Not so many decades ago, rope climbing was an exercise mainstay. Gyms had climbing ropes, and rope climbing was also a part of most school’s physical education programs. It was even an Olympic event!
Nowadays, rope climbing has fallen out of fashion, at least in most commercial gyms. Some schools may have ropes, but health and safety concerns mean that they’re rarely used.
That’s a shame because there are lots of rope climbing benefits.
The military still includes rope climbing in their training. That’s because climbing a rope is a useful skill as well as a productive exercise. For soldiers, being able to climb a rope could be the difference between life and death – gaining access to a hovering helicopter, for example. Rope climbing also helps develop confidence and a head for heights, both of which are important military qualities.
Thankfully, rope climbing has not vanished entirely from the world of gyms and fitness. CrossFit includes rope climbs in many of their workouts, and you’ll also see people climbing ropes on TV shows like American Ninja Warrior. A few die-hard exercise purists hang climbing ropes in their yards.
In this article, we’re going to discuss the benefits of this old-school exercise. After reading this, it’ll be all you can think about and you’ll want to head out and find the nearest rope and start climbing it!
Rope Climbing Benefits
Rope climbing is a very valuable exercise that’s good for your body and your mind. The main benefits of rope climbing are:
Grip strength – climbing rope tests and develops your forearms and grip. Most climbing ropes are relatively thick, which means you have to work extra hard to pull yourself up them. A firm grip is very useful for sports and in everyday life. You can build your grip with exercises like farmer’s walks and wrist curls, but rope climbing is arguably more functional and a whole lot more fun!
Back and shoulder strength – climbing a rope involves pulling your body up toward your hands. This is mostly the function of your latissimus dorsi or lats for short, which are the muscles on the side of your back. In addition, the muscles between your shoulder blades also get a great workout (the trapezius and rhomboids), as do the back of your shoulders (the posterior deltoids).
Arm strength – it goes without saying that climbing a rope is tough on your arms, and especially your biceps. Your biceps are the muscle on the front of your upper arm. Each time you pull yourself a little further up the rope, you’ll feel it in your biceps. If you want bigger, more muscular arms, rope climbing will help.
Core strength – while you’d be forgiven for thinking that climbing a rope is all about arm and back strength, your core gets a good workout too. You’ll be using your core to pull your legs up so you can use them to help you push as you heave with your upper body. If you don’t feel your core working during a rope climb, you are probably doing it wrong!
Intramuscular coordination – climbing a rope is a whole-body activity. You use your legs, core, and upper body to push and pull yourself up against gravity. Using your whole body in this fashion will increase intramuscular coordination, teaching you how to use your body as a single, synergistic unit. This should have a positive effect on things like sports performance.
Mental toughness, confidence, and determination – climbing a rope, especially one that’s 20 feet or more, can be unnerving. The only thing that separates you from a painful slip and fall is your strength and skill. This goes double if you don’t have much of a head for heights.
Training for and then achieving your first rope climb can do as much for your mental state as it does your physical. Knowing you have achieved something so challenging can have a big impact on your confidence and determination.
Rope Climbing Progressions
Even if you have strong muscles, you may still find climbing a rope really challenging. Here are a few progressions to work through that will help you achieve your first successful rope climb.
Eccentric lowering – stand next to your rope and grip it with both hands. Using a hand-over-hand action, lean back and lower yourself down until you are lying on the floor.
Lying floor pulls – as above but, on reaching the floor, use the same hand-over-hand action and pull yourself back up to your feet.
Seated foot lock – while seated, lock the rope between your feet and grab it with your hands. Use your arms and legs together to pull yourself up and into the standing position. Sit back down and repeat. As well as being a good training exercise, seated foot locks are a good alternative if you are unable to hang a full-length rope, e.g., a 10-foot rope.
Jumping foot lock – stand next to your rope and grab it with your arms extended above your head. Next, jump and lock your feet around the rope. Release your feet and repeat.
Single pull – stand next to your rope and grab it with your arms extended above your head. Bend your legs, pull your knees up, and lock your feet around the rope. Pushing with your legs and pulling with your arms, stand up. Return to the floor and repeat.
Once you can do several single pull reps in a row, you are ready to try a full rope climb. You don’t have to ascend all the way to the top if you don’t want to. Just do as many pulls as you can, remembering to save some energy for your descent.
Once you can ascend the rope using your arms and legs, you can start working on climbing the rope using your arms only. Other advanced progressions include L-sit rope climbs, straddle sit climbs, and weighted rope climbs.
Safety Around Rope Climbing
The biggest danger during rope climbs is falling. If your grip fails or you are just unlucky enough to slip, you could come done far faster than you meant to. Coming down the rope too quickly could cause painful rope burns or result in a crash landing, hurting your feet, knees, hips, spine, or head.
Minimize the risk of injury by:
- Placing a crash mat at the bottom of your rope.
- Never starting a climb that you don’t think you’ll be able to finish.
- Making sure no one walks beneath a rope you are climbing.
- Working on your rope climbing strength in the gym.
How To Get Better At Rope Climbs
The best way to get better at rope climbs is to practice climbing a rope. However, that’s not always possible.
You can develop your rope climbing muscles by doing these strength training exercises:
- Neutral-grip pull-ups
- Towel grip pull-ups
- Farmer’s walks
- Fat grip barbell curls
- Hanging leg knees to chest
- Hanging toes to bar
Climbing a rope and then coming down again under control is a significant fitness milestone. It’s right up there with doing a set of ten pull-ups, bench pressing your bodyweight, or doing a double bodyweight deadlift, and something worth bragging about!
Rope climbing is a very functional upper body exercise, and the benefits of this exercise will spread throughout your workout. It could also improve your sports performance.
If you want a stronger back, bigger biceps, a more stable core, an unbreakable grip, and superb coordination, rope climbing delivers.
Of course, you need a rope to climb, and that’s not always easy to find. CrossFit boxes usually have climbing ropes, but most commercial gyms do not. It may be necessary to buy and hang a rope in your garden.
Ideally, you should work up to climbing a 30-foot rope. That’s pretty much the “Olympic standard.” But, if you’ve only got space for a 15 or even 10-foot rope, you’ll just have to climb it for more reps.
Nowhere to hang a rope? No problem! Try towel pulls. Hang a strong towel or even a short length of climbing rope over a pull-up bar and grip one end in each hand. With your feet off the ground, pull your left hand down, so your right arm goes up. Then pull your right hand down. Keep alternating arms to replicate climbing a rope. It’s a pale imitation but one that’s better than nothing!