“Climbing is the best training for climbing.” It's an adage that every climber has heard and repeated. Perhaps the next best training for climbing is to strengthen climbing specific muscles: fingers, wrist flexors, biceps, lats—it stands to reason that if your climbing muscles are really strong then you will be a strong climber. However, if you spend all of your time climbing and training climbing muscles, you may find your performance plateauing, and you will put yourself at an increased risk of injury from bodily imbalances.
This is why antagonist training is essential in injury prevention and climbing performance. Antagonist training is the act of training muscle groups that oppose or antagonize one another. For example, climbers tend to have strong biceps from constantly pulling themselves upwards on the rock, whereas the triceps are often underdeveloped from a lack of use. Having strong biceps is great, but independently strong muscle groups do not make for a good climber. If you train with intention to strengthen your triceps—even though they are not the muscle in direct use when climbing—it will bring more stability and smoothness to your motion, causing you to climb more efficiently and ward off pump. Additionally, that stability and efficiency will encourage proper muscle movement and prevent strain and injury.
“The body needs to have a balance,” says Dr. Jared Vagy AKA The Climbing Doctor. “As long as you’re balanced, everything is going to move in concert with each other, but if you’re imbalanced it may throw you off track.”
Our muscles are connected by fascial systems, networks of soft tissue that surround the muscles and allow them to move in conjunction with each other. If there is one tight or underdeveloped muscle in a fascial system, it can limit mobility and strength throughout the rest of the system, and lead to excessive strain in other areas.
“The most common climbing injuries can be treated with antagonist muscle training,” says Dr. Esther Smith, physical therapist and owner of Grassroots Physical Therapy. “Not only as prevention, but also as treatment.” Smith warns us not to focus on localized pain. Take elbow pain for example, one of the most prevalent injuries among climbers. Don’t focus exclusively on therapy for the elbow; strengthen the weak climber muscles in that fascial system—the triceps, middle and lower trapezius, and rotator cuff muscles— to regain strength and mobility throughout the entire system, while simultaneously quelling the pesky climber's elbow. (Of course each injury is unique. Always consult a movement professional before taking therapy into your own hands.)
But it’s not only about injury prevention and therapy. As mentioned above, antagonist training can improve climbing performance as well. “Instead of overusing the same pattern repeatedly on the wall which you may fatigue from,” says Vagy, “strengthening your body in different ways allows you to unlock different moves and techniques on the rock wall, so you’re not repetitively using the same type of style or pattern and maintain a balanced body. That can allow you to climb harder routes.”
Try performing the antagonist training plan below one or two days a week, and see how your body and performance respond.
Antagonist Training Day
Why: Your wrist extensors are on the backside of your forearm and not typically used in climbing (climbers use wrist flexors, the antagonist muscles to the extensors). Studies by Dr. Vagy have shown that increasing wrist extensor strength will increase grip strength, stability, and reduce the risk of finger injury.
How: On your hands and knees with your back arched and shoulder blades in, place the backs of your hands on the ground with fingertips pointing in toward each other. Rock up from the back of your hands onto your knuckles, making a fist. Don’t put all your weight into this exercise—especially the first few times you do it—to avoid strain. Keep weight off your wrists by holding a tight core. 20-30 reps, 3 sets.
Why: The pushup is the classic antagonist exercise for climbers, as pushing directly opposes the pulling associated with climbing. A proper pushup engages the muscles that secure our shoulder blades to our ribcage, and keeps the ball of our shoulder joint in a neutral position. Strengthening the muscles in this position will help ward off shoulder injury, and strengthening the fascial system that opposes our standard climbing muscles will help prevent elbow injuries as well.
How: Start in high plank position with hands shoulder-width apart, elbows in, shoulders pulled away from your ears, and core tight and straight. Lower down with control keeping your arms and elbows tight to the body until your chest is one inch from the ground. Press back up into plank position. 20-30 reps, 3 sets.
Standing Rows Into Cactus Position
Why: This exercise properly works the upper back muscles and external rotator cuffs that aren’t typically used while climbing. Strengthen these muscles to bring stability and support to the shoulders while climbing.
How: Start with 10-15 pound weight bands at shoulder height with arms extended, feet hip-width apart, and knees slightly bent. Pull the bands back until your elbows are at 90 degrees, then rotate your arms backs until your hands are facing the ceiling—cactus position—and hold for two-seconds. 10-15 reps, 3 sets.
Why: The farmer’s carry strengthens our core in a vertical position and supports the shoulder girdle by lifting up vs. the pulling down associated with climbing. Farmer’s carries help build a strong upright shoulder poster that will have a positive carry-over to climbing.
How: Hold between 30-45 pounds in one hand with your shoulders rolled back and your core vertical, tight, and straight. Walk between 20-30 paces, switch hands, and repeat. Repeat the process 3 times.
Why: Deadlifts strengthen our posterior chain along our spine and help to strengthen the relationship between our upper and lower body. We need this posterior chain for stability and to help us pull ourselves into the wall.
How: Start with low weight—between 45-55 pounds—to avoid over-straining yourself, then slowly work your way up in weight. With your feet slightly wider than hip-width, squat down with your shoulders pulled back and your back straight, sticking your butt out like you're sitting on a chair. When your knees reach 90 degrees, reach your hands down outside of your legs, grip the bar, and stand up, keeping your spine neutral and shoulders pulled back. Avoid rounding your lower back, which could lead to injury. Lower down with proper form until bar touches the ground, or you may drop the weight before losing form. 8-10 reps, 3 sets.