What would be your choice for the activity involving full body strength and coordination?
If I were forced to choose just one, I’d go for climbing. Climbing and hiking was a big part of my life in my younger years and I loved every facet of climbing. Rocks, trees, mountains, you name it and I’ve found my way up to the top of them.
Early on it was mostly just about my love of the outdoors and getting out in nature. But I soon realized how good it felt to climb and how I had gained good strength and even mental adaptability from all that climbing.
It’s no wonder that climbing is an essential part of the “primal” movement community. It’s an instinctual activity that doesn’t require a lot of cueing to start. I’m around kids all day and it’s really interesting to see how much they love climbing and just immediately jump and start scaling the obstacles in front of them.
That being said, though climbing may be a “natural” thing for all kids to do, it doesn’t mean that all kids or adults know how to do it well without some advice and good training.
Climbing involves strength, a bit of creativity, and a lot of perseverance, which is why I love it and incorporate it into my routines as much as possible.
In this tutorial, I’ll share my personal recommendations for progressing with rope climbing in particular.
Climbing is the Ultimate Full Body Workout
Just what is it about climbing that makes it so good? Well, just like the best training activities, you need to employ your whole body to make it happen.
The combination of body movements that climbing requires is so varied and unlike anything else that most of us do in our normal daily lives. You have to coordinate your arm, trunk, and leg movements to pull and push your way up.
This full body work is stimulating for so many great reasons, including concentration, a great balance between your pushing and pulling abilities, and for the pure proprioceptive joy in moving your body toward the goal of the top.
Why “Full Body” is Best
Exercise programs and trainers have a tendency to group exercises into categories such as upper and lower body pushing, pulling, rotations, etc.
It makes sense with regards to making sure you aren’t neglecting certain areas (usually the ones you aren’t good at yet….), but be wary of trying to isolate your actions so much that you forget our bodies are meant to move as a whole unit.
We evolve and learn through action/goal oriented movement, and these movements aren’t strictly divided into push or pull and whatnot.
Think about the last time you got roped in to help a friend move. All that carrying and lifting and maneuvering can’t be classified into distinct groups of actions. When you are hauling that old, heavy couch up a narrow stairwell, you’re pretty much doing whatever you can to accomplish that goal.
That’s what real life, practical movement is like. And that’s what climbing is like.
It’s a great combination of pushing and pulling, lifting and pressing, twisting and turning, and every other way you can think of moving. Sometimes you’re doing more of one than another and then that switches, or else it seems like you are using every bit of muscle action you can muster.
I can’t think of anything better than that in terms of “functional” fitness.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with splicing moves out for training, especially for shoring up your weaknesses. In fact, I highly recommend cycling those types of corrective training into your regimen as needed. But for getting the most bang for your training time, climbing activities are hard to beat.
It’s not my intention here to teach you to mountain climb or hit the nearest indoor climbing wall and be like Spiderman, but I do want to share with you some movement variations using a rope and a wall.
A simple, free hanging rope – that’s solidly secure – is a great piece of equipment for a lot of full body exercise in a short amount of time.
10 Rope Climbing Variations to Work On
There are probably countless climbing variations I could describe, but I’ll show you some of the basics here. In this video, you can see a demonstration of each of the rope climbing variations described below.
Rope Climbing Variation #1 – Jump Assist Pull-Up
This is a great place to start even if you are already proficient with pull-ups on a bar or on the rings. If you’ve never worked with ropes before, the gripping and strain on the hands and wrists from simply hanging on can be a revelation.
- Start with the rope close to your body, and take a small hop as you reach up and grasp on to the rope.
- Keep your hands a few inches apart and alternate hand positions with each repetition.
- The jump and grab on the rope is a great start for the gripping strength you’ll need to climb.
- If this is too much for your hands, go ahead and start with your hands on the rope as you jump up. After a few workouts like this you’ll be able to do the jump and grab variant.
Rope Climbing Variation #2 – Leg Assist Pull-Up
Here you’ll use your legs to assist in pulling for a fuller range of motion.
- Start up on your toes with your hips back as you hold on to the rope.
- Pull yourself up with your elbows close to your sides and use just enough force through your legs to pull up as high as you can.
- Get into a good rhythm and alternate hand positions as you do each repetition.
Rope Climbing Variation #3 – Row to Pull-Up
With this variation, you’ll combine a row and a pull-up, using the following sequence:
- In the row to pull-up, start with enough knee bend to have your upper body parallel to the ground when you start the pull.
- Pull strongly and sit back a bit as you go up to turn the movement into a pull-up.
- Find a good rhythm and work on alternating the hands as you grasp the rope.
Rope Climbing Variation #4 – Alternating Pull-Up
Alternating pull-ups on the rope is the next big step towards a full climb on the rope.
- Reach up high with the hands positioned close together.
- Keep your elbows in close and pull yourself as high as possible.
- Alternate grips with each repetition.
Rope Climbing Variation #5 – Leg Assist Climb
Similar to the row to pull-up, you’ll start in the same position, but follow this sequence instead:
- Instead of a long pull as you did with the row to pull-up, climb hand over hand to get to the pull-up position.
- This is the actual action of climbing but with lessened bodyweight.
Rope Climbing Variation #6 – Butterfly Assist Climb
This is a variation that you may have actually learned in gym class! It’s a classic move that uses your leg strength to reduce the weight your arms have to lug up to the top.
- Begin with a jump assist pull-up with as high a reach and pull as you can muster.
- Then once you are up, place the soles of your feet to sandwich the rope and squeeze tight to help yourself use the rope to climb on up.
Rope Climbing Variation #7 – Pull-Up Climb
Now we head into what most people think of as an “actual climb.”
- As you start heading into this variation, you can make your climbing motion shorter and reach just a few inches above one hand with the other.
- When you get stronger, you’ll then work on reaching up higher and higher for a longer pull.
- Work on getting to the top of the rope with long “strides”.
Rope Climbing Variation #8 – Straddle Butterfly Assist Climb
This is a movement that leads to a straddle (legs wide apart) climb.
- The exercise starts out like the previous butterfly assist climb.
- This time, as you pull, you’ll go out of the butterfly and lift your legs up into a straddle for a second.
- It’s definitely more difficult than it looks.
Rope Climbing Variation #9 – Full Straddle Climb
The full straddle climb demonstrates a great amount of core strength as well as a good strong pull in the climb.
- You’ll notice that the rope will tend to swing more than in the previous variations.
- A lot of your energy will be used toward keeping that sway under control.
Rope Climbing Variation #10 – Straddle V-Sit Climb
I threw this in here for s**%^ and giggles. As you can see I need some more practice time to make it smoother.
- Once a full straddle climb isn’t much of a challenge you can progress by lifting the legs up as high as possible in a straddle.
- Coordination and strength are taxed here to the fullest.
5 Wall Climbing Variations to Play With
We have this kids’ climbing wall here in my gym in Japan. The kids love it and it’s a fun activity for adults as well.
Wall climbing (also called indoor rock climbing) is a great way to work not just your upper body strength, but with proper variations you can work on your lower body as well. In this video, I’ll show you the five wall climbing variations I describe below:
Wall Climbing Variation #1 – Beginner Jump Climb
The jump to hold on a rock wall is a fairly advanced move.
- You can practice by gathering a secure foot hold and grabbing a hand hold on a jutting that is at chest or neck level.
- This allows you to pull and let go as your momentum swings you up for another grab higher up on the wall.
Wall Climbing Variation #2 – Upper Body Base Climb
In this variation, the upper body will bear most of the load.
- In this move, you’ll notice that I’m spreading my hand fairly far apart and the lower arm is locked straight.
- This provides a stable base to swing my legs up and around to land on another foot hold.
Wall Climbing Variation #3 – Leg Emphasis Climb
In this variation, your legs will do the brunt of the work.
- To work on your leg flexibility and strength from odd angles, hold your hands close together and reach up and out as far as you can with one foot then the other.
- Great foot and leg control and strength can give you a lot more options in rock climbing and in life in general.
Wall Climbing Variation #4 – Base Straight Arm Climb
This is an interesting variant where you emphasize that straight arm as a base to move from.
- Unlike before where you swing your legs around, you’ll now look at the options you have for hand and foot holds with one arm locked out as support.
- Keep your bottom arm straight as you move your other arm and your legs up the wall.
Wall Climbing Variation #5 – Side Climb
Side climbing, as I show in the video, mimics a narrow route, either in terms of space or in options for hand and foot holds.
- Here, you are limiting yourself to increase the difficulty and as preparation for what may happen when you go up on a difficult rock.
- Keep your body turned toward one side as you scale the wall.
How to Program Climbing Exercises into Your Routine
Climbing in general, and rope climbing specifically, is pretty intense training and it takes a while for your hands to get used to it, even if you are plenty strong in your bar and ring pull-ups.
Consequently there is more potential for hand strain and injuries, so I like to have people start with lower repetitions and higher rest periods.
For the first 4 variations in the video:
- Work between 3 to 7 sets.
- Do no more than 6 to 8 repetitions.
- Rest at least 2 minutes between sets.
- Have the patience and only add sets and reps once your form is good and your hands can take it.
For the 5th exercise, in which you are actually climbing, I’d treat each time up as a set, and rest between each climb. It may be that you get to be very strong and conditioned but I’d still reset and shake your hands out before the next climb up.
Start at 2 minutes rest between each climb and decrease the rest period as you can tolerate.
Again, be patient!
The last thing you want is to feel your grip weaken when you are 15 feet off the ground…
Expand Your Creative Horizons with Climbing
I love climbing and hiking, and I try to get some in whenever I can. But while I’m jonesing for my next trip out in the wild, I can make do okay with the rope and small climbing wall rigged up in my gym.
As you can see from the videos shown in this post, you will only be limited by your creativity on the rope and rock wall.
For full body coordination and strength, not only in the large back, shoulder, and arm muscles, but in our hands and feet, climbing of all variations is a great idea for developing our fitness.
Plug a few of these variations into your training and you’ll discover good improvements in the rest of your training and in your daily activities.