Climbing is one of those sports where the lighter you are, the more easily you’ll be able to move your body on the rocks. This means the skinnier you are, the harder you send. Unfortunately, this means some climbers take their weight loss to the extreme and has led to the existence of terms such as ‘climborexia’.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the advantages of being light in rock climbing as well as the danger that comes with it.
First, I would like to place a disclaimer and state that I am not a professional. The words in this article are my opinions and my experiences and they should not be used as dieting advice.
Why are rock climbers skinny?
While very strong, many climbers look ‘skinny’. Prominent climbers, especially IFSC athletes and dirtbag crushers, aim to get to the ideal weight-to-strength ratio. This might make them look skinny but in many cases, they are just very lean. If they gained more muscle, they wouldn’t be able to compete at the same level because while it would make them stronger, it would also give them more weight to carry.
One climber in particular, who is often considered ‘skinny’ is Adam Ondra, widely considered to be the best sport climber ever. Ondra weighs 70kg, giving him a BMI of 20.2. Which puts him in a healthy weight category.
While Adam might look skinny while he is standing still, he looks absolutely ripped while he is climbing. Ondra’s back is so well-defined and broad, he is clearly ‘lean’ and ‘muscular’ rather than skinny.
I’d also like to state that long not all climbers are skinny. There are many, many climbers with well-developed upper bodies that cannot be categorized as ‘skinny’. This is especially true amongst boulderers who require less endurance than a lead climber.
Do skinny & light climbers send harder?
Lighter climbers have it easier on the rocks. This is an undeniable fact of rock climbing. The less you weigh, the less weight you need to carry in each move. Of course, you have to be strong as well, you need a good strength-to-weight ratio but generally, a lighter person will have an easier time carrying their body.
This is very visible amongst IFSC athletes, especially in the lead climbing category, many of them are very lean and light. The same can be said about youngins who are crushing 5.13 and above. Every year, it seems new records are broken and a younger climber is crushing harder that the year prior. These young prodigies are small, light, and have ideal weight-to-strength ratios.
Curt Macneil reported an increase in climbing power after 10 days without food after dealing with a nasty virus in his article. Following a massive weight loss, he was able to sent a project in Mexico, which he planned on taking a whole month. He sent it in just 4 tries on the second day. Even though he lost a bunch of weight and muscle, and his friends were concerned for his health, Macneil found himself stronger as a climber at a much lighter bodyweight.
A similar notion can be found in James Lucas’ article for Climbing: ‘Confessions of a Weight-Obsessed Climber’. Where he reveals how poverty and living on a survival diet had made him skinny, but also made him climb harder. Once he finally made a decent wage, he started to gain weight and his climbing gains regressed with it. After weight-loss due to food poisoning resulted him in finishing a long-time 5.12c project, James bought a scale and his weight-obsession commenced.
I highly recommend you check out James’ article, it’s a great piece and he’s an exceptional writer.
Myself, I noticed the phenomenon of ‘lighter climbers climb harder’ first-hand when I started climbing at the (young) age of 25. Growing up a small, skinny kid with a lightning-fast metabolism, at school I was always disadvantaged at every sport I participated in. Until I discovered rock climbing. For the first time, my genetics came in clutch and I was actually good at something right off the bat.
Many factors contribute to sending hard in rock climbing, but being light is a big advantage.
Climborexia: eating disorders among climbers
This wouldn’t be an article about weight and climbing without mentioning the dangers that come with being weight-obsessed in a sport where being light is advantageous.
Luckily, with the omnipresence of the internet, we have much better exposure and awareness of the dangers of eating disorders than we did back in the 80s or 90s where being stick-thin was considered ‘okay’ as long as it made you crush harder. In those days, you got better by copying those around you. That’s how climber and writer Matt Samet describes the 80s and 90s in Boulder, Colorado.
Instead of getting stronger, we all focussed on getting lighter.Matt Samet in an article for Climbing
Eating disorders within the climbing community were illustrated in Caroline Treadways’ documentary: LIGHT. The short film covers a ‘sport in denial’ and enfolds how prominent climbers were dropping weight in order to succeed at competitions and personal projects. But more importantly, it brings awareness to the dangers of dropping weight and the denial of eating disorders within our community.
It was like the order, more than the disorderMy favorite quote from the documentary.
LIGHT is an absolute must-watch for every climber as you undoubtedly have felt the need to drop weight or at least know friends who have.
I have noticed signs of this on myself as well. Before I became a rock climber, I was very focused on getting heavier. My fast metabolism formed a personal crux that I was fighting to beat. I had a weight lifting schedule and ate lots of protein and carbs in this pursuit. As a teen and early adult, my weight and skinny frame had always bothered me. I wanted to gain weight more than anything.
Once I started climbing, this pursuit to gain weight slowly vanished. I no longer cared about getting more buff or reaching my goal weight. I became fine with the current state of my body. After all, my lightweight and the lean physique I had built from weight lifting had become advantageous in my new hobby.
But then I started to lose weight. Turns out that my pursuit to gain weight was the only thing keeping me at the breakfast table in the morning. Suddenly, a 600-calorie meal was replaced by a cup of joe. While some people may be fine skipping breakfast, it wasn’t ideal for someone with my BMI.
Documentaries such as ‘light’ as well as the climbing articles mentioned prior have been eye-opening.
I’m grateful for rock climbing and all the good it has brought into my life, but I’ve also seen how dangerous this sport can be for your image of yourself.
Being lightweight is advantageous in rock climbing, this is why many climbers look lean and ‘skinny’. These climbers aim to achieve the best strength-to-weight ratio.
Make no mistake though, you don’t need to be light to send hard. We don’t all need to be IFSC-level athletes. There are plenty of heavier climbers out there crushing V10 boulders.
In the climbing space, we are quick to compare our bodies to others and claim someone has a particular advantage but this isn’t going to improve our climbing. Everyone is different.
Don’t be that climber who blames everything on a person’s body type. It’s not healthy. Focus on yourself and your own progress.
If you are up for it, you can always change your diet. But make sure you do it in a healthy way. Don’t skip meals just to get lighter. Do your research, and maybe speak with a professional. Do whatever feels right for you.
If changing your diet is not for you, don’t do it. Who cares? Just climb and you will improve and you will progress. There will always be climbers who are progressing faster than you. Maybe they are younger, less prone to injury, lighter, taller, and the list goes on. They are them and you are you. Stop comparing yourself. Stop making excuses for yourself. Focus on your own progress and focus on YOU climbing harder.
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