Her mantra is that “women are not small men” and her work revolves around this concept. It might not seem groundbreaking but I guarantee you most women (and their male coaches/trainers) don’t realise how big a deal this actually is.
The majority of sports science research is based around what works for men. And it’s so ingrained in our training practices that we often aren’t even aware of it. Take the classic 3 weeks on, 1 week off training cycle, for example. It’s totally based on research done on men, for men. It doesn’t take into account the hormonal fluctuations women experience throughout their menstrual cycle and it definitely doesn’t lend itself to optimal performance for women.
How Different are Men and Women Really?In short: very different. And there’s way more to it than just size! Perhaps the most glaringly obvious difference has a lot to do with hormones. Our hormonal balance affects all kinds of things from the energy systems we use, to how we build muscle (with more difficulty), and how we store body fat (with more ease). Since our bodies are designed for childbirth, a lot of the notable differences between men and women are related to that. For example, we carry more essential body fat than men (12% vs 4%) in order to support pregnancy. And we carry most of it on our lower body (more weight to pull up the wall on steep climbs!).
In terms of muscle mass and strength, we carry most of our lean muscle tissue below the waist which means our power comes from our hips and legs. The counterpoint to this is women need to work harder when it comes to upper body strength. The average woman is about 52% as strong as the average man in their upper body and 66% in their lower body. With training, these numbers improve but we’ll never fully match up to men in this regard, unfortunately. Don’t let that deter you though. Trained women can get pretty close - 70% and 80%. We can definitely still crush hard climbs and there are plenty of strong female climbers out there to prove it. It’s just good to be aware of these differences and set realistic expectations and goals for ourselves when training.
Play to Your Strengths (and Weaknesses)It’s fun to train your strengths but it can be even more rewarding to train your weaknesses. And if you’re serious about improving, you’d be silly not to do both. There’s more climbing-specific training information available to us now than ever, but where should you start?
Tom Randall and Ollie Torr, the brains behind Lattice Training, are using data from their assessments to identify and quantify the relative strengths and weaknesses of male and female climbers. This is good news for us because it can help us decide what areas to focus on.
According to their data, women generally have better economy of movement - we approach climbing with more tactic and technique. We have better hip mobility and use of flexibility on the wall. Win! And because of all this, women are capable of achieving higher grades for any level of finger strength. In other words, a woman climbing the same grade as a man will use less finger strength. Very cool!
So, what’s holding us back? The big one is shoulder girdle stability and strength. This is important for injury prevention but can also impact your grip strength. If you can’t create stable positions on the wall, you can’t produce as much force in your arms, which makes it hard to hold on tight.
How does this translate to training? Focus on stability positions, isometric contractions around the scapula, and engaging your lats properly. This could be as simple as planning your session around focusing on engaging the muscles correctly when you climb. (For more on this subject, check out Tom Randall and Ollie Torr’s conversation with Neely Quin of the TrainingBeta Podcast here.)
So, now you have a good understanding of the main differences between men and women, what else can you do to get the most out of your training?
Track Your Menstrual CycleIf you’re not already tracking your menstrual cycle, start immediately! Your cycle and hormonal fluctuations affect your training and performance so if you’re training for peak performance, it’s a must. And, honestly, even if you’re not, it’s still good to keep your cycle in mind. Ever had one of those days where you just feel flat and your climbing is off? It’s your physiology.
The “typical” menstrual cycle is 28 days long and has 2 distinct phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase.
In the follicular phase (days 1-14) estrogen and progesterone are low. This is when we’re closest to our male counterparts physiologically-speaking. You’ll perform better, make greater strength gains, feel less pain and recover faster. Basically, things are just easier. All that energy that goes into trying to make babies can be used for training instead. Hooray!
During the luteal phase, estrogen and progesterone rise as our body prepares for ovulation and potential pregnancy. This impacts us in a number of different ways. It is harder to make muscle, our metabolism and cravings change, our spatial cognition is affected, we may experience mood swings or just feel off.
By tracking your period, you’ll have a better idea what to plan for your sessions. Got a high intensity power-based session planned? Save it for your follicular phase. Know you’re in your high hormone phase? Focus on technique and endurance. Think high volume, low intensity. And be sure to get enough rest.
Download an app or make a note in your calendar or journal of your energy levels, vaginal discharge, sleep patterns, and other symptoms to gain a better idea of what your regular cycle is like and when you feel and perform best.
If you don’t have a regular cycle, are on hormonal birth control, or are peri or postmenopausal, this one may be less applicable to you. It’s definitely still worth considering how these hormonal conditions affect you, your training and recovery though. Tuning into your body is still going to be an important part of your training journey regardless of your situation. (Post-menopausal women can read a little more on the subject here.)
Eat & Supplement to Support your Training & RecoveryWe all know that what we eat can help or hinder our performance and recovery. But what most women don’t realise is that supplementing can make a BIG difference too. And I’m not just talking about protein supplements! The trick is to work WITH your body, not against it, to help mitigate loss of performance throughout different stages of your cycle.
During your high hormone phase you may want to consider doing some of the following to really optimise your training and recovery:
- Taking magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and low dose 80-milligram aspirin 5-7 days before your period to reduce cramps
- Making sure you replenish protein stores within a 30-minute window after exercise to help maintain muscle and avoid catabolism
- Drinking more water before your workout and preloading with sodium the night before big days/events (especially if you’re exercising in the heat!) because we have a harder time sweating, cooling down, and we shed more sodium in this part of our cycle
- Eating more carbs if you’re doing high intensity sessions to fuel your workouts
Keep a Training LogThis goes hand in hand with tracking your cycle. If you’re serious about results, keeping a training journal is a really good way to track progress and hold yourself accountable. It’ll also help you identify shifts in performance throughout your cycle and is a good way to track recovery too.
Note down how you feel (emotionally and physically) and how your body responds to training during the different phases of your cycle. Are you more tired or energised? Did your session feel easy or challenging? You get the idea. I like to make a note of my overall RPE (rate of perceived exertion) for a session or specific routes/moves/exercises I totally smashed or struggled with. It’s an easy way to subjectively measure how easy or difficult your session felt. I also like to note down one success, one challenge, and one thing I want to work on going forward at the end of my session too.
Be SpecificA lot of what we’ve talked about so far is good general advice and as we’ve established, there are definitely areas that most women would benefit from working on. But, when it comes to training, your program should be individualised to meet your own specific needs and goals. That means you’re going to need to identify and focus on your individual weaknesses and sticking points. Try and take into consideration the 3 main components of climbing (technique, mental game, and strength) when planning.
Not sure what you need to work on? There a few different ways you can go about identifying areas for improvement:
- ask a friend to observe you while you’re climbing
- take videos of yourself climbing and analyse them
- after you finish a challenging climb, take a moment to reflect on what you struggled with or what you felt held you back
- pay for a session with a climbing coach and have them advise you
Once you’ve figured that out, set yourself some SMART goals and make a plan to work towards achieving them.
So, what should you take away from all of this? Well, I guess that will be a little different for everyone. But I suppose it’s a good reminder to set ourselves realistic expectations and not be disheartened when we’re climbing with our super strong male friends. There’s just no comparison. I’m not going to say we’re limited by our physiology and will never climb as hard as them. Women crush too. We just need to train and climb a little smarter.
Name: Claire Ayling
Location: Sydney, Australia