Rope climb – Tips for mastering one hell of an exercise

Rope climb – Tips for mastering one hell of an exercise

There is no need to hide behind our hands.  Everyone has seen the fanatic CrossFitters climbing up and down the ropes at the gym like it was the most natural thing in the world.  A lot of us have seen the videos on u-tube with mountain climbers and military personnel scaling up and down the ropes faster than we can tie our shoelaces.  What actually is going on with this exercise and more important…do we risk becoming floor decoration if we try it?

Let’s take the things from the top. Rope climbing was an Olympic event in 1904, 1906, 1924, and 1932. Athletes had to start from a seated position on the floor with legs outstretched. The feat was to climb an 8 meter rope under the pressure of the clock.  The wild part is that it had to be done without the use of legs. Legs could not be used for climbing or to push off from the floor.

Climbing may have been withdrawn from official competitions but it has remained a favorite training tool for military personnel, fire fighters and mountain climbers throughout the world.  This was not by chance.  The benefits of this exercise are numerous and most important, offer an immediate benefit in these people’s everyday workings, in other words, it is a functional exercise.   Rope climbing was incorporated into CrossFit as a basic exercise to challenge the stamina on an anaerobic level as well as aerobic. Today it is not uncommon to show up as event in international competitions such as the CrossFit Games.

What are the benefits of this exercise?  Many!   Due to the thickness of the ropes, the holding power and strength of the hands increases dramatically after only a few workouts; never mind what your abs will feel like after a few exercise sessions. The truth is: you do need upper body strength for rope climbing, but not as much as you might imagine.  The correct technique will allow you to use the strength of your legs in order to climb efficiently and relaxed.

There are three different ways/ techniques for locking the rope with your legs. The S wrap, the J wrap and the J wrap rear.  Each of these methods allows you to lock the rope between your legs and push using the strength of the legs to scale rather than pulling yourself up with your hands.

The S wrap is considered the most secure (but slowest) method because there is more contact of the foot with the rope than with the other methods.  You wrap your leg around the rope 360 degrees so that the rope hands over your shoe lace.  You step your free foot on top of the base foot securing the rope between your feet.

Pros: This method allows you to safely stop and rest whenever necessary ascending or descending, if hands are tired or rope grip needs to be adjusted.

Cons: It is the slowest method since every “step” up needs a “pause” to relax the rope that is wrapped around the supporting foot. Also this method causes the most trauma injuries        to the legs from abrasions.

The J wrap method has the least body contact with the rope. The rope is guided outside the leg and under the bottom of the foot (in a J shape) where it is “clamped down” with the upper part of the other foot. With this method, the only thing the athlete needs to do is to relax the pressure on the rope in order to allow the rope to glide between the legs.

Pros: It is the fastest method and has the least friction.

Cons: It is the most tiring method for the hands and the most dangerous for falling injuries since there is minimum support.

The J wrap rear is probably the best method choice, especially once the athlete has become familiar with the rope and wants a way of ascending faster, as well as more safely. This method combines the two dynamics.

In order to do the J wrap rear the rope is wrapped a ¾ turn around the leg so that it falls between the two legs. In order to ascend, the rope is guided under the sole of the support foot with the free foot and anchored with the upper part of the shoe.  This method combines the S wrap and the J wrap allowing faster ascents and descents than with the S wrap and with less hand effort than with the J wrap.

Pros: Combines speed and safety, relatively relaxed for the hands, as the legs do most of the work.

Cons: It’s a little slower than the plain J wrap.

Having analyzed the above methods, we can mention that naturally the legless ascent does also exist.  Climbing without legs is executed by strong well trained athletes with sufficient top body strength.  In addition, it is important that when one starts using this method that one is especially well trained in the other techniques so they can readily be used in case of fatigue.  A fall from even a minimal height can become quite dangerous and a mat underneath during training does not hurt…

“That’s all great Katia, but how do I start?”  Don’t worry.  I have prepared some strengthening tips that will be useful whether you are just starting or whether you want improvement. It goes without saying that this type of training (as well as others) should be done under the supervision of trained professionals.

In the beginning, until you familiarize yourself with the rope, it is good to strengthen your hand and back muscles.  Regardless of the method you choose in the end, the hand muscles and the muscles around the elbows will be accepting a new and different burden and are contenders for tendonitis.  In addition, you need to do the classic exercises for strengthening the chest, shoulders, biceps and triceps.

If you are a beginner your focus should be to be able to do at least one pull up on the pull up bar before trying to rope climb. Of course the more you can do the better! (Inform your trainer of your goals and ask him/her to formulate a strengthening program and show how to use the appropriate equipment.)

Helpful Exercises:

  1. Classic pull-ups: Classic pull-ups are a must for proper training.  If you cannot pull up yet, use the help of an elastic rope or, if available, a lat pull down apparatus.
  2. Pull downs: Pull downs help a lot in building strength. Start the same as with classic pull ups but try to slow down the “down” faze of the exercise as much as possible. If you still cannot do pull ups, don’t worry, you can raise yourself onto the bar with the help (a box works) and just do the unconventional phase.
  3. Towel pull-ups: Due to its unique grip, towel pull ups help in the strengthening of the back as well as the grip.   Throw the towel over a pull up or squat bar, grabbing both ends of the towel to do the pull up.  If it is difficult, just try to hold yourself on the bar in the beginning.

After all that, it’s time for you to grab the rope!  The first exercise I recommend is to learn to rise from a sitting position to an upright position on the rope:  Sit on the floor with the rope between your legs.  Try to stand up while pulling up with your hand, exchanging hands one above the other as you go. The legs can help to reduce the load as much as needed.

Time to try your first climb!  It is time for your trainer to show you how to hold the rope and support your body on it. Below is an example of a training program for the first 4 weeks:

Week 1:  Start with a jump and try to hold yourself on the rope with your legs wrapped around it for as long as possible. This will start to build endurance in your hands.

Week 2:  Start climbing!  Start with as many repetitions you can manage. The aim is to climb halfway up the rope. Wrap the rope around your foot to create a support from which you can push yourself upward.

Week 3:  Continue what you did week 2 increasing your repetitions up and down.

Week 4: Rest.

Try to control your downward moves as much as possible.  From here on in your progress will depend on the extent of your training.

So you see, the road to the top is a challenge but not impossible!  Good luck!

P.S.  Say good bye to smooth palms once and for all!  What do you think? That you can become Tom Cruise from Mission Impossible 2 without a callous?  Think again!!!

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