How to Master the Monkey Bar Obstacle Like a Champ

How to Master the Monkey Bar Obstacle Like a Champ
Presented by Spartan Training®

At first glance, the monkey bars seem like one of the most straightforward obstacles in a Spartan race. You did them all the time as a kid on the playground, after all. Jump, swing, reach, repeat, and you’re through, right? Wrong. There’s more strategy to gracefully conquer the monkey bar obstacle than meets the eye. Eight feet off the ground, your challenge is to grip the two-inch pipe and navigate 11–12 rungs, which may increase or decrease in height over a 24-foot-long flight of bars. Fall and touch the ground, and you owe Spartan 30 burpees. The monkey bars are actually incredibly challenging because they demand rock-solid grip strength (which isn’t exactly the focus in most run training programs) and efficient use of bodyweight momentum. But don’t let this obstacle freak you out. The mental and physical challenge it presents is totally worth the work. With these basic tips from our Spartan pros, you’ll be mastering the monkey bar obstacle like a champ in no time.

Monkey Bar Obstacle 101: What They’re Made Of 

Before you tackle any obstacle, it’s a good idea to know what it’s made of so you’re better prepared. Especially because variables like weather or other participants ahead of you can throw a wrench into your race. According to Evan Gracey, Spartan’s senior director of QC and innovation, the bars themselves are made of an extruded aluminum that Spartan has specially made. It’s stronger but lighter than regular monkey bars, and the profile of the pipe has a giant X going through it to provide extra support. The body of the monkey bar structure is built from strong aluminum with torsion supports placed to sustain the load of racers on the obstacle. Heavy-duty swivel clamps (a.k.a. cheeseburger clamps) keep the bars in place. There will be boxes, stumps, or hay bales to step onto as you prepare to jump to your first bar.

What’s the Hang-Up? Why Most Racers Struggle with the Monkey Bar Obstacle

People fear upper body strength obstacles, like the monkey bars, because they can’t do a pull-up or perhaps they can barely hang from a bar, according to Jason Jaksetic, Spartan’s lifestyle brand manager. “People have zero experience with hanging and swinging since they left their playground days behind them, so they just freeze at the notion,” he says. “Physically, people might have a long way to go, but most find that, like riding a bike, the whole process is more about remembering than training. Physically, you need to be able to hang from a bar. If you can hang from a bar, you can start working on your monkey bar skills.”

Two Gym Exercises to Improve Your Grip Strength

The importance of grip strength to tackle the monkey bars goes without saying. Fundamentally, if you can’t hang on, you drop and burpee out. So in your training, Jaksetic recommends adding dead hangs and alternating-hand dead hangs to your workouts to get your upper body muscles accustomed to bearing your bodyweight in that way. 

  • To dead hang, grab on to a bar and hang with your feet off the ground, increasing your holding time and repetitions as you build strength.
  • For alternating-hand dead hangs, hang from a bar with two hands, feet off the ground. Let go of one hand, and hang with one hand. Hold. Then reach up to grab the bar back with your free hand. Repeat on the other side. The key here is to get comfortable alternating your weight between hands and arms.

Make the Most of Your Momentum & How to Build Upper Body Strength

Using your bodyweight momentum efficiently plays a huge role in your success on the monkey bar obstacle. Think about it: the quicker you get through the obstacle, the less time you need to hang overall. “The swing motion allows you to avoid having to ‘muscle’ yourself forward,” says Jaksetic. “Let gravity pull you.” But because hanging is a pull-oriented task, and running is a push-oriented task, pulling can take a back seat in training. To combat this, “Runners just need to stop by every playground they pass and go hang on things,” he says. “Hang from every pull-up bar you see. If you have nothing to hang on, find a rowing machine.” In addition to practicing hanging, Jaksetic recommends a consistent regimen of scapular retractions, pull-ups, chin-ups, and lat pull-downs to work the muscles needed to conquer the monkey bars.

If You’re Afraid of Heights . . .

If heights aren’t your thing, it’s OK. You’re not the first Spartan racer to get dizzy at the thought of being high off the ground, and you won’t be the last. Instead of losing your composure, look up and keep your gaze on your hand on the rung in front of you. Focusing on one thing will help bolster your mental game through the obstacle. But also, don’t be afraid to drop if you need to. “Be ready to look down if you fall—which is likely. You don’t want to land all terrible-like and break something,” says Jaksetic. “It’s not high off the ground, really. You can always burpee out of the obstacle.”

Best Advice for First-Timers: Mud Messes with the Monkey Bars

Jaksetic says that some first-timers freak out because they aren’t prepared for monkey bars at different height levels. But even more so, the surprising thing that throws beginners into a tailspin is mud. Most new racers don’t realize they will have muddy hands by the time they get to the monkey bar obstacle, and that the bars themselves will be muddy from other racers. “If you are a first-timer, you just need to collect yourself. Get the most mud you can off your hands,” says Jaksetic. “Look for a straight line across the monkey bars that doesn't have too much mud on it. Then commit. Give it your best shot.”

HELPFUL VIDEOS: Monkey Bar Obstacle Overview & Training Plan

Monkey Bar Obstacle Tutorial

Check out this quick overview of the monkey bar obstacle with tips from Jaksetic. Follow his advice in training and you'll not only swing from point A to point B without touching the ground but also feel like a strong badass doing it. 

3 Monkey Bar Obstacle Training Workouts

In addition to the two grip-strength exercises above, incorporate these three workouts to your training regimen to tackle the monkey bar obstacle like a champ. We write our workouts so that can be scaled for all levels and use minimal gear so you can take them anywhere outdoors.

Always start your workouts with a warm-up and finish them with some mobility stretches. These 5-10 minutes are vital to your overall health and performance.

Workout #1: Monkey Bar Obstacle

See how many of the below you can get in 5-minute rounds (1 round = 1 exercise, 5 mins) 

Max Burpees Max Body Weight Jump Squats Max Pancake Slams Max Pushups Max Tuck Jumps Dead Hang, Go for an accumulated time of 5 minutes and record how many times you drop

5 minutes of one continuous exercise can feel like a long time, so be sure to pace yourself. If you need, take a minute of rest between each set but find a rhythm that you can sustain.

Need a Spartan Pancake? Make a makeshift one by using a pillowcase, sand/gravel, and duct tape. 

Workout #2: Monkey Bar Obstacle

Complete this circuit 4 times

30 Seconds Jumping Jacks 30 Seconds High Knees 30 Seconds Butt Kicks 30 Seconds Squats 12 Wide Pushups 12 Resistance Band Press* 12 Resistance Band Push Up 20 Burpees

*If you do not have resistance bands improvise with bodyweight. 

Workout #3: Monkey Bar Obstacle

Complete this circuit 3 times

45 Seconds Jumping Jacks 45 Seconds Burpees 20 Sandbag Slam 15 Single Arm Resistance Band Row 10/side Lateral Sandbag Slam 15 Double Arm Resistance Band Row 20 Superman w/1-second hold 8 Single Arm Row, Cable or Dumbbell