Mercedes Pollmeier, author of Simple Strength: The Outdoor Athlete’s Guide to Better Movement, is on this episode, talking about the importance of movement, mental strength, mindful training, and more.
Here’s a little snippet of Mercedes’ philosophy on training:
Mercedes is a Strength and Conditioning Coach based out of Seattle. She has a Master’s degree in Human Movement and is committed to continuing her education in all fields related to training. She is a climber, coach, and author. She currently trains her athletes in person and online.
“Reps don’t really matter. It’s more how well can you execute the movement?”
Here’s what you’ll hear in this episode:
- (02:25) Mercedes’ quest for the Olympics led her to strength training.
- (07:38) The most important thing for competitive climbers.
- (09:40) How do you train for Mental Strength?
- (11:00) Mercedes’ favorite climbing drill.
- (15:45) The best way to become more efficient with your strength training.
- (19:00) The Philosophy behind Mercedes’ strength programming.
Ryan: Hey everybody, welcome to the GMB show. In this show, I’m really pleased to have the very lovely Mercedes Pollmeier. Now we actually… Interesting thing here, I was reading her book, and at the time I didn’t even realize that she had mentioned me and GMB in the book. I was on an airplane, was reading your book, and all of a sudden at the beginning of the chapter, there’s this quote in each chapter, you have these quotes, and I was like, “Wow. That looks real familiar,” And realized it was a quote from me. I freaked out, I was pretty happy that someone had actually knew about me so it was pretty cool. Anyway, I want to thank you for being here on the show.
A little bit of background about Mercedes here, I’m just going to read a bit of this, strength conditioning coach, right now based out of Seattle. Originally… We can get in that a little bit later but via Colorado, via somewhere else, right now working with… You specialize in performance programs specifically designed for climbers and outdoor alpinists (al-PEEN-ists), alpinists (al-PINE-ists), depending on where you come from, located in Seattle. You have a master’s in human movement and pretty much she’s awesome everybody. For today’s show, we’re going to be talking about a lot of fun stuff. Thank you for being here with me, Mercedes. Little bit of intro about yourself, let us know what’s going on with you?
Mercedes: Yeah. I actually grew up in Australia being a tennis player. That’s pretty much my athletic background, and I actually came over to the US when I was 17 on a full scholarship to play tennis. I was so thrilled as a teenager. I left home and went and played college tennis for four years. I actually went to University of Northern Iowa, and then transferred over to Metro State University in Denver for a few years. That’s actually where I started climbing, and when I graduated I really wanted to give the semi pro level in tennis a good go. That’s always been my dream as a kid growing up. In doing so I actually was able to try out for the Olympics. I needed someone to essentially whip me into shape for my strength training, because I really didn’t do a lot of that and I realized I was quite weak in that aspect.
The coach was actually based out of a climbing gym, his name’s Dave [Wahl 00:02:53]. Amazing guy. He actually got me into climbing more. I was climbing once in a while, but he was like, “You know, you should really work on your upper body strength, you know. You should probably boulder more.” Bouldering is another facet of climbing. There’s sport climbing, and bouldering, and triad climbing. I decided to try it, and I did really well, and I was super strong. I actually made it on to the Olympic team, but as a team we actually didn’t make it to the Olympics, unfortunately. It was an amazing experience for me to be travel and do that. Then after that I decided that I would give up tennis, because at that point I was being beat by 16 year olds. I was 22, 23, realizing, “Okay, this is probably the end for me for my professional career.
I decided to go into climbing, and Dave my coach, he helped me through all of that and he actually inspired me to become a strength coach, and go to school, and learn about movement. I’ll be forever grateful for him. Yeah, pretty much that’s where my story with climbing begins is in Denver with him. I went and got my master’s because I need to know as much as possible, so going to school to do that and learning just how to research I think, that was probably what I got out of that. Here I am coaching climbers. I was a competitive climber for a while too, and actually did decent at that for only climbing for a few years at the time, but it was good to have that experience now because I [inaudible 00:04:50] high level climbers for their outdoor pursuits.
Ryan: You competed at the national level really. It’s always good to have that kind of experience get into not just the physical practice, but the mental practice of everything and know what it’s like to compete and help those high level athletes. Speaking of high level athletes, let’s just get into some of the questions if you’re cool with it. For example, working with outdoor athletes, in particular climbing and things like that, especially these high level athletes, I really want to hear a little bit more about that sort of training.
For example, and of course it depends on each particular individual, but I’d really like to hear some of the main things that you like to focus on when you’re working with some of the high level climbers. Obviously they want to improve their climbing, but what are you looking at really as a broad overview of where you want to take them in their training?
Mercedes: This is a tough question. For adults who they’ve been… Usually if they’re high level climbers, they’ve been climbing for maybe five to eight years or so, so they’re actually highly skilled climbers. Their technique’s actually really good for the most part. What I look for is how they regulate themselves while they climb. That’s really what I look for. They may be a little weak in certain positions, so we do tackle that. In terms of … It is more of a mental training and how relaxed the climber can be, and setting up specific drills so that they’re constantly working on their breathing. That’s huge.
Holding your breath when things become really really difficult, you know you lose oxygen, and you end up just falling off. You have to learn how to continue to breathe when things get really difficult. Learning how to control your anxiety in high pressure situations, especially if you’re a competitive climber, but also for if you’re climbing something outside. Climbers have these things called projects where they aspire to climb something that is just a little bit beyond their level. When they approach that climb, their anxiety tends to elevate, so it’s figuring out how to regulate that as well. I think the most important thing, especially for competitive climbers is how they read the sequence of moves.
I think that’s probably what I work on the most, is sequencing and visualizing how you’re going to move with everything. Your hands, your body, your feet. How your feet feel as they turn on a foot hold. It’s all these micro little things. I would say that that’s probably the biggest thing that I work on with most of the climbers.
Ryan: This is just so interesting that your answer is this. It just so happens to be that we have our alpha posse, which is our online community, and every month I do a special challenge for them where I create either a series of videos, or we talk about something that we do over the period of a month. This month is better awareness by learning more about your breathing, and then taking it to a point where you’re able to apply that to new movements that you’re learning. This is exactly what we’re talking about in these videos, and it’s so cool to hear you talk about this because I’m just fascinated about this.
Just like you said, rock climbing’s the same everywhere you go, whenever you’re learning something new and you’re going just beyond what you’re very comfortable with, you’re going to brace down and hold your breath. Focusing on the breath, and focusing on solving those problems if you will, like you talked about. It’s so cool because of course, that’s what we’re all after, right? Even high level athletes, and maybe especially high level athletes when they get towards the competition arena, whether it be against an opponent, whether it be in a bouldering competition, or even just like what you were saying, when they’re working on solving a new problem that they want to work on, a new line or something they want to accomplish, they’re going to have that anxiety.
It all comes back down to the breathing, right? So, so interesting, I love talking about this. The mental side of it, we’ll get to that in just a minute. Right now, actually we’ll just talk about it right now because climbing is not just a physical activity, but so mental, and for the reasons that you said. Let’s be honest.
Bouldering, yeah. It’s at a height where it’s still safe where if you let go, but the things is, is you’re still up there and it’s pretty scary. Looking at triad climbing, hey, if you have a big ripper and you come off that wall, that’s some pretty scary stuff right there. As far as the mental aspect of it, what are maybe some specific drills or things that you work with your athletes on in order to help them become better mentally?
I do know that you work a lot with children as well, so maybe this is something that you do with the kids? I teach kids over here too, and so I actually have a lot of things I do with the kids, but I’m really interested to hear how you do it.
Mercedes: One of my favorite drills, I don’t actually have a name for it. This is funny, I should probably come up with a name.
Ryan: Name it! Copyright!
Mercedes: I essentially give the person or the kid one minute to look at a new line, so if we’re working inside of a gym, a lot of these people have seen the boulder problems, because they’re up. If I take them to a section of the gym and I say, “Okay, you’re going to turn around and you’re going to look at this route. I’m going to give you one minute to look at every single route and visualize it, and then you’re going to turn around and explain it back to me without looking at it.” It’s a memory game, essentially. It’s memory. This, rehearsing it in your mind as you’re looking at it, and then rehearsing it when you’re not looking at it, it’s creating these motor patterns that you’re already climbing it.
It really helps, especially for competitive climbing, that you’re rehearsing before you even get on and try it. This is one of my favorites, and there’s different variations that we have done. We’ve had people draw the sequence on pieces of paper, maybe mimic movement instead of just explaining it, so there’s different ways of doing that. That’s one of my favorites.
Ryan: That’s absolutely wonderful. I remember back in my days as a competitive gymnast that my coach used to have us before a competition, we’d lie down and close our eyes, and we’d have to perform the routine in our head. I still have a habit of doing that. For example, when I was working on my one armed handstands, and when I work on new movements, right now I’m getting back into Brazilian Jujitsu, so the movements that I’m doing, I’m trying to go through that before I do it to set myself up for success, if you will. It sounds very similar to what you’re doing, I love that. You’ve got to put a name on that, because that’s pretty cool. Setting up those good neuro patterns to make sure that it’s not just go do it, but you actually understand what needs to happen before you do do it.
I think especially in rock climbing, this is really cool because if you can solve that problem before you actually start in on it, well, half the battle is probably won right there. I’m assuming, of course. I’m not some big rock climber or anything like that, but I can see how this would be extremely beneficial, especially with bouldering and having major launches where you might have to do super reaches and things like that, and understanding maybe conserving energy for certain points or something, certain places so that you can save that energy for some of the more difficult… I don’t even know what you would call it.
Ryan: Cruxes, thank you, yeah. I’m just assuming.
Mercedes: For competition climbing, it really comes down to the winner for the competition is usually the person who has attempted the boulder problems the least and got to the top. If they can do it the first time they go, they get all of the points. Then every attempt after that, they get deducted points. There’s bouldering and sport climbing, and both have their own competitions. For bouldering I’d say that if you can figure out the puzzle and that as fast as possible, and then you have multiple attempts to try it. In sport climbing, you have to read everything, it’s so much longer.
You’re probably previewing the route at least for two minutes, and then you only get one attempt because once you fall, that’s it, you’re done. You actually don’t get another attempt. These two are actually almost like two different sports, and how you train for them is actually also quite different.
Ryan: Yeah that’s to me, it’s just fascinating. What I’m teaching for example in GMB, even though there’s not a particular problem we still have these movement challenges that we’re after, and just listening to what you’re saying is giving me some good ideas about how I can apply that for some other things. Let’s look at some of the protocols, maybe. There’s just hundreds of different movements and things like that that you could use in order to become a better climber, but I do know that you have just a few things that you prescribe, I guess, for the biggest bang for the buck. Do you mind letting us know a little bit about that in terms of strength training and becoming more efficient at that?
Mercedes: Yeah. Essentially what I’ve learnt from working with climbers and a lot of other outdoor athletes is that they haven’t actually spent a lot of time strength training, so I’ve really paired it back to three very basic movements, and that you can essentially build on as you get better. It’s the body weight squat, the push up, and the back bend.
Mercedes: You don’t need any equipment, and that’s I think very important for doing things when you’re traveling. A lot of climbers and outdoor athletes tend to travel a lot, so I thought about this and how to create something for those people who have very minimal strength training backgrounds, and being able to strength train in a safe way with minimal feedback from a coach. They can work on their own, take video footage of themselves, and be able to self correct with a little bit of guidance. I feel like those three, there isn’t any pulling, but pushing is so essential for climbers because they’re so dominant in their lats. Their shoulders are usually more forward and their chest is concave, so they really don’t actually have strong pec muscles. Teaching them to be able to move in that direction as well, and it’s just the opposite of what they do constantly.
Ryan: No but that makes sense. It really does, because … I think it’s always funny, I remember Lynn Hill. She was one of my favorite climbers of all time, and I just remember she was one of the first ones. Who was it? [inaudible 00:17:44] I guess, and she was going up there and she was like, “Yeah, I’m really strong upper body but thanks to my legs, that’s what’s get me up there.” I’m always thinking back to the guys, because let’s just be honest. Guys when they first start bouldering or something it’s all … All upper body, right? Instead of being able to use their body more efficiently. It’s interesting what you’re saying about everything coming in, and now I can see really why that back bend also is a big help for that.
In your book Simple Strength, this is the basis of everything are these three exercises, and I do know that you have a lot of different variations and things in there. Let’s look at someone who’s just looking to be a better overall athlete. The goal really, let’s be honest, is not to get good at training, or basically not to train, to train more. Could you give us a little bit of an idea of how we can better use these three movements so we don’t get so focused on thinking that, “Oh we should be training all the time instead of training for the things that we want to be able to do better,” If that makes sense, what I’m trying to say?
Mercedes: Yeah. Totally. Yeah, and that’s how I go about the training protocols for most people, is that you should be working on your skills for 90% of the time, and 10% of the time you’re working on the actual string training part of it. That’s really the philosophy of these three movements, is that you work on [inaudible 00:19:18] like your warm up, you work on it and you do several, maybe 10-20 reps of the easy stuff. Then you work on things that are a little bit more challenging. Let’s say that I can do my body weight squat pretty easily, but I find it challenging to do the pistol squat. I’m working on a few variations to work up to that, but I keep everything very simple. I don’t do a high amount of reps.
There’s no protocol that I’m trying to follow, it’s just let’s work on these movements, and then that’s how I’m going to get stronger. Especially with outdoor athletes, we don’t want to increase a lot of muscle mass, so it’s keeping the strength to weight ratio. We want to be stronger and as light as possible. Reps don’t really matter, it’s more how well can you execute the movement. For climbers being able to do single [inaudible 00:20:21] squats, that’s really, really important because they do these crazy movements where they’re only on one foot, like on their toe, and they’re going to have to almost jump out of that position in a pistol squat.
Being able to focus purely just on a position and that movement I think is super beneficial. It’s time away from climbing. You can work on these really great movements, and you’re resting your climbing muscles.
Ryan: No, it makes sense. Just to reiterate here, keep it simple. Focus on that strength by increasing the difficulty of the movement rather than just doing a gazillion regular push ups. Maybe work on one armed push up or something like that, so focus on that strength. I love it. Quality of movement, same thing we talk about. I’ve got a question for you, let’s go into some of the questions for you. As a professional athlete yourself, what has changed for you over the years in your own training?
Mercedes: I actually started off as more of a traditional strength training athlete. I did a lot of snatches and cleans. That’s just how they trained us in college. That was the introduction to strength training for cross training. That’s just how I thought it was. High repetition, we’re following this very rigid program, and the periodization and all of that, and actually becoming a strength and conditioning coach you learn that protocol, and that was one of my first certifications. Then as I actually got older, that was great. I think I built a pretty decent base of strength doing that, and I learnt some really cool moves, but honestly now having a full time job, trying to train, having a family life, for me now it is all about quality of movement.
If I can train for 45 minutes, even just half an hour every day, so it’s short but high frequency. That’s how I’ve been able to keep my body pretty healthy through all of this, even though in the past I’ve trained too much, I’ve over trained, and I think I’ve learnt a lot from that. I just don’t have time for that anymore either. I’ve been able to keep a pretty high level of strength, even though it’s been really short but high frequency. That’s really what I’ve learnt, that you don’t need to over do it, just do just enough but really pay attention to what you’re doing.
Ryan: Nice. Awareness of what’s going on. You an I are so similar in the fact that we run businesses, and we still coach, and we still train, and we still want to be able to do this kind of stuff. It’s really cool. Really cool to hear that way of training for you is working for you. Another question, what advice would you give yourself if you could go back a few years as your own coach?
Mercedes: I would say to have some patience. As a climber I really … I got pretty good very fast, and that might not be the correct thing at the time. I actually ended up getting a lot of finger injuries, because you learn that muscles develop faster than tendons. Yes I got really good, but then I got injured a lot. That was also just part of the learning process, and now I try to tell my clients, “Please. Don’t worry, you’re going to get better as long as you stay consistent, and you don’t need to climb for four or five hours a day, you just…”
Ryan: “What? What?” Yeah. I hear that all the time, too. I’m like, “Yeah.”
Mercedes: That’s probably what I would…
Ryan: Tell yourself about that?
Mercedes: If I was my own coach, yeah. I’d be like, “Just take your time, be consistent, and it’ll come and you’re going to see all of the improvement that you want.” Yeah.
Ryan: All right. Final advice for our listeners who maybe want to get into climbing, or maybe just get a little better at climbing.
Mercedes: Yeah, I think if you have a climbing gym, this is the best, best place to try it. Obviously being outside is where you want to be when you’re climbing, but inside if it’s your first time going, climbing is … It’s such an abstract sport that you may feel a little lost, like, “What does it all mean?” I think just having someone maybe at the gym just show you a couple things, and just go have fun. You don’t have to follow any of the rules of, “You have to have your hand here and here.” Just go on and just try a couple moves and it’s no big deal. No one is ever judging you in the climbing gym.
I feel like I hear that a lot from some beginners who are like, “Oh the gym is so crowded, I feel like I don’t want to climb because people are watching me.” Well they’re watching you, but they’re not judging you. They’re like, “Cool, that person is doing something really amazing, and they’re trying really hard, that’s so great.” You actually have people who cheer you on in the gym because they want you to get better. That’s one thing I love about this sport, is that the community is so supportive. Don’t be intimidated, and just throw yourself at it.
Ryan: I love it. This is so cool. I want to say thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Where can we find more information on you and everything you’re doing?
Mercedes: Actually my website is betaathletics.com, B-E-T-A athletics.com. I’m actually changing my company name, so it’ll soon be Modus Athletica, M-O-D-U-S. That’s going to change here very soon, actually. I have a book, Simple Strength, if you guys ever want to read that.
Ryan: And I’m in the book!
Mercedes: Yes, Ryan’s in the book.
Ryan: I just had to say that, I was so excited, I’m sorry. I was just like, “Oh my God, I’m in a book.”
Mercedes: Several times I talk about Ryan.
Ryan: We are going to post the links everyone, where you can find out more about Mercedes and the cool stuff that she’s doing. Great advice at the end there. Don’t worry, people aren’t judging. Have fun, keep doing it, have patience, go climbing. Thanks again Mercedes. Such a pleasure.
Mercedes: Thanks a lot. Yeah, thank you.
Ryan: All right.
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