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!



Training Advice: Should I keep training when I have sore fingers?

@NikkiGilbey asked, via Twitter:

“Really really sore achey fingers… #climbing people, any advice other than just cracking on regardless??”

“I have been trying to do a lot more specific training rather than just climbing which is helping….”

“Know any finger stretches/massages that will ease the pain when it happens though? Feels like my joints need to pop…”

This is a common problem for climbers who are training hard and pushing their limits. Since fingers are often the most obvious sign weakness on a climb or boulder problem, it’s no surprise that climbers must continually work on this area. But, is pain and discomfort acceptable or even desirable?

I’ll try to address this issue here, but let it be known that I am not a physician and this is not medical advice. If you have significant discomfort in your fingers, or have experienced sharp, acute pain while climbing/training you should consult with a physician and/or physiotherapist. But for this post I’ll assume that the discomfort is not severe and doesn’t represent an actual injury.

So here is my advice, in no particular order:

  • Learn to listen to your body and its cues. This comes with time and experience. Many years ago I was more reckless and would yard on crimps and small pockets as hard as I could, as long as I could, and then wonder why I got injuries regularly. More recently I’ve become a lot more selective about when I give a hold 100%, and I am more selective in what I climb and train on. Since I got back into “hard” training about two years ago, I’ve managed to walk the fine line and have improved my finger strength substantially through bouldering, campusing and fingerboard training. Sometimes it is uncomfortable to do certain exercises, but with those ones I keep the volume low and build up very gradually. For example, I may only campus on small rungs (i.e. one centimetre) every two weeks, and I only do a couple of sets/repetitions, however progress still occurs and I never get any pain as a result.
  • Think long term. Do you want to be climbing 20 years from now? I sure do. Take care of your body and err on the side of caution instead of playing “Russian Roulette” with your fingers each workout!
  • Crimp selectively and work on your open hand and open crimp grip. Crimping comes more naturally to most people, but it’s very beneficial to train the more open handed grip positions, even if it feels weaker. By ‘open hand’ I refer to using slopers, or three fingers without using the pinky/small finger. ‘Open crimp’ refers to a crimp grip but without hooking the thumb over the index finger or the corner of the hand hold. Note, this can be taken to extreme as well, where the ever-important ‘full crimp’ – with thumb – is neglected, but that is rare.
  • Don’t train everything at the same time or in the same training cycle. You don’t have to go crazy on the ‘scientific’ periodization programs (because it’s as much of an art as it is a science). But you should have a focus for training cycles lasting 4-8 weeks during which you emphasize certain things like general conditioning, strength and power, or power endurance / resistance. Your body can’t really adapt to so many things at once and the risk of overtraining (and injury) will increase.
  • Similar to the above, don’t overtrain. Do you really need to boulder in the gym for 3+ hours, 5 days a week? If you are a World Cup competitor, then you probably do. But for most of us, I recommend strength workouts lasting no longer than two hours in duration. And generally you shouldn’t do high intensity finger strength training more than two days in a row without giving them a rest day.
  • Don’t forget about the rest of your body. Fingers are important but are no the only reason we fail on climbs/boulders. Strong arm and core muscles are very important as well, and you can train these areas while resting your fingers.
  • There are various stretches you can do but these mostly stretch the muscle/tendon unit, which are generally not the main source of finger pain. I would say it’s more to do with the ligaments, tendon pulleys or possibly cartilage in the knuckles, and unfortunately stretching does not really help these soft tissues in my opinion. However, gently massage your fingers between workouts to probe for sensitive areas and increase blood flow as it could be helpful in preventing or identifying issues.
  • If you have a particularly tough workout and you’re feeling the pain afterward you could try ice baths for your hands, where you basically dump some ice and cold water into a large bowl and submerge your hands for as long as you can bear, then repeat a couple of times. This will help bring down inflation and speed the recovery process. I used to take ibuprofen but no longer do this because I think it is really just masking any issues and is not addressing the root cause.
  • Add some milled flaxseed or flaxseed oil to your diet which among many other health benefits, may have an anti-inflammatory effect.

This is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully will help you and others a little bit. At the end of the day you need to always listen to your body and understand what its telling you… is this “good pain” or “bad pain”? If you know that then you will be well on your way to preventing finger injuries.