Climbing a rope can be intimidating, especially when you're in a gym or CrossFit class where everyone is making it look easy. But getting past your fear and learn this skill offers several benefits. Plus, it's fun!
"The benefits of climbing a rope are multifold, from core strength development, lung development, proprioception, grip strength and simply learning to trust your body when fatigued," says Brittany Marsh, certified CrossFit coach for Kuudose.
If you can't climb a rope, though, it's often due do a strength or technique issue. So first, you need to build up the strength, and then you can focus on climbing form. Once you reach the top of the rope for the first time, all the hard work will be worth it.
"I can't tell you how rewarding it can be to watch someone walk into the gym with the goal of climbing the rope, and then finally be able to," says David Rosales, NSCA-certified personal trainer and co-owner of Roman Fitness Systems. "The ability to climb the rope is very tangible and dramatic, and that makes it a lot of fun. We had a cowbell at the top people could ring!"
Ready to get started? Here are some reasons why you can't climb a rope — and how to fix each of them.
1. Your Upper Body Isn’t Strong Enough
"In terms of sticking points with climbing the rope, most commonly people don't have the requisite upper-body strength, in particular, pulling strength," Rosales says. "It does not matter if you have the right technique to climb the rope because you still need the strength to pull yourself up."
Rosales recommends doing pull-ups, as it's the closest to mimicking an actual rope climb. It strengthens your lats, biceps and forearms — all muscles you need to climb a rope.
If you don’t have the upper-body strength to do an unassisted pull-up, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends starting with the assisted pull-up.
- Place an elastic band around the pull-up bar. Find one long enough that it hangs down, allowing you to place your feet in the bottom of the loop.
- Grab the bar, palms facing out, letting yourself hang with your arms straight and feet in the band.
- Cross one leg over the other at the ankles and tighten your core.
- Start pulling yourself up, pulling your shoulder blades back or squeezing your shoulders blades together as you pull yourself up.
- Pull up until your chin is level with the bar and pause.
- Return to the starting position.
Once you can easily perform 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps with the band, performing these unassisted without the band.
In addition to pull-ups, you can add in dumbbell hammer curls to work your biceps as well as rowing exercises into your upper-body workouts.
2. Your Grip Is Weak
If you don't have a strong enough grip, you're not going to be able to climb a rope. "Grip strength can really hold people back," Rosales says. "There's a lot of compelling research that's showing more and more the importance of grip strength."
In addition to not being able to climb a rope, poor grip strength is an indicator of your overall health, including risk of cardiovascular disease and overall longevity, according to a May 2018 study from BMJ.
Try loaded carries: “I love these for grip, core and upper-body (particularly forearm) strength,” says Rosales. “These are also great for training the forearms isometrically, which is another prominent muscle group in a rope climb.”
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with a firm grip and palms facing in. The weight should be heavy enough that you feel fatigued by the end of a set.
- Keep your arms down at your sides, with shoulders back and chin tucked.
- Walk 20 yards.
- Rest 30 to 60 seconds.
- Repeat 3 to 4 times.
To make this more difficult, use weight plates and grip the edge of the plate. “And time the loaded carries to have the set take about as long as it takes to climb the rope so that it mimics the time under tension of a rope climb,” Rosales says.
In addition to loaded carries, the ACE recommends reverse curls with a bar (grab the bar with your palms down instead of palms up) and fingertip push-ups to further strengthen your grip.
3. Your Core Is Weak
In addition to a strong upper body and grip, you also need a strong core to help you pull your legs up to your chest as you're climbing the rope.
The hanging knee raise strengthens your core and hip flexors and mimics the lower-body motion of climbing a rope. In addition, hanging further strengthens your grip.
- Hang on to a pull-up bar with your arms slightly more than shoulder-width apart and palms facing away from you.
- Bend your knees and flex your hips, bringing your knees above your hips.
- Pause, then lower your legs to the starting position.
- Don’t swing your legs (which uses momentum instead of your muscles) and make sure it's a slow and controlled motion.
- Repeat 3 sets of 12.
4. Your Climbing Form Is Off
Once you've built up your strength, it's time to work on your form.
"There are a handful of ways to climb a rope, and your choice of which will make this more or less challenging," Marsh says. For example, legless rope climbs require a substantial amount of upper-body strength and are best for more advanced climbers.
For those new to rope climbing, it's best to do a traditional rope climb that uses your legs to do a J hook with the rope to take the pressure off your arms.
- Start on the ground and jump, reaching the arms fully above your head.
- Grasp the rope and allow yourself to fully hang.
- Next, pull your knees to your chest as high as you can lift them.
- For the J hook, curl the bottom of the rope into a J shape, so you can clamp down on it with two feet. One of your feet will be resting at the bottom of the J, creating a stirrup.
- Drive your clamped feet into the rope keeping your hips as close to the rope as you can and walk your hands up until they are straight, and you are again hanging from the rope.
- Look down at your feet each time to ensure you are wrapping properly and think about standing up on the rope.
- To come down, separate your feet slightly to allow the rope to slide as you use your hands to provide stability. Don’t separate your feet too fast as you will fall too fast.
Make sure you're wearing long socks, pants or a leg sleeve to protect your ankles and legs from rope burns. You should also have a mat below the rope and/or a spotter in case you get tired at the top of the rope and need assistance coming back down.
- American Council on Exercise: "4 Moves to Help You Master the Pull-up"
- American Council on Exercise: "How To Improve Grip Strength"
- BMJ: "Associations of grip strength with cardiovascular, respiratory, and cancer outcomes and all cause mortality: prospective cohort study of half a million UK Biobank participants"