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Habit Climbing

“Antagonist” Training

“Antagonist” Training: The Minimum Training Requirement for all Climbing Lifers


Imagine a typical day of rock climbing. Picture yourself climbing a route or boulder problem, or training in the gym. Imagine the moves you do, and the tiredness you feel afterward.

No matter which type of climbing your imaginary day involves, it’s bound to be filled with dozens or hundreds of pulling moves, as well as instances of side-to-side stabilization. At the end of the day, you’ll feel spent in your biceps, triceps, forearms, lats, and entire back.

However, most climbing days include no pushing or lifting moves—unless you do a lot of rope coiling. When was the last time you felt sore in your chest after climbing?

As you probably already know, years of practicing this sport without proper antagonist training leads to the typical climber’s build: a large, muscular back, an underdeveloped chest, visibly hunched shoulders, Popeye forearms and stiff, clawed fingers. If this description doesn’t immediately bring a clear picture to your mind, go to any climbing gym, bouldering area or crag, and look around.

The problem with the typical climber’s build is not only with its aesthetics; rather it lies with the strain it places on the joints and soft tissues. Shoulder joints are the most affected by this “pulling—never pushing” imbalance. With large, well-developed muscles attaching to the back side of these joints, and puny, underdeveloped muscles on the front and top sides, this ball-and-socket joint operates under the constant strain of muscular imbalance. This can lead to all types of problems, ranging from muscle pulls and tears (rotator cuff, anyone?) to actual dislocation.

Though many lucky climbers can sustain this type of muscular imbalance for years and somehow avoid injury, other mortals suffer a host of debilitating problems within months or just a few years of climbing. Luckily for this susceptible group, these injuries mustn’t mean an end to climbing. Rather—it can be a gateway to the wonderful world of training.

If you’re a dedicated rock climbing looking to embark on a training program, the first muscle groups you should focus on are your “antagonist” muscles—or the muscles neglected by climbing. If you’ve never trained before, there are a few things to keep in mind when designing your own antagonist program:

You can train with weights, body-weight resistance or a combination of both.

Weights are superior to body-weight exercises in that they allow you to prescribe a specific resistance to each muscle group, and they make it easy to quantifiably push yourself and to track progress. They also provide for a wider range of exercises, and allow you to focus on very specific muscle groups.

Body-weight exercises are superior because they can be done virtually anywhere, and they require no gym membership to access. Plus, body weight exercises tend to be multi-joint exercises—which the modern community of sports scientists deems to be a superior (or more “functional”) training methodology than single-muscle exercises like bicep curls.

A note on machines: machines have their place in the gym; they make possible some exercises (like hamstring curls) that would otherwise be difficult to execute. However, if you have the choice between performing a particular exercise on a machine or with free weights, it is almost always better to choose free weights—as they train the body in a much more functional and ergonomic fashion.

Regularity is key.

If you climb once a week or a few times a month, you’re never going to get stronger. Just as with climbing, you’ll never see the benefits of antagonist training if you don’t perform your exercises regularly. Depending on the intensity at which you lift, you’ll want to train as many as 3–4 times a week, performing 3–5 exercises each time.

Warm up.

Before you perform any “working sets” of a weight training program, be sure to warm up thoroughly. Warm ups should be strenuous enough to warm the muscles sufficiently, but not so taxing that they interfere with the working sets to come. As a climber, you probably have enough body awareness to understand what this means. However, when in doubt, it is best to err on the side of warming up too much rather than not enough; the penalty for warming up too much is decreased performance; the penalty for warming up insufficiently is injury. 

When starting a resistance training program, it is important to build a solid foundation before getting into very heavy weights.

When first getting your body accustomed to weight lifting, it is best to start with weights light enough that you can do at least 8 reps in a set, but heavy enough that you can do no more than 12 in a set. This range of reps per set allows for strength gains and neuromuscular development—but is light enough to avoid the musculoskeletal strain (and associated injuries) of more intense, lower-rep sets. Depending on your previous weight training experience, you will want to lift at this intensity for 1–2 months in order to build foundational strength before diving into super heavy weights.  

How many sets?

Experts agree that you should perform 3–5 working sets of each exercise to stimulate muscle growth and neuromuscular adaptation. For each exercise, choose a weight that you can lift 8–12 reps for 3–5 sets. Especially toward the beginning of your weight training career, you perform fewer (i.e. 3) sets of each exercise and see gains. More advanced lifters usually require more working sets (as well as more advanced programming methods) in order to sufficiently challenge the body and cause adaptations.

Once you have achieved a solid training base, you should aim to train your “antagonist” muscles with the same intensity as the “climbing” muscles.

Lifting weights in the 8–12 rep zone will not elicit gains forever. Once you have adapted to your new weight training program and have built a solid base, you will want to move into a phase of more intense weightlifting—i.e. heavier weights and fewer reps per set. If you’re a novice, you’ll probably want to shift toward sets of 1–5 reps (per set) after 1–2 months of lower intensity lifting. The idea of moving into heavier sets is that you must challenge your antagonist muscles sufficiently if you are to achieve muscular balance around your joints.

Beyond this, programming becomes more complicated; you’ll encounter plateaus and require rest periods and other phases of training. Consult an expert (or the books listed below) for developing mid- and long-term training plans.

Which exercises to pick?

If you’re ready to begin an antagonist training program, you’ll need to select a set of exercises to train. Make sure to pick a wide range of exercises that targets the muscles climbing doesn’t—and therefore builds muscles around your joints so that they become evenly supported.

In climbing, you are constantly pulling, and your shoulders therefore endure most of the resulting muscle imbalance. Your antagonist training will therefore involve a lot of presses, squeezes and raises.

For the chest, you can add pushups or bench presses (and all the variations thereof), flies, barbell pullovers and more; for the tops of the shoulders, you can do military presses, deltoid raises, lateral raises, front raises and barbell shoulder presses—or anything you can invent or find in books or online.

Do some research and look for ways to train your rotator cuff; this set of stabilizing muscles is key to good shoulder health. (Many people use elastic bands for this purpose.) It’s also a good idea to train the tops of the forearms (to balance the massive Popeye muscles and support the wrists); to do this you can do reverse wrist curls or similar exercises.

Form is critical.

No matter which exercises you pick, be sure to consult with an expert so that you learn the proper form. Good form is vastly superior to “lifting heavy.” If you can’t do an exercise in good form (or through its full range of motion), go down in weight. Lifting in bad form will lead quickly to injuries.


The whole point of any type of training is: to cause stress to the body and incite adaptation. The training itself is what stresses the body; the rest afterward is what allows the body to recover and adapt. Without rest, training is useless. If performing resistance exercise of any kind, you should allow your body at least 48 hours to adapt before exercising those muscle groups again. Especially if you are training your body at “max strength”—i.e. as close to your one-rep max as possible—you will not fully recover in that muscle group for as long as 7 days or even multiple weeks! (It’s true.) That is not to say you can’t train again before you’ve completely recovered; however, keep this fact in mind when tracking your own progress, and building rest periods into your schedule. (You can continue training and allow these muscle groups to rest by training other muscle groups or using slightly different exercises in subsequent training sessions.)

Keep in mind: no muscles are purely “antagonist.”

Though climbing largely neglects certain muscle groups, there are no muscles that are 100% antagonist to climbing—in other words, all muscles are used in climbing, even if only to stabilize certain joints. As such, if you perform a highly strenuous antagonist training session one day, you should not plan to climb (especially hard) the following day. Antagonist muscles, just like climbing muscles, need rest to properly recover and adapt to training. If possible, train your antagonist muscles directly after your climbing sessions. If you try to climb hard the day after a solid antagonist training session, your stabilizing muscles will be tired and vulnerable to injury.


Sample Antagonist Program:






















Bench Press


Overhead Press


Inclined Barbell Press



Shoulder Raise


External Arm Rotation


Lateral Raise



Reverse Wrist Curl


Reverse Wrist Curl


Reverse Wrist Curl



Rotator Cuff Exer.


Rotator Cuff Exer.


Rotator Cuff Exer.





For more information on this material, see Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore and Strength Training Anatomy by Frédéric Delavier.



Stay tuned for more articles on these topics.

Questions? Comments? Curious about a certain topic? Let us know!

© 2013 Christine Balaz Sjöquist


The information presented in this article and on this website are in no way meant to replace the advice of medical experts. Please consult with a physician before embarking on any training program. 




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