strong’ video. She spoke to Crimp Culture about the topic, including why people get focused on the weight side of the ratio.
“I think it’s interesting culturally whether climbers in general have perceived that they can make strength gains, maintain a constant weight and notice an improvement in performance. It might be culturally that we’ve just assumed that it’s easier to shed some pounds and that’s a quicker resolution to a perceived issue.
“Not everyone finds strength easy to gain. It takes a lot of consistent work over years rather than a matter of weeks, so in some ways you could understand how someone could think ‘if I diet quite hard for the next six weeks I might lose, if I really push it, a few kilos’. Which is easier on the mind because it’s something you can tangibly do in a short space of time rather than over a period of years.”
The short term gains can seem more tangible to some climbers than the time and dedication required to gain muscle mass. However, this focus on weight as a quicker fix can potentially cause issues.
“I think it’s important to look at both [strength and weight]. Do that early on in your training and your climbing so you don’t end up in a situation where you end up just looking at the weight side of things. Overall your performance may decline because you haven’t focused on strength properly and you’ve used weight loss potentially as a quick fix solution which in the long term isn’t ideal. You risk low energy availability, in men and women, which I think everyone is a lot more acutely aware of now in terms of the risk of hormonal disruption, again in men and women, and potentially resulting in RED-S.”
RED-S is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, caused by eating too little food to cover the energy expenditure of the athlete, often with the aim to have an extremely lean body type, which is often seen in climbing.
How does the prevalence of a lean climber affect people’s body image? In a recent Instagram takeover on Louis Parkinson’s account, Carmen McIlveen, founder of Project One Climbing, stated that body image is “a huge issue” with womxn in the climbing community. As part of her discussion, she said there was a need to “normalise normal climbing bodies”.
However, while many aspects of body image may still be an issue, an area Ella thinks may be improving is the perceived idea of muscle not looking ‘feminine’ on female climbers.
“I personally think the tide is changing on that. I’ve seen more women at the crag, for example, and a real emphasis on performance and getting the most out of your body rather than necessarily worrying about your body and how feminine it is. But that’s definitely not representative of everybody globally.”
Mina Leslie-Wujastyk works with Ella as a nutritionist for Lattice Training and has previously represented GB in Bouldering World Cups. As someone who has climbed since childhood, the idea of strength to weight ratios is something that’s very familiar.
“I think because I’ve been climbing for so long, it’s taken me a lot of effort to get that kind of thinking out of my head. It’s really difficult because I think it’s naïve to say that weight doesn’t matter in climbing because essentially it is a gravitational weight sensitive sport. You do have to carry yourself up a rock face so weight is going to have an implication on your performance.
“But weight is one data point. It’s not quite as simple as how much you weigh, it’s a weight to strength ratio. I think people focus on the weight side of that too much. You could have a better strength to weight ratio at a higher weight but people can find that hard to commit to.”
However, the rise in popularity of bouldering – 78% of major UK walls are predominantly or solely bouldering walls – may be helping to drive a change in this mindset.
“I do think in the general population things are changing and as bouldering gets more and more popular. There’s loads of bouldering only walls now, and the style of bouldering, especially indoor bouldering, they want to be strong first.
“If you look at competition climbers and in bouldering, especially in the women’s field, they’re not tiny skinny things anymore because they can’t be because it’s so powerful and so dynamic. If you look at the top climbers they’re powerful.
“It’ll be interesting now that climbing is getting into the Olympics and more commercial and getting more money behind it. It’ll be interesting to see how it will change and how body image and weight will play into it.”
With this shift taking place in the popularity of climbing, Ella hopes that the strength to weight ratio conversation may balance out to support the longevity of climbers’ careers.
“Lots of us want to be climbers for life. We want to be in the sport long term, so I’m hoping that the bias potential to weight loss rather than strength gains will actually balance out a bit more in the not too distant future. Hopefully we’ll all be able to take a bit more of a long term approach. That’s the goal anyway and something we believe in at Lattice.”