Close your eyes and imagine your 14-year-old self standing next to your fellow gauche, acne-covered middle-school friends. You’re all standing at the base of a climbing rope staring up as one of your classmates flails around, unsure whether he is making his way up or down. A piercing whistle from your P.E. teacher lets you know that your turn has now come and you must mount the rope and climb under the watchful eyes of all your peer in the gym.
There were always three types of kids. The first type were the kids who flew up the rope like skittles-buzzed spider monkeys. Then you had the kids who would miraculously come down with a sickness that would get them out of class that day. Lastly, you had the kids who fought their way up the rope despite being wholly unprepared for it.
Which type were you?
Dr. GJohn claims he never had to climb rope in gym class…and it shows! I watch him try and get up the rope and he looks like the 14-year-old boy flopping around like a wet noodle on the rope. I watch him struggle with the rope and see multiple areas of improvement and the obvious one is technique. If you don’t have the technique, you won’t get up the rope.
In a famous Eric B. & Rakim song, Rakim raps “don’t sweat the technique”, clearly he wasn’t discussing the rope climb. I’d rephrase this song for the dreaded rope climb:
“sweat with poor technique”
Just look at this young lady, she is doing the “Frogger” gym class rope climbing method, sweating her way to the top, clearly making it harder than it needs to be.
Despite what category you found yourself in as a child, most adults find themselves somewhere between being wholly unprepared and finding excuses to get out of it. Though we may not look exactly like a spider monkey while doing it, there’s no reason you can’t learn to get to the top. There is no better feeling in the world than to succeed at something you fought hard for.
In the words of U.S. Army General George Patton – a man who I am almost positive has climbed a rope at least once during his military career –
“Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory”
It’s time to drop the excuses and give yourself something to fight for. Don’t sweat with poor technique like Dr. GJohn and Coach Chris. Get these techniques down from the start and get to the top of the rope!
3 Techniques for Rope Climbing
The following techniques are generally considered as the most effective and efficient techniques for climbing a rope.
What you need to know about climbing a rope is that it takes time and attention to detail. Don’t muscle up the rope with your arms! Pay attention early on to what your feet are doing.
A good rope climber can completely take his or her hands off the rope for a second while climbing. This means that you need to get to a point where -using one of the following methods – you can hold most of your body weight with your feet on the rope.
After I list and explain the techniques, I provide a list of progressive exercises to train your body all the way from a basic rope hang to a full rope climb. As always, spend your time progressing one step at a time and don’t skip a step until you master the previous one!
1. S-Wrap (Spanish Wrap)
The S-Wrap is the most common method of climbing a rope. It is relatively simple to figure out and usually the easiest to lock your feet into.
Be sure to grab up nice and high on the rope before beginning your ascent. You start by raising your knee up above your hip and wrapping your foot around the outside of the rope one full revolution. Remember “outside, inside, hook”.
The “hook” is what gets the rope to lay across your shoe-laces. You then clamp down on the top of the rope with your other foot. At this point you are in a squat position with your knees pointed outwards and hands straight above your head and holding onto the rope. Now, extend your legs straight out in front of you, thrust your hips forward, and pull the rope towards your chest and repeat!
I use this method most with women or those progressing to the top of the rope. I was working with one woman who is training for an upcoming Spartan race and she couldn’t move up the rope. She was sweating with poor technique until we went over the S-Wrap.
Once she learned this technique, she was able to make it halfway up the rope on the first day! After this, she was flying up the rope and in a week, she was ringing the legendary bell on the COR rope! She did end up with a light rope burn on her shin but she learned quick to rock her knee high socks for comfort.
Pros: Most secure method, requires the least amount of upper body strength.
Cons: Slowest method and harshest on the shins.
2. Speed J-Wrap
The Speed J-Wrap is by far the quickest method for rope climbing. You secure the rope with your feet by “scissoring” the it in between your shoe-laces and clamping down.
Get your knees up high then place your dominant shin behind the rope with your knee pointing outward on one side and foot on the other. Place your other foot underneath the first leg and mirror the same position on the other side (shin touching rope, knee pointed outwards).
Imagine sitting cross-legged with the rope between the laces of your shoes. Now hook the rope between your laces as you bring your feet back to a side-by-side squat stance with the rope clamped between the feet. Now extend your legs straight out in front of you, thrust your hips forward, and pull the rope towards your chest and repeat!
All the middle and high school athletes (particularly the upper body dominant, swimmers for example) who are skinny as a pole excel with the J-Wrap method.
One young buck I was working with didn’t have the upper body endurance to hang on the rope all day. Therefore, we went over the J-Wrap method. He excelled moving up the rope, as he could use his arms and his light frame (probably a 28 inch waist…oh boy swimmers).
Remember, this one isn’t for everyone. He had strong arms and was extremely light weight, making it easier for him to get his skinny butt up the rope.
Pros: Fastest method, least amount of shin abrasion.
Cons: Most amount of upper body required.
3. Secure J-Wrap
The secure J-Wrap is a good middle-ground in terms of security and amount of upper-body required. It’s a cross between the S-Wrap and the Speed J-Wrap. You begin that same way as you would with the S-Wrap. Perform the first two steps, “outside, inside,” but do not “hook” yet!
With the inside of your foot right next to the rope, the first two steps will bring that foot around the front of the rope so that the outside of your foot is now against it. At this point you want to perform the second step of the Speed J-Wrap by placing the other leg’s shin across the rope underneath your first leg and hooking the rope up to be clamped between the feet.
I was working with a 180-lb guy who had a fixation with rope climbing. Maybe it was built-up energy from not being able to do it as a kid but we tried and tried to get it. In fact, he inspired this article as he said he was watching videos online and was obsessing about it!
Once I heard this, I had to jump in and help him get to the top. We figured this was the best method for him, as he was big, but had the upper body strength to get up to the top. He also was very technical, so the technical aspects of this weren’t as big of an issue. Once again, in a week he was able to get to the top, magic 🙂
Pros: Faster than S-wrap, more secure than Speed J-Wrap.
Cons: Inner thigh abrasion, trickiest to learn.
Now that you have learned the three techniques, it’s time to choose the one that works best for you. Don’t worry about choosing one yet though! Wait until you master the first four progressions. Sample all three techniques with both legs acting as your dominant leg before making a final decision! Many times one technique will feel drastically more comfortable than the others. As a reminder, don’t progress too quickly! Don’t get too caught up in how long it takes you to master a step, everyone’s body has it’s strengths and it’s weaknesses. Take your time to master each step in this order and your body will be prepared to tackle the full rope climb by the end.
If you do progress too quickly, you’ll put yourself at risk for a few injuries. For one, if you are unable to use your whole body, you will overuse your shoulders and put yourself at risk for shoulder impingement [read more about the different types of impingements]. As we wrote, here are the two most common shoulder impingements:
Internal Shoulder Impingement
The most common form of shoulder impingement typically happens in older adults due to postural instability and years of degeneration. It is characterized by pain in the front of the shoulder during movements which require lifting the arms above the head. Degeneration and inflammation narrow the shoulder cavity while overhead movements pinch the tendons over and over. In short, your having a space issue. This can greatly decrease your comfortable range of motion and, if left untreated, can lead to greater shoulder injuries.
External Shoulder Impingement
External impingement is most common for athletes in sports that involve throwing or other overhead movements. Such sports include swimming, baseball, climbing, volleyball, racket sports, and weightlifting. It is characterized by pain in the back of the shoulders during movements which involve rotating the arm outwards or pulling the arm back, as in the cocking phase of a baseball pitch or freestyle stroke. The repeated rapid stretching and tightening of the muscles and tendons in the shoulder joint leads to imbalances between the front and the back of the shoulder. This causes irritation, rubbing, and breakdown of the posterior cuff, eventually leading to impingement during arm elevation.
Rope Climbing Deadhang
6 x Max Hold
Practice until you can consistently hold for 30 seconds for 6 reps.
Rope Climbing Tuck-Up Holds
6 x Max Hold
Practice until you can consistently hold a tuck for 10 seconds for 6 reps.
6 x Max Pull-Ups
Practice these until you can consistently perform at least 5 pull-ups for 6 reps.
Rope Climbing Walk-Ups
5 x 5 Laps
Practice these until you can perform 5 laps in a row lowering your back all the way to the ground and back up again.
Assuming you stuck to the progressions and mastered each one, your body will have the strength it needs to begin work on your full rope climb. It’s a good idea to keep these fundamental exercises in your repertoire to revisit later on when you want to mix up your routine.
What’s great about rope climbing is how much it works the different parts of your body. It’s a crazy combination of upper body endurance, lower body coordination, core strength, and forearm power. In terms of controlling one’s own body weight, it’s more advanced than push-ups, pull-ups, and planks. It’s all three combined!
If your goal is functional fitness I can’t stress enough how important it is to control your body in space. Take a break from lifting weights and learn how to lift your own body!
Look at the case examples and see which “generalization” fits best for you. These are not hard and set rules as everyone is different but these are typically the categories I break it into.