My first encounter with rope climbing, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t a positive one. In fact, it took me nearly 15 years to rediscover my long lost love for climbing. If only I had known at the time all of the benefits rope climbing had to offer…
When I was eight years old in gym class, I remember staring at the top of the rope and feeling sick to my stomach. I ushered others in class to pass in front of me as I stayed at the back of the line. I couldn’t fathom getting up the rope. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college I came into contact with rope climbing at Institute 3E.
At Institute 3E on Long Island, there’s a big push for athletes to conquer the rope climb. Owner Jon DiFlorio, my old mentor, uses the rope climb to teach athletes how to lift their own body weight, build confidence in their abilities, and improve upper body/grip strength by stabilizing the body. With countless successful athletes under his belt, DiFlorio is definitely onto something with programming rope climbs.
Benefits of Rope Climbing
1. Grip Strength
Grip is a limiting factor, which means lifts involving grip can only be done to the point of your max grip strength. For example, your back may be strong, but without a great grip, your deadlift will be limited. Rope climbing is fantastic for building grip strength. First, you have to hold your weight for an extended amount of time. Second, you have to progressively resist gravity with each hand as you climb higher, which forces your grip to work unilaterally and stabilize the body.
2. Arm Strength
As you climb a rope your arms are forced to extend and then pull the weight of the body higher. This creates a different dynamic on your arms you may not achieve as effectively from your regular chin-up and pull-up. Every time you pull yourself up you’re forcing one and both arms to work in unison.
3. Back Strength
Rope climbing also strengthens the upper back musculature and lats. As you climb you’re forced to pull yourself close to the rope, which is going to force the lats to work, much like they do in a pull-up or chin-up. The key difference between climbs and pull-ups is the amount of stabilization required on a rope.
4. Indicator of Power
The ability to climb a rope fast and well has a correlation with upper body power. A study published in 2015 compared power output of the timed 5-meter rope climb with other upper body power tests such as, the pull-up test, 1-RM bench press, and medicine ball throw. Researchers suggested the rope climb was a valid and reliable test for assessing upper body power. This adds another method for assessing and testing your ability to produce upper body power.
5. Fun & Challenging
When you’re hanging 20-feet above the floor and the chance of falling could leave you with serious injury, there becomes an added level of excitement and challenge. Obviously you’re not going to let yourself fall, which can help push you past limits you may not have reached otherwise.
Rope climbing is different than most exercises: there’s a clear cut finish line, and that of course is the top of the rope. Every time you make it to the top of a rope with your own strength, you build confidence in yourself. When you begin to add progressions such as removing your feet, it’s a clear cut way of seeing strength improvement, aka, a natural confidence boost.
Rope Climbing Prerequisites & Tips
- Climbing is demanding on the CNS, so use them sparingly and strategically in your program, especially if they’re weighted.
- If you don’t perform ample pull-ups or chin-ups now, your elbows may experience a little discomfort. Ease into climbing at a comfortable, progressive pace.
- Program rope climbs on back or pulling days since rope climbing is demanding on the back and grip.
- Be weary of using rope climbs before deadlifts, Olympic lifting, or grip demanding sports. You don’t want performance to suffer due to a fatigued grip.
Rope Climbing Safety & Burns
Performing rope climbs can be dangerous for new trainees, if you’re uncomfortable in your climbing abilities, or just a rookie climber – I have a few safety recommendations for you.
- Have someone spot you.
- Perform partial climbs, for example, only go up half the rope until you gain confidence to perform a full climb.
- Utilize mats under the rope to help prevent a possible accident.
Newer trainees typically experience rope burn, which is common and can leave them feeling uncomfortable. There are a few ways to help counter rope burn on the legs, ankles, and hands.
- Use regular or liquid chalk, this will enhance your grip, which may help you avoid rips.
- Wear longer socks, this helps protect the ankle when using climbing progressions with your legs.
- Wear pants, but only if they fit tightly. Baggy pants can get in the way of climbing…trust me on this one.
Rope climbs are dynamic tool that help strengthen your grip, arms, back, and confidence. No matter your skill and strength level, you can benefit from utilizing rope climbs in your programs.