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Importance of Antagonist exercises in climbing

Importance of Antagonist exercises in climbing

What is the importance of antagonist exercises in climbing? Over the last 4 years I have endured several climbing injuries, and have had to learn to manage these.  As climbers we rarely will stop climbing completely, although we are aware that it may be the most beneficial action to take with most injuries, initially.


Having lived quite a sheltered life away from climbing injuries, I never thought it would happen to me, of course, it’s always going to happen to someone else.  Having spent 2.5 years with finger injuries, I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel.  These had healed and training could commence.


What I did learn from these injuries is that warming up and stretching after climbing are very important, so these became part of my routine. I wanted to climb harder, so I started doing strength training, with the majority of the training involving agonist muscles (*). It went well, climbing grades were going up, stamina seemed longer lasting, until one day I awoke and my shoulders were in pain… Well, looking back on this, I did not just wake up with shoulder pain.  I spent years and years abusing my body physically, by training hard all the time.


Suffering from shoulder impingement on both shoulders, I felt in a dark place.  This is as a result of years of bad posture, climbing hard and not stretching (strong pectoral muscles and weak muscles in the back), and lack of antagonist (**) and stability training.  All adding to an imbalance in posture, biomechanical body movements, and further leading to injury.


Reading a lot of books and website articles, speaking to other people with injuries, speaking to physios, osteopaths and a chiropractor with climbing experience, a lot of the shoulder and arm injuries can be prevented, by stability and antagonist training, and lots of stretching.  Of course we should rest too.  Looking back, I guess now this makes sense, always climbing, or using agonist muscles, very rarely the opposite movement.


Most climbers will train by just climbing.  Or climbing specific training on finger boards, campus boards, pull up bars etc…  Some of us will over the years maybe do a little warm up, and maybe some stretches. But will limit this, as this eats into our climbing time.  What would you rather do, have another go at your project, or spend that time stretching. Stretching is boring, so let’s climb.   When climbing we are more than often pulling hard, and never do a lot of pushing exercises.  Antagonist exercises in climbing are very important to stay healthy and balanced.


The following paragraph is taken out of a book used by physio therapists:


A degree of balance in strength between agonist and antagonist muscle groups is necessary to produce normal, smooth, coordinated movement and to reduce the likelihood of muscle strain caused by muscular imbalance.


This all makes sense, and if we really think about it, it is common sense.  We know all of this, but either we choose to ignore it, or don’t realise its importance. Until that day comes when pain kicks in, and climbing goes out of the window, and our world comes crashing down around us.


So my advice is, work on your antagonist muscle groups before you realise you are on the slow and frustrating road to recovery.  Two very good books that talk about training regimes for climbing, with a chapter on stretching and a chapter on antagonist training are the two books written by Eric J Hörst.  These have photographs of each of the exercises in there, plus a written explanation. Very easy to use, especially if you are a visual person.


– Training for Climbing: The definitive guide to improving your performance

– The rock climber’s exercise guide: Training for strength, power, endurance, flexibility and stability


If however its too late, and you are suffering from shoulder impingement or another climbing injury, please go and seek the help of a professional.  Ideally someone experienced in the field of climbing.  There are a good selection of books on the market that talk about climbing injuries; causes, treatments, exercises, etc…. But sometimes it is hard to self diagnose, or one may mis-diagnose.  The following is a list of books on climbing injuries:


– Make or Break: Don’t let climbing injuries dictate your success by Dave Macleod

– One move too many… How to understand the injuries and overuse syndromes of rock climbing by Volker Schoeffl, Thomas Hochholzer and Sam Lightner

– Climb injury free – A proven injury prevention and rehabilitation system by Jared Vagy


“Prevention is better than a cure”.  This is the statement usually made by climbers who have experienced injuries, and the frustration of not being able to climb, or at their max level.  So, antagonist exercises in climbing are very important. Happy climbing.


(*) Agonist – muscle contracting to cause movement

(**) Antagonist – muscle being stretched


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