Conquer the Rope Climb: The Obstacle You Love to Hate

Conquer the Rope Climb: The Obstacle You Love to Hate

A recent Spartan poll revealed what community members already know: The rope climb tops the list of obstacles you dread.

Every Spartan race includes one. Generally placed near the end of a run, it can send the ablest athlete into panic mode with its mocking simplicity. Twenty feet of mud-slopped rope? How the hell are you going to climb that?

“With strength,” says Josh Rundquist, Spartan SGX coach and OCR programming coordinator at Obstacle Academy in Edina, Minnesota. “You need total-body strength to move your body up the rope and ring the bell at the top. But most importantly, you need good upper-body and grip strength.”

To help you get from bottom knot to bell ring, Rundquist recommends these three exercises. 

Exercise #1: Pullups (or Negative Pullups)

Pullups engage the muscles in your hands and forearms, along with the upper-back and biceps muscles that function as the prime movers. If you can’t yet do the traditional exercise, Rundquist recommends negative pullups, in which you lower yourself slowly.

How to do them: Using a box or step, grab the bar with an overhand grip just outside shoulder-width and your chin over the bar. “Hold your body weight up as long as you can, and then make the lowering phase as long as possible,” Rundquist says. The more time you spend on each rep, the more effective it will be. When you reach the bottom, use the step to get back to the starting position and repeat.

For a traditional pullup, grab the bar the same way. From a dead stop, pull your chin up over the bar, pause, lower yourself under control, and repeat.

Exercise #2: Towel Pullups

A towel pullup simulates your hand placement during a rope climb. “It’s wise to train for that type of grip and movement,” Rundquist says.

How to do them: Hang a towel over a pullup bar and grab both ends with one hand over the other. Switch hands on each set, so if you do the first set with your right hand on top, do the next set with your left on top.

Exercise #3: Seated-to-Standing Rope Climb

Feeling confident with your grip? That means it’s time to practice with a rope.

How to do them: With your rope secured overhead, sit on the ground with the end of the rope between your legs. Use the hand-over-hand method to pull yourself to a standing position. Reverse the motion to lower yourself back to the ground.

Related: 7 Hardest Spartan Obstacles (+Insider Tips from Spartan Specialists to Conquer Them)

Next, Fine-Tune Your Technique: S-Hook, J-hook, or Arms-Only

Now that you’ve built strength in all the key muscles involved in the rope climb, it’s time to focus on technique. Rundquist says you have three choices. “The S-hook is the most time-consuming, but it’s also the most secure,” he says. “The J-hook is faster but less secure. Or you can opt for the arms-only, which is good if you want to show off.”

How to do them: For the S-hook, start with the rope on the midline of your body. Wrap it from the inside of your thigh around the back of your leg, and then over your foot. Extend your arms overhead and grasp the rope with both hands. Jump up and use the other foot to pin the rope between your feet. “This is the most secure technique because you have five points of contact with the rope,” Rundquist says.

Once you’re in the correct position, extend your body. Move your hands up the rope. Jump again, allowing the rope to pass through your legs as you move up, then re-pin the rope between your feet. Continue until you reach the top. “It can be done in as few as three movements,” he says.

For the J-hook, start with the rope on the outside of your leg. Jump up and pull with your arms to get your feet off the ground. Use your outside foot to pullup on the rope. It should now be under your inside foot and over your outside foot. From this position, use the same sequence of movements described for the S-hook until you reach the top.

For the arms-only method, just climb hand over hand with the rope hanging between your legs. Reach the top using brute strength, supplemented by the cheers of the crowd.


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