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.

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Training Dreams

Today is the day before work starts for me in earnest. Some things are kicking in already, but tomorrow the deluge will begin. I wanted to take a moment to think about my health and my goals for the semester, so I sat down and planned out a training schedule and some training goals.

Those of you that have been around for a while might notice that some of my goals are reprises from last spring–whups.  I am dreaming big and hoping that I’ll have the dedication and determination to stick with this schedule through what I anticipate to be a very busy fall.


  1. Redpoint 111 5.11s and 12 5.12s — I set this goal over the summer, and then realized that it was way too ambitious for the time I had left. It’s probably too ambitious for this season too. I’m keeping it around because I want to be committed to building a base and pushing my limits. I’m hoping to make progress on the totals this fall, but I’m not sure accomplishing this goal is realistic. Current count: 20/111 5.11s, 3/12 5.12s
  2. 20 Days Outside in the Fall — This one is pretty self explanatory. Getting outdoors time is really important for improving, especially for me, as I am still working to address my mental weaknesses. Current progress: 2/20!
  3. 5 Pull-ups in a Set — I set this goal because doing pull-ups makes me feel confident and bad-ass, not because I’m hoping it will improve my climbing. Currently at a 3 rep max.
  4. 10 Push-ups — I still can’t do a real push-up. I got pretty close to doing one normal push-up last spring, then went on the road and promptly stopped training push-ups. This a smaller part of a broader effort to do more opposition muscle work this fall.
  5. Lift Two Days a Week
  6. Redpoint 5.12b — I have about 5 days around Thanksgiving, which is the longest block of outdoor time I’ll be able to get all fall. I’m hoping to have a project in mind by then, and cap off the outdoor season with a win.

In recognition that I’m not going to have as much time as I want, I’m backing off on performance oriented goals, and trying to set goals that will motivate me to get make time for lifting and climbing, and help me stay consistent. What are your big goals this fall? What steps are you going to take to accomplish them?

After the break, I included my training schedule for those of you that are interested. :)

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Pull-ups Aren’t Intimidating (Anymore)

Since I started climbing, my yearly new year’s resolution has been to do an unassisted pull-up. Sadly, it took me 3 years to make my resolution a reality. Here are 3 mistakes I made in my training which, when corrected, allowed me to complete my goal of doing a for-real unassisted pull-up!

Mistake #1: Non-Specific Training

For the first two years, I was using climbing as my main source of upper-body training. I reasoned that since I was making progress in my climbing by climbing harder, I was getting stronger. In fact, most of my gains during this time were probably coming from learning technique.

Moral #1: Climbing is only good training for climbing. If you have a specific fitness goal, add some training specific to that goal.

The Goal!

Mistake #2: All or Nothing

When I set the goal of doing a pull-up, I didn’t know about the fitness concept of progressions. It didn’t occur to me to research easier exercises which worked the same muscles I would need to be able to do a pull-up. I would try pull-ups sometimes, always with the same embarrassing failure to pull my body up even a little bit. This was disheartening, and it didn’t get me any closer to my goal.

My (successful) progression of intermediate exercises went like this:

Eccentric Only Lowering -> Flexed Arm Hangs -> Band-Assisted Pull-Ups -> Awesome!

Okay, maybe not that last one. For a really great description of technique and options for intermediate exercises and for a thorough debunking of all your excuses for not being able to do a pull-up, check out Tony Gentilcore’s 3 part opus on the subject of pull-up progressions.

Moral #2: Don’t expect to magically wake up and do a pull-up. Find a progression you like and start following it. 

Mistake #3: Once-a-day Workouts

When I started eccentric only pull-ups, my max was about 3 in a set, and I could usually only do 2-3 sets. You can get in a lot more training volume if you train multiple times a day, while still allowing your body to recover. A friend of mine had an over-the-door frame pull-up bar, so I borrowed his for a while and started doing my intermediate exercises in the morning and at night. Tony explains this better than I can in his post, but I’ll give it a shot. Basically–since a pull-up is max effort when you can almost or barely do one, sometimes you can’t do enough in one training session to get better as fast as you want. Doubling up lets you recover to do more volume.

Moral #3: Train more than once a day for faster results .

And that’s it! Before you know it, you’ll be banging out more reps than I can. It won’t be too hard–I’ve been on the road all summer and haven’t been training, so my max is still stuck right at 1 rep.

Climber ladies–can you do a pull-up? How many? Spray about your buff biceps in the comments!

Training Past Present and Future

When I graduated high school and stopped participating in organized sports, I realized I didn’t actually know how to work out. There’s something nice about being told exactly how to work out every day for six days a week. In determining my own workout schedule, I’ve tried a few different things over the years, depending on what I was interested in at the time, and what facilities I had available to me.




In my first year in college, I found distance running, so I did that for a while, eventually running two halfs and a marathon. I trained using the Hal Higdon plans, which had come highly recommended to me by more experienced runners. During this time I ran almost exclusively.

I ran a marathon in the fall of 2009 and a half the following spring, and by that point, I was ready for a change. I started climbing in my second year of distance running, but only got to the gym about once every two weeks. I climbed around 5.8 or 5.9, but mostly on vertical terrain.

In the summer of 2010, I got a fabulous book called The New Rules of Lifting for Women, and started exercising every morning in the gym in the basement of my office building. I lifted three days a week and dicked around in the gym doing whatever–cardio, random machines, abs, sprints in the parking lot–on the off days. Sometimes I ran on the weekends, but not very often.

I climbed outside for the first time in Fall 2010, while I was spending 4 months living in Peru. I discovered the thrill of lead climbing and the fun of spending a day outside on real rock, and never looked back. Since then, climbing has been an integral part of my exercise schedule. I spent about a year climbing almost exclusively, with a goal of climbing three days a week.


I like to joke that I lift on my rest days from climbing and climb on my rest days from lifting. In a good week, it’s pretty close to reality. I have access to enough steady climbing partners that I can train in the gym 3 times a week if my schedule allows.  I spent Jan-March training for a trip to the Red River Gorge, which I will depart for in exactly 12 hours! I’m feeling strong and quite psyched, despite a generally stressful week with not a lot of sleep.

The ultimate goal is to keep training through March to May, when I’ll depart for a 3 month climbing trip all across the country. Life, and my schedule, will change once again.

Training Goals

A surprising number of my current training goals are related to lifting. Partly it’s that the climbing goals I’m interested in are all outdoors at the moment. The weather here precludes most outdoor climbing during the winter months, so I train in the (climbing) gym and dream about climbing outside. I’m headed for the RRG for a short trip in March–can’t wait!

In no particular order

  1. Dead lift body weight
  2. 1 unassisted pull-up
  3. 10 good push ups
  4. Squat body weight
  5. Lead 5.10a on an overhang

The one that matters to me the most is the pull up. Doing a real, unassisted pull-up has been my new year’s resolution for a couple years now, but I’ve never trained in a focused way to make it happen. In the past few weeks, I’ve been adding eccentric pull-ups to the end of all of my work-outs, even the climbing days. I can lower slower and do more reps than I used to be able to–progress!