"The Couch Potato Paradox" - boulderbrighton.com

"The Couch Potato Paradox"

"The Couch Potato Paradox"

Shock paper proves that inactivity can make you stronger

In news that will come as a welcome surprise to boulderers worldwide, a scientific paper published today proves the shock result that inactivity can actually improve strength and physical performance. With less than two weeks before climbing walls in England plan to reopen, this news couldn't have come at a better time.

Traditional thinking in the physical sciences has always assumed that climbing ability could only be improved by hard work, dedication, and a rigorous training programme. However, today's paper, published in the Bos Stercus International Journal of Science showed that under certain conditions, intense activity followed by an even more intense and extended period of inactivity can actually lead to counter-intuitive gains of up to 13% in endurance capacity and an incredible 19% in pure strength.

The study tracked just over 12,000 climbers over a full year from March 2020 to February 2021, measuring their max hang strength and also their max-moves endurance levels both at the start and the end of the study.

According to the paper, the participants were divided into three groups. Group 1 was asked to follow a strict diet and training regime, including regular core and conditioning circuits, fingerboard training and weighted pull-ups. Group 2 were asked to do as little training as possible, stay indoors at all times, and consume as many TV box-sets as they could using a provided free subscription. Group 3, the control group, were asked to put together an intricate plan for all the training they were going to do using coloured pens and complex spreadsheets, join several Zoom training groups, and then to quietly ignore all their own plans when push came to shove and just duck out of all training at the last minute.

“We were blown away when we saw the results,” said Prof. Kendra Boletus, lead author of the paper. “When the world started going into lockdown we were worried that climbers might lose all their psych and strength and that rebuilding things at the other end would be a long, drawn out process.

“What we actually found was that Group 2, who put an incredible amount of dedication into consuming as much Netflix as possible – regardless of whether or not they were really enjoying it – actually showed a significant increase in strength and endurance over the course of the year. Even Group 3, who talked a good game but never followed through, managed to outperform the most dedicated fingerboard enthusiasts.”

But how did these unlikely gains come about? Prof. Boletus thinks that the answer might lie in the unusually long length of the covid-19 lockdowns, and mistakes in our previous understanding of the term “muscle memory”.

“Normally in studies like these, we only look at the effects over a relatively short period of time like one or two weeks,” explained Prof. Boletus. “Climbers tend to react very badly to being taken away from their sport for longer than that, and several previous studies have collapsed due to mass mutinies from participants. This time, there was no option for participants but to continue.”

Taken together with the extended timescales involved, the study concluded that an improved understanding of the concept of “muscle memory” can make sense of the results and revolutionise climbing training paradigms for the future:

… and so, we conclude that “muscle memory” is much more than just the body’s ability to repeat previous actions more efficiently. In fact, it is the act of remembering a movement itself which actually leads to gains in strength and endurance. Normally, climbers’ memories of specific moves fade quickly as their attentions are drawn to new problems and challenges, and so the iterative power of muscle memory fades with it. During the past year, however, climbers have had nothing but memories of their last climbing projects to work with. Uninterrupted by actual physical stimulation, insulated by the hum of endless TV box-sets and unencumbered by meaningful social interactions, these “muscle memories” have been allowed to cycle repeatedly through climbers’ subconscious minds, causing the muscles themselves to grow stronger and more powerful every day.

Early results of tests at climbing walls showed that people who had previously been regular climbers before the lockdowns started were now likely to be climbing 3-4 grades harder than they were a year ago, as long as they had basically spent the year watching Netflix. Good news for most of us.

For more details (or to buy yourself a fingerboard just in case), click here.

UPDATE: It appears that some of the finding's key results may have been the result of a miscommunication between two of the lead researchers during a Zoom call where one of them had their video settings set to "mirror". Publication of the study has therefore been delayed while the team seek to address this potentially crucial error - they hope to have updated results next April 1st...

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