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Get Balanced: How to Train Antagonist Muscles

When seasoned and pro climbers were asked what they would tell their younger climber selves, a recurring piece of advice surfaced: “work antagonist muscles,” “balance your body,” do “opposition training”

For climbers, this means offsetting all the pulling and flexion we do with pressing, lifting and extension exercises.

Training antagonist muscles provides crucial support to joints and tendons by keeping your body in alignment, synchronized and more flexible.

“Climbing is considered a pulling sport. Move after move of pulling down, pulling in and compressing – the upper body is consumed by this repetitive nature and sooner or later, if left to its own devices, you will get injuries along with a poor posture.” – Robin O’Leary [1]

Overuse of the agonist climbing muscles can lead to all kinds of problems down the road, e.g., elbow tendinopathies (tennis elbow – pain on the outside of your elbow, or golfer’s elbow – pain on the inside of the elbow), shoulder impingements, rotator cuff injuries and finger strains.

Much like a proper warm-up, if you haven’t already incorporated opposition training into your climbing routine, now is the time.

So let’s get specific. In climbing, we primarily recruit the following muscles: anterior forearms (wrist and finger flexors), biceps, lats and upper back muscles (traps and posterior deltoid). Thus, antagonist training for climbers targets these opposing muscles: posterior forearm (wrist and finger extensors), triceps, mid-anterior deltoids and chest (pectoralis).

“Any antagonistic training is better than none but the more the better.” – Nina Tappin

Below are three antagonist exercises to get you started. Modify the number of reps and sets to personalize, and listen to your body for the correct intensity.

According to climbing physiotherapist Nina Tappin, “A simple way to think of it is, however hard you are pulling you need to push just as hard. If you are doing high volume endurance training you need to do a high volume of antagonistic training (low intensity, high rep). If you are doing high intensity power training (BOULDERING) your antagonistic training must mirror this by working low reps in a position that is very difficult for you, where you are challenged at 3-6 reps.”

(1) Posterior Forearm (wrist extensors)
Palm-down Wrist Curls: Use a light weight to begin (lighter than what you would use for a palm-up wrist curl). Try 3 sets of 8-10 curls

(2) Backs of fingers (finger extensors)
Finger Flashes: Hold your hand as if it were inside a puppet; repeatedly open your fingers using a rubber band (of medium intensity), for resistance. Try 3 sets of 10 “flashing lights”

(3) Anterior Delts/Pecs/Triceps
Narrow push-ups (aka press-ups): hands at shoulder width, elbows in, knees on or off the floor. Try 3 sets of 5-10 reps. For an easier variation, do standing wall press-ups. Think about squeezing a ball between your arms to avoid elbows falling out.

Check out Nina Tappin’s YouTube channel for push-up variations and additional exercises. These variations use the same muscles but in different ways.

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Note: be sure to seek out further instruction if you are very new to these kinds of exercises and if you are suffering from overuse-related injuries, it is best to get a personal assessment and treatment plan from a professional.

Thanks to Nina Tappin (née Leonfellner) for her consultations for this post. Visit Climbingphysiotherapy.com for detailed articles on elbow, shoulder and finger injury prevention, as well as Nina’s contact information.

[1] Injury Management and Prevention: Shoulder Impingements

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