Naise and the antagonist – Preventing overuse injuries in climbing

So most of you who have stopped by Bliss Bouldering and Climbing Complex have probably met Naise, our head route setter and coach. Naise has been my climbing partner and good friend for the last four plus years now. He is also an extremely talented setter and strong climber.

However, if you have ever listened in to any of our conversations (poor Josiah was subjected to 18 hours of them on a recent road trip to Colorado and back), you have likely heard me tell Naise what a complete looser he was or heard him make fun of one of my many quirks. Our friendship seems to thrive on antagonism. It’s rather disturbing and probably borders on psychosis, but seems to work for us.

Our musculoskeletal system also thrives on antagonism. Let’s look at our upper arms (NOT literally! Seriously dude, quit flexing your biceps in front of the mirror. She really doesn’t think they are that amazing . . . sorry). But staying on that particular body part, we all know that the bicep is the muscle that flexes the elbow and the tricep is the one that extends it. This is known as an agonist/antagonist group. When the bicep is flexing, it is called the agonist. At the same time, the triceps has to relax to allow the elbow to bend. The tricep is at this point the antagonist. Now if you do a push up and use the tricep to push you up, it becomes the agonist and the biceps the antagonist. Got it?

So what does this have to do with climbing and why is it important?

Climbing uses and develops a very specific group of muscles, namely finger and elbow flexors along with the large pull muscles around the shoulder (think rowing motion). In as little as a few months of climbing, these particular muscle groups will begin to hypertrophy (enlarge) and get stronger. The flip side though is that those antagonist muscles (finger extensors, triceps, pectorals, deltoids and trapezius), get progressively and relatively weaker. The result is a higher likelihood of injury as well as a loss of joint stability for making those minute changes needed when reaching for a difficult hold on your big project.`

The good news is that while it may be very difficult if not impossible to get me to be any nicer to Naise, it is relatively easy to train and strengthen these antagonist groups.

We will start with the wrist. There are three exercises that I really like to work these muscles with.

The first simply requires a rubber band or two. Take the rubber band and place all five fingers inside of it so that it rests over the fingernails. Now extend or open up your hand against that resistance. For this and all of our antagonist exercises, we want to adjust weight or resistance so that you can accomplish between 15-30 reps before resting.

Next find a dumbbell (no Naise, not you). We’ve got some upstairs in our training room at Bliss. Lay your forearm, palm side down, on either your knee or a bench. Grasped the dumbbell and extend your wrist without moving your elbow. Now go back down in a controlled manner. That’s one rep, 14 more to go.

Finally we will do some pronators. These work best with either a heavier dumbbell with your hand pressed against one end of dumbbell so that it feels off center or a heavy hammer like a mini sledge. Start with your arm again on bench or leg like above, but this time with the palm up. Grasp the hammer so that the heavy end is on thumb side and rotate wrist (pronate) so that hammer (or heavy end of dumbbell) is now straight up. Now go back to starting position.

Next we will move to the elbow and shoulders.

A simple and popular triceps and shoulder exercise is the classic pushup. I love these as they have an added benefit of working core at the same time.

A second great exercise is the shoulder press. Again, we utilize dumbbells, this time situated by our ears and push straight up over our head. This again works the triceps but hits a separate portion of the deltoid muscle.

Finally, perhaps one of the best antagonist exercise we can do for climbing: the dip. These work great between a couple of solid chairs, parallel bars, or gymnastic rings. They not only strengthen triceps and shoulder muscles, but also work your chest and core muscles. Resistance can be changed by placing heels (with legs extended) lightly on the ground to decrease weight. Start with palms in, elbows extended, and hands at hip level. Now lower body by flexing elbows until they are bent 90 degrees. Then push back up to starting position.

Antagonist exercises are certainly not the most glamorous or exciting exercises, but they will definitely make you a better climber and decrease the risk of over-use injuries that arise in climbing.

And that just gives Naise a few less things to make fun of me about. 😮

Train hard, climb harder, and Follow Your Bliss,


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