Female sport climbing outside

Strength Training for Intermediate Climbers
(5.11-5.12 on Lead or V4-6 for bouldering)


“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength,
the patience, and the passion to reach of the stars to change the world

-Harriet Tubman

In all my years of working with athletes, this is one of the areas with the most questions and confusion (nutrition is at the top).  Movement science (kinesiology) has come a LONG way. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers during workouts.  There are protocols for everything and it can be tough to figure out who the reliable sources are for your questions.  The answer is… there is no wrong answer, really.  Anyone that tells you there is a perfect number of sets and reps is LYING to you! Whatever reps and sets you choose are based on YOUR goals, YOUR body needs, YOUR injuries, YOUR current project. Your body does not know math, so don’t get consumed by it.  Whether you hold for 3 sec or 5 sec, in the long run, it will make little difference, and BOTH will make for improvements as long as you are challenging your body and being consistent.  I’m not saying you don’t need specificity, just that you don’t need to over think it.

I will attach sample workouts in each section of my book (coming soon!).  These are meant to give you ideas and help build a library of tools that help you to meet goals.  As your goals change, so do your workouts, so I’ll try to include ways to modify them. Shoot for 30-40 min, 3-4x/week for strength workouts. These come at the end of climb workouts if you do them on the same day.

It may be time to consider hiring a trainer or coach.  We all tend to do the things we like in a gym. We like them because we are good at them.  Coaches make us do the things we avoid.  The things we aren’t so good at. I go to a trainer across town 3x/week so none of my clients can hear me grunting and struggling my way through my workouts… AND yes, there may be occasional stress farts…It’s called “TRY HARD” people!  No judging.  It’s what an engaged core sounds like.


“Antagonist” training is another one of the things I see misunderstood in gyms.  A simple Google Dictionary definition is “a muscle whose action counteracts that of another specified muscle”.

This gives us an oversimplified explanation of what the term means but doesn’t describe WHYwe need them.  Or even, IF we need them.

Let’s bust some myths here… cause I like breakin’ $#it!

Functionally, muscles combine how they work and what other muscles they recruit to help them almost constantly. For example, rotating a shoulder or hand position on a crimp may use the same prime movers, but the antagonists and assisting muscles can change.  Now think how often your limb changes position as you move to reach, grasp, stabilize, pull, stabilize, and release for one move!

The antagonist of a bicep for a climber is not a triceps alone.  Stop doing those sloppy push-ups as your only antagonistic regiment!   If we rethink the definition,  it’s the “ACTION” of the muscle that’s really important in training.  We’ll stick with our bicep example.  No muscle fires alone during functional activity.  So, to assume that the bicep flexes the elbow, therefore an elbow extensor must be its antagonist,  is not the full picture.  It is also an error to assume that this is all that it does.  The bicep supinates the forearm, flexes the elbow, protracts the scapula, and assists with flexion and internal rotation of the shoulder.  This means that ALL muscles that extend the elbow, pronate the forearm, retract the scap, externally rotate the shoulder, or extend the shoulder can be considered antagonists.  We haven’t even addressed the muscles that need to stabilize the shoulder to keep it from injury as the bicep contacts. Nor have we addressed the muscles that help it out during a pull .  That’s a lotta stuff!

In sport specific training, we must look at the function/movement/action to prescribe an antagonistic movement.  For climbers (again, sticking with bicep example),

  1. The primary action is pulling the front of your shoulder toward your hand, generally in an upward direction.  The antagonistic movement is pushing your hand away from your shoulder in an upward direction. Now let’s add in what’s happening in the rest of your trunk & body to hold you against the wall in that moment. It gets complicated quickly.
  2. When using the bicep to pull laterally (side pull or traverse) on a wall, you are also pulling yourself against the wall, so the antagonistic movement is to push away laterally while engaging the muscles that hold you against the wall.

SOOOO… Do we need to train “antagonistic” movements??

If our goal is injury prevention, then short answer is “no”, not in the way most climbers have been taught.  Let’s use an injury preventative perspective for athletes. Let’s simplify, since the concept is actually much more complex than most people think.

For every pull, we do a corrective pull to put the body back into a balanced/neutral position.  We find exercises that pull the shoulder complex away from the hand and into extension, retraction, and external rotation, movements that extend and pronate the elbow, things that help us reach and push with climbing stabilizers in action.  MOST IMPORTANLY, we need to stretch all of those shortened pulling muscles back into a neutral position- we’ll cover this in flexibility under injury prevention.

You can begin doing push ups and dips again, when you have equal push vs. pull strength, neutral spine, neutral shoulder position, full shoulder range of motion actively, body awareness to recognize good or sloppy form, and NO upper body pain.

NOTE! Every exercise you do is a “core” exercise if you are doing it correctly.  Form is of the upmost importance in any phase for any athlete. Reps and sets don’t matter if they are sloppy.  You are reinforcing bad habits and movements if you aren’t moving with purpose, focus, and good form.  This is why most online strength training programs fail, or worse, lead to injury.


Movements to Master:

One armed hang test without barn door:

Engage scapula to opposite glute to prevent rotation. If you are rotating (barn-dooring), you need to work on scapular & posterior core strength before hanging. Only possible after you can hang properly with both hands. 

To advance this movement, now try scapular movement from one arm to the other.  Pull with your scapula and trunk muscles to shift your body toward the bar. Don’t bend your elbow. Use your lateral trunk muscles.

One Arm Hang

Full wall squat (toes touching wall & facing wall) without falling backward:

The wall is a great way to take away all of our cheats in form.  You should be able to feel your glutes and hamstrings holding you to the wall as you squat past your knees. 

Arms stay overhead for climbers.  It doesn’t count if you can’t make it back to standing without falling backward.

Full Wall Squat

Thruster Squats— to 1 leg stance:

Using legs to push weight overhead.  Weight is in one hand. Don’t allow the movement to become a squat, then press.  Keep elbow tucked in front of you to avoid shoulder pain. Use your legs to “throw” the weight. If you feel you can’t press a ton of weight overhead, use a kettlebell with the handle down, bell up to make it a wrist & shoulder stabilizer. You can also modify by holding a bumper plate with a pinch grip or a small weighted ball (usually 6-8#) with a neutral wrist position.

To advance this movement, once the weight is overhead, keep it there, shift your weight to the opposite leg, then reach as far as you can using your entire trunk. Allow that scapula to glide upward & rotate with you for maximum reach.  Keep this a fluid and controlled motion.  Go as heavy as possible with good form.


 Rolling without touching the floor with hands, elbows, feet, or knees.

Superman Superman Exercise

Proper Push Ups PLUS Serratus Push:

Begin by lying face down.  Place thumb and forefingers under your forehead to make a triangle. Try to keep elbows as close to your body as you can.  Keep a long neck, looking between your hands.  Do not allow your spine to lag as you push.  Move your trunk as one unit. When you press to the top, push your shoulder blades apart, making sure you have pressed as far as you can with your scapulae.

Proper Pushup

Looking to keep yourself accountable as you work on progressing in your climbing? Contact us at ATHENA where we specialize in injury prevention, massage therapy, strength training, climbing assessments, core training, and sports nutrition. You can also follow us @Athena_PDX on Twitter and Instagram.

Contact Us Today


2540 Lava Ln, Santa Clara, UT 84765

Phone: (503) 980 5712
Hours: 6:00 AM - 9:00 PM

ATHENA Massage is also mobile!

Climb assessment and training available through Facetime, Skype, Zoom, or app of your choice.

Contact us at: (503) 980-5712

ATHENA | Massage & Fitness