Antagonist training: Exercises for boulderers and climbers

9. Mai 2018

„It’s annoying, doesn’t really look all that cool and is quite frankly incredibly boring…Yep, you guessed it. We’re talking about antagonist training. And, I’m speaking from experience – awful experience. Don’t get me wrong, I love everything about bouldering: the planning, the challenge of problem solving and the variety of movements. Everything. It just has so much to offer. And, I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that. But, antagonist training? Ugh. Ok, ok. I admit, it’s not as bad as I am making it out to be. Antagonist training really doesn’t deserve all the flak I and many others give it. After all, it benefits boulderers in so many ways, helping us to boulder efficiently and injury-free for a very long time.

Another important benefit from this type of training is that it helps rid ourselves of any imbalances, which can lead to poor posture and in turn to an increased risk of injury. A well-known example of this are those extremely strong boulderers with rounded, turned-in gorilla-like shoulders. Ever seen those before? It may come as a surprise, but even these mounds of muscle have deficits and imbalances of their own. Who would have thought?!

What is antagonist training, anyway?

The word „antagonist“ may be unfamiliar to some of you, so here’s a short explanation: Where there are antagonists, there are agonists. Basically, all this means is that you are alternating exercises to target opposing muscle groups. Here’s an example:

To bend your arm, you need your killer biceps brachii muscle, but to stretch it out, you need the trifecta: the triceps brachii muscle. In this case, your biceps would be the agonist and the triceps the antagonist. Easy right? Well, not exactly. Every muscle can be an agonist or an antagonist. For example, if you finish with a mantel move at the top of a boulder, it would be the other way around. The triceps would be the agonist, pushing up the body, and the biceps the antagonist.

Bouldering forces you to use certain muscles more frequently and intensively than others, making the ones you use the agonists and the one’s you’re not antagonists. Because of the neglect the poor antagonists suffer, they’re not as well trained and thus weaker. And believe you me: this neglect will eventually come back to haunt you in some way or another. I warned you!

Ignorance doesn’t help here, either – it can affect anyone. The revenge of the antagonists (sounds like a good movie, doesn’t it?) can rear its ugly head in the form of tense muscles or even more severe injuries, which could side-line you for weeks or even months. And none of us want that. That said, it’s better to take precautions instead of dragging your feet and drooling over your favourite boulders from afar!

In the 10 years I’ve been climbing and bouldering, I’ve been fortunate enough to have never really been seriously injured, but I have had my fair share of strains and such. I’ve never had to stop completely, but the injuries did force me to slow down a bit. In the following, I would like to detail some of my little injuries and give you some tips on how to avoid them. The focus will be on the shoulders for the simple reason that muscular imbalances in this area can cause some serious injuries.

Case 1: Improving shoulder stability

I was at a qualifier for the German Championship and obviously really wanted to get to the finals. I didn’t really know how things were going and just wanted to do as much as I could in the little time that remained. Plus, it was a bonus hold, which required a dynamic move on a pretty small hold that you really had to hold on to.

And that’s exactly what I did. But, unfortunately, something in my right upper arm was not having it and let me know pretty quickly with a rather loud crunch. I’d later learn that I didn’t even need the bonus to reach the finals…C’est la vie. Anyway, I didn’t feel anything for the rest of the day, but the day after was a different story: I couldn’t move my arm a single inch without experiencing severe pain. Fortunately, after going to my physiotherapist a few times, the worst was behind me, but it took me several months to gain complete trust in my shoulder again.

My doctor had suspected it was an overuse injury that resulted in biceps tendonitis. Of course, there are several ways this can happen. In my case, it was probably due to my weak antagonist muscles.

If one muscle is stronger than the other, the shoulder will shift from its natural position, putting more strain on other areas of the body that shouldn’t be under that much stress in the first place!

Here is a list of important muscles or muscle groups that are neglected in bouldering and are responsible for shoulder stability:

  • Rotator cuff: These muscles support the arm at the shoulder joint. The rotator cuff consists of four muscles: the supraspinatus muscle, the infraspinatus muscle, the teres minor muscle and the subscapularis muscle.
    • The infraspinatus muscle
      Function: To externally rotate the humerus and stabilise the shoulder joint.
    • The teres minor muscle
      Function: To rotate the humerus laterally and modulate the action of the deltoid
  • The trapezius muscle The trapezius muscle is responsible for a lot of rotational movements of the shoulder blade, among other things.
  • The rhomboid major and rhomboid minor muscle: The rhomboid minor and major are responsible for retracting the scapula.
  • Deltoid: The deltoid is responsible for raising the upper arm and stabilising the shoulder joint. It consists of several parts.

When you consider all the functions of each of these muscles, it is not at all surprising that the shoulders lean forward when there’s an imbalance. But what can we do about it? Well, here are some exercises I do on a regular basis:

Exercises for rotator cuff:

Exercises for rotator cuff.

Exercises for rotator cuff: The starting position is on the left.

I always use a yellow Thera-band. The resistance is completely sufficient. The starting position can be seen in the picture on the left. Move your arm outward (picture on the right) and slowly return to the starting position.

Important:

  • Keep your shoulders down
  • Keep your elbows close to your body
  • Stand straight
  • Keep your hand „“active““ and stable, i.e. spread your fingers and wrap the Thera-band in such a way that you don’t need to hold on to it.

Exercises for the adductors and shoulder stability:

Again, a light Thera-band will do the trick. Secure it slightly higher than your shoulders. If you want, you can put it up a little higher than in the picture. The starting position can be seen in the left and right-hand picture. Stand straight. Stretch out your arm, but no higher than the height of your shoulders!

The final position can be seen in the picture on the bottom left. Move your hand to your thigh, with the back of your hand pointing toward the wall. Then slowly return to the starting position.

Other positions for this exercise can be seen in the small pictures on the right. Here, too, the back of your hand should be pointing toward to the wall.

Important:

  • Keep your shoulders down
  • Your hand should only go to the middle of the thigh, otherwise your shoulders will lean forward again.

For the trapezius, deltoids and rhomboid muscles

Exercise for the trapezius muscle.

Exercise to strengthen your trapezius muscle. The starting position is on the left.

This trapezius exercise is designed to strengthen the trapezius muscle and can be done with or without a wall. The more slanted the wall is, the harder it gets. The intensity increases with the height of your elbows on the wall. The maximum height, however, is shoulder height. Position your feet in front of the wall. Now press off the wall so that the shoulder blades are no longer touching it (green arrow). Then slowly return to the starting position. True, it’s just a tiny movement, but it’s really tough after a few reps!

Important:

  • Keep your shoulders down
  • Avoid lumbar swayback
  • Keep your palms flat and pointing down
Exercise for deltoids and trapezius.

Exercise for your rear deltoids and lower trapezius. Starting position is on the left.

The reverse butterfly is great for training your rear deltoids and lower trapezius. The starting position can be seen on the left or bottom left (rows). Bring your arms to your side like a T without completely straightening your elbows. Hold it for a moment and slowly return to the starting position. It is also possible to complete the T-shape along with the V-shape and the H-shape all in one set. The more inclined your stance, the harder it gets.

Important:

  • Don’t try to get momentum out of your back, this exercise is for other muscles!
  • Body tension! Don’t droop and avoid swayback.

Suspension trainer rows train the inner back, i.e., the middle and lower trapezius, along with the rear deltoids and rhomboid muscles. The starting position is the same as for the reverse butterfly, but here the arms are pulled close to the body, as can be seen in the picture in the middle.

Exercise for the inner back.

Exercise for your inner back. Starting position is on the left

Hold it and slowly return to the starting position. Another variation: Raise your upper arms to shoulder height. Your forearms are then at a right angle to your upper arms. Again, the more inclination, the harder it gets. If you want to increase the intensity, put your feet on a box or an exercise ball or try to press your feet against a wall.

Important:

  • Don’t try to get momentum out of your back, this exercise is for other muscles!
  • Body tension! Don’t droop and avoid swayback.

Case 2: Strengthening your fingers and wrist extensors

Elbow pain is something boulderers just can’t seem to get around. Fortunately for me, though, I have never had to deal with it before. My problem had to do with the overuse of my weaker finger or wrist extensors, which can lead to tennis elbow (which admittedly doesn’t really sound like a climbing injury, but that’s neither here nor there). These muscles are opposite the flexor muscles in the fingers, so they’re their antagonists. The flexors are obviously strong. After all, you have to be able to hold on to the holds somehow.

Once the pain is there, you should do everything in your power to ensure that it doesn’t become chronic. During the very acute phase of this injury, which fortunately only lasted about a week, I got my elbow taped, stretched it carefully, massaged it and most important of all: rested! Now, I am virtually pain-free because I’ve finally started giving my poor finger and wrist extensors the tender love and care they deserve, strengthening them with the following exercises:

For your finger and wrist extensors

For this exercise, a dumbbell is quite the useful tool. As you can see, I use a 1kg dumbbell, so you can increase the weight a bit if you’d like. But don’t add too much. You don’t want to overexert yourself. You can lay your elbow on your leg or on any surface that will allow your wrist to move freely. In the starting position, keep your wrist straight and then lift it upwards. Then slowly move it back down. That’s it! Very easy and effective, as you will notice after a few reps!

As you can see, the Thera-band is crucial to my antagonist training. For this exercise, I use a light one as well. Wrap it around your hands so that you don’t have to hold it. Then spread out your fingers like in the picture above. Then bend only your wrists outward and then slowly return to the starting position. As with the other exercises, doing multiple reps is not easy.

For the finger extensors, I also use a yellow Thera-band or one of the many other things that are available for this exercise. The movement is shown in the picture on the bottom right.

Case 3: Paying more attention to your legs

We boulderers pay little to no attention to our legs. Even though imbalances are pretty rare among the muscle groups in your legs, I still believe it is extremely important to work on them and one joint in particular.The knee.

Especially when hooking, be it heel or toe hooks, the knee is put under a lot of strain. If you’re tackling a tough project and have to hook onto the same hold over and over again, your knee might just give up, saying „Enough! You didn’t prepare me for this! I quit!“

If you’re lucky, you may just suffer a very minor injury to the lateral meniscus, but if you aren’t, you could have a tear or some other more severe knee injury. What’s my point? Well, you need to stabilise your knee! And, this is something you can achieve by doing a variety of exercises, all of which can be a lot of fun!

This is one exercise I just can’t get enough of! It stabilises the back of the knee and is kind of amusing. You don’t necessarily need a partner. You can hook your feet under something instead. It’s a very simple exercise. The starting position can be seen at the bottom left. From there, allow your upper body and thighs to lean forward in a straight line until you simply fall over. Catch yourself with your arms (bottom right) and push yourself dynamically (or statically) back up to the starting position. I’ve never not been sore after this exercise.

Other exercises for knee stability are one or two-legged squats. It’s hard to believe how complicated a perfect squat can be, but it’s true, so be sure to read up on them beforehand. You can also use balance boards and do some slacklining, which is a personal favourite of mine. Slacklining is not only good for the knees, but also for your balance. Plus, it promotes an awareness of your body.

Allow me to bring this post to a close with a little piece of wisdom: Only those who don’t get injured can boulder long and strong! True, antagonist training is not guaranteed to keep you injury-free, but it can prevent a large number of injuries.

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