Antagonist Muscle Training for (Intermediate) Climbers

Confession time: I can’t do a real push-up. Not even one! I’m a perfect example of the imbalance that many climbers have in their upper bodies–our pulling muscles are way stronger than our pushing muscles. Correcting or avoiding this imbalance is an important part of injury prevention.

Maggie is wondering why I can't do a real push up, and what on earth I was doing hovering a few inches off the ground with my arms shaking.

Maggie says: You really can’t do a push-up!? What are you doing in the dirt? Can I play too?

One of my training ‘projects’ is improving my the strength of my antagonist muscles to correct my own imbalance. You don’t need a fancy training program: you can fit pushing muscle exercises into whatever workout/climbing schedule you already have. Here are three suggestions…

#1 Stick, Meet Carrot

During your next bouldering or routes session, work in a light number of push-ups in between routes or problems. Decide on a specific ratio–for example–do 5 (or 10) push-ups for every two boulder problems. If your gym has free weights easily accessible, you can mix it up and do other antagonist exercises.

When I do this type of workout, what I’m usually doing is ‘rewarding’ myself for doing exercises I’m not good at by doing things I like to do. For example, I do push-up progression exercises in all of  my workouts: lifting or climbing. Sometimes, when I’ve done good work in a session, I’ll ‘reward’ myself by hopping up on the bar and doing a few pull-ups for fun.

You can work push-ups in between routes into your warm-up or cool down, or do them throughout a session. Don’t give yourself a break when you get outdoors–you may feel silly doing push-ups at the crag, but injuries are far worse than feeling silly. Ask yourself–if not now, when?

#2 Self-Assigned Homework

As Tony would say, I stole this idea from Tony Gentilcore, specifically from his pull-up progression series. Tony gives his clients ‘homework’ to do a certain number of reps per day, 25 or 50, for example.

The reps can be parceled out over the whole day, done all at once, in as many or as few sets as possible. The idea is to make sure the volume gets done! If push-ups or other pushing exercises are big a weak point, like they are for me, use progressions to make sure you’re not straining your body too hard too fast. As with anything, take a rest day if your body is telling you that you need to.

Suggestions: 50 push-ups, or 50 reps opposition total in a day

#3 Specific Antagonistic Workout

This is my current post-climbing weekend workout. For most of the fall, I was travelling on Friday night to the Red, climbing all day Saturday and Sunday, and driving back on Sunday. Sometimes I was too tired to do this workout immediately on Monday (especially if it had to wait until the evening), so I moved it to Tuesday. Listen to your body and do what feels right for you.

  1. Cardio intervals:
    • 10 minute warm up
    • 1 min high intensity ‘on’, followed by 1 min high intensity ‘off’, total of 10 minutes
    • 5 mins cool down, longer if there’s enough time
  2. Pushing Circuit: move between the three exercises quickly, then rest after one complete set. Adjust the number of reps and sets to taste. I usually do something like 3×10 or 5×5. If my form deteriorates, I drop the weight or shorten the set.
    • Standing dumbbell shoulder press
    • Push-ups (mine are incline)
    • Barbell bench press
  3. What I should be doing and I’m not: specific injury prevention exercises

Sometimes I tack other exercises onto the end of this workout, if I’m feeling energetic or if I have enough time at the gym to do so.

How often do you take the time to do opposition or antagonist muscle exercises? What do you do? Sound off in the comments!

More climber-specific resources from awesome people that relate to this subject: 

  1.  Article from Crag Mama with a great set of basic antagonist muscle exercises
  2. Article from Erik Horst for Nicros explaining antagonist exercises in injury prevention
  3. Thoughts from Steve Betchtel on imbalance, antagonist exercises, and training during recovery from an injury
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4 thoughts on “Antagonist Muscle Training for (Intermediate) Climbers

  1. I like to do incline dumbbell presses and incline dumbbell flies. That gives you power in those pushing muscles, and the flies work deeper into the pex to give you tensile strength when your pecs are stretched.

    For shoulders, I dig lateral delt raises, front delt raises and back delt flies. So many ways to hit the shoulders, and those smaller weights can work you in a way that also protects the joints.

    Good stuff. Thanks for posting.

  2. Kendall and I are trying to do the 100 push-ups training program this semester! (Though we have to delay starting for a bit because Kendall can’t do a push-up yet).

  3. Pingback: Fitness: The chest and back workout | proactiveoutside

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