Pediatric Exercise Science, 2011, 23, 477-486
© 2011 Human Kinetics, Inc.
Correlations Between High Level
Sport-Climbing and the Development
University of Cologne
H.G. Dörr and J. Jüngert
Over the last years concerns have been raised about the health effects particulary
on young climbers due to the observation of short stature with low body weight
and body fat in sports climbers. The aim of this study was to investigate anthro-
pometric and hormonal data for climbers of the German Junior national team.
16 climbers were compared with 14—age matched nonclimbers with respect to
several anthropometric variables, leptin level, and climbing characteristics. Height,
weight and body mass index (BMI) standard deviation scores (SDS) for boys were
not signicantly different from the controls, whereas girls had signicantly lower
SDS-values for weight and BMI. In comparison with the control group boys and
girls had a lower skinfold thickness. The leptin values were lower than the calcu-
lated leptin levels but only reached signicance for the girls. The young athletes
of the GJNT were neither of short stature nor thin when compared with a physi-
cally active control group. The low body fat in boys and girls was within expected
limits. The lower leptin levels might be attributed to a decrease in total body fat.
Sport climbing has become more and more popular over the last 30 years
both as a recreational physical activity, but especially as a competitive sport. The
increasing number of indoor facilities, widespread popularity of this sport, and the
I. Schöf is with the Clinic for Children and Adolescents, Klinikum Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany. V.
Schöf is with the Dept. of Trauma Surgery, Friedrich-Alexander-University, Erlangen-Nuremberg,
Germany. Dötsch is with the Clinic for Children and Adolescents, University of Cologne, Cologne,
Germany. Dörr and Jüngert are with the Clinic for Children and Adolescents, Friedrich-Alexander-
University, Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany.
478 Schöffl et al.
development of local, national, and international competitions have led to the study
of the physical characteristics that may be associated with high level performance.
Several studies found elite adult competitive climbers to be short in stature with
low body mass and very low fat percentages (3,17,22,23,25). Although relatively
high hand grip strength/body mass ratios have been reported in high level climbers
(7,25), the absolute handgrip strengths are moderate (25), suggesting that the high
strength/mass ratios are due to the effect of low body mass.
The association of high-level climbing performance with small stature and
low body fat percentage along with the possibility of improving strength/mass ratio
through body mass reduction, has raised concern about the potential health effects
on climbers (24). Sports climbing shares the trend of achieving extremely low body
weight with other sports in which physical performance is determined not only by
the motor abilities of the athletes but also to a large extent by a low body weight, i.e.,
ski jumping, road cycling, woman’s acrobatic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, and
long-distance running (19). The concept of the reduction in body mass and/or the loss
in body fat mass based on performance and not on appearance or excessive concern
about body shape has lead to the introduction of the Anorexia athletica. Although
Anorexia atheltica resembles Anorexia nervosa with the high levels of exercise and the
disordered eating habits it is not classied as a clinical eating disorder but as abnormal
eating behavior (20). To reduce percentage of body fat, elite athletes often have diets
too low in energy and nutrients. This in turn leads to decits in micronutrients (19).
Other effects of Anorexia athletica are endocrine abnormalities (4) such as delayed
onset of puberty, menarche, menstrual irregularities and decreased bone formation
(also recognized as the Female Athlete Triad (2,10)), but also to a loss of hormones
related to fat mass, e.g., leptin, a hormone produced by the fat cells, which regu-
lates appetite and energy expenditure (12,26). Leptin and ghrelin are two hormones
that have been recognized to have a major inuence on energy balance. Leptin is
a mediator of long-term regulation of energy balance, suppressing food intake and
thereby inducing weight loss. Ghrelin, secreted by the stomach, on the other hand
is a fast-acting hormone, seemingly playing a role in meal initiation. Both originate
in the periphery and signal through different pathways to the brain, particularly to
the hypothalamus. In the hypothalamus, activation of the leptin or ghrelin receptor
initiates different signaling cascades leading to changes in food intake. Furthermore,
regulation of the effects of ghrelin on hypothalamic neurones (ghrelin blocks leptin’s
action through the activation of the hypothalamic NPY/Y1 receptor pathway) has
been suggested to be one of the important mechanisms by which leptin may control
food intake and body weight (11).
Although there is only anecdotal data on eating disorders and unrealistic weight
reduction practices in climbers, Austria has introduced a minimum BMI that has
to be met by the climbers to participate in competitions (16). Whether the selected
levels of limitation are justiable or reasonable for climbers is difcult to judge,
as there are few published anthropometrical data about competitive sport climbers.
Because the energy and nutritional inadequacies combined with the use of purging
methods can be found in young athletes, and restrictive eating behavior may become
the norm at a young age, special attention needs to be paid to adolescents. The aim
of this study was to evaluate anthropometry, developmental and
hormonal data for high-level climbers of the German Junior National Team
and to compare these data with an age matched group of physically active youth
not performing at a high level.
High Level Sport-Climbing and the Development of Adolescents 479
16 adolescents of the German Junior National Team (GJNT) were studied, 9 boys
with an average chronological age (CA) of 16.8 ± 2.3 (SD) years and 7 girls with
an average CA of 17.2 ± 2.8 years. As a control group we recruited 14 nonclimb-
ing adolescents, 8 boys with a mean CA of 15.9 ± 1.8 years and 6 girls with a
CA of 16.3 ± 2.5 years. The control group consisted of active adolescents who
did sports on a regular but noncompetitive basis. The study was approved by an
ethics committe, and subjects as well as their parents provided assent and written
permission, respectively. A questionnaire was employed to investigate the eating
habits (fat reduced, normal), pubertal development (time of menarche, pubarche)
and menstrual cycle. In another questionnaire the climbers were asked about their
training habits (number of training session per week, hours spent per training, type
of training) and climbing difculties (in UIAA—scale: Union Internationale des
Associations d’Alpinisme / International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation).
The body composition was measured using Bioelectrical impedance analysis
(BodyComp V7.0, MEDI CAL HealthCare, Karlsruhe, Germany) for extracellular
mass, body cell mass, fat free mass, fat mass, extracellular water, weight and other
Furthermore we measured body height and skinfold thickness using a caliper
(ccu-Measure, LLC, Greenwood Village, Co, Usa) at the scapula. Body height,
weight and BMI was then transferred in SDS (standard deviation score) values
using the LMS method (The distribution of a measurement as it changes accord-
ing to age is shown by the Reference centile curves. The changing distribution of
three curves representing the median (M), coefcient of variation (S) and skewness
(L) which is expressed as a Box-Cox power are summarized by the LMS method)
proposed by Cole and Green (5). We calculated the ape index of each individual
by dividing the length of each climber by the length of his arm span. A ratio of
more than one signies that the arm span is higher than the body height and leads
to a so called positive ape index.
Furthermore, we corrected height SDS (H-SDS) of each member of the GJNT
with target height SDS (TH-SDS) of the parents (mean of the parents height plus
6.5 cm for boys and minus 6.5 cm for girls) by the following formula: corrected
H-SDS = H-SDS minus TH-SDS. This correction for height is important as sport
climbers are described to be of smaller height (13,24) and the question arises whether
this is a consequence of dietary restrictions or of their anthropometric background.
Serum-Leptin level was measured by an in-house Radio–Immuno-Assay (RIA;
15) in the venous blood, serum-grehlin by a Radio-immuno-assay (RIA, R 90,
Mediagnost, Reutlingen-Germany). With regard to pubertal stage, all participants
were mature determined by clinical examination using the Tanner stages (21).
Statistical analysis was performed using Microsoft Excel 2000 for data col-
lection and SPSS 14.0 (SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL). All measured values are reported
as means and standard deviations. The Kologomorov-Smirnov test was used to
check for normal distribution. Homogeneity of variance was investigated using
Levine’s F-test. For normally distributed variables differences within and between
groups were assessed with paired and unpaired t tests, otherwise the Wilcoxon or
the Whitney-Mann-U tests were used. All tests were 2-tailed, a 5% probability
level was considered signicant (*). Pearson or Spearmen correlation coefcients
were used to investigate univariate correlation between independent variables and
480 Schöffl et al.
dependent climbing parameters for the members of the GJNT. As no signicant
correlations were found we did not undertake a stepwise multiple regression analysis
for determining the most important factor for explaining climbing ability.
There was no difference between the GJNT and their respective control groups
regarding eating habits or pubertal development. The mean CA of the GJNT and
their respective control groups was not signicantly different. The boys of the GJNT
climbed signicantly better (mean = 9.7 ± 0.45 in UIAA) than the girls (mean =
8.83 ± 0.50). Table 1 and 2 present means (SD) and minimum-maximum ranges
for parameters concerned with the climbing specialties of the girls and boys of the
GJNT respectively. Although the girls trained more often over the week the boys
spent more hours in training. The years of climbing were comparable. The arm span
of the girls was not signicantly different from their height, however the boys had a
signicantly higher arm span/height ratio, leading to a positive so-called ape index
of 1.03. However the ape index showed no correlation with climbing ability in any of
the tested groups (boys of the GJNT, girls of the GJNT, both genders taken together).
SDS values of the girls and the boys of the GJNT are shown in Figure 1. The
boys were not signicantly different with regard to height, weight or BMI from the
standard population. The girls had signicantly lower weight and BMI SDS values.
The differences between the means of the GJNT and their respective control
groups are shown in Table 3 for the girls and Table 4 for the boys (p < .05 is consid-
ered signicant). Although the girls were shorter, lighter and had a lower BMI than
their control group, only the weight proved to be signicant. The leptin values were
not signicantly different. The boys were also shorter, lighter, had a lower BMI and
lower leptin values than their control group, but none of the differences reached sig-
nicance. The serum-levels of ghrelin did not reach signicant differences between
the GJNT and their respective control groups. With respect to skinfold thickness the
Table 1 Climbing Parameters of the Girls of the GJNT
Parameter Mean (sd) Minimum Maximum
Climbing grade (UIAA) 8.8 (0.50) 8 9.3
Years of climbing (y) 6.9 (2.0) 4 10
Training sessions per week 5.4 (4.3) 3 15
Training hours 10.5 (4.2) 3.5 15
Table 2 Climbing Parameters of the Boys of the GJNT
Parameter Mean (
) Minimum Maximum
Climbing grade (UIAA) 9.7 (0.45) 9.3 10.5
Years of climbing (y) 6 (2.1) 3 8
Training sessions per week 3.4 (0.9) 2 4.5
Training hours 12.8 (4.7) 7 22
Figure 1 — SDS values (mean ± SD) for height, weight and BMI as well as DSDS (cor-
rected SDS values according to parental growth estimation) values (mean ± SD) for height
for the girls and boys of the German Junior National Team (GJNT). Signicant differences
are represented by *.
Table 3 Means and Standard Deviations Between the Girls of the
GJNT and Their Control Group and the p-Values of Their Differences
Girls of the
GJNT Female Control Significance (p-value)
Height (m) 161.6 (4.3) 167.5 (5.7) 0.05
Weight (kg) 50.3 (4.4) 56.5 (3.6) 0.02
BMI 19.3 (1.8) 20.1 (0.8) 0.32
Leptin (ng/ml) 2.9 (1.2) 5.3 (3.0) 0.08
Ghrelin (pg/ml) 1442.69 (562.49) 1035.42
Table 4 Means and Standard Deviations Between the Boys of the
GJNT and Their Control Group and the p-Values of Their Differences
Boys of the GJNT Male Control Significance (p-value)
Height (m) 174.9 (9.0) 177.3 (5.5) 0.50
Weight (kg) 61.3 (7.1) 69.7 (11.0) 0.08
BMI 20.1 (1.9) 22.2 (3.9) 0.15
Leptin (ng/ml) 0.5 (0.2) 1.9 (2.8) 0.16
Ghrelin (pg/ml) 1321.36 (464.09) 1097.11
boys and the girls were signicantly lower than their respective control group (s.
Figure 2). The mean differences of the fat mass between the GJNT and the control
group only reached signicance for the boys, girls showed a trend (p = 0,48) to be
lower (s. Figure 3). Leptin values were lower than the target values calculated using
the estimated Tanner stages (s. Figure 4), but the results were only signicantly lower
in the female group, the boys only showed a tendency (p = .159).
Figure 2 — Mean ± SD for the skinfold thickness of the boys and girls of the GJNT in
comparison with their respective control group (signicant differences to the control group
represented by *).
Figure 3 — Mean ± SD for the fat mass for the boys and the girls of the GJNT with their
respective control group.
High Level Sport-Climbing and the Development of Adolescents 483
This study was intended to investigate the correlations between high-level sport
climbing and the development of adolescents. We studied girls and boys of the
German Junior National Team (GJNT) and compared them to a control group of
physically active adolescents of the same age group.
In a rst step we compared the climbing characteristics of girls and boys of
the GJNT with each other. The boys climbed signicantly better than the girls even
though they had been climbing for a comparable length of time and that they spent
about the same time for training per week. This nding is in accordance with the
literature (25). Many climbers believe that a positive ape index, i.e., a greater arm
span than body height, leads to a better climbing performance. However no study
could objectify this believe (9,13). Watts et al. (24) suggest that an increased arms
span to height measurement, called a positive ape index, in elite climbers may be
a selective trait. The boys of the GJNT in this study did show a positive ape index
but there was no correlation between ape index and climbing grade achieved.
High-level sports climbers are signicantly shorter (13,25) than nonclimbers.
This is believed to be a consequence of better performances with better biome-
chanical proportions and lower weight. The recorded heights in this study (girls:
161.4 cm, boys: 174.9 cm) are comparable to other studies on adults (13,25), but
they were higher than in the study by Watts et al. (24), who investigated young
climbers not having reached their nal height yet. We therefore took a closer look
at the SDS values to quantify the heights in relation to the normal collective. The
SDS-values recorded in this study were not different from the standard population.
Therefore we did not nd our climbers to be exceptionally small in stature but rather
of normal height. With regard to the question whether high-level sports climbing
has negative effects on the growth of the adolescents, as observed in gymnastics
Figure 4 — Mean ± SD for the Leptin levels (in ng/ml) for the boys and the girls of the
GJNT with their respective control group.
484 Schöffl et al.
(8,12,26), we can state that this does not apply to this group, as the DSDS values of
the boys and girls of the GJNT were not signicantly different from zero, meaning
that they were growing as predicted by the height of their parents.
Another characteristic of sports climbers is their low body weight (24,25). The
concern that young climbers may manipulate body mass to extremes to perform
at a higher level has led the Austrian organization for climbing to adopt a set of
minimum BMI standards for competitive climbers (16). Our collective was com-
parable to adults studied by Watts et al. (25), and had comparable BMI values to
the adolescents studied by Watts et al. (24), the higher values recorded for weight
in our study are therefore explainable by the difference in height. Concerning the
SDS values, the group of the GJNT in this study the girls had signicantly lower
values for weight as well as for BMI. When compared with their control group
the girls of the GJNT were signicantly lighter but this did not show in the BMI,
as they were also smaller than the control group. Therefore when compared with
another physically active group, the girls were not exceptionally thin. In our opinion,
a comparison of athletic children with the general population may be inappropriate
and adapted SDS values need to be considered for better evaluation of physically
active children. The boys were lighter and had a lower BMI with respect to their
SDS values. However, none of the parameters reached signicance. All the BMI
values recorded in this study were well above the limits envisioned by the ÖSK and
therefore it remains questionable whether such limits are even necessary.
It is interesting to note, that although the boys of the GJNT were not signi-
cantly different from their control group with respect to height, weight and BMI,
they had a signicantly lower fat mass determined by skinfold thickness (GJNT:
5.4 ± 1.1, control: 8.4 ± 2.8), as well as by body impedance (GJNT: .7 ± 3.9,
control: 12.8 ± 6.4). The girls also had signicantly lower skinfold thickness than
their control group (GJNT: 7.0 ± 1.4, control: 9 ± 1.7), however the difference in
fat mass, albeit lower than in the control group, did not reach signicance (GJNT:
13.4 ± 5.2, control: 18.3 ± 3.2). These ndings are comparable to the data from
Watts et al. (24) even though the different measuring techniques make a direct
comparison impossible. It also needs to be stressed that the skinfold thickness was
only measured over the scapula which is a limitation in itself. There is a widespread
believe among climbers that reduced body fat improves performance, even though
this has never been shown (18). Still many elite climbers often have low levels of
body fat (14,17,24,25,27). The estimated minimum amount of body fat in adults
compatible with good health is 5% in males and 12% in females (1). The adoles-
cents in this study had higher fat percentages than these minimum requirements.
However, there are no reference tables available for the minimum fat percentages
in growing young athletes.
We also studied leptin levels as mediator of long-term regulation of energy
balance in both groups especially regarding the correlation to the physical develop-
ment and constitution of the high level sport climbers. Leptin levels did not differ
signicantly from the control group. However, when calculating leptin levels in
SDS, we found signicantly lower leptin levels in girls and not in boys. This nd-
ing goes in line with the reduction of total fat mass in girls. Thus, we suggest that
leptin levels should be adjusted for athletic children. The serum-level of ghrelin as
a fast-acting hormone did not reach any signicant difference in both groups. The
subjects did not report any abnormal eating habits or caloric restrictions. A study
High Level Sport-Climbing and the Development of Adolescents 485
by Courteix et al. (6) report that hypoleptinaemia in rhythmic gymnasts might be
related to direct osteogenic effects and indirect hormonal mechanisms including
preservation of normal IGF and cortisol levels.
The climbers of the GJNT did not show any serious growth or hormonal
abnormalities with regards to leptin and development.
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