The rope isn’t exactly the most appealing piece of gym equipment. Swinging down from the ceiling, it looks like a relic from the olden days of personal fitness. Surely we’ve advanced past the need for a rope climb?
Unfortunately for those who find it off-putting, the rope still has an important part to play in the gym. This simplistic piece of equipment works the whole body, and emphasizes the importance of form and technique. So, no, it isn’t time to cut it down just yet.
Climbing a rope doesn’t have to be the most difficult part of a workout. By learning the simple techniques for a strong hold, you can feel confident and secure on the rope. Steady practice helps you to understand just how many muscle groups are used in a good climb, to engage all parts of your body.
If you go straight in with your arms, you’ll never be able to climb a rope. At least, not comfortably. Although the upper body can help you up the rope, it shouldn’t be doing all the work by itself. Instead, the legs must be used, so you can anchor yourself, and pull your body up the rope with (relative) ease.
Different footholds have different advantages. With practice, you can find a foothold that’s comfortable for you, and works with your movement.
- Thread the rope between the legs. Wrap it around the back of the knee on your chosen leg, looping across the ankle to hang between the feet.
- Clamp the rope into place using the foot of your unwrapped leg. The rope should be held across the top of one foot by the sole of the other.
With this hold, the rope is wrapped almost entirely around the one leg. This gives a hold that’s incredibly secure. Generally, this is best for beginners. It’s comfortable, and it feels safe. However, it’s also the slowest one to use. Wrapping the rope takes time, especially when you’re first learning. To climb, the rope needs to be wrapped and rewrapped. If you’re interested in speed, this isn’t the best hold to use.
- Hold the rope to the side of the body. Wrap the rope under one foot, from the outside in.
- Loop the rope up and over the other foot. This creates a basic stirrup shape.
- Clamp the rope into place using the foot without stirrup support.
This is the fastest hold to use, and is preferred by those who are comfortable with the rope climb. Because there’s no complicated wrapping involved, it’s easy to release and rewrap as you go. For beginners, it offers less in the way of security. Although the quick release makes it easy to descend, it can lead to uncomfortable moments without any foothold at all.
The Secure J-Wrap
- Thread the rope between the legs. Pull the rope behind the chosen leg, across the back of the ankle, around and underneath the foot.
- Loop the rope up and over the other foot.
- Clamp the rope into place using the foot without the support.
By threading the rope between the legs, this creates a foothold that feels more secure than the J-wrap, but is speedier than the S-wrap. When this technique has been mastered, it can provide effective support, without slowing you down.
How to Climb a Rope
Once you’ve mastered your foothold, you’re ready to start climbing.
- Start underneath the rope, and jump upwards. Reach with your arms extended to grab with your hands. A good jump cuts off a fair amount of the climb.
- With the arms at full extension, pull your knees up as high as you can, as close to your elbows as possible. Lean back to make it easier. This movement mimics squatting. Wrap your legs into whatever foothold you feel comfortable in, to act as an anchor.
- Extend your legs, walking your arms upwards, until you’re stood up.
- Release your feet from the hold, bring them up towards the elbow, and rewrap your hold. Repeat the straightening movement.
- Keep going, until you’ve climbed the rope.
- Release yourself slowly to descend.
Ropes can be intimidating because, let's face it, no one wants to get halfway up and lose their grip. This is why you need to start small, building up your strength and technique. Rope climbs don’t need to be the hardest part of your workout, but they do require careful negotiation. However, once you’ve mastered the technique, you’ll be climbing in no time.
Preparing for a rope climb
As well as practicing your foothold, there are other ways to prepare for a rope climb. Before aiming for the top, you need to feel secure at the bottom.
Improve Grip Strength
If it’s your first time climbing a rope, you may feel as though your grip is the only thing keeping you up there. No doubt about it, the grip plays an important part. Improving grip strength, and gaining confidence in your hold, can help you travel with ease.
To work on your grip strength, all that’s needed is a towel and a pull-up bar. For a simple method, wrap the towel around the bar, to create a thick and textured surface. This more closely mimics the feel of the rope.
Another option is to hang the towel over the pull-up bar, grip each end in one hand, and pull yourself up using the towel. To closer mimic the movement of a rope climb, place one hand higher for each rep.
Doing this not only improves your grip strength, it also gets you used to the feel of the rope.
Get Used to Using Your Legs
There’s a misconception that climbing a rope is all about the upper body strength. Although arm strength is a necessity, the legs play a larger role than many imagine. If you’re struggling with the rope climb, you may have been blaming your upper body. However, improving leg strength could be the thing that gets you up.
Work with the plyo box, doing box jumps and step-ups to get your legs used to the explosive movement necessary for a rope climb. During an effective rope climb, the legs will need to bend into a squat shape. By adding squatting to your routine, you can master the movement needed.
(But Don’t Forget the Arms and Core)
Basically, every part of the body is involved in the rope climb. Bicep curls and pull-ups are both good moves to incorporate into a routine if you’re working towards a rope climb. For the core, practice the “knees to elbows” movement that will propel you up the rope.
Practice Rope Hangs
How you position your feet is an incredibly important part of a rope climb - and this movement should be second nature. If you’re struggling to get to the top, it might be because halfway through you start to lose your form. Practice getting in and out of footholds, so the movement feels natural.
Once you’re in the foothold, practice hanging from the rope, moving your feet in and out of the hold. This may not feel like much of a workout, but it helps to create an instinctive movement. If you’re building up towards adding a rope climb to your routine, start practicing footholds at the end of every workout.
Get Used to the Rope
Rope climb isn’t much like other forms of exercise, and even other forms of climbing. This is what can make it so intimidating. Get used to working with the rope by practicing footholds, hanging in position from the rope, and using the rope to pull yourself up.
To do this, lie on the floor, holding the rope in your hands. The legs can be bent or straight. Use the rope to pull yourself up, and then to lower yourself back down.
Don’t Make it Hard for Yourself
If you want to add a rope climb to your workout, begin by taking it slowly. Technique is important, and technique tends to get forgotten when we’re tired. Don’t wait until the end of your workout to give the climb a go.
Start on a smaller rope, and take the time to practice your holds. Stop climbing when your technique starts to suffer. Eventually, the rope will feel just as natural as other equipment.
Protect Your Legs
As mentioned, the legs do a surprising amount of work during a rope climb - and they also deal with the most friction. Protect your legs by wearing long compression socks, compression pants, or tape.
Once you’ve gotten used to your footholds, it should be fairly easy to decide what areas should be covered. Anywhere on the shin where the rope drags can benefit from a layer of protection.
Practicing for a Rope Climb
Begin by practicing the footholds. Start off on the ground, simply wrapping the rope across your legs until you can understand the movement. This shouldn’t take very long, but you want to be sure of the basics before you try it in the air.
Next, move on to simple rope hangs. Use a plyo box, bench, or another sturdy base to begin. Sitting on your base, wrap the rope around your legs/feet. Lift yourself into the air, using the rope. Try to wrap and unwrap your feet several times to get used to the movement with each hang.
It’s also important to practice the technique necessary to get you actually climbing the rope. Simple rope hangs are the easiest way to start. Jump up on the rope, catching with your hands. Bring the knees up towards the elbows, and then release them down again. The knees are splayed towards the elbows to allow for the maximum climb with each move.
Advance on this by incorporating the foothold. Pull yourself knees towards your elbows, and lock your feet into position. Release the feet, drop the body, and go again.
Finally, start practicing the movement to pull you up. Jump onto the rope at stretch, lift the knees towards the elbows, and clamp the feet into their hold. Straighten the legs out, but don’t move the arms upwards. This will introduce you to the stretching movement that’s necessary for a rope climb. Crouch down again, drop the legs, and repeat. In no time at all, you’ll be ready to start climbing.
Why Climb a Rope?
No matter how strong your upper body is, your grip strength might still be holding you back. It doesn’t matter what weight the rest of you can handle if your grip isn’t up to the task.
Few exercises improve grip strength like the rope climb - especially if you’re scared of heights. Then you’ll grip tighter than ever.
All Around Strength
As you may have noticed from the preparation, the rope climb uses basically every part of the body.
From the shoulders to the feet, there are few muscle groups that don’t have to engage if you want to propel yourself up that rope.
Focus On Technique
Technique is important across the gym, because it’s what keeps us from getting injured. This is a lesson you’ll never remember more than when you’re hanging from a rope suspended from a ceiling.
The rope climb forces you to recall every piece of technique you learned along the way.
Once you’ve got to the top, you’re going to feel good. No matter how wrecked you may be otherwise, there’s nothing quite like that rush you get of finally finishing a rope climb.
A rope climb is an exercise with a really rewarding end point - and then you can go higher, and faster.
The rope climb may feel like a blast from the past, but it’s fun to do. Pulling your body up a rope feels like a connection to a primal part of you, an exercise that you can imagine your ancestors doing when we were all still swinging from vines.
Rope climbs are only intimidating when you’ve never tried before. Master the techniques, and you’ll soon start enjoying it.