Training: Prevent and Correct Muscle Imbalances

Achieve even strength on both sides of your upper body for harder sends
By Zoe Gates ,

Clip with your right hand. Move right hand first. Lock off right hand and place the .75 cam. We climbers often favor our dominant side, which can lead to lopsided strength imbalances—and injury. As a longtime sufferer of a weaker left shoulder, I sought advice from trainers and experienced climbers alike, particularly Kim Tellez, a personal trainer at Earth Treks in Golden, Colorado. Use these tips to recognize your imbalances, encourage symmetry, and crush all projects.

Causes and Risks of Imbalance

Beginner climbers undergo rapid muscle development, especially as they up the volume and frequency of their climbing. Likewise, repetitive exercises and projecting can lead to imbalances even for advanced climbers; ditto for an injury and then subsequent failure to pursue physical therapy. Climbers commonly experience uneven shoulder strength, which can be noticeable when locking off; uneven forearm strength; and tight chest muscles due to overdeveloped lats. Imbalances can cause tendonitis, muscle strain, and rotator cuff injuries, and poor posture and subsequent back and neck pain.

Identifying weakness

Identifying imbalances is the first step to correcting them. Keep in mind any past injuries. Tweaked your left shoulder five years ago on a gaston move? You may still be out of whack. Work with a trainer or coach who can observe posture and technique. You can also partner up with a friend to film and/or evaluate each other for leaning, uneven shoulder height, or imperfect posture/technique while you do pull-ups, push-ups, or similar exercises.

Correcting An Imbalance

Upon discovering an imbalance, your first step is to develop overall base strength. “The base-level phase of your progression should be focused on functional movement,” says Tellez. “Basically, you need to learn correct form first, before you move on to performance training.” Perform high reps of lower-intensity exercises with good form (see below) to achieve an even base. Do exercises equally on both sides until you have achieved a balance.

Base-Building Exercises

Since climbing involves a lot of pulling, our biceps and lats tend to overpower antagonist or pushing muscles, such as the extensor muscles in the forearms, triceps, and pectorals. Developing the antagonistic muscles helps correct imbalances and develops all-around strength. The suggested reps are for beginner weight-lifters. Choose a weight that allows you to complete each rep with perfect form. As you gain strength, you may increase the weight and decrease the reps.

Shoulders and Chest

Shoulder Presses

Shoulder presses build strength and stability in the deltoids, and also work the pectorals and triceps. Do three sets of 15–20 repetitions, resting 30–60 seconds between sets. Sit or stand with your back straight and a dumbbell in each hand. Raise your arms so that your shoulders are even and elbows bent at 90 degrees. Palms should face forward and triceps are parallel to the floor. In a controlled motion, press the weights upward until they meet overhead. Lower slowly and repeat.

Chest Presses

A chest press with dumbbells.

Louisa Albanese

Chest presses strengthen the pectoral muscles. Do three sets of 15–20 repetitions, resting 30–60 seconds between sets. Lie face-up on a bench with a low-weight dumbbell in each hand. Hold the weights above your chest, shoulder-width apart, with your elbows at 90 degrees. Press the weights toward the ceiling until your arms are straight. Lower slowly and repeat.

Rotator Cuff

For each exercise below, do two sets of 15–20 repetitions, resting 1–2 minutes between sets.

External Rotations

External rotations using a band.

Louisa Albanese

Rig an exercise band or cable machine so you can grip it at elbow height. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and elbow tucked at your side at 90 degrees. Hold the band in front of you. Rotate from the shoulder until you are gripping the band out to the side, 90 degrees from the starting position. Rotate back to center and repeat.

Internal Rotations

Set up as above, but then rotate in the opposite direction, pulling the band across your torso.

Wrist and Forearm Strengthening

For each exercise below, do two to three sets of 15–20 repetitions, resting 30–60 seconds between each set.

Wrist Curls

Sit with a dumbbell in each hand, forearms stabilized on thighs and palms up. Curl weights toward you, isolating movement to the wrists. Lower to the starting position and repeat.

Reverse Wrist Curls

Kneel before a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Stabilize forearms on the bench with palms facing the floor. Curl the weights up toward you, isolating movement to the wrists. Slowly return to your starting position and repeat.

Pronators

Wrist pronators using a dumbbell.

Louisa Albanese

Stabilize one forearm on a bench or counter, or by holding it with your opposite hand. Hold a light dumbbell (or hammer, broomstick, etc.) by one end, thumb pointing upward. Slowly rotate from side to side at the wrist.

Strength-Building Exercises

Once you’ve built a solid base, move on to these pull-up-style exercises. (Note: If you cannot do standard, two-armed pull-ups without favoring a strong side, add in assistance bands or a pulley system until you’re able to achieve perfect form.)

Offset Pull-Ups

Drape a towel over a pull-up bar. Grip the bar with one hand and the towel with the other so that your grip is offset. Pull up to the higher hand; lower slowly and repeat. Begin by doing as many pull-ups as you can while maintaining good form. As strength increases, aim for 2–3 sets of 5–10 pull-ups on either side. Start with hands closer together and increase the offset over time.

Typewriter Pull-Ups

On a pull-up bar or hangboard, start with a single pull-up with your arms slightly wider than shoulder width. Lock off in the apex position with your head above your hands, then slowly move from side to side. Keep your elbows down and do not hunch your shoulders. Shifting the weight between your hands will strengthen either side and activate your lats evenly. Start slow and build up to 2–3 sets of 5–10 reps.

Punches (aka Suspended Typewriters)

Do this exercise on suspended holds, such as Rock Rings. With one hand on each hold, start with a single pull-up, focusing on form. Lock off in the apex position, hold it with one arm, and extend the other hand sideways (punching out to the side). Keep the lock-off hand facing forward, with no pronation inward. With control, bring the extended arm back to lock-off position then repeat on the other side. Work up to doing 1–2 sets up to 10 reps.

System Wall Repeaters

System walls offer mirrored sets of holds to practice a variety of moves. Invent a move (perhaps a facsimile of the crux on your project) that you can repeat on both sides. Make the moves harder by going for more distant or smaller holds. Repeat on both sides until you fail to make the move on one side, then stop. Assessing the cause of failure (finger strength, mobility, shoulder stability) will help you improve. Repeating difficult moves with either arm will build strength, and is a great way to isolate and practice moves.

Zoe Gates trains with the Brown University Climbing Team. She’s driven cross-country to visit some of the nation’s best climbing areas, from the Red River Gorge to Red Rock, and is always looking for new exercises to help improve her climbing. 

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