Climbers know how to pull hard—and that’s about it. Except for mantle moves, rock climbing rarely utilizes the big pushing muscles of the upper body, such as the triceps, the pectoralis major (the chest), the serratus anterior (your sides, under the armpit), the anterior deltoid (the front of the shoulder), and the upper trapezius (the upper back). Over time this can lead to a significant muscular imbalance, an increased risk of overuse injuries, and limitations in overall performance.
“A good [muscular] balance definitely helps you to be more efficient and powerful in your climbing,” says Steven Low, a climber, former gymnast, and the author of Overcoming Gravity: A Systematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength. Pushing exercises to compliment pulling strength, however, are often missing from climbers’ training routines.
The parallettes, a miniature version of the parallel bars gymnasts use, are an excellent tool for opposition training. Parallettes also eliminate wrist extension, required for some floor moves, making them a good option for anyone with tight forearms. Plus, the bars are cheap and easy to build.
While parallettes are most beneficial for climbers and bodyweight practitioners, Low says, they’re still a worthy training tool for anyone who wants to develop upper-body and core strength, stability, and proprioception (a sense of where your body is and how it moves through space). He recommends these three movement progressions on the parallettes.
Do these moves once or twice per week when you’re climbing frequently, and two to three times per week during the off-season to build strength. Beginners should aim for a total of six sets (two sets of three exercises each, or three sets of two exercises of your choice), while more advanced athletes can add additional sets to progress. The parallettes are mainly limited to pushing-type movements, so mix in these moves with other pulling, core, or leg exercises to create a well-rounded, full-body workout.
Start with the first move in each progression, and increase the number of reps before moving to the next. If you have trouble fully bridging the gap, do as many reps as you can with the harder progression, even if that’s just one or two, then revert to the previous progression to finish out the set if needed. “This will add a bit more volume, to get a stimulus on your body to make that adaptation,” Low explains.
“The devil is in the details,” he adds. “If you get stuck with exercises for a week or three and can’t progress, you might need to either decrease the load, to allow your body to recover from fatigue, or you may need to potentially change up your programming—your sets and reps or rest times—in order to start progressing again.”
“Learn the bail techniques first before going crazy with the handstands,” says Low. Find a safe place—a padded gym floor, soft carpeting, or grass is ideal—and use a spotter if you can. Practice without the parallettes at first. Kick up into a handstand, then try forward rolls (tucking your chin to your chest) and sideways cartwheels to safely exit. When you’re comfortable with those techniques on the floor, add in the parallettes and keep practicing until you have your escape routes dialed.
Handstand Push-Up Progression
What it does: Strengthens the entire shoulder, the triceps, and the trapezius muscles in the upper back, along with the core. “Climbing and pulling primarily use the lower and mid traps, but not a lot of the upper traps. This movement helps hit that zone and adds balance to the scapular muscles,” says Low. It also trains stability, balance, and proprioception.
How to do it: Don’t worry—you don’t need to be able to do a handstand to start this progression! But as you work up to the handstand push-up on the parallettes, start practicing your handstand on the floor, too. Consistency is key.
Pike Push-Up: Place the parallettes shoulder width apart or slightly wider, and grab the centers of the bars. Enter a downward-facing-dog yoga position, with your toes on the floor, your legs straight, and your hips high so that your body forms a slight A-frame. Then bend your elbows to lower your head between your hands. Go as far as you can comfortably while maintaining good form. Push back up for one repetition, and repeat. Keep your back flat throughout the movement. Elevate your feet on a box or a chair (for a more pronounced A-frame) to make it harder.
L-Handstand Push-Up with Wall: Place the parallettes a leg’s length away from a wall, and start by standing with your back to the wall. Grab the bars, and walk your feet up the wall until your legs are roughly parallel to the floor and your torso is vertical. From this position, complete the push-ups as described above. As you get stronger and more comfortable in the inversion, gradually place your feet higher on the wall.
Handstand Push-Up with Wall: Next, place the parallettes against the wall. Stand facing the wall, bend to grab the bars, then kick up into a handstand so that your body is straight, vertical, and upside down. Place your heels against the wall for support. Do between five and twelve push-ups. When you’re done, slowly lower your feet to the floor. Gradually try to use the wall less and less for support, until you’re comfortable enough to move away from the wall.
Handstand Push-Up: Place the parallettes shoulder width apart or slightly wider, and grab the centers of the bars. Kick up into a handstand, find a central balance point, with your hips stacked over your shoulders, and slowly bring your legs together until they’re both straight, overhead, and pointing toward the sky. Once settled, perform the push-ups with the greatest range of motion your shoulders can handle.
Volume: Two to three sets of five to twelve reps. Rest for three minutes between sets.
What it does: “This pushing movement helps to activate pretty much every single opposition muscle for climbing,” including the triceps and muscles in the chest, back, and core, says Low. It also helps people work toward the planche, which is a benchmark bodyweight move.
How to do it: Place the parallettes shoulder width apart, and grab the centers of the bars. Put your toes up on a chair or a bench, and start in a standard push-up position, with your arms straight and your body in a rigid plank, parallel to the floor. Then enter a forward-lean position, so that your hands are directly under your hips, or as close as you can get them while maintaining good form. (If that’s too difficult, start with your hands below your shoulders, and gradually progress into a forward-lean position with your hands below your hips). From here, perform push-ups, with your elbows tracking backwards and tight to the body. Move slowly and in control.
Volume: Two to three sets of five to twelve reps. Rest for three minutes between sets.
L-Sit-to-Handstand (Press Handstand) Progression
What it does: Strengthens the entire body, especially the core, hip flexors, shoulders, and back, and trains body control and awareness.
How to do it:
L-Sit: Crouch between the parallettes, and start with a normal grip on the bars and straight arms. Press down on the bars, and push your shoulders away from your ears to lift your legs off the floor, then pull them into your chest. Slowly extend your legs until they are straight and parallel to the floor or higher. Hold this position for eight to ten seconds, or as long as possible.
If the full L-sit is too challenging, try extending only one leg at a time, or keep them both bent as you build up strength.
Frog Stand (Crane Pose): Start with your hands on the bars, and bring your feet up behind your hands. Press your knees against your upper arms, then lean forward to shift your weight onto your arms until your feet lift. Find your balance, and lift your hips as high as you can. Hold this position for eight to ten seconds, or as long as possible. Keep your hips high, your wrists straight, and your bodyweight centered over your hands. Slowly rock back into a squat to get out of the stand.
Frog Stand to L-Sit: Enter the frog stand described above, and bring your knees together and off your arms. Then slowly (over five seconds if you can manage it), rotate your body and extend your legs into an L-sit. Hold the L-sit for another second or two. Then bring your feet to the floor, step back up into the frog stand, and repeat. This works the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement, which is an efficient way to build strength. Move slowly and in control.
Frog Stand to Handstand: Enter the frog stand, then raise your legs overhead into a handstand. Stack your hips over your shoulders, find a central balance point, and slowly bring your legs together until they’re both straight and vertical. Hold this position for eight to ten seconds, or as long as possible. Then slowly lower your feet to the floor to work the eccentric phase.
L-Sit to Frog Stand: Start in an L-sit, as described above. Then pull your knees into your chest, and lean forward to bring your knees up onto the backs of your upper arms. Keep your shoulders and knees high so you can get into the frog stand. This move works the concentric (lifting) phase of the movement, which is more difficult than the reverse.
L-Sit to Handstand: Now it’s time to put it all together. Start in an L-sit, pull your knees into your chest as you lean forward, then raise your legs to stack your hips over your shoulders. Find a central balance point, and slowly bring your legs together until they’re both straight, overhead, and pointing toward the sky in a handstand. Slowly reverse the movement back to an L-sit, and repeat.
Volume: Two to three sets of five to twelve reps (or eight-to-ten-second holds, where applicable). Rest for three minutes between sets.