Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stronger fingers, more endurance, less body weight

I watched this movie, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," yesterday and it got me thinking about the use of performance enhancing drugs in climbing. Fortunately to my knowledge, very few people in our sport engage is this sort of stuff. There are probably several main reasons. 1) there is not much money to be made in this sport, 2) the sport is less competitive than other sports, 3) climbers don't generally have lots of money to spend on this sort of thing, and 4) most climbers think pot is all the performance enhancement needed.

This movie focuses on the use of anabolic steroids in sports including weight lifting, baseball, and running. The movie tries to make a comment on American society in general, but I think it falls short in this aim. Instead it is just an interesting review of the pros and cons of steroid use. One interesting point is that there is very little medical evidence showing that steroid use is any more dangerous for a person than many over-the-counter drugs. It is 142 on the list of most common drugs related to ER visits - not very high (lower than asprin and multi-vitamins). Additionaly, there are few studies that link it to long term illness. It seems that the main reason the use of anabolic steroids is illegal is that use of them by prominent athletes sets a bad example for children.

Surprisingly, I came away from the movie thinking that steroids are really not that bad. I don't think I would ever use them because I don't like foreign substances in my body and I'm not too fond of needles. I'm glad that they are not really used in climbing because if they were, I think I would be more tempted to use them also. Even though climbing is a personal pursuit, most people end up measuring their accomplishments with respect to others. A big question is would steroids even help in a sport like climbing where strength to weight ratio is critical? I'm not sure they would be good for route climbing, but perhaps they could be beneficial for bouldering.

An even more controversial issue that will face sports in the near future is genetic modification. In the movie they show a cow that produces twice as much muscle as a normal cow because of a genetic modification. This cow is ridiculously ripped and takes no steroids or anything else. As genetic enhancements become prevalant - if they are legally allowed - it will be very hard to compare the athletic accomplishments of two individuals. Certainly harder things will be accomplished, but can you attribute the athlete or the geneticist? Of course genetics already play huge role in a sport like climbing - there are certain people who have the perfect body for climbing. This is the luck of the draw though and there are many examples of people with non-perfect genetics still excelling. But when bodies are crafted exactly for the sport, things may be different.

Climbing is lucky that it can be a strongly personal pursuit so people will always be able to try to improve upon their personal bests. Also one doesn't need to be pushing the limit to fully enjoy the sport. So the value of climbing will never be taken away. Still things could change. In some ways, this debate is similar to the debates around the use of chalk, sticky rubber shoes, cams, bolts, hangdogging, knee bar pads, etc. It seems to be of a different nature though. Any thoughts?


  1. I would like to point out that there is very solid evidence that androgen use has been proven to cause--suppression of endogenous testicular function, gynecomastia, erythrocytosis, hepatotoxicity, serum lipids elevation, coagulation activation, and premature epiphyseal fusion and stunting of growth to name a few. It is very common to have erectile dysfunction in weight lifters that have used steroids for several years. So I may have a biased opinion because I am in the medical field but you should be skeptical of opinions pushed in movies. I can almost immediately pull up 64 good studies that do show that there is a negative side effect profile for steroids. As well as many OTC drugs. But that certainly cannot be used as a reason the use steroids....

    Barrett Tilley, M.D.

  2. Hi Matt. I just discovered your website via a link on the feed. Looks like you crushed in Bishop. I was in Hueco, using your excellent guide, around the same time. It was surprising to find out that the guide I was using was written by a guy working down the hall! Anyway, just wanted to give a shout to another climber doing the CS thing at CU. Maybe I'll see you around. Take care,


  3. Hi Matt,
    The crucial question is one of style. Is using steroids like using a ladder or chipping holds? Given your penchant for risky trad climbing, clearly the issue about steroids is more than just an aversion to needles. Pushing the frontiers of the possible by means of technology should not be accepted unquestioningly since the purpose of climbing is not merely success at a problem or route but the nature of the path taken to achieve that success.

  4. I should add that the truly crucial question is one of whether steroids are actually safe to use. The literature shows that they are not. But assuming hypothetically that they were, the question of style would remain.

  5. Needless to say, I am quite excited to have come across this blogsite. On to the topic at hand...

    What about the financial aspect? In most sports where steroid use is prevalent, steroid users are generally rewarded financially for their use. In climbing, there is some amount of "fame" and "fortune" to be gained by pushing standards but it is nothing compared to the millions professional athletes can gain by cheating.

  6. Barrett, thanks for the MD view. I definitely don't just trust the movies, just throwing out some ideas here in this blog. The movie did mention that studies show that though these effects can be shown, none of them are irreversible (i.e. most will go away after quitting). Is this true?

    Peter, you make a good point mentioning the value of the path taken to achieve a success and not just the success alone. Steroids seems to have negative effects that make them undesirable for use in sports. I find the topic of genetic modification, which is still futuristic, more interesting and more controversial. This is where we could really run into ethical challenges.

  7. Matt--long term vs short term effects can vary with dose and reason for usage. As you would guess the longer you supplement your body with excess stimulation you suppress your own. Thus with longterm use you can almost entirely suppress the native production of androgens. So when you stop using an exogenous source you are basically neutered until you hopefully return to normal--which may or may not happen. The things that happen while using...including possible blood clots could cause damage that would be irreversible.

    Year's of education--Turned Off now

    As probably the weakest of the posters...I would be the one to benefit from using a bit of boost. I would just prefer to have more time to climb and train. The ability to genetic modify muscle contraction is probably on the way and may help diseases like muscular dystrophy, ect. We will just have to see how it plays these products would take the ability to cheat...or enhance to the next level.


  8. Firstly, I must admit I have not seen the film in question. However, I am inclined to side with Barrett's cautionary statements. Logically it may seem like a similar debate to those of other performance enhancing measures, however the physiological consequences are far less benign. I grew up playing competitive sports during the late 80'-90's and had several close friends who crossed that line in pursuit of their ambitions and I can say emphatically that the long term effects on their bodies was without any question of a doubt entirely negative. I suspect the use of these steroids during adolescence was especially dangerous as the body is still developing. In any case not only did it change their appearances, but for all the power and strength it imparted, the prolonged use of steroids, combined with the capacity to push the body beyond its natural limits (vis-a-vis training) stressed their bodies out to such a degree that to a man they all failed to achieve their goals and ended up with chronic injuries and to this day (of the three that I still know of) are still suffering from the effects.

    I think the more interesting question you raise pertains to the competitive nature of climbing as a sport. We (climbers) often like to wax poetic about the altruistic motivations behind our athletic endeavors, pursuing our own limits unfettered by the constraints of the competitive ego driven ambitions of "mainstream" society. However, it has been my experience that climbers' are a slippery bunch when it comes to truly divesting themselves of their delusions of grandeur. I might even suggest a certain tendency towards narcissism. Personal pride and competition drove Bachar and Croft to some of their greatest heights-no pun intended.

    We can tell ourselves that its all about personal bests if its convenient, or socially appropriate, or polite. But I doubt it. Climbing is just as competitive as any other human endeavor. So long as there is someone else doing it, we can't help ourselves from judging, evaluating and measuring ourselves in relation to others-and, crucially, vice-versa.

    Which actually reminds me of a certain performance enhancing measure that has proven itself time and time again: "chick-power". This may be a highly gendered and perhaps even male chauvinistic observation, but it seems to me that men generally climb at least one if not two letter grades harder in the company of women. As with steroids, there is probably a physiological explanation for this, but unlike steroids I have yet to hear of any erectile dysfunction associated with the benefits of "chick-power".

  9. Great post Luke - well said on all points.

  10. I would like to weigh in on this non-debate. It seems that everyone pretty much agrees on this topic, so I would like to suggest another, less ethically challenging technique for improving in technical rock climbing: castration. I have "weighed" the option and figure I might adjust my personal strength-to-weight ratio by about ten pounds. Castration is extreme, but our sport demands heavy committment, and let us be honest, who amongst us has not considered castration as a viable option for climbing harder. It should be noted that when it comes to castration, women are screwed (pun intended.) Also, "highballing" would be much more frightening, and you would likely sound like a total wuss when you fell. Another option, although more extreme, is a radical hemicorpectomy, although this may benefit the strong "campus punks" who have disdain for footwork. One would need to have a sticky-rubber diaper for slabs. ...I'm not sure if surgeons would do this procedure electively either. (Barrett?) That's why I choose castration.

    To play Devil's Advocate, smoking is probably just as bad for you as anabolic steroid use, and I do know a climber who used steroids and gained 3 "V" grades in a few months. He did lose about 3" of man-meat though, so maybe steroids are just a from of chemical castration.

    Okay, I can't really defend that position... Steroids are (probably) dumb but castration is not, so cut yer junk off if you want to send really hard.

    Just another MD's viewpoint.

    Noah Kaufman, MD

    ps, Matt, Annie likes Coffee but doesn't like Tea.

  11. I agree with medical analysis; important notes of long term vs short term usage. People forget that when using androgens, muscles are not the only organs to grow...

    Two points NOT considered thus far; 1. steroid usage could/probably increase the mass of the climber and whatever increase in hand strength would be out weighed (pardon the pun) by the increase in body mass, 2. climbing strength is mainly an increase in neuromuscular fascilitation/motor control NOT increased muscle size (with exception to the forearm musculature relative to the individual). In addition, many athletes experience a very fast increase in muscular strength while the tendon/ligament structure has not kept pace - I think this would lead to pulley injuries among other injuries.

    What steroid usage would probably benefit, as Dr. Tilley mentioned, would be an older climber past 25ish years old. The ability to recover from hard training sessions keeps diminishing. Obviously, the risks, in my opinion, would outweigh (sorry) the benefits.

    Steroids allow the athlete to recover very well and continue difficult training sessions. The androgenic nature facilitates protein synthesis making for quicker muscular recovery. This fact makes it popular for endurance athletes as well (Tour de France).

    Best case scenario for us is to pay attention to nutrition/hydration among other recouperative techniques. Add to that proper training cycles and it starts to look like a professional athletic program without the need for steroids!

    or not...

    Dave Wahl

  12. Noah....Sounds like you have a nice study to do...It won't be double blind...but next time you come down to the bay area--or I come up to Tahoe--I will bring some lido with or with out epi--your choice and you can lose your third leg and start crushing v16.

    Please note...this would be considered a party that I would prefer to not attend.


  13. can we use bupivicaine instead? (with epi.)

  14. This is some interesting reading. I especially enjoyed Luke's comments on the 'elephant at the crag' so to speak--the competitive aspect. I first immersed myself in climbing at the age of 45. With years of traditional competitive sports (both as an athlete and a coach), I was drawn to the 'nobody really knows, cares, or even understands' aspect of a send. That is somewhat hyperbolic in that we do care greatly about what the other members of the tribe think. I, like many others, would love for my motivation to be completely pure, but I would also admit to sending and thinking, 'man, I wish such and such' would have seen that. Oh well, I currently describe climbers to non-climbing friends as "highly-motivated, competitive athletes who at least have enough soul to be disgusted by our overemphasis on competition and winning." BTW--The chick audience does work wonders. I think it just simply conveys the fact that one must try really hard, and most all dudes will try even harder if there's a chance to impress the fairer sex. Lastly, steroids suck, and I pray that climbing never becomes a mainstream sport.

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