Mountain Strong Part 2: General vs. Specific Strength

We recommend you visit the Uphill Athlete strength training landing page—Strength Training for the Mountain Athlete—for a full rundown of how to develop both general and specific strength for your chosen mountain sport.

The Uphill Athlete KIS Strength Series

-by Uphill Athlete co-founder Scott Johnston

Strength training builds a more functional, faster, injury-proof endurance athlete. In this article we will examine the difference between the concepts of general and specific strength  and examine how they affect the training decisions of athletes. As mountain endurance athletes, we can not afford to gain strength at the expense of adding appreciable muscle mass.  After all, you’ll have to haul that weight up the trail, mountain or crag. We promise that these methodologies won’t add bulk or weight to your body.   

Remember: An athlete strength trains either to improve performance in their event or for injury prevention, not to become stronger at a certain gym exercise. This is especially true for endurance athletes. 

This is quite different from those training for fitness or weight lifting as a sport, as improving strength a specific lift is often the end goal of their training. 

General Strength is not sport specific, meaning that it may bear little or even no similarity to the movement, speed or range of motion made in the sport you are training for. For an athlete, general strength provides a base for the more sport specific strength training which is to follow and it makes the athlete less injury prone.   

Specific Strength is sport specific, meaning that it mimics quite closely (exactly in some cases) the demands of the sport.  This type of strength training has a direct bearing on the athlete’s sport performance. 

General Strength:  How strong is strong enough? 

Most of the popular gym based strength exercises fall under the ‘general’ category when training for sports, and are only specific to those particular exercises. This is especially true when it comes to mountain sports like running, skiing and climbing. 

So why bother with general strength training at all?   While there certainly are mountain athletes who eschew general strength training altogether, you’d be wise to consider your own needs rather than blindly following what others do.  If you are deficient in basic, or general, strength, it could well behoove you to engage in a simple strength training program.  It can make the sport specific strength training (which relates directly to performance) more effective.  In the next article we’ll discuss how to decide if you can benefit from general strength. 

Keep the above axiom in mind as you develop a strength training program to improve your sport. In the end you don’t care how much you bench or deadlift. You do care how fast you ski, run or climb. It is easy to get swept up in the ‘gym strong’ mentality and lose sight of that simple fact. Spending too much time and effort on general strength can not only detract from more beneficial specific training time but it is possible to become too strong.   

Let’s use one of the most popular general strength movements, the back squat, as an example of what we are talking about. The back squat is a popular general strength movement for many sports because it engages some of the biggest prime mover muscles in the hips and legs as well as the core.  Improving this strength up to a point will translate to better sports performance. But where is that point? Hundreds of studies have been done to try to answer this questions but none can conclusively say. For sports dominated by speed and power, like sprinting, the field events of throwing and jumping, or American football, increasing squat strength will correlate quite closely with improved performance up to a point. For endurance sports it’s not so easy to make this case. While we can’t make categorical recommendations as in these other sports, we can make some general observations: Not being able to squat your own body weight probably indicates that your performance and durability would improve with added strength, however, it is doubtful that being able to squat twice your body weight will add anything to your performance and may in fact detract from it. Your performance would no doubt benefit more from spending those hours out running uphill rather than trying to increase your squat by 20 pounds. 

Similarly, the pull up is a very good upper body general strength exercise. If you are a climber who can’t do a single pull up you would probably see climbing gains by improving this general strength.    

No athlete, especially the amateur with job, school and family obligations, has unlimited time or energy to devote to training. You need to examine the strength demands of your sport before diving into a bench press program when your goal is improving your Vertical K time. 

Ski mountaineering, SkiMo, cross country skiing, mountaineering and mountain running are all locomotive sports involving single legged propulsion.  Effective movements in all of these rely on good hip stabilization so the prime mover muscles can do their job best. Even general strength training for these sports should place heavy emphasis single legged strength exercises.    

Rope climbing looks a lot like crack climbing. Uphill Athlete co-founder Scott Johnston.

Specific Strength: Converting General to Specific. 

These workouts should involve ranges of motion and speeds very similar to the event you are training for. That’s because the brain’s muscle recruitment patterns are a learned skill.  Doing very heavy and slow movement in a general strength exercise like a single box step up will increase strength in those muscles. But when running uphill, the speed of muscle contraction will be much higher and those motor neurons need to be trained to produce the sport specific movement pattern, speed and strength. These specific demands are the justification offered for endurance athletes predominantly using specific strength methods.    

A simple exercise that meets the needs of the mountain sports being covered is sprinting or bounding uphill. Both the speed and gradient add the resistance and result in the desired strength training effect using the sport specific movement patterns for all these sports under consideration.    

Steve House crack climbing in Mizugaki, Japan. Eva House Photo

Speed and Strength 

Speed of movement is directly related to your strength in that movement.  This is often counter-intuitive to many people. In general, the stronger you are the easier it will be for you to overcome the resistance to your movement. For mountain sports, overcoming gravity when going uphill, or resisting it when going down, require strength. A very effective and simple workout for any mountain athlete needing to move uphill faster is one we call Hill Sprints or Hill Bounding. We discuss this workout at length in Training for the New Alpinism  on pages 230-231. Hill sprints/bounds can form a vital part not just in the base period (1-2 times/week) but can be used as maintenance (1x/12-14 days) training throughout the full training cycle to maintain leg strength and power.

Here is a summary of that workout:

Find a steep hill that is at least 15 seconds long at a full sprint. Steeper is better as long as the footing is good.  While up to 10% grades can work well for road runners, we recommend searching out a hill with at least a 30% grade. We have successfully used as steep as 50-60% grade hills but traction can be an issue on steeper grades. Very steep stairs work perfectly if you can find them as they provide perfect footing so you can really get maximum power out of each leg push.   Perform a good warm up that ends with 2 x moderately hard runs up this hill with easy walk down between. Then do 6-8 x 10 seconds max sprints or bounding (bounding means to maximize the distance covered in in each stride whereas sprinting maximizes the cadence) up this hill with at least 3 minutes full recovery between each 10 second repetition. You can progress this workout by using a steeper gradient hill or by carrying up to 10% of your body weight in a small and tightly worn pack or a weight vest as you gain strength. The workout has had its effect when you feel the power drop off so don’t keep doing more reps after that point or you will be training endurance and not power. Stop the workout at the first indication of pain. This workout has a very powerful training effect but it can cause injury so use it judiciously.

This type of leg strength lays the foundation for the following…

Muscular Endurance: The most sport specific strength. 

In the first article of the Mountain Strong series we defined this quality as the ability of a muscle to produce a relatively high force for many contractions.  A weight lifter, sprinter or a boulderer can generate very high forces but can maintain those forces only for very short times.   

Endurance athletes typically find themselves on the other end of the strength spectrum in needing to produce moderate amounts of force but for thousands of repetitions without stopping. This is a type of strength that has a very direct impact on your performance.     

Muscular endurance relies on a combination of a muscle’s strength and its endurance. The greater the max strength the less of that max strength needs to be used to complete the endurance task. The more endurance trained the muscle is, the more contractions it can sustain before fatiguing.    

In the fourth article in this series we will return to muscular endurance and look at some good strategies for improving this important method of training. 

Mountain Strong. Part 3: Assessing Strength


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