Deflating the myths about getting too swole to climb hard
One of the most common misconceptions I hear from climbers is that taking protein supplements is going to make you too bulky to climb. This is an opinion that I hear so frequently that I think it’s time to debunk it once and for all.
Sorry, but increasing your protein intake, whether through a diet change or protein supplementation, won’t make you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger circa his 1977 film Pumping Iron.
Strength gains and increases in muscle mass are the result of sticking to a proper training regimen and coupling your workouts with optimal eating habits.
This misconception about the relationship between protein and muscle is likely born from marketing campaigns that mislead consumers to believe that by simply taking protein powders, your arms, shoulders, and chest will magically grow into mountains of muscle. It’s just not true.
For the purpose of this discussion, it’s worth defining some terms because words like “bulk” could mean anything from an increase in muscle mass, to more body fat, to some combination of the two. Also, it’s worth understanding the processes by which one gains muscle or fat, as well as what role macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) play in producing these physical changes.
As I’ve already stated, simply ingesting a lot of protein without working out will not by itself automatically get you jacked. Same goes for carbs and fats (and even steroids, for that matter). Lacking an exercise component, taking in more food—of any macronutrient profile—will only lead to one result: eventually, you will get fatter.
Up to a point, you really can’t have too much muscle mass.
Of course, climbers aren’t just worried about getting fatter. They’re also worried about getting big body-builder-sized muscles that would negatively affect performance in our strength-to-weight sport. This fear, for the most part, is also unfounded. Up to a point, you really can’t have too much muscle mass. Men don’t typically hold this fear, but I know that many women are afraid of packing on “too much muscle.” So let me say it again, especially for the ladies: you can’t have too much muscle mass, even in a strength-to-weight sport like climbing!
Gaining a body-builder-sized physique—which actually would be bad if climbing harder is your goal—is really, really not easy to do. It requires a very specialized routine alongside a huge increase in overall calories. Unless you engaging in multiple multi-hour-long weightlifting workouts per day with super high reps, and setting alarms for 3 a.m. so you take down a porterhouse steak alongside some butter-drenched veggies, you needn’t worry about turning into the Incredible Hulk.
They say that working out actually makes you weaker. You only get stronger through recovery. This is an oversimplification of the actual physiology, but it’s basically true. Getting stronger has two components: the workout and the recovery. Both of these elements need to be included in order to progress past our original performance baselines.
Recovery occurs when we sleep and by way of what we eat. From a macronutrient standpoint, optimal recovery must include a high-quality protein as this helps rebuild muscle. Most climbers know this. Just to gain some added clarity on this topic, I reached out to Dr. Shannon O’Grady, a climber and nutritionist who works for a popular protein supplement company, for some best practices when it comes to protein supplementation. Another good resource to check out for yourself is Examine.com, which is a great resource for unbiased supplement education. Their page on whey protein is a good place to start.
According to Examine.com, if you are an athlete or a highly active person, a daily intake of 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight is a good goal. (FYI, the RDA for sedentary individuals is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.)
OK, but is it possible to take in too much protein?
“Yes,” wrote O’Grady. “Research suggests that there does seem to be a threshold above which increased daily protein intake has no benefit. Just to be clear, it’s not that the extra protein is ‘bad’ … it’s just oxidized and not really used for muscle protein synthesis. A study examining the impact of differential amounts of total daily protein on whole body protein synthesis in trained strength athletes found that protein synthesis was reduced in athletes on ‘low’ protein diets (0.86g/kg/day) relative to medium (1.4g/kg/day) and high (2.4g/kg/day) protein diets. There was also no difference in whole-body protein synthesis between medium and high daily protein intakes. Supporting this older study, a recent review and meta-analysis of 49 studies and 1863 participants, found that total protein intakes beyond roughly 1.6g/kg/day did not lead to further strength gains.”
Bottom line: you want to get enough protein, not too little and not too much either.
Another thing I was curious about was whether timing of protein intake made a difference. Could you just eat your entire RDA of protein in one sitting, or would it be best to space it out?
The positive impact of protein intake on muscle protein synthesis plateaus around 20 grams.
“There are not only limits to the benefits of total daily protein intake but also to the amount of protein consumed in a single sitting,” says O’Grady, who pointed to a 2009 study that demonstrated that the positive impact of protein intake on muscle protein synthesis (MPS) plateaus around 20 grams. In other words, taking down 30, 40 or 50 grams of protein at once has no real benefit.
“Some recent research is suggesting that larger amounts of protein, in the 40-gram range, may actually increase MPS more than 20-gram doses when exercise is whole-body as opposed to only exercising an isolated limb or pair of limbs, as done in previous studies,” says O’Grady. “But more work in this area needs to be done to solidify this difference.”
The takeaway here is that, if you’re a really active climber, you should probably be doing a better job of monitoring your protein intake, aiming to eat at least 20-25 grams of it—which is only a three-ounce piece of chicken or fish, or a protein shake—in several meals and snacks (every few hours) throughout the day. O’Grady recommends climbers aim for 1.4 – 1.8 grams of high-quality protein per kilogram of body weight per day. This means 84 – 108 grams of protein per day for a 132-pound (60-kilogram) climber.
And just so long as you aren’t eating too much throughout the day, you’re not going to get too swole to climb.