Climbing a rope may seem daunting, but it’s an important skill to have if you want to get to the next level on your fitness journey.
And guess what? You’re not alone.
Not one, but two CrossFit champions have been stumped with rope climbs. Fatigue has fully hit in and both Rich Froning and Katrín Davíðsdóttir have found themselves staring up at the rope unable to climb to the top.
So how do you master rope climbs as a beginner? Want to know a secret? It’s actually pretty simple when you know a few core techniques.
So whether you’re a complete beginner or someone who’s climbed a rope before, these four steps will help you get to the top safely, effectively, and without getting injured.
Step One: Come Prepared
My first rule for climbing a rope is coming prepared with the right equipment.
Let’s start with shoes…
You may think that any old workout clothing goes - after all, it’s just a rope, right?
Back when I was first learning to climb a rope, I wore older CrossFit shoes - big mistake.
I did a couple of rope climbs and destroyed my shoes, the soles were ripped off, and the laces completely came apart.
That’s why now I always opt for a more modern functional fitness shoe that has a soul and outsole that allows you to climb a rope without completely shredding it up in the process.
Reebok Nanos nines are my go-to, but Nanos, Innovates, Nobles, Nike Metcons, and most other modern CrossFit or functional fitness shoes also work perfectly fine.
The key thing to remember is that they need to have a rugged outsole, and the corner of the soles should be extremely durable.
Then you need to protect the rest of your body.
When you’re climbing up and down a rope, friction burn is a very real risk. I’ve seen people burn their shins, calves and thighs time and again.
If you want to keep your skin attached to your body (and not the rope), make sure that you have some sort of protection everywhere your body is going to come into contact with the rope (apart from your hands).
This could be standard activewear fabric, long socks, neoprene knee sleeves, or a rope-climbing device to help to protect your skin.
Step Two: Learn How to Rope Climb
Once you have the right equipment, it’s time to actually learn how to climb a rope.
But before jumping straight onto a rope to see if you can reach the top, there are four important steps you’ll need to remember to perfect your rope climb.
There are four simple steps to reach the top of your rope:
It’s that simple.
Let’s break it down into a little more detail.
If you only reach a couple of inches each time, it’s going to take a super long time to reach the top of the rope.
So, to get up the rope more efficiently, reach your arms as high as possible and make sure you’re pulling yourself up in as few pulls as possible.
I usually tell athletes to reach all the way up until their arms are almost locked out completely overhead. That’s how far you should reach and then grab the rope with both hands.
The next step is lifting.
When I say lift, I mean really lift your knees towards your chest as much as you can to get your feet as far up the rope as possible.
At this point, you probably feel like you’re grabbing onto the rope for dear life - that’s where the next step comes in to secure your position.
Once your knees are pulled up to your chest, it’s time to - not squeeze or wrap the rope - clamp the rope.
You can do this by clamping one foot on top of the other. This gives you an extremely secure hold on the rope.
You’ll probably be relieved to hear that this final step is the easiest out of the four.
All you need to do is stand up. Ok, it’s not that simple, but there’s not much more to it.
With your hands still in that full reach position, stand up. As you stand, pull your reach to around chest level.
Once you’ve done this, it’s simply a case of repeating the sequence until you reach the top of the rope.
Practise Makes Perfect
Now that you understand the four main steps of a rope, it’s time to get your hands (or, more accurately, feet) dirty by practising your clamps.
This is the step that most people struggle with the most.
I regularly see people reaching and lifting their legs will, but then they don’t know how to clamp the rope properly, and their feet start to slip.
If you do have slippy feet on the rope, you’re probably relying way too much on your upper body strength when most of the effort should come from the legs when you’re allowed to use your legs on rope climbs.
One of the best ways to practise your clamps is by bringing things back down to ground level.
Start by sitting next to the rope on a box, a bench, or some sort of platform that elevates you a little bit off the ground.
From there, you can practise your clamping technique.
Step Three: Find Your Clamp
There are three common variations you can use to clamp, so it’s about trying them all out to find what works best for you.
Let’s break down the three methods you can choose from…
The Spanish Wrap
The Spanish Wrap is probably the most common rope climb technique.
It’s slow and very controlled. I don’t personally like it because the rope is literally wrapped around your legs, so it absolutely destroys them - who needs skin, anyway?
However, if you’re a beginner, this might be the best option to start out with.
While your legs are at a higher risk of rope burn, the fact that you’re clamping with the rope wrapped around your leg makes you feel much more stable and secure.
The only other issue you may want to consider is that this variation will probably slow you down because you’re having to think about keeping the rope wrapped around your leg.
Plus, if you’re struggling to get your foot wrapped around the rope, you’re stuck there dangling on for dear life with your hands.
While this is one to try out if you’re a beginner, the next two techniques tend to be more efficient and effective as you advance.
The J Hook
The J Hook is otherwise known as the J Squeeze. This is a much faster way to get to the top of the rope than the Spanish Wrap.
To do it, you’ll need to clamp your feet together, which creates a ‘J’ with the rope. Then squeeze the clamp together on your way up - this is a much quicker way of getting in and out of the clamp as you’re climbing.
However, the J Hook doesn’t provide as much traction as you might need when you’re starting out as a beginner.
Because you don’t get the same super-strong footing as you do with the Spanish Wrap, it’s very easy to lose your grip and slide down the rope.
But don’t discount it altogether - I’ve seen this technique work for a lot of high-level athletes, so give it a go and see if it works for you.
The final clamp variation I’m going to talk you through is my personal favourite, the Stomp.
This technique looks a lot like the J Hook method, but instead of having your feet side by side, one-foot steps - or stomps - on top of the other.
For me, my dominant right foot is the one that goes on top of my base foot.
This gives you lots of traction to get up the rope quickly, without worrying about wrapping or managing the rope behind your body.
This is the technique that a lot of top-level athletes use to get up the rope quickly without fatiguing their arms, so it’s a great one to try out if you’re looking to take your rope climbing technique to the next level.
Practising the Box Technique
Now you know some of the key techniques, try each one out using a box so that you can focus on getting the correct foot position set up.
From there, you can get a good clamp and practise standing up and seeing if you can support yourself.
The box will eliminate the distraction of having to jump or pull yourself up from the ground, so it’s a great place to test out what works for you as you get started.
Step Four: Testing Your Clamp
The fourth and final step when it comes to learning how to climb a rope is testing your clamp.
As you know, why I always recommend trying out your technique from a box.
But all that practise quickly goes out the window when you actually start to climb the rope because you don’t have time to support yourself and look at your feet the whole time - so this is when you find out if your technique is really where it needs to be.
There are two ways you can test your technique to see if it’s going to translate from the box work to get all the way up the rope: the Two Pulls Test and No Hands Test.
The Two Pulls Test
Rather than just clamping and standing once on the rope, the Two Pulls Test is about making sure that you can clamp and stand two times in a row.
It’s not about how high you can get. The purpose of this test is to make sure you have the skills to get into the clamp and then get out of it by lifting your knees and feet really high.
To do it, you’ll need to clamp, unclamp, and reclamp.
For a lot of people, this is where the Spanish Wrap goes out the window.
In fact, any of the wrap techniques where you need to wrap then unwrap in the middle of your rope climb wastes time and makes things a whole lot more complicated.
No Hands Test
Test number two, the No Hands (otherwise known as 0% Arms) Test, will test how well your feet are gripping the rope.
A lot of us tend to put most of the effort into our arms when we’re practising our first rope climb.
This is fine if you’re doing a legless rope climb, but if you want to do a proper rope climb, it should be mostly your legs and core that are putting in the work.
So for this test, once you’ve got yourself up onto the rope, you need to then let go of your hands.
By this, I don’t mean let go and then fall off behind you. Instead, get to the top, stand, and then see if you can loosen your grip.
If you can do this while keeping your stability in check, that means you’re actually standing on your clamp.
If you start sliding down the rope as soon as you release your hands, that means your clamp isn’t strong enough, and you need to work on a clamp that creates enough tension to support your full body weight.
And there are the four steps you need to take on your first rope climb.
It may be easier said than done, but if you follow these four steps, you’ll be able to get up that rope a lot more quickly and easily.
And remember, practice makes perfect!
If you want to smash your fitness goals and reach that next level, check out my full list of courses on WOD Prep Academy, where you can access all of my best programming and in-depth tutorials.