Antagonist Training for Rock Climbing

trx bands, rope in a gym

Antagonist training is essential for rock climbers to achieve optimal performance and reduce the chance of injuries. Antagonist training or opposition training is a way to train those muscles that you use less while rock climbing to prevent muscle disbalances. Among the appropriate movements of opposition training are finger and wrist extension, shoulder external rotation, and vertical and horizontal pressing.

In this article, I explain in detail how antagonist training enhances performance and which exercises are best.

Let’s dive right in!

1. What is Antagonist Training?

Antagonist training for rock climbing is strength training that aims to train the muscles opposite to the ones used in rock climbing.

The antagonist is the opposite of the agonist. The agonist is the muscle that moves. Say when you bend your arm your biceps contract and are the agonist. In this case, the triceps is the antagonist, the muscle that needs to lengthen to allow the bending of your arm.

Rock climbing is a sport that involves mainly pulling movements in the shoulder, bending of the elbows, and grabbing with the hands. As a result, the muscles required to make these movements gain more strength than the antagonists. Among the main climbing muscles are:

  • Forearm and finger flexors like the flexor digitorum profundus and superficialis
  • Elbow flexors like the biceps brachii and the brachialis
  • Shoulder muscles like the subscapularis, pectoralis minor
  • Back muscles like the latissimus dorsi, teres major, trapezius pars transversus, and the trapezius pars ascendens
Green = Agonist and Red = Antagonist. [Image taken from THIEME Atlas of Anatomy [Gen. Anat., Musculoskel. Sys.] – M. Schuenke, et. al., (Thieme, 2010)]

Monotonous use of your musculoskeletal system leaves you prone to muscle disbalances which can lead to a variety of injuries.

For example:

  • Climbers Back (Hyperkyphosis of the Thoracic Spine)
  • Reduced mobility of your upper back, shoulder blades, elbows, and fingers
  • Overuse injuries like tendinopathies
  • Epiphysial Fractures (in youth climbers)

2. How do Rock Climbers Benefit from Antagonist Training?

The benefit of antagonist training is mainly injury prevention. On top of that, training antagonists might also help you to generate more strength and power by providing your brain with “it’s all good” type of afferent (nerve signals going from the body to the brain) information.

Let me explain this concept in more detail.

Monotonous use of your musculoskeletal system can generate muscle disbalances. These disbalances can be due to a difference in strength or resilience to stretch between for example your back and your chest muscles, your glutes, and your lower back, or between your frontal and rear core muscles. Many more variations are possible. The bottom line is, that your brain can perceive this situation as dangerous due to altered movement patterns in joints or the strain it notices on tendons. One of the easiest ways to reduce this perceived threat then is to reduce the force that’s available to you.

Thus, if your agonist and antagonist are well balanced in both strength and resistance to stretch (flexibility/mobility) you’ll be able to generate/retain more strength.

[infographic force]

Injury reduction is in line with the mechanism I described above. Differences in strength and mobility between antagonists and/or agonists can strain tendons, ligaments, joints, and muscles. On rare occasions bones might also be affected.

You might experience the following symptoms:

  • Muscles can feel stiff and tense. Trigger points taught bands within muscle fibers, can provoke radiating pain
  • Tendons might hurt during warming-up and/or specific movements. Tendinopathy might develop over time due to continuous overload in the tendon.
  • Joints might stiffen or become lose and hurt in certain positions
  • Ligaments might hurt mainly the annular ligaments (pulleys) due to microtraumas.
  • Bones might hurt because of inflammation of a tendon that sits at the connection to the bone or you might have developed stress fractures. However, the latter is very rare.

3. What Are the Best Exercises for Antagonist Training?

The best exercises for antagonist training for rock climbing are movements that involve multiple joints. For best results, you should move slowly to ensure proper technique and tension in the right muscles. “Just doing the movements” doesn’t do it. Move deliberately and with control.

Below, you find videos of each exercise with a written description and an explanation of this exercise for antagonist training.

3.1. Y-Raise/TRX Y/Y-Raise on Hyperextension

The Y-Raise targets the shoulder muscles and emphasizes the ascending trapezius. An important muscle for all rock climbing because it pulls the scapula down. This is essential for proper biomechanics in the shoulder girdle and good posture.

Depending on the gear available to you, you can do a Y Raise with Dumbbells, TheraBand, TRX Slings, Rings, or on a Hyper Extension. The latter works your lower back and glutes hard and is at this moment my favorite.

3.2. Push-up/Bench Press

I’m not the biggest fan of push-ups or bench presses for rock climbers. Both target the chest muscles of which the small one, the pectoralis minor, is often shortened in rock climbers. If you’re not aware of this, it’s easy to actually strengthen this pattern and then compensate for it while doing the horizontal pressing.

Still, if done properly push-ups and bench presses are great exercises that target the chest, core, and shoulders.

3.3. Military Press/DB Shoulder Press

Climbing involves a lot of vertical and diagonal pulling. The military press and the dumbbell shoulder press require vertical pushing. It’s important you start (very) light with these exercises because overhead pushing movements leave you prone to injuries. Nevertheless, if you do them well, they can be a great mobilizer for the thoracic spine while strengthening the shoulders.

3.4. Squat

I believe you should always train your legs for rock climbing. So, not just when you’re doing antagonist training. Still, the squat isn’t as specific to rock climbing as are deadlifts and lunge variations. That’s why I added the exercise to this list. It’s a great exercise to develop your legs, lower back, and core.

3.5. External Rotation of the Shoulder

Pulling up on a rock surface involves internal rotation in the shoulder and that’s why it’s good to strengthen your external rotators during antagonist training.

3.6. Pronated T-A-W-Y

The pronated Y-T-W-A, or whatever sequence of the letters you wish, trains the retractor of the scapula and the external rotators of the shoulders. The great thing about this exercise is that you can do it at home and need little added weight to make it hard. Focus on slow controlled movements and make sure your scapula is in proper position all the time. So, keep the distance between your ears and scapula as large as possible while activating the muscles in between your shoulder blades to keep them back.

3.7. Wrist Extension

Almost all climbing moves involve grabbing and therefore flexion of the wrist. With or without actually bending the wrist. You can train wrist extension simply by using a plastic bottle filled with water or sand, dumbbells, or by rolling up a rope with a weight around a wooden stick.

3.8. Finger Extension

For the same reason you train wrist extension during an antagonist training session, you should also train finger extension. Where wrist flexion happens to a smaller degree, finger flexion is part of every climbing move (except for certain slopers and pressing moves).

There are many ways to train finger extension. Down below I show two variations you can easily do at home. One is by opening your hand into a TheraBand, and the other is by using an elastic band wrapped around all your fingers.

3.9. Supination of the Forearm

Do you know what supination of the forearm is?

It’s the movement your make to receive something in your hand, showing the downside of your lower arm. This movement, therefore, comes from the elbow and is often forgotten as a part of antagonist training. In my opinion, it’s essential because each pulling movement of the arms involves pronation, turning your hand down. Furthermore, training supination is a great way to increase blood circulation in the tissues of the elbow, not just the supinator muscles.

4.      How Often Should You do Antagonist Training?

How often you do antagonist training depends on your climbing level, climbing experience, what you do besides climbing, whether you’re mainly a boulderer or a sport climber, and how often you climb.

Let me explain how each of these conditions asks for antagonist training:

  1. Climbing level: the harder you climb the more important a well-balanced physique becomes. Muscle disbalances can lead to pain, reduced performance, and an increase in the chance of injuries. Each reduces your ability to reach the next climbing grade. The harder you climb, the more you train and again the more likely muscle disbalances are a reality.
  2. Climbing experience: the longer you climb, the more likely you have developed the climbing muscles more than the antagonists.
  3. Climbing frequency: same as #2
  4. Bouldering or Sport Climbing: since bouldering requires more strength and gets you into more difficult positions at earlier grades, the chance of muscle disbalances is higher.
  5. What you do besides climbing: if your activities involve a lot of sitting you’re more likely to be hunched over all day increasing the chance of hyperkyphosis (climber’s back), the excessive rounding of your thoracic spine. And all its consequences; think of back pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain. If you do a lot of pulling, for example by working at a construction site, antagonist training becomes ever more important.

So, what does this mean for the frequency of your antagonist training?

Here are 3 possible constructs to organize your antagonist training:

  1. If you’re a performance-oriented climber I recommend during the off-season: 3 months a year 2-4x/week antagonist training. In-season: 1-2x/week.
  2. 1x antagonist training/week all year long and if you have a desk job 2x/week.
  3. Finish every climbing session with 2 antagonist exercises, cycling through all of them throughout 4 climbing sessions. During climbing session #5 you start with the first 2 exercises again.

Joël Broersma

Hey, I'm Joël, a Dutch Physical Therapist living & working in Switzerland. I'm an avid rock climber and sports & movement lover in general.

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