Essentials of Antagonist Training for Climbers
Nearly red in the face, I pulled my chin, a 53lb kettle bell, a 10lb plate, and my harness up high enough to call the whole thing a pull-up. My personal record for a one rep max for a pull-up went up: bodyweight plus 63lbs. My bench press on the other hand was less than stellar, 5 reps at 75% of my bodyweight was all I could muster.
There are not many sports that rely so heavily on pulling strength, but climbing is one of them. As as you might be able to pull, if you cannot push, there is trouble ahead. Enter antagonist training.
Despite what you might have heard, antagonist training is not captain hook working to improve his sword-fighting. It is not a buzz word you use to describe doing whatever exercises please you at the end of a climbing session either. But if not these things, what is antagonist training? And how can we use it to be stronger and prevent injury?
Let’s start with the basics.
In every movement, there is a prime mover and an antagonist. A simple example is the motion of a bicep curl. The bicep is the prime mover, the tricep is the antagonist. Simple enough.
Now, let’s complicate things. I really like how Dr. Jared Vagy explained this in his blog post on the topic, so I will steal a page from his book in my explanation.
Primer Movers and Antagonists in Climbing
In climbing, we are mostly pulling. So when you hear the word antagonist training in the context of climbing, you should think “pushing”.
This is not to say that we do not push in climbing. Sometimes, we do have to mantle or push against holds for stabilization. At which point, the script is flipped between the prime movers and the antagonists. However, the ratio of pulling to pushing in climbing is clearly skewed towards pulling. With that, we need to focus our antagonist efforts towards balancing out all the pulling we do.
For years we programmed push-ups and overhead presses as injury-proofing antagonist movements, but as our involvement with competition climbers has advanced, we are seeing a greater and greater need for good total body strength to deal with the specific demands of the sport.Unstoppable Force pg. 177
What the Research Says
Though I was not able to find extensive research explicitly relating antagonist strength ratio to injury risk or athletic performance, there are a few studies that I want to discuss here.
Measuring Antagonist Strength Ratios in Healthy Adults
In one study, 180 healthy and active adults (69 males, 111 females) aged 18 to 45 were tested to determine their pulling to pushing ratio. This was done by measuring the number of repetitions for push-ups and a modified pull-ups (shown below). On average the push:pull ratios were 1.57:1 and 2.72:1 for men and women, respectively.
This study was done to show a benchmark for injury-free, active adults. I would be curious on the outcomes of this study if it were conducted with a population of climbers. Though we do not have this information, we do have a study on a different group of athletes: elite rugby players. Do you think they will be just as push-dominant as the recreationaly active adults? You might be surprised.
The Rugby Players
In another study of 42 elite male rugby players who regularly train both weighted pull-ups and bench presses were studied. For as much pushing as these athletes do in their sport, the average push:pull ratio between their one rep max (1RM) bench press and their 1RM pull-up came out to be nearly 1:1. Though I am not a male rugby player, this does give me some information to infer as a climber. If these push-centric athletes are managing a 1:1 ratio in their sport, perhaps climbers should try for the same. However, research is not everything. If this does not speak to you, perhaps a coach with decades of practical experience will.
A Coach’s Recommendation
In Unstoppable Force, written by Charlie Manganello and Steve Bechtel, Steve calls out the risk of imbalances in our antagonist strength.
We downplay the need for pressing strength in climbing, but strong pressing muscles – the ones we to push loads away from the body in training – are fundamental to good movement, joint stability, and continued progress in our pulling strength.Unstoppable Force pg. 63.
Steve and Charlie go on to advise that if you cannot do three reps of a bench press at bodyweight, you may be holding back your pulling strength.
Why it Matters
Perhaps if you have just started climbing, this may seem like absolutely too much information. However, if you are a year or two in and you have done nothing but climb 2-4 days a week, it may be time to take a look in the mirror to see if you are overdue for some antagonist work. No guarantees, but it may grant you some strength and injury prevention in the long haul. Like Steve Bechtel says “strength is safety.” So how can you tell if you are overdue for some opposition training? Why not give yourself an assessment?
A Quick and Dirty Push to Pull Ratio Assessment
Here’s a little assessment you could give yourself. Ideally, perform it before climbing, but after warming up so you are not fatigued. Additionally, try to take at least a full day of rest between each of these assessments.
Day 1: Upper Body Endurance
- Perform as many push-ups as you can do in one set. Record the total. Make sure you are doing real push-ups, not the ones where your arms are a thousand miles from your sides and your ass is in the air. If you cannot do a push-up, perform an incline push-up on a bench instead.
- Rest 3-5 minutes
- Record as many pull-ups as you can do in one set. If you cannot do a pull-up, use a band or a chair to remove resistance from the bar. Record the total number of pull-ups you can do. Do not kip, swing, or cheat between reps. Do them well and do them right.
Day 2: Maximal Upper Body Strength
- Find your one rep max for the bench press. If you don’t know how to bench, I suggest finding a trusted friend to teach you and help to spot you. Make sure to warm-up and work up to finding your 1RM (with a spotter or safety bars). If you don’t want to load up all the way to a 1RM, I recommend finding your 2-3 rep max and using a calculator to predict your 1RM instead. Make sure you rest for at least 3 minutes between sets.
- Rest for 3-5 minutes before moving onto the 1RM pull-up.
- Find your one rep max for the pull-up. Warm up for this as well. Do a few bodyweight pull-ups. Start adding weight, continue adding until you reach your one rep max. Make sure you rest for at least 3 minutes between sets. Record your 1RM.
Disclaimer: I am not demanding that you do this, perform at your own risk and make sure that you are not putting yourself in harm’s way by partaking in the above. And don’t blame me if you find that you are sore the day after!
Let me know your Assessment Results!
If you decide to take this assessment, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know how it went!
This is part one in a series. In the next installment, I will tackle my favorite antagonist exercises and provide tips on working them into your climbing schedule. Make sure to subscribe to my monthly email list to stay up to date when the next post comes out! You can also stay up to date by following me on Instagram.