Importance of Antagonist Muscle Training in Rock Climbing

Why is it important to do antagonist muscle training? So, you’ve been rock climbing for several months now and crushing intermediate routes. Congratulations! You are getting stronger and building your climbing muscles. Your body is becoming as ripped as our natural climber cousins, the chimpanzees. But if you haven’t been doing antagonist muscle training, then I’ll bet that your posture and fingers are starting to look like that of a chimp too.

Rad Rookies - Antagonist Muscle Training

Look at the hunchback on that chimpanzee.
Look at that climber’s hunchback

Rock climbing is a full body workout but it is a pulling sport more than a pushing sport. Doing it over time results in the over-development of your upper-body pulling muscles. Your pulling muscles become so strong that your pushing muscles pale in comparison. Antagonist muscle training is important for muscle balance. It means that you’ll have better posture, more stable joints and more explosive muscles. Let’s dive in deeper to understand what this means and what you can do about it.

Rad Rookies - Antagonist Muscle Training

Chimpanzees have thick and stiff climbing fingers
Check out those thick and stiff climbing fingers

Avoid Looking Like a Chimpanzee

Antagonist muscle training helps balance your muscle “push vs pull” strength ratio and correct your posture.

Rad Rookies - Antagonist Muscle Training

Climbers that don't regular antagonist muscle training look like chimpanzees (in posture)
Do you see the resemblance when you stand near the mirror? If yes, do antagonist muscle training regularly 😛

Observe the chimpanzee in the picture above. Imagine living in the wild and always having to climb trees to look for food, rest and escape predators. You’ll for sure overdevelop your flexor forearms, biceps and upper back muscles. These muscle groups will become larger and larger over time. And due to using your pull muscles a lot more often, your body will adapt certain forms. Your back will start to hunch, elbows bent by default and fingers that look like you are gripping a tree branch.

Chimps are excellent climbers. This is why they have very strong upper-body pulling muscles. Scientists have found that the average chimp can pull 2 to 4 times their weight. Their forearm flexors, biceps and back muscles are much stronger than your average adult human male.

Okay, some of you might think that being compared to how a chimpanzee looks is exaggerated. And I’m telling you that it is not that far off. If you don’t believe me, try observing climbers in your gym. If you spot a strong climber with a hunched posture, try asking if he trains his antagonist muscles. Chances are that he doesn’t train them as much.

Aside from aesthetic purposes, there are better reasons to do antagonist muscle training. This brings us to the next point.

Pain Reduction and Improved Mobility

Rad Rookies - Antagonist Muscle Training

Joint Pains
Do you feel old because of your joint pains?

Antagonist muscle training keeps your joints healthy. Having balanced muscle strength makes it is easier for you to hold neutral positions.

Training only your agonist muscles (in agony) leads to muscle imbalance. Rock climbing is more of a pulling sport than a pushing sport. Climbing to your limit too often increases your chances of getting muscle imbalance. The most common symptoms are fingers, elbows and lower back pains.

The number one advice of physicians to fix these pains is to give your body a good rest. That is correct in most cases. But doing a long rest is sometimes not enough. There were people who rested for months (and sometimes years) only to get recurring joint pains when they climbed regularly again. It is only when they started doing antagonist muscle training that they found relief.

I personally experienced loss of finger dexterity, climber’s elbow and chronic lower back pain. So I did antagonist exercises that focused on my forearm extensors, triceps and chest. After 2 weeks, I regained full range of motion of my fingers, reduced my elbow pain and lower back pain.

Rad Rookies - Antagonist Muscle Training

Improved mobility
Back in action! 😀

And if you are a competitive climber, then you would love the next reason for training your antagonist muscles!

Generate More Power!

Rad Rookies - Antagonist Muscle Training

Increased Power generation
5% power increase within a single session

In 2005, a pair of sports scientists tested the effects of doing agonist-antagonist muscle training in athletes. They tested the max bench press weight the athletes could do in a single repetition. The first group did bench pulls after the bench press and the control group rested.

The result is that the first group increased their average power output by 4.7% in only a single session! Meanwhile, the control group’s average power remained the same. That is very significant if you are in a cutthroat competition!

The results sound fantastic, but a 5% power increase in only a single session? Why did that happen?

This brings us to the next topic.

Brain Training

Rad Rookies - Antagonist Muscle Training

Better central nervous system, better performance
Better central nervous system, better performance

So, are you ready to do some calculus and algebra training for those power gains?

Just kidding! Stay calm because you won’t need to solve math problems, memorize history or anything similar. 😛

The 5% power increase from the experiment has more to do with the neural pathways of the brain instead of raw muscle strength. It might sound a little bit strange, but antagonist muscle training is brain training. How so? Training your antagonist muscles thicken the neural pathways of your central nervous system.

The central nervous system controls your muscle movement. Your brain sends electrical signals to necessary muscles each time you do a complex movement. By repeating exercises for your antagonist muscles, you thicken the neural pathways for it. This will help your brain fire coordinating signals faster to your muscles.

Agonist and antagonist muscle pairs have what is called reciprocal inhibition. It means that when your agonist muscle needs to contract, your antagonist muscle will have to expand to allow movement. The reverse is also true. And the faster your brain can send on and off signals to these muscle pairs, the faster and smoother your movement becomes. This finesse in movement is what gave the test subjects the extra 5% of power.

This is also the reason why muscle imbalance won’t go away with just resting. Old habits die hard. Resting only helps your sore body parts recover but it doesn’t change your thick neural pathways. You need to change the neural pathways of your nervous system. And antagonist muscle training will thicken the neural pathways needed to balance your muscles.

Conclusion for Antagonist Muscle Training

There is a chain reaction of good benefits when you train your antagonist muscles. Your neural pathways become more balanced resulting in better posture, healthier joints and more movement power.

I hope you learned the importance of training your antagonist muscles. Too bad there is no published study yet for the long term effects of agonist-antagonist muscle training. It would have been interesting to see statistics for that as well.

You can also read how I spent my 20 hours of active rock climbing time and use it as a guide. If you enjoyed reading this, then share it to your friends! And if you enjoy reading more content like this, then subscribe to my mailing list. Have fun rock climbing! Be good at anything fast and be a rad rookie! 🙂


1 thought on “Importance of Antagonist Muscle Training in Rock Climbing”

  1. This article was super full of information, but it wasn’t difficult to read at all. I learned so much and I hope i cab apply this when i go out and finally try rock climbing this year. I do want them muscles, but not overdeveloped ones. Haha

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