Today’s entry begins a two-part discussion about optimizing body composition and strength-to-weight ratio, as covered in my recent interview with Dr. Dan Benardot, leading nutrition expert and author of “Advanced Sports Nutrition-2nd Edition.”
Q: How should climbers/athletes work toward optimizing their strength-to-weight ratio?
A: For starters, weight is the wrong metric, period. Anybody who uses weight as a marker of prediction of athletic success will fail. The first question that should be asked if somebody says, “I need to lose five pounds before a competition,” is, “Five pounds of what? Muscle? Fat? Bone? What?”
Telling an already-fit athlete to lose weight is absolutely the incorrect strategy. If you gain five pounds of muscle and lose five pounds of fat, you’ll look smaller and be stronger, so your strength-to-weight ratio will be better. You’ll have more endurance because your muscles will work more efficiently. The bottom line is that if you think of losing weight and only weight, inevitably you’ll go about doing that differently than if you specifically tell yourself, “I’m going to lose fat.”
To ideally alter your body composition, you have to work at it in a way that allows you to sustain sport-specific muscle mass and lose fat [assuming you have fat to lose]. The body’s reaction to an inadequate caloric intake is to lower the tissue that needs calories [i.e. lean mass, meaning muscle]. It has to figure out how to survive with fewer calories – the only way to lower your need for calories is to lower the amount of tissue that needs calories [again muscle mass]. You’ll consequently lose muscle, so that you alter your strength-to-weight ratio negatively, ultimately making your athletic endeavor more difficult.
You have to be in a negative overall energy balance to lose fat, but not too far below the balance, or you lose muscle. If you go too low [i.e. let yourself get very hungry or have long periods of time between eating], you’ll actually lose muscle and gain fat – even if you experience overall weight loss [remember, fat weighs less than muscle, so if you replace muscle with fat, you’ll weigh less but have a worse strength-to-weight ratio]. If you delay eating, you are not in energy balance or close to it, and you are promoting fat production and muscle loss. (Check out NutriTiming® for an app that can help you track this metric effectively).
This multipart series of articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!