What used to be a staple of 1970s gym classes has become a common test of gymnastic skill, coordination, upper body endurance, and grip strength for CrossFit Regionals and Games athletes. The rope climb comes up in CrossFit® training just often enough to cause stress and panic (for some folks!) each time it does.
Let’s flash back to the brutal Saturday workout of the 2017 CrossFit Games Regionals:
100-ft. dumbbell overhead walking lunge (80#/55#)
50 wall-ball shots (30#/20#)
10 15-ft. rope climb
50 wall-ball shots
100-ft. dumbbell overhead walking lunge (80#/55#)
Time cap: 16 minutes
If it’s the ten 15 ft rope climbs that have you reflectively shaking your arms with fatigue, you’re not alone. We saw the best athletes in the world fail rope climbs, lose their form, and struggle through 10 ascents after double-unders had already taxed their forearms to the max.
The 2017 Regional competition proved rope climbs can be a real doozy even for the fittest of the fit, let alone the everyday athlete or functional fitness fan. Because let’s be honest, even if you’re lucky enough to get your sweat on at a box that has a rope (or even multiple ropes) how often does it cross your mind to hop on the rope at the end of a grueling WOD or lifting session. Moreover, when was the last time your box had rope climbs programmed into the workout of the day itself?
That’s why we consulted with three experts to bring you the latest and greatest tips and tricks for improving your rope climbs so that you can stop fretting about rope climbs and start fretting about other parts of the WOD like those 100 ft walking lunges, for example.
When it comes to rope climbing there are two factors, first there is the strength that rope climbing requires, and then there is learning the skill of efficient rope climbing, says Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault. “I recommend that athletes first work on developing the strength required to pull their body and down the rope. Because once you have the strength to move yourself up the rope and you add in the skill, then you can really kill it.”
Improve Rope Climbing Strength
1. Grip Strength
There’s no way around it, climbing a rope requires grip strength, says Wickham. But there are plenty of fun ways to improve grip strength (while also strengthening other parts of the body). Wickham’s go-to’s are farmers carries with plates or kettlebells and plate pinches.
CJ Maldonado, CrossFit Trainer at ICE NYC, recommends incorporating a towel into training in one of two ways. “Either wrap the towel around the pull-up bar to make it nice and fat and then do as many pull-ups or scaled pull-ups (with a resistance band) as you can. Or, hang a towel over the pull-up bar and practice doing towel pull-ups,” he says.
The simplest version of a towel pull-up is to wrap a single towel over the bar, grip one end in each hand, and pull up. But to mimic a rope climb, you can alternate which hand is higher than the other for each pull-up rep. Because a towel is thicker and closer in texture to the rope, incorporating it into your upper-body days will leave you better prepared to tackle the rough, thick feel of the rope.
2. Work On Upper-Body Strength
“How much an athlete will need to work on their upper body strength depends on where they are to start off with. For example, can they do one strict pull-up? How about 10?” says Wickham.
Any kind of exercise that works your lats, shoulders, or biceps such as a pull-up, bicep curl or row with a dumbbell, barbell, or kettlebell will translate to a stronger rope climb, he says. For athletes who cannot do a strict pull-up, Wickham recommends grabbing a set of rings or TRX bands and working on “ring” rows, which will help prepare an athlete for both pull-ups and rope climbs. He also recommends not rolling your eyes at dumbbell bicep curls and shoulder presses because isolating both of those muscles will improve your rope climb.
3. Work On Lower Body Strength
“If you have the upper-body but not the lower body (i.e. you find that your arms are doing ALL the work when you’re climbing the rope) work on the high box jumps or step ups which will strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. If you don’t like or are afraid of the box, work on single legged or even pistol squats with the assistance of a box or bench as needed,” says Maldonado. The leg movement used to scale a rope is very similar to a squat, he adds, so any squat movement or variation will lead to a better climb.
4. Core Strength
Climbing the rope efficiently is about being able to do some sort of toes to bar, or knees to elbows, and then standing up. Even if you don’t have the skill or rhythm of climbing a rope down, working on knees to elbow will help develop the core strength that rope climbing requires, Maldonado explains.
Improve Rope Climbing Skill
1. Baby Steps
For someone new to rope climbing, starting small and doing partial climbs up the rope is a great way to start safely, develop rope confidence, and improve strength and skill. Or, if you have access to a short rope that is 10 feet long, start there.
2. Get Nasty
“Get nasty, get seriously nasty with the rope. People are afraid to just go for it. But if you want to get better at the rope you have to trust the rope and your body,” says ICE NYC Head Coach and CrossFit Games Athlete Deanna Gibaldi. While skill is important, she explains, everyone will have a different relationship with the rope, so experimenting with holds that work best for your body and physical strengths is imperative.
3. Practice Foot Holds
“I recommend athletes practice getting their feet into position by setting up a box 6 inches from = a rope, sitting on the box, grabbing hold of the rope with their hands, and then practice putting their foot into position either the J hook or s wrap,” says Maldonado. “Once you get your foot in position, practice standing up and hanging from the rope so that you adjust to the feeling of the foothold,” he adds.
4. Get Used To The Feeling Of Climbing A Rope
To toughen up your hands, improve back strength, and get used to the motion of moving up and down the rope, practice by doing a rope climb variation. “Start by laying on the floor holding the rope with your hands as your legs lay either flat or bent. Using just your upper body strength, pull yourself all the way up to stranding, and then slowly lower yourself back down,” says Maldonado.
This will help strengthen the muscles you need to climb a rope, tax your grip, and get your hands used to the feeling of holding the braided rope.