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Top climbers aren't as skinny as they used to be, Why?
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By JCM
From Seattle, WA
May 9, 2013
I recently read two climbing memoirs, Jerry Moffatt's "Revelations", and Matt Samet's "Death Grip" (both are superb, by the way). Both books talk a lot about the sport climbing scene circa the early 90s, including the severe and widespread anorexia that was a cornerstone of sport climbing at that era. The top-level sport climbers at that time starved themselves to a ridiculous degree, and were very skinny. Look at the legs of Moffatt and Moon in this classic photo:



In both Samet and Moon's books, they talk about the starvation diets they were on to get light and climb stronger, and it sounds kind of insane. Samet even puts forth the hypothesis that the negativity of the early 90s Rifle scene was simply a byproduct of the fact that no one ate enough; the bad attitudes and wobblers were just because everyone was hungry and cranky all the time.

Now from the perspective of 2013, this seems to have changed. Anorexia is not longer in vogue. Although there is certainly a large degree of variation (i.e. compare body types between Sharma and Ondra...), modern high-level climbers tend to be bulkier, more muscular, and just generally healthier looking. "Fit" seems to have replaced "famine-grade skinny." And people are climbing harder than ever.

I'd like to give this trend some more thought and discussion. A few starter topics:

1. Are my observations correct? Has the BMI of the sport's lop level increased? Is the rampant anorexia (aka manorexia; climberexia) of the 90s a thing of the past? Or is it the same as it was, and now people just try harder to hide it?

2. What has driven this trend? In striving to improve strength to weight ratio, climbers of the early 90s focused on weight; climbers to day seem to concern themselves more with strength. What has led to this change. Possibilities include changes in climbing style, changes in training tools/methodology, and different body types of climbing role models (Jim Karn vs. Chris Sharma). I have some more specific ideas, but I'd like to let some others chime in before I say what I think.

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By chuffnugget
From Bolder, CO
May 9, 2013
1: I think you are correct, but BMI may have not increased. Climbers have more lean muscle.

2:. My guess would be that with the advent of bouldering, a bit more muscle was shown to be a good thing for absolute power and more than compensates for the bit more muscle weight.

This is also the time in athletic history that thought cutting out fat for weight control was a good thing, but eating tons of carbs was good.

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By Will S
From Joshua Tree
May 9, 2013
Cocaine just isn't as popular these days, and while Meth made big inroads with the general population, not so much with climbers (seemed like more climbers were on crank in the late 80s, when meth was not as widespread).

So, that's my explanation of "why"...more weed, more steep bouldering, less coke, less vertical and slabby enduro fests.

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By Nick Barczak
May 9, 2013
...
I believe that Samet also posits that many injuries that occurred in that crazy Rifle anorexia scene were a byproduct of malnutrition.

Something I found kind of amusing (in the Enormocast interview with Matt Samet) was how JB Tribout told an already skinny Christian Griffith that he needed to lose more weight if he wanted to climb the route 'Chouca' at Buoux. Yet I distinctly remember a Masters of Stone video (from the mid-90s) with Gerhard Hornhager cranking Chouca. G.H. was no stringbean. That dude's got muscles a la Sharma.

I guess none of this addresses your questions. Sorry...just rambling...

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By teece303
From Highlands Ranch, CO
May 9, 2013
Aiding. Photo by Locker.
I haven't noticed this at all, now I'm going to have to start looking.

Technique is incredibly important. Strength and strength-to-weight ratio are of course very important, moreso perhaps as you get on desperate sport routes, but people underestimate technique.

I wonder if a current gerneraton of climbers that have been pulling down on desperate sport routes since they were 8 or 9 years old are just able to be a bit bulkier because their technique is better?

Perhaps technique had hit a wall for some masters back in the 90s, so weight loss seemed like the best way forward.

As much as I love the master climbers of yore, it's hard not to be amazed at climbers today on sighting 5.14c in their 20s. They are damn good climbers.

Not trying to dis climbers of yore -- I'm no young guy at all. But it is impossible to overstate the advantage someone possesses that has 10,000 hours of on-rock experience by the time they turn 16.

It fundamentally changes the mind and body in a way that is probably impossible to match for someone that started climbing hard in their teens or twentiess, which used to be the norm.

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By JCM
From Seattle, WA
May 9, 2013
Will S wrote:
Cocaine just isn't as popular these days, and while Meth made big inroads with the general population, not so much with climbers (seemed like more climbers were on crank in the late 80s, when meth was not as widespread).


That is a surprising response. That (cocaine) is an aspect of before-my-time climbing culture that I had not heard about. I mean, the popularity of weed and hallucinogens is obvious (what else would you do on rest days in the pre-internet era?), but coke never seemed to have much of a place in climbing; if nothing else, it is just too expensive for the average dirtbag.

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By CJC
May 9, 2013
Several top climbers are pretty damn skinny

That one guy who shrieks and screams is a twig boy, so is david graham

There must be others beth rodden and that katie chick are tiny.

I don't spend a lot of time looking at climbers and their size though good luck in your quest.

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By JCM
From Seattle, WA
May 9, 2013
Nick Barczak wrote:
I believe that Samet also posits that many injuries that occurred in that crazy Rifle anorexia scene were a byproduct of malnutrition.


Of similar note, Moffatt says in his book that during his ultra-skinny period, his skin (on hands) was really bad and would tear easily. He speculates that this is because he was consuming essentially zero saturated fat. I imagine that this isn't good for the connective tissue either.

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By Brendan Blanchard
From Strafford, NH
May 9, 2013
Obi Wan Ryobi - Darth Vader Crag, Rumney NH
Although skinny and lots of technique certainly exists (Graham, Ondra) big powerful climbers are also pushing the limits now more than ever.

Weight loss could have been popular due to people plateu'ing on strength, power, and technique. I could be wrong, but there wasn't much reliable climbing-training knowledge at the time, was there?

With a plateau, quick weight loss would produce big gains. Now, rapid weight loss and starvation diets would also keep that plateau where it is for strength/power.

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By JCM
From Seattle, WA
May 9, 2013
Ok, here are some more thoughts:

- Changes in what areas/angles are popular. 20-25 years ago, the raddest sport crags around (for the US) were Smith, Cochiti Mesa, Shelf, etc. For this style of climbing, it really is mostly about strong fingers, stiff shoes, and being as light as possible. As steep, powerful climbing became more popular (Rifle, compression bouldering, etc.), a more muscular physique became more important.

-As Brendan (previous post) notes, we have much better training tools now, and it is easier to focus more effectively on strength. Having gyms and other training resources has made this possible. Perhaps people have realized that extreme weight loss offers short-term gains in S-W ratio, but it is a bit of a dead end in terms of long-term improvement; proper recovery and strength building is hard when you are malnourished. One of the biggest advantages of the periodized schedule (also more popular now than it used to be) is that it allows a climber to cycle their weight as appropriate during the different phases. During a strength-build phase, you want to be well nourished and able to recover well, and it doesn't matter if you are super-light, since you aren't trying to perform anyway. Then, you drop weight in preparation for a peak/performance/sending phase. Occasionally trying to get really skinny for only a few weeks until you send a project, and then returning to a healthier weight for the next strength-build phase, is a lot more sustainable than trying to be emaciated all the time.

-Climbing styles have changed too. Climbers are much more dynamic in their style now (which is attributable to them having put in more milage in the gym and on boulders, both of which encourage a more dynamic way of movement). Climbing dynamically generally requires a bit more power and muscle mass to generate those movements. On a given sequence, the skinny climber of the 80s/90s would move statically and lock off the terrible intermediate, whereas the modern climber is more apt to deadpoint through.

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By Ryan Williams
Administrator
From London (sort of)
May 9, 2013
El Chorro
I look a lot like the guys in that photo, an I eat 4000 calories a day.

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By divnamite
From New York, NY
May 9, 2013
Ryan Williams wrote:
I look a lot like the guys in that photo, an I eat 4000 calories a day.

You got worms!

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By frankstoneline
May 9, 2013
The neon tights fad died. No need to stay skinny to look sharp in your grape smugglers.

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By Peter Stokes
From Them Thar Hills
May 9, 2013
Wall Street, Moab, UT
In addition to what's been said here, I think the coaching in our sport has grown- from basically nothing besides beta and training sessions with friends to actual methods done in good facilities by people with experience. A good coach/instructor can get results from shorter heavier athletes just as often as from taller skinnier folks. The ideas about what constitutes a "natural" at climbing have changed as more people get involved.

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By Charles Kinbote
From Brooklyn, NY
May 10, 2013
On Waimea, 5.10d
I'll defer the Samet and Moffatt's experience on climbers BITD vs now. But, some of today's top climbers are still seriously freakin' skinny.

It's also kinda funny that Sharma is everyone's go to "big" climber...dude is, what, 160-165 lbs and 6 ft. tall? If he was a fighter he'd cut to lightweight (155). That's not big.

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By The Stoned Master
Administrator
From Pennsylvania
May 10, 2013
Day Lily.
Something else to think about is that in the early 90s climbing didn't have the eric horsts or the arno ilgners. There was no or little climbing specific (rock, plenty with altitude) sports science knowledge/research. Now a days we know that starving yourself isn't the long term best thing to do. Climbing now vs. then is WAY more knowledgeable and WAY more like traditional sports (tabata protocol, etc). Back then, even though it wasn't terribly long ago, climbing didn't have the mainstream base it has now.

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By Will S
From Joshua Tree
May 10, 2013
The Stoned Master wrote:
in the early 90s climbing didn't have the eric horsts or the arno ilgners. There was no or little climbing specific (rock, plenty with altitude) sports science knowledge/research.


I was climbing then, and can't agree. Goddard & Neumann's "Performance Rock Climbing" was published in '93. Prior to that, they and others had also published articles on training. I'd also argue that we really haven't advanced much in training knowledge in the last 20 years from what is in that book.

People these days pass it over in favor of other newer texts, but it is still very relevant today and I'd say required reading for any climber who wants to start structured training.

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By Brendan Blanchard
From Strafford, NH
May 10, 2013
Obi Wan Ryobi - Darth Vader Crag, Rumney NH
Charles Kinbote wrote:
It's also kinda funny that Sharma is everyone's go to "big" climber...dude is, what, 160-165 lbs and 6 ft. tall? If he was a fighter he'd cut to lightweight (155). That's not big.


He may not be "big" by fighting or most other standards, but when you compare him to Adam Ondra (130 lbs) and Dave Graham, he's a pretty big guy to be climbing at the same level as either of them. Of course it shows in his style of climbing.

Here's another oddity: most of the hardest women climbers right now are quite short. I was blown away when I found out that Sasha Dijulian was 5' 2". Beth Rodden is 5' 1", and obviously Ashima is, well, short...

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By Jim Amidon
May 10, 2013
J TREE
Your all missing the very obvious reason........

The explosion of Micro-Brewers and the advent of beers that are not only flavorful but also a higher alcohol content.....

IPA is my favorite one as of late.......

I blame beer on all my extra caloric intake.....

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By The Stoned Master
Administrator
From Pennsylvania
May 10, 2013
Day Lily.
I think this is a great topic. I don't know a lot, I have way more questions than answers.

I wonder if its a coincidence that climbing is now WAY more mainstream (melding of traditional sport mentalitys, the weight gym, etc)
There are WAY more studies and books on the science (what works, what doesn't and why, the "haps" of it all) of/behind climbing then there were in the early 90s. Coincidence?

I have the "performance rock climbing" book and have read it more than once. One book on mostly the psychology and technique of climbing doesn't = the amazing amount of scientific research we know as fact now.

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By The Stoned Master
Administrator
From Pennsylvania
May 10, 2013
Day Lily.
Another fascinating point is the human element: maybe those early 90s elite climbers THOUGHT they were doing the best thing by becoming skinnier and skinnier, hungrier and hungrier.

Fact and point: the first chinese emperor used to take MASSIVE amounts of mercury daily because he THOUGHT (like the starving climbers) it would bring him immortality. What it brought him was early death.
My point is humans don't always know best, we just might think we do. Were not perfect, were not robots.

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By John Peters
May 10, 2013
Like others in the thread, I would dispute the premise:


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By JCM
From Seattle, WA
May 10, 2013
The Stoned Master wrote:
Another fascinating point is the human element: maybe those early 90s elite climbers THOUGHT they were doing the best thing by becoming skinnier and skinnier, hungrier and hungrier.


Absolutely; the cultural factor is huge. In particular, I think that the role-model component was important; the actions and body types of just a few famous climbers probably has a greater influence than most of us admit. Probably all it took to initiate the ultra-skinny craze was a handful of really skinny top climbers. The community was smaller then, too, so the impact of a few people would be greater. When the best climber at the crag looked like a skeleton, everyone else thought "If I can look like that, I'll climb hard too." People follow thier role models, and when the best climber(s) in the sport is ultra-skinny, this will influence a lot of people to try the same thing.

For the modern era, the rise to prominence of some more muscular top climbers ~15 years ago is likely the driver of the trend toward less emaciated. Notably, Chris Sharma in the US, and perhaps Dani Andrada in Spain. The interesting thing about Sharma is that he's been at the top of the game so long that he has fully bridged the gap from the Jim Karn, Boone Speed, etc (emaciated) era to the modern Daniel Woods et al. (more muscular) group of top-end climbers. I think that the appearance of Sharma on the scene was an incredibly influential thing, since his style was so dramatically different than that of his forebears. They (the older generation of sport climbers) were skinny, control freaks who starved themselves, climbed in a static style, timed their rests to the minute, took humidity sensors to the crag, and threw legendary wobblers. People saw that and thought that that is what you have to do to climb at the top level, and soon all of the top climbers followed such a pattern; it was a self perpetuating mode of thought. When Sharma rose to prominence, he was clearly a sport climber of a dramatically different mold; this perhaps is easy to forget since his influence has become so pervasive now, but at the time he offered a totally different image of what a top climber could be: relaxed, muscular, and with a dynamic style. Plus, he was so much better than the old guard that it was obvious that what he was doing was working. People started to see this new way of climbing as the way to emulate the top climber, setting forth a chain reaction that really shifted how people approach hard climbing. Of course, before someone calls me out, I should note that this is not all Sharma's influence; I have primarily used him here as an example for simplified argument. There were various other top climbers of more-muscular build who had similar influence; Todd Skinner perhaps most notable among them.

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By frankstoneline
May 10, 2013
John Peters wrote:
Like others in the thread, I would dispute the premise:


that photo also displays that top sport climbers now are more nervous and awkward than they were in the 90's.

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By JCM
From Seattle, WA
May 10, 2013
John Peters wrote:
Like others in the thread, I would dispute the premise:


What makes this image look really silly is that they had Ondra and Ramonet stand next to each other; Ramonet looks so short (because he is)...

While your point made with that World Cup photo is well taken, I still think the original premise had merit. Yes, top climbers are still skinny, and they always will be. That is just the nature of this sport. Just because climbers don't look like football players now does not mean that there has not been a shift; there are multiple gradations within the range of skinny climber. This shift has not been from "skinny" to "muscle bound", but rather from "emaciated" to "skinny and fit".

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By The Stoned Master
Administrator
From Pennsylvania
May 10, 2013
Day Lily.
I think you bring some very interesting points JCM, I'm going to ponder this for some time. I love studying humans and their societies/environments! Killer topic man, it has my mind running.

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