Mobility – Strength – Skill
To maximize your potential, capacity and efficiency for Rope Climbs you must master it’s specific mobility, strength and skill demands: the three-headed monster every athlete must conquer. Let’s take on the monster one “head” at a time.
There are three key positions requiring mobility in the Rope Climb.
1) Hanging: You must be able to grasp the rope and hang with arms overhead while being pain free.
2) Knees-to-Elbows [see demo]: You need to be flexible enough through the hamstrings and low back to fold your hip shut and perform a knees-to-elbows. Obviously, there is also a strength component here.
3) Supinated Grip: This is often overlooked in the rope climb. Many people experience medial elbow pain when climbing with a supinated grip (palms facing towards them). This is often caused by a lack of range of motion in that supinated position. This is likely due to Functional Fitness having a lot of movements with a pronated grip (pull-ups & barbell movements).
In order to solidly hit the positions needed and be safe the following strength minimums are suggested:
1) 60s Dead Hang: This is largely a test for grip strength, you should not be falling off the rope.
2) 3 Strict Knees-to-Elbows: First on a pull-up bar then on the rope. Keep arms straight.
3) 3 Rope Pull-ups: If you want safely do a rope climb, we recommend being able to do 4 strict pull-ups on the rope first.
Lacking pulling strength?
Check out ZOAR’s Pull-up Program for beginners.
If you do not have all the Mobility and Strength requirements, time spent learning skill will be much less productive. Build the basics, then layer on top.
The biggest thing holding people back from efficient rope climbs is an understanding of the movement.
So we broke it into detailed steps. Study. Practice. Analyze. Overcome.
Step-by-Step Focal Points
(1) The Mount
Jump up and grab the rope as high as possible with hands as close together as possible. Jumping decreases the total distance you have to climb the rope using your upper body.
However, if you jump high and grab with bent arms by the time you straighten your arms out you will almost be back on the ground…a total waste of energy. You are better off jumping less high and grabbing with very long arms.
Also, have the hands as close as possible to mimic hanging from a bar.
Hanging from a bar loads both sides of the body equally so for the rope climb the hand on top will tire less quickly.
With arms still long (don’t bend the elbows) pull the knees up to the chest. In order to get the knees even higher, you can lean back by initiating a straight arm lat pull.
This movement should feel similar to a knees-to-elbows on a bar if your hands are close together. The higher you can get your feet the less wraps you will need to climb the rope. Less wraps means faster climbs.
(3) The J-Hook
As quickly as possible find the J-Hook, the “S”-shaped wrap that allows you to put as much weight as possible onto your feet in order to give your upper body a break. You must be able to quickly and effortlessly find a ultra-secure wrap.
(4) Feet under Hips
Once you have secured the J-Hook bring your feet under your hips with legs still bent, almost like the bottom of a squat. Ideally your hands will be glued to your sternum if you wrapped high enough.
(5) Stand & Swim
Having your hips over your feet will allow you to drive with the legs rather than pull with the arms. If you are skilled at rope climbs you can let go with both hands as you stand and “swim” your hands up the rope both at once. Catch the rope as high as possible with straight arms just like in the initial mount in step one.
Repeat steps 1-5 until you reach the top of the rope.
Most competitions will require you to descending to a certain point where your hands must still be in contact with the rope (often 8 or 9 ft off the ground). This is to prevent people from jumping from the top and injuring themselves.
You will likely need to slide a few feet with a light grip and light J-Hook before reaching down and grabbing low with two hands. Once you have both hands low on the rope (by your feet) let go with your feet and extent long. Quickly let go and drop back to the ground.
Check out Rich Froning’s descending speed and efficiency in the 2014 CrossFit Games finale, “Quick & Thick.”
Avoiding Common Injuries
(1) Medial Elbow Pain
A common nagging injury with the Rope Climb is pain on the inside of the elbow. Often this is caused by tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons in this area).
However, the reason that inflammation exists is because of minor damage done to the soft tissue in the area. This can be prevented from having the prerequisite mobility for supination (see Mobility Requirements above) and warming up well.
Often athletes will prep by doing some general warm-up movements like air squats, rowing and push-ups.
However, these warm-ups can neglect certain movement specific requirements, such as the wrists, forearms and elbows.
A quick movement prep can prevent the damage caused to the elbow and help prevent further damage if you are already experiencing this.
Going through a quick progression of ring rows, pull-ups and ending with rope pull-ups can be all the prep you need. I demo the rope pull-up in the “Strength Requirements” above, but note it can also be done on a regular rope with a staggered grip.
Here is my favorite stretch to alleviate medial elbow pain and prep for rope climbs.
(2) Sprained Ankle
If this is what your gym’s ropes look like you are increasing the chances that you get injured doing rope climbs…
The extra rope on the round serves as the perfect ankle breaker. Many athletes have dropped down several feet from the floor, and had a foot land on the rope and twisted an ankle. There are two potential solutions to the problem. One, control yourself all the way back to the floor, or 2) cut off the bottom of your ropes. Basically it depends whether you own the equipment or not. But frankly, it’s probably worth the conversation with a coach / owner about safety.
Besides the infrequent “freak accident” most falling from rope climbs occurs because athletes do not adhere to the strength requirements outlined above. If you can hang for 60s, do 3 Knees-to-Elbows and 3 Rope Pull-ups there is a very reduced chance of your falling off the rope.
People only fall in highly fatigued environments where focus wanes and grip fails. Therefore, only put yourself in environments with high fatigue once you are confident and comfortable with non-fatigued settings. That sounds obvious, but I see it get violated in CrossFit settings on a regular basis.
(1) Don’t Move Slowly
Move quickly or don’t move at all (rest). Think about the rope climb like it is a snatch or a clean. You don’t try to pull slower when the bar gets heavy. You rest and then pull quickly. Same thing for the rope.
(2) Gear Up
Ropes can quickly shred your skin. Make sure you are wearing the right clothes. Especially make sure you have high socks or you have a skin guard because lots of abrasion will happen at the bottom of the shins.
(3) Both Hands
Grab the rope with two hands whenever possible. Grip is often a limiter for rope climbs, especially on thicker ropes, so minimize the amount of time you are only holding on with one hand. Implementing the “swim” in Step 5 allows for two-handed grabbing.
(4) Keep it Close
This is a principle that applies to many movements. The closer you keep the bar on a clean, snatch, or deadlift the easier it becomes. The same principle applies to the rope.
(5) Protect Your Ankles
The most common ‘injury’ during rope climbs is rope burn. Frankly, there is no excuse for this. Keep high socks and a shin guard or neoprene knee sleeve in your gym bag in case rope climbs come up in a workout. I’d hate for you to end up like this…
Top Accessory Exercises
What are the best exercises to build strength for Rope Climbs?”
Click on an exercise to see a demo video.
Specific Strength (Vertical Pulling)
• Legless Rope Climbs (this also taxes your grip much more)
• Hand-over-Hand Sled Pull (use a thick rope to hit your grip more)
• Strict Chin-Ups with Slow Lower (Also try it supinated, palms in)
Hip & Ab Strength (Midline)
• Hollow Holds (the best starting place)
• Seated L-Sit Raises (or) L-Sit Holds (this also challenges mobility)
• Hanging Knee Raise (or) Hanging Leg Raise (Level I and Level II)
• Strict Knees-to-Elbows (or) Strict Toes-to-Bar (Level I and Level II)
General Pulling Movements (Horizontal)
• Ring Rows (a fantastic way to build pulling volume and stamina)
• Ring Row Hold at Chest (mimics position of Chest-to-Bar very closely)
• Supinated Barbell Bent Rows (palms facing you)
• Chest-Supported Rows (neutral grip)
• Inverted Row; Bar in Rack
Straight Arm Pulling Strength (Lats & Shoulder Flexion)
• Straight Arm Ring Row (another great transfer drill to Muscle-Ups)
• Banded Lat Row (also great for deadlifts and Olympic lifting)
• Lat Activation Drill (great for any pulling gymnastics movement)
• Ski Erg Sprints (a personal favorite lat / triceps exercise)
Bicep Strength Movements (Elbow Flexion)
Still have issue with grip strength?
First you need to self-assess whether the issue is technical or muscular. What I mean is just because you are losing your grip doesn’t mean that your grip is the issue. If you are moving very slowly up the rope and pulling arm-over-arm each time you reset your j-hook, this issue is not your grip but your technique. The good new is as you focus on your technique, your grip strength will improve.
If you believe your main issue is technique and your failing grip is a symptom, you should focus on two things:
1) Learn to move quickly or not at all.
2) Stand and swim with both hands at the same time.
If you are believe you are mainly limited by grip strength, you are probably right if you wall into two categories of people:
1) You an an athlete who can’t climb the rope because you are afraid you will lose your grip (or) when you do climb your hands slide.
2) You are an athlete who has fairly polished technique and you find yourself taking longer rest times due to grip fatigue not elevated breathing.
Are your gymnastics movements holding you back from reaching your potential?
Statistics show five movements are far and away the most likely to show up in local competitions and online qualifiers like the Open. That’s why this program focuses on improving “The Big Five.”
1) Muscle-Ups (Bar & Ring)
2) Handstand Push-Ups
3) Handstand Walks
If your capacity in these movements is holding you back from taking your fitness to the next level, this program is for you!
Also in the Movement Library: Pull-Ups & Chest-to-Bar Pull-Ups