Why you suck at rope climbs and what to do about it by kyle ruth

Rope climbing has become one of the staple movements at high level CrossFit™ or off-season fitness competitions. It is one of the few movements that you can almost guarantee will show up at the CrossFit Regionals and the Games. In fact, rope climbing in some form has been incorporated in every CrossFit Regional since 2013 and every CrossFit Games since 2011. If you struggle at climbing a rope you will probably not place well in these events. Take a look at the 2011 CrossFit Games highlight video of Rich Froning, it cost him the title of the Fittest on Earth.

Rope climbing, particularly, legless rope climbing requires a combination of incredible upper-body pulling dynamic and isometric strength, massive grip strength and endurance, and the ability to coordinate lower body movements with the upper-body pulls to utilize momentum to drive you up the rope. This blog is going to address each of these limitations as it relates to legless rope climbs and provide a sample program for addressing these problems progressively.

Legless Rope Climbing Limitations

Upper-body Pulling Strength

Dynamic strength is what we typically think of as “strength”. In other words the ability to move a load over a given distance. In case of rope climbing, the load is your body and the distance is to the top of the rope. During a rope climb, dynamic strength is what is required to keep you making upward progress. Most CrossFitters have developed some degree of dynamic upper-body pulling strength as part of their progressions toward strict and kipping pull-ups and muscle-ups. The problem is that a lot of training time is typically spent developing speed-strength endurance (i.e. pulling capacity) and very little developing strength-endurance. This leaves a gap in the strength spectrum where athletes have not developed the strength-endurance needed to propel themselves up the rope hand-over-hand at relatively slow speeds (when compared to a kipping pull-up or bar muscle-up). For athletes who will be competing where legless rope climbs will be included as an event, training the strength-endurance end of the strength spectrum is crucial.

*note - I am aware that “dynamic” strength is not a technical classification of a muscle-action, however it is a useful definition for the purposes of this article.

Isometric pulling, or bent-arm strength, is less commonly addressed in traditional training protocols. Part of the reason people “blow up” during high-volume legless rope climbs is a result of a lack of exposure to isometric bent-arm strength protocols. Keeping the muscles under constant tension in a partially flexed position results in occlusion of blood flow and subsequent pooling of blood in the arms. During efficient rope climbing, it is important to keep the rope close to the body and slightly “leaned back” away from the rope. This means staying in a bent-arm position throughout the entire ascent. When you end up in an extended / straight arm position, you’re in deep trouble as maintaining a grip in this position is extremely difficult and initiating a dynamic pull from this straight arm position is even harder.

Grip Strength & Endurance

The grip strength required to maintain a solid hold on a rope far exceeds that required to maintain a grip on the rings or a bar. If you don’t believe me, perform a max-duration single-arm hang on the rope and then on the rings, there really is no comparison. In the case of rope climbing we’re using a crush grip to create as much friction between the hand and the rope as possible. If the force of the friction between your hand and the rope drops below the downward force of your body mass, you fall, so you have no choice but to maintain the tightest grip possible. This means that in addition to the bent-arm isometric tension, you have to create even more forearm-flexor isometric tension, which results in even more blood pooling in the upper-body. It is this combination of maintaining the bent-arm position while using a high tension crush grip that creates the “blown-up” sensation that athletes frequently report during legless rope-climbs.

Skill and Coordination

There are ways to make the dynamic portions of the climb easier. Stronger athletes often utilize a technique where they drive their knees or legs upward in alternating fashion to help create upward momentum coupled with their hand-over-hand pulling, from here on referred to as the leg-drive technique. This technique requires a high degree of pulling and grip strength. To develop the leg-drive technique athletes need to spend enough time on the rope to dial in the coordination needed to synchronize the legs and arms. The other technique, more commonly used by weaker athletes, is the “kipping” rope climb. The kipping rope-climb consists of using a variation of a kipping pull-up to advance up the rope-hand over hand. This technique generates a massive amount of upward momentum, making the dynamic portion of the pull relatively easy and accessible for a broad range of athletes. However it requires even more grip-strength than the leg-drive technique as the act of swinging your body creates more downward force on your hands with each kip. The kipping rope climb technique is quite useful for getting the final touch at the top of the rope as it can afford the athlete with a longer period of weightlessness to re-grip the rope after the touch. Athletes looking to compete at the highest levels of this sport need to spend time developing both techniques so they have a fall-back if one fails.

Rope Climbing Progressions

The rope climbing progressions that I have laid out here are intended to be implemented for an intermediate athlete who can already safely climb up and down the rope. These are designed to improve legless rope climbs not to develop the requisite strength necessary to get your first rope climb - though many of the elements of the program could certainly be implemented in a beginner rope climbing program.

An important note when reading through the program below:

There is no such thing as a good or bad program without context, feedback, results, and a coaching process. While there are programs that make sense, our main goal is to ensure there is progression in the chosen characteristics we are going after (in this case the characteristics outlined above). That being said, if you are following a templated program (like below) that isn’t specifically written for you with an assessment process, please take into consideration that the progressions could be too quick/slow relative to your fitness level, the volume could be inappropriate for you, or a variety of other factors so please do not follow the program blindly without paying attention to your adaptation. This is just intended to be a sample of how a TTT coach might progress someone in legless rope climbing proficiency.

Program Elements (click title for video for each)

Dynamic Pulling Strength

Weighted Strict Pull-up

Strict Lean-away Pull-up

Uneven Grip Rope Pull-up

Uneven Grip Rings Pull-up

Hand-over-hand Sled Drag

Legless Rope Climb

Isometric Bent-arm Strength

Bent-arm Bar Hang

Bent-arm Rings Hang

Bent-arm Rope Hang

Assisted Bent-arm Uneven Grip Rope Hang

Bent-arm Uneven Grip Rope Hang

Grip Strength & Endurance

2-arm Rings Hang

1-arm Rings Hang

2-arm Rope Hang

2-arm Uneven Grip Rope Hang

Towel Grip KB Farmers Carry

Towel Grip KB Goblet Carry

Leg-drive Skill Development

Single-leg Drive Rope Pull-up

3-Pull Rope Climb w/ Leg-drive

Leg Drive Rope Climb

Kipping Rope Climb Skill Development

Straight-arm Rope Kip Touches

2-Pull Kipping Rope Climb

Kipping Rope Climb

Rope Climbing Program

~ Kyle

Created By
Kyle Ruth
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