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Rope climbing for upper body strength and much more…

When we were younger I suspect that many of us had rope climbs as part of our PE lessons along with a variety of gymnastic type tumbles, jumps, twists, lifts and rolls. As young developing bodies these type of activities are excellent to improve coordination, movement, strength, awareness, flexibility, motor skills and so forth. When we leave school very often we drop these types of activities and end up doing body building type training and often some of the skills mentioned above suffer.

I have no problem at all with body building type training, after all most of us want to look better.
Blokes – “ I want to be bigger and more ripped”.
Girls – “ I want to lose fat and tone up”.
Loosely translated as: I want bigger guns and / or I want to be leaner. However from an athletic point of view often we need more than simply ‘all show and no go’ ‘big guns’.

There is a way of adding an excellent strength aspect to your training program that as well as adding real usable strength to the upper body, can also be considered a full body functional (hate that term) exercise. Not like a clean and jerk is a full body exercise but none the less the whole body must work as a efficient unit to get up the rope. If you have climbed a rope recently you will surely agree! It can be an great hypertropy exercise as well!

So lets have a look at what’s going on:

  • It will improve grip significantly and a sign of true strength (or it’s potential) is a strong grip. From a ‘usable strength’ view point is there much use in being able to dead lift 3 x body weight if you have to use straps? Of course there are a variety of reasons why straps may be used and there is much more to this discussion, but for another day! Simply put, a strong grip increase overall upper body strength.
  • Forearm, elbow flexors and lats will be heavily loaded and have to work as one strong unit. Isolation of these muscles can be an excellent tool and I recommend some isolation exercises depending on goals and structural balance, but as with chin ups, using the upper body pulling muscles in unison improves overall upper body pulling strength.
  • Core musculature will be heavily involved, more so than chin ups, lifting the hips, knees and feet up to grasp the rope requires considerable coordination and strength. Obviously rope climbing does not involve the core as heavily as overhead squats, Olympic lifting or leg lowering but still, a weak core will have you hanging half way up the rope wondering why you didn’t opt for lat pull downs! In fact shimmying up the rope hands only and with legs horizontal is hilarious for the core, if your idea of fun is a swift kick in the privates!
  • Leg strength is required to some degree to ‘grip and stand’ throughout the climb, obviously it will not generate leg strength like squats, split squats and step up do, but, again some lower body strength is required.
  • Over coming the ‘fear factor’ that accompanies climbing a rope to a height, using your own strength and skill causes a certain hormonal survival response as well as improving mental toughness. You will never experience nerves if doing safe lat pull downs but as you are fatiguing and continue to climb a rope believe me you will have some apprehension. This causes a hormonal flood that will increase nut size! Over coming a fear increases testosterone,which in turn increases lean muscle mass, strength, improves body composition and health. I don’t mean fear as in its true sense of course.
  • It can be a great General preparation training (GPP) tool. Add rope climbs together with other exercises either in a superset, giant set of as part of a circuit and you can prepare the body well for more specific training later. I will give an example workout below.
  • Eccentric overloading of the upper body pulling muscles can be efficiently achieved by climbing to the top as usual then lowering slowly gripping with only one hand at a time through a full range of movement (ROM). Eccentric (lengthening the muscle under tension) increases strength and size and is an excellent way of over loading the prime movers involved after reaching concentric fatigue / failure.
  • Continued improvement can be maintained and measured by adding a weighted vest to the climb. Or varying the technique (increasing ROM, no legs, not using chalk to aid grip, adding static pauses, single arm eccentric lowering) and so forth. So long as these variations are noted and recorded then a measured period of training can be planned and executed efficiently.

Here is a possible push – pull upper body dominate workout using the climbing rope:

Push – pull upper body dominate workout using the climbing rope:

This is a 30 set hypertrophy workout. Note that C1 and C2 are only one set and are used to as  a finisher to fully fatigue the muscle. If you have energy to do more Cs then maybe you should have worked harder for the A’s and B’s!

Beginners can take advantage of rope climbing through a number of progressive strengthening techniques such as: jump up the rope to full elbow flexion and lower eccentrically for progressively longer times. Add knee lifts and feet grabbing techniques and before long rope shimmying will be all the rage!

To ensure the scapula remains flat against the ribcage and therefore helping with correct movement rhythm I try to add pulling from various angles. In the workout above the numerous overhead pulling on the rope is somewhat countered with horizontal cable pulling for just this reason.

Forces types whip up these ropes like a boot necks up a kyetye (he-she)…in joke sorry!

If you liked the article there are plenty more on the website. Also if you found it useful please share it and help spread the word! If you taught it was crap, climb some ropes and change your mind 🙂