Rope Climbing: The Full-Body Workout You Can Try Today

Key Points

  • If you use your legs, rope climbing is more about technique than upper body strength.

  • A CrossFit-style rope climb is a full-body workout engaging multiple muscle groups.

  • Officials removed rope climbing from the Olympics in the early 1900s, but the sport has since gained popularity in CrossFit and other athletic competitions. 

Looking for a new challenge in your fitness journey? It might be time to take a crack at rope climbing. 

Rope climbing is an exercise that's been around for centuries, found throughout gymnastics history, and is now frequently used in CrossFit gyms and seen at the World Police and Fire Games. To rope climb successfully is to climb up a vertical rope with only your body as a tool. The activity works numerous muscle groups at once while also requiring an understanding of the techniques that make the ascent possible. 

Sound daunting? Don't worry — with the proper technique, you can master it sooner than you think.

This article dives into the how-tos of rope climbing, from where it began as a sport to how you can make it to the top (of the rope). 

Rope Climbing Equipment: What You Need To Get Started

A primary characteristic of rope climbing for sport is that it requires no equipment except the strength of your own body and a rope. What you wear won't necessarily give you an advantage or disadvantage as you master the rope climb. However, due to the rough texture of a climbing rope, pick an outfit that's durable enough to protect you and withstand the texture of the rope itself.

While you can choose a couple of different rope climbing methods, they fall into two categories: those that allow you to use your legs and those that don't. 

Men rope climbing

Shoes That Won't Shred

If you're using your legs to climb (as is most common and seen in CrossFit), opt for shoes with a durable rubber sole. Between using your feet to clamp the rope as you climb and using your feet to help descend it, your shoes see a lot of friction. If you wear running shoes, they won't last long on the rope with those foam bottoms. For this reason, a modern CrossFit-style shoe is best. The shoe's hard rubber sole and durable corners keep it intact, saving you a few pairs of sneakers in the long run. 

With a legless climb, your shoe choice doesn't matter as much as your feet aren't making contact with the rope as you ascend. Naturally, you need a lighter shoe to avoid adding extra weight to the load your upper body is already bearing. However, other than that, one shoe has no specific advantages over another. 

Equipment for Beginner Rope Climbing

Regardless of climb style, the key to correctly equipping yourself for a rope climb is to have any body parts that come into contact with the rope covered, especially as a beginner. 

Long socks

During a CrossFit-style climb, your shins are one of the body parts that come into the most contact with the rope. Long, tight socks can help protect you from rope burn. 

Knee sleeves

Though not used by everyone, it's not uncommon to opt for knee sleeves to continue the protection up your legs as you climb and descend.


You can wear leggings if you want to skip the socks and knee sleeves altogether. Leggings need to be skin-tight for rope climbing; having loose leggings that slide around on your leg makes climbing more difficult.  

Gloves (optional)

Most climbers don't use gloves, as your bare hands provide the best grip you can get. However, if you want to protect your hands from wear and tear, opt for something thin with a lot of grip, like football receiver gloves or baseball batting gloves. 

How To Climb a Rope

As noted above, there are two styles of rope climbing: climbing with legs and the upper body only. If you're a beginner, climbing with your legs is a good way to learn and gain confidence, even if an upper body-only climb is your ultimate goal. 

Here's a step-by-step guide to both styles and the different methods to involve your legs in the climb. 

Rope climbing for exercise

Climbing With Legs: The Methods

If you're new to the exercise, you might assume that vertical rope climbing with no equipment requires immense amounts of strength, particularly upper body strength. However, part of what makes rope climbing so popular is that when done using the legs, not only is the activity accessible to those who don't already have weight-lifting trophies, but it's also an excellent full-body workout. 

There are two main methods of climbing with legs: the Spanish Wrap and the J Wrap. 

The Spanish Wrap

The most common technique for beginner rope climbers, the Spanish Wrap is a secure and controlled method that involves wrapping the rope around your legs for stability and traction. 

  1. Reach. Beginning by standing by the hanging rope, the first step is to reach as high as you comfortably can with both arms, then grip the rope at that level with both hands. 

  2. Get Your Knee Up. Next, with your arms reaching for the rope above you, lift the knee of your dominant leg as high as you can next to the rope. 

  3. Wrap Your Leg. Wrap the rope around the leg that's up. Wrap the rope below the knee, beginning its circle around your leg between your legs, not on the outside of them. Wrap it once around and down your leg. It should begin on the inside of your thigh, then wrap behind your shin and around your calf, coming out on the outside of your calf. Then the rope should curl around your lower shin and eventually drape on top of your foot. 

  4. Jump and Clamp. With your arms and knee up and your leg wrapped, use your foot on the ground (and your legs to pull) to jump onto the rope. Then, clamp yourself into place on the rope by using your free leg to stomp on your other foot, directly on top of where the rope rests. You should be a little over a foot off the ground and securely hanging in place.

  5. Grab and Reach. Once you're securely on the rope, it's time to reach up and grab a new section. The foot clamp keeps you in place, allowing you to push off, straighten your legs, and reach up one hand at a time until you're once again extending both arms. 

  6. Slide Your Legs Up. This is where the most upper-body strength comes into play. With the rope still around your leg, loosen the clamp you've created with your free foot and use your arms to hold you up. Keeping the rope around your leg, slide your knee up as high as possible. The movement should mirror step two, but you're already hanging on the rope this time, and you've wrapped the rope around your shin.

  7. Recreate the Clamp. At this point, your position is nearly the same as step four: arms extended and grabbing the rope above your head while one knee is up. You've wrapped the rope around your leg, resting it on top of your foot. Just as you did in step four, stop on your foot with your free leg, clamping the rope in place. 

  8. Repeat. Now, you've completed one cycle of rope climbing by the Spanish Wrap method. Continue this cycle up the rope or as far as you feel comfortable.

Due to the amount of rope-to-skin contact the Spanish Wrap involves, you definitely want to wear tall socks, knee sleeves, or leggings for this technique. Sliding your leg up while wrapped in the rope is a sure way to end up with some burns at the end. 

One downside to the Spanish Wrap is that it's not ideal for speed. Wrapping the rope around the leg takes more time than other methods, so once you're ready for the next challenge (or if you want to start at a more advanced level), move on to the J Wrap. 

Climbing a rope

The J Wrap

The most common rope climbing style in CrossFit, the J Wrap requires more strength and is more of a full-body workout than the Spanish Wrap. However, once you've mastered it, you'll be able to climb a rope with impressive speed. 

  1. Reach. Always the first step: stand next to the rope, and reach as high as you can to grab onto the rope above you.

  2. Knee Up. Lift the knee of your dominant leg as high as you can while holding onto the rope above you and keeping your other leg on the ground. The rope should be on the outside of your knee, not between your legs. 

  3. Jump, Scoop, and Clamp. You should do the jump, scoop, and clamp swiftly, making it one compound motion. Jump up so your straight leg leaves the ground. Next, bring your straight leg up and use your foot to find the rope, scooping it under and then over the foot of your bent leg. Then clamp the rope there by stepping on your foot again with the rope sandwiched between, as you would when doing the Spanish Wrap. You should now be off the ground, holding onto the rope with your arms now bent, your legs straightened, and the rope wrapped in a "J" under one foot and clamped in place on top of it with your other foot. 

  4. Reach, Again. The J Wrap's strong clamp allows you enough stability to reach your arms back up, extending them as far as you can up the rope once again. 

  5. Knee Up, Again. This is where strength comes into play. With your arms extended and tightly gripping the rope, let go of the J Wrap. Pull the same knee up as high as you can to your chest, keeping the rope on the outside of your leg. Then bring your other leg up and use the scoop and clamp method once again. You should now be sitting in a squat-like position on the rope, with both knees up near your chest and your hands holding onto the rope now around face level. 

  6. Straighten Up and Repeat. Stand up from your squat and do it all again. 

A great way to practice both the Spanish Wrap and the J Wrap methods is to start by sitting on a box with the rope in front of you and your feet off the ground. This way, you can practice your wrap without having one foot on the ground to get an idea of the strength required to pull yourself up. 

Legless Rope Climbing

If you're looking for a more intense physical challenge, go legless. 

Without the foot clamp aspect, legless rope climbing is simple, but it requires immense upper body strength as you have no lower body assistance to bear any of your weight. 

The technique is essentially the same whether you start with a jump, as many do if they're going for speed, or from a sitting position on the ground with your legs straight. Reach your arms up as high as you can. Then holding your full body weight up with just your upper body and your grip on the rope, put one hand over the other as you climb.

Legless rope climbing

Though it's pretty self-explanatory, there's still one main technique that can help for a smoother, easier climb. You can bring one hip up on the same side as the arm that you reach with by engaging your obliques. So if you're reaching up with your right arm, first bring your right hip up slightly, giving yourself a little momentum before bringing your arm up for a higher reach. 

Rope Climbing and Your Body

When people think of rope climbing, they think of the upper body strength required to pull oneself up a rope. However, unless you're going legless, rope climbing is more of a full-body workout.

"Climbing rope requires great grip strength and great leg and coordinated leg strength," Marcus Filly, professional CrossFit athlete and founder of Functional Bodybuilding, explains. "We need to use our lower body [to rope climb]. We need to use our hips, we need to use our legs, to stand up the rope."

As with a technique like the J Wrap, you're engaging everything from your lower body to your shoulders and back. 

Here are some of the muscles worked while rope climbing.


Though it's important to stress that rope climbing isn't an arms-only workout, don't overlook the arm strength you can gain from the exercise. From the forearm strength required for a strong grip to the strain you feel in your biceps as you pull your body up each time, rope climbing helps tone and strengthen your arms. 


You may notice that when you're extended in the air and holding onto only a rope for dear life, you instinctively engage any muscle that might help you stay stable and safe. This includes your chest — both while you're holding the rope close to your chest as you bring your knees up and while you're pulling your body up to your hands. With these movements, you're engaging your pectorals as part of the process. 


Though it's a pull exercise (rather than a push), the motion involved when climbing a rope isn't that far off from a shoulder press. While that pull may use your biceps more than your shoulders, it's still engaging your shoulder muscles as you reach up and bear your body's weight. 


If rope climbing is similar to a shoulder press, it's even more similar to pull-ups and lat pull-downs, two of the most effective back and latissimus dorsi, or lat, workouts. Rope climbing targets those muscles similarly: reaching up with both arms and pulling your body up is nearly the same motion as a traditional pull-up. If you're already capable of doing several pull-ups, you have an advantage in rope climbing.

Rope climbing at the gym


Particularly with the J Wrap technique, rope climbing uses legs too. Holding yourself in place engages your hamstrings, and standing up from the squat engages your hamstrings and quads. 


In most situations where you lack stability or balance, you're probably engaging your core quite a bit, and rope climbing is no exception. Since a rope is so pliable, you have very little stability as you climb, forcing you to engage your core to create stability within your body. Each time you bring your legs up towards your chest, you're working your core even more, similar to a toes-to-bar abdomen exercise common in CrossFit. 

Where To Rope Climb

Rope climbing entered organized sports history as a gymnastics event centuries ago, but it’s extremely popular among the CrossFit community today.

If you're looking to rope climb, the easiest way to get started is to head to the nearest CrossFit gym. There, you have guidance from an instructor as you learn the technique. You can also be sure you're climbing the same length of rope as the pros, which is 15 feet for a standard CrossFit rope climb. 

Some standard gyms also have ropes to climb, but availability varies. CrossFit gyms are your best bet. Setting up a rope at home is another option if you have the space, but ensure it's installed correctly for a safe climb.

History and Discontinuation of Rope Climbing

Rope climbing has been around for centuries and has evolved as an exercise in that time.

Early records of rope climbing began appearing in the late 16th century when people practiced rope climbing as part of gymnastics. Through the years, the definition of "artistic gymnastics" changed, and rope climbing entered and left the sport intermittently until the late 19th century.

The first modern Olympic games took place in Athens in 1896, and rope climbing was on the docket as an artistic gymnastics event. This event was a legless climb and a speed competition. Between the 1896 and 1932 Olympics, the rope climbing event continued to make its way in and out of the scheduling. 

Why Was Rope Climbing Discontinued?

After the 1932 Olympics, officials discontinued rope climbing as an Olympic event. Until this time, it still fell into the category of artistic gymnastics, which ultimately led to its discontinuation.

Those in the artistic gymnastics community felt that the sport didn't fit the mold of an artistic event. Rope climbing was a timed sport measured in seconds; it was (and still is) a speed climb event. In all other artistic gymnastics events, artistic movement dictated the score rather than something as quantifiable as seconds. Many felt it fit better as a track and field event, but ultimately, officials removed it from the Olympics altogether. It has remained off the world's biggest stage ever since. 

Hands climbing a rope

After its discontinuation as an Olympic sport, rope climbing persisted as a collegiate event with approval from the NCAA until the 1960s, when it disappeared for about three decades. 

Enthusiasts revived rope climbing a few years before the turn of the century in the Czech Republic, where it resurfaced as a sport and has gained and maintained popularity ever since.

Now, it's a common CrossFit event and a major event at the World Police and Fire Games, which still requires a legless climb. Both events are speed competitions. The difference is that in CrossFit, competitors compete using their legs and feet, typically using the J Wrap method described above. 

Rope Climbing: Try a New Challenge Today

Rope climbing is an excellent workout that engages multiple muscle groups, whether you're going legless or with legs; climbing for speed, technique, or strength; or just hoping to pick up a new skill.

Ensure you're using a properly secured rope, and consider having a coach or a friend around when you first begin for safety.

Head to FitnessCorner for tips on building your core, back, and lower body strength before you start.

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