Some thoughts about injury prevention, antagonist training and hypertrophy for climbers

There’s a bit of a paradox regarding non-specific strength training and climbing performance, based on conventional wisdom. On one hand, you want to strengthen the ‘opposing muscles’ to stay balanced and prevent injuries.  But at the same time you also want to keep bodyweight as low as possible while maintaining good health (physical and mental); therefore, general strength training may cause too much hypertrophy. So what to do?

Let’s start out by defining some terms/concepts so it’s clear what I’m talking about.

  1. Agonist muscles: let’s say for sake of argument that finger and wrist flexors, biceps, and latissimus dorsi are the main muscles for climbing performance…
  2. Antagonist muscles: assuming the above, the antagonists would be finger and wrist extensors, triceps, pecs and deltoids. (This is a somewhat flawed concept already since climbing movement is so varied and you do use those muscles quite actively in some moves. Ok maybe the finger extensors aren’t that active but you get what I mean.)
  3. General strength training: activities to build strength that aren’t sport specific; i.e. don’t mimic climbing movement. Examples include: push ups, dips, crunches, leg curls, gymnastic ring training and so on.
  4. Hypertrophy: effect of strength training (maximized from exercising at an intensity causing fatigue between 8-12 repetitions, with multiple sets)
  5. Muscular endurance: ability of muscles to contract under a load repeatedly; i.e. to become fatigue resistant due to metabolic changes such as increased concentration of glycolytic enzymes.
  6. Recruitment: adaptation of the nervous system to fire more rapidly, causing the same amount of muscle cross-section to contact with more power or maximum force. Usually trained with very high loads (6 reps or less) and and/or explosive effort. Recruitment is more highly specific to the motion, however, and may have limited transfer to other exercises. Another consideration is that since you are making the available muscle fibres contract faster, they also fatigue faster, so you are actually training your neuromuscular unit to be less fatigue resistant.
Let’s discuss briefly the first assumption which is that strengthening the antagonists will prevent injury. This is a pretty broadly accepted idea. If you only strengthen the agonists you don’t have much to stabilize the joints and when you hit an unusual move, you might overtax the stabilizing muscles (e.g. rotator cuff), tendons, and/or ligaments of the joint and cause injury – either through acute trauma or overuse.

Practical experience tends to validate this from my experience. If my general training drops off seasonally it’s always in the summer time when I’m playing outside and that’s when I tend to experience the elbow, wrist or shoulder pains. If these issues do arise, the usual treatment is to scale back climbing and specific training and do general strengthening for a while. Once balance is restored, things feel good again.

The flip side of this is that antagonist training, if done too much (or increased too quickly), could become a cause of injury due to overuse. I’ve definitely done that before!

What about the second part of the paradox. Does the general strength training cause too much hypertrophy? I think it depends – really it’s a tradeoff. How much strength do you need in these areas? Clearly, you don’t need to be able to bench press 400 pounds to climb hard. But having zero strength (if there is such a thing) is clearly bad. So somewhere in that range is a sweet spot. Now the question is, can you get stronger in the antagonists without making them larger?

Well, the short answer is “yes”. How? By increasing recruitment as per #6 above. But will it translate effectively to stabilization when climbing? Maybe not, since the strength gains are specific to the exercise, and also because the muscles may fatigue more quickly if they do recruit at a higher rate. So the long answer may be “somewhat”.

If increasing recruitment of the antagonists is not the best way then the remaining options are hypertrophy and/or muscular endurance; both of which seem viable. If you are truly weak in those areas then hypertrophy may be a good option because endurance (high repetitions, say 16 or more per set) won’t improve strength much. The added bulk probably wouldn’t be that noticeable since given the situation, which is being ‘weak’, the muscles are probably not very large to begin with. So even if the triceps, pecs, and deltoids got 15% bigger it might only add one pound to your frame which is less than 1% of bodyweight for most of us.

Furthermore, there are favourable hormonal changes that come with resistance training such as increased growth hormone and testosterone. (Women: NO you will not turn into a man or become un-feminine, that was debunked a long time ago!) These hormones help both men and women build muscle, burn more fat and possibly even have a greater overall sense of well-being. So the added muscle may be offset by reduction in fat from higher fat metabolism and generally eating better because you feel more positive!

That being said: if, however, there is a modest level of strength and muscle size already, but you want to ensure that the antagonists can keep working hard in a state of fatigue, then muscular endurance training may be more advisable.

Now, for the exceptional climber that has huge, bulky muscles, such as an ex-bodybuilder or powerlifter (not that I’ve ever some one take up climbing seriously) then general strength training is counterproductive and yoga and running would be advised instead! All the extra weight puts excessive strain on the fingers, and they will not take kindly to it. (Imagine crimping down on a quarter-pad edge when you have 200 lbs of muscle on your frame – no thanks!!)

To wrap things up, what is my point? Essentially I’m making the argument the general strengthening in its many forms does seem to help prevent injury to joints like the elbows, shoulder and wrists. Most climbers who do it will attest to that. But you still have to decide what modality and level of intensity. Modality-wise, whatever you fancy really, as long as the exercises are ergonomically smart and target the right areas (using weights, gymnastic equipment, etc). I propose that 8 repetitions or less is not very useful because of the specificity of neuromuscular recruitment, for antagonist exercises; and also the increased risk of injury with very heavy loads.  The ‘bodybuilding’ range of 8-12 (possibly up to 15) is good for most individuals who don’t have excessive bulk, and need to address strength imbalance – the small amount of hypertrophy may not even be noticed. For folks that are already strong in the antagonists but want to maintain and build fatigue resistance; stick to higher reps (15-20).

I should say in closing that general strengthening is only to be used a COMPLEMENT to your climbing. That means most of your time is spent climbing or doing climbing-specific training. By that virtue alone you are already doing something very different from what the beefcakes at the gym are doing to get so huge. Furthermore, you should not eat like a bodybuilder for you are not one. Downing protein shakes and chicken breasts all day (whether nutritionists accept it or not) does seem to amplify the effect and force more anabolism. So eat a more balanced diet with a modest calorie intake focusing on high quality, unprocessed foods, with lots of fresh vegetables and fruits.

I hope that my musings have provided some food for thought while addressing some of the concerns or misconceptions out there about general strength training. If you have questions, concerns or rebuttals, Tweet at me!

Happy training!

Andrew