Saturday, May 01, 2010

Threshold Strength

A year or so ago I read an interesting book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers. Gladwell looks at why some people on the edges of human potential, or "outliers," succeed brilliantly while others don't. Extremely high I.Q. people who don't succeed at much of anything are contrasted with less bright but still smart people who dominate intellectually. Why does one person succeed and not the other?

A repeated theme in the book is that you don't necessarily have to be the smartest/strongest/whateverest but you do have to be smart enough, strong enough or whatever enough, and then you have to have the right environment in order to succeed. You don't have to be seven feet tall to play in the NBA, but you do have to likely be at least six-two. Six two is the threshold (I just made that number up, don't have the book anymore, but I imagine you get the idea). So, for different mountain sports, what are the thresholds that mean "good enough?"

To start with, I believe that performance is the acid test of any training program. We all choose to train three main performance components (our skill, muscles, and head); how we perform is the test. An athlete's performance will generally depend not on which one of these three are the strongest, but which one is the weakest. The absolute strongest athlete often doesn't win a climbing competition; the guy or girl with adequate strength and excellent skill combined with a strong competition head usually wins. We all know climbing gym monsters who can't lead 5.10 on real rock. They don't have the skill or head part. But, and this is the almost funny part, the easiest things to train are muscles, so that's where most people focus most of their time while trying to get "better" at a mountain sport. I really believe this physical-centered approach is wrong for most athletes in the mountain sports I know.

In my experience the fastest performance gains for athletes are usually made when they train their sport-specific weaknesses, specifically skills. I try to get the athletes I work with to attack what they are worst at first; many times that means reading sports psych books, or changing their training to reflect competition stress, or some other aspect beyond just moving things around physically. But, and it's a big butt, if they don't have Gladwell's "Threshold" strength then they will also need that. Any athlete can also use a fully functional body, and a general physical prep program is good for that. A GPP approach is also great for athletes who switch sports around a lot, as I tend to do.

So what are threshold strength levels for a few different mountain sports?

With zero scientific methodology I'd offer the following threshold strength levels for what I would call a "solid" level in each sport:

-Hike up 3,000 feet in under one hour, 5,000 feet in under three (Messner could reportedly do 1,000M/3,200 feet in under 30 minutes or something...).
-Do 10 pullups (not because pullups are necessary, but because anyone who can do 10 real pullups is sorta trained up)
-Do "Angie" in under 20 minutes if you think you're "elite."
-Climb grade IV ice all day on minimal gear and be relaxed about it, lead 5.6 with a pack.

Technical rock climbing at a solid 5.13 level
-Do 10 pullups on a half-inch ledge.
-Hang a 1 inch ledge for 5-10 seconds one-handed.
-Campus up the smallest rungs in your climbing gym.
-Climb ten 30M pitches of modern mid-5.12 a in a day (all different pitches, no laps).

Trad Rock climbing 5.10:
-Do one pullup on a one-inch rung.
-Do three pullups on a bar.
-Hike 1,000 feet vertical in 30 minutes.
-Climb all day on 5.7 and still think it's fun.

Kayak class V and up with physical reserves:
-Mountain bike for an hour straight without having to stop and gasp.
-Row 2K in under 10 minutes.
-Bench their own weight.
-Play anywhere in a class IV run.

Mixed climbing M12 (without trickery):
-Ten pullups with tools staggered lower head to upper spike.
-Front lever for two seconds, 20 knees to elbows straight.
-One-handed hang 20 seconds, 20 seconds other hand, repeat for ten cycles.
-Onsight M10 sometimes, always do it second try.

Ski Touring
-Gain 3,000 feet in under one hour even after smoking up.

There are definitely people who will be able to meet the technical standard without having the threshold strength, but by and large these are the physical standards I think are required if an athlete is to be at a roughly equal personal level (strength, skill, head). Chances are that if you have these strengths then you can get the day's job done at that standard. If a kayaker can't bench his or her own weight then they are paddling without a physical reserve and are relying instead on reserves of skill and headspace. I see physically strong paddlers get bit off because they lack skill and headspace more than I see skilled but relatively weak paddlers get into trouble, but I see both regularly. Often the paddler doesn't know he or she is weak or has lost skill... A paddler who is strong in all ways is better than one who lacks in one area, and one day that raw strength is going to really, really count.

But I also put a sort of "skill and head check" in each list; many people claim to want to climb 5.13, but can't climb ten pitches of mid-5.12 in a day. They can likely siege a 5.13 into submission if they have the threshold strength, but they won't be doing a new 5.13b in a day with regularity (and that's what climbing at that grade means to me for the purposes of this discussion). I know a few "alpinists" who can hike up hill like mad, but can't lead basic water ice smoothly... They will not succeed on major winter alpine objectives without a basic skill set.

So, are you strong enough, skilled enough, and mentally together enough to actually perform at the level you want to? And if not, why not? This is where it gets interesting, and self-examination becomes more important than another set of squats. Which may also help, but if you're at double or triple the threshold strength for what you want to do and still not getting it done then perhaps it's time to try something different. Immediately. And if you're not at threshold strength then you're very late for a training session.

This stuff is really fun to think about, especially as I work through my own goals, limitations and successes with my own sports and training.


Anonymous said...

Explain to those of us who aren't elite, who or what is "Angie"?

Will Gadd said...

Angie: 100 each, done in straight blocks of 100, of pullups, pushups, air squats and situps.

And I'm not elite. For the full humor of the elite comment check out two crossfitters one chalk bucket...

45Ronin said...

I just found your blog. Great stuff Will. Keep the info coming cause I'm following it all.

katherine fraser said...

hi will
thanks for all of the thoughtful info (or informative thoughts?)
just a question about your WOD, are you following those everyday on the cf site and resting when they say rest? i'm curious about how much volume to try incorporating into my week.

nicolas meunier said...

How are you Will?
I wanted to thank you you again to be out there climbing day after day. Last time I saw you in Canmore for our mix-ice seminar to guy Search and Rescue Technicians, you were pretty cool with us. I have been climbing for 21 years now and I have to tell you I came back from South America climbing peaks after peaks...Cayambe 5790m, Iliniza 5263m, Imbabura 4621m, Altar 5319m, Pichincha 4776m, Cotopaxi less than 9 days. I just arrived from Haiti last month. I helped that country from day 1 after the earthquake for a month, giving medical care to fast evacuation by helicopter. I had my hands full and bloody, but I am now in Canada.
After talking with my fellows climbers and my boss, I am today in Vancouver Island buying a house; after asking a posting back West and the worl of Nice Canadian mix-Climb. Yup man, I am now closer to the Rockies and I will follow your crazy cool stuff and exploits here. I hope I will have the honor to meet you again and exchange around a good beer.
Your friend Nicolas Meunier

Butch said...

What would being able to do 100 nonstop pullups have to do with elite alpinism? I think you once wrote that alpinism is "weight on your feet" with mental cruxes. Rest of it, I agree. You are as strong as your weakest link.

Kevin L. said...

So after reading the post I had to try "Angie". I don't work out in a gym, instead I train by ski-touring, trail running, bouldering, sport/trad climbing, and soloing moderate alpine routes. I got Angie done in the pathetic time of 29 minutes. Believe it or not it was the push-ups that killed me. I hammered the pull-ups out in six minutes, and then the darn pushups just killed me.

Fun though. Kind of re-sparked my interest in Crossfit.

Thanks Will!

Anonymous said...

Hey Will!
I've been lurking and checking in on your blog regularly for quite some time now. Always loads of good stuff here and I must thank you for it! I just happened to finish reading Outliers the other day (VERY creepy to read about those Korean plane crashes as I was at 30,000ft flying into D.C. the other day!) ...Anyways, the 10,000 hours thing really struck me. -The book says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to fully master whatever your passion/endeavor might be. Whether its computer programming, or climbing or playing the piano...Whatever... One common denominator with all of the elite in their respected fields is that they have put in their solid 10,000 hours of practice to get where they are. I wonder if you agree with that? And I suspect you might be one exceptionally rare individual who can claim 10,000 hours of practice (or roughly 10 years of experience) in 3 different areas? Climbing, boating, and flying? I think I've got my 10,000 hours of climbing in, but that didn't leave time for much else! Pretty darn impressive and inspirational, from where I sit, to think about guys like you (are there any other guys like you?) who have been able to take things to that level in 3 different areas... F'ing PROUD man! Another question for ya: Can you think of anybody who has shot to the top in climbing, or paddling, or flying, or whatever W/OUT putting in their 10,000 hours???? Fascinating stuff, IMO... I really like the thought that no matter what your weaknesses/flaws are, IF you put your time in, you WILL get where you're trying to go. And it doesn't hurt to come to places like this blog to think and learn about ways to get the most out of your practice/training time... Maybe if I practice just a little SMARTER, I can knock it down to 9,000 hours on my next endeavor! Ha!

Incidently, I've been addicted to crossfit for a solid 2 years now. I love it and just can't get enough. I can't believe that after 2 years I still can't wait to find out what tomorrow's WOD is gonna be! But its also been great to read some objective opinions (like you've posted here in the past) rather than be a closed minded, cult following, 'cool-aid drinker'... Yep there probably are better ways to train specificly for my climbing, but x-fit is just TOO MUCH fun right now... Now I have to find a way to shave another 60 seconds off my best Angie time thanks your "elite" comment! HA! I agree 100% that training your muscles is the easy part. My next big battles are mental. OK, I know I can make it to the gym every day, but will I be smart enough to force myself adapt my training to better suit my climbing needs? Will I find the will-power to learn how to listen to my body in regards to nutrition... All great stuff to think about, and all thanks in part to some of the thoughts you've shared with us here.
Please keep the good stuff coming, and I'll be sure to report back with my results after another 9,000 hours guitar practice...


-Scott DeCapio (I've run into you at the crags once or twice{always a pleasure} and even crashed at your place once or twice many years ago while ice climbing {thanks for that!)

Will Gadd said...


I generally do the main site WOD (usually scaled down substantially), and do it most days. If I miss a day I'll generaly do a mellow version of the missed WOD as part of my warmup or cash-out to the next WOD. But that scales down as my climbing or whatever season I"m in scales up; if I'm rock climbing hard four days a week then I'm not doing the WOD or any additional training, my body can't handle the volume, nor will that training help me during that fitness cycle. I hope that helps, just remember that it's far better to be slightly undertrained than overtrained and injured!

Will Gadd said...

Nicolas--Yeah buddy! Hope to see ya out here soon, keep it safe in SAR land, and good luck on the Island, let no moss grow under you (no chance of that).



Butch: Nothing to do with any physical action you have to do in the Alpine. But if you can do that you're a fit bastard in general, and you have the ability to do a lot of work fast, something that is useful in the alpine. You suck if you can't do it, that's a personal insult, get training amigo!I can't do it either, ha ha!

Scott--Great to hear from you amigo, and glad you're still getting after it! I'll follow up on your comments later today, I'm out the door right now to fly for a couple of hours, yeah!!!

Anonymous said...

Butch, doing 100 pullups may not have much relevence to alpine climbing, but neither do 100 squats or pushups or situps. I think you're just knee-jerk poo-pooing upper body strength, when a pullup isn't really all that great an indicator of that strength. But 100 pullups (and the rest of it) are definitely a measure of work capacity, which many would argue is really important in the mountains.

If you can't do Angie in under, say, 25 minutes, then you are not a well rounded, advanced level athlete. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as you may excel in stuff you love like climbing or keg stands. If Will can't do it, the same applies to him. Crossfit measures fitness by how well you can handle some athletic task that you have never seen or tried before, and it specializes in not specializing.

My problems in climbing are all at the other end, the mental side. I've been climbing 12 years, and my hardest trad leads top out at 5.12a, and I've never led ice harder than WI4. My PR on Angie is 13:54. The pullups, situps and squats take me 3 minutes each, but the pushups take 5. By Will's standards, I should be pushing into 5.13, but I seem to be at a road block that I haven't been able to get around in years. I wish we got more than 14 days of ice a year down here in North Carolina.

Will Gadd said...

Kevin--Nice work, nothing to be ashamed of at all, solid. Your experience is pretty typical of the person who has done a lot more "pull" than push in life. The good news is that pushups come really fast! Have fun.

Scott, the CF thing is a drug, a cult, a lot of fun, and super for life I think, yeah! I guess the question I'd ask you is this: Are you doing CF for climbing, or just 'cause you like doing the WOD? I ask myself that, sometimes I'm doing CF just 'cause I like to get after it, and the WOD supplies that feeling nicely. Seriously, what's wrong with doing CF just to do it? It's like going for a run, feels good.

The Gladwell stuff is really good, interesting to hear your take. I think you, being Scott D., or maybe anyone, can get really good at something in less than 10,000 hours, but it's a good start. Other factors such as who you hang with really effect results--hang with 20 people who think 13a is a warmup and you will think it is pretty quickly too. Hang with people who think 5.13a is the limit of the possible and it will be... More mature sports or professions take time to get good at too; you can run 10,000 hours and still not be at the top of the running game for example...

I think I've put in somewhere around 10,000 hours in a kayak, more climbing, less flying (I figure only about 2000 to 3,000 hours in the air). Ice climbing hours are different than rock climbing; I only really learned to ice climb when I stopped leading and just TRed like mad for about 50 days while training for the X Games. Technique vs. head; I had the head, but not the skill until I developed my movements... And I still suck some days for sure. Oh, and I think you have to do those 10,000 hours and be "current;" if you do the ski bum thing for ten years and rack up your 10,000 but then don't ski anymore for 10 years you'll have lost a lot of skill, strength and head. I did that with paddling, it took a while to get it back.

Anyhow, thanks for the thoughts, great to hear from you, and hope to see ya in Canmore soon!

North Carolina Anon, I'm waiting for the call to get it on there one day, and it's time for you to get a 200+ hour season in! That'll sort it all out...

Anton said...

Another interesting post, it like it... and especially the cynical and humourous jab at trad: "Climb all day on 5.7 and still think it's fun." haha, that had me laughing!!

As for CF, lately I've been doing it more regularly but see one failing element being the long-slow-distance component. CF seems all about power + intensity, which are great, but the LSD element is a critical part of alpine suffering (ie. 1000m/hr, etc). In a day-day practical sense, how are you adding or improving on this with your varied training? (ie. obviously running up Lady Mac or Haling a few times would help, but given usual life constraits what alternatives would you suggest...)


Will Gadd said...


CF is for general fitness, not sports specificity (that's my opinion, not trying to speak for CF here). Trying to make it sport-specific completely misses the very best part of CF: being truly generally fit.

It all boils down to what performance result you want out of your training, and making your training work for that. If you want to be an pure alpine climber then I would do less CF and more alpine climbing. Same with rock climbing; if you have a max of 10 hours a week in which to train or practice your sport then practicing it (climbing gym and hiking up hills) will do far more good than anything else. If you have 20 hours a week then you can work more on specific weaknesses.

If you're going to alpine climb in the spring and rock climb all summer folllowed by skiing all winter then there will be shoulder seasons, and this is where I'd do CF. If you only have 30 minutes at lunch and can't make the climbing gym then CF is likely as good as anything for that time use (unless you're a rock climber, then hang on a fingerboard).

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Oh, and I think you have to do those 10,000 hours and be "current;" if you do the ski bum thing for ten years and rack up your 10,000 but then don't ski anymore for 10 years you'll have lost a lot of skill, strength and head. I did that with paddling, it took a while to get it back.

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