Finding The Unicorn: Nailing Down The Rope Climb In 6 Simple Steps

August 05, 2018

Photocredit: Michael Brian Photography

One of the most exciting, intriguing, and fun yet challenging exercises in CrossFit gyms around the world is the rope climb. It is the unicorn hanging from the ceiling or tucked away in the corner around a hook. It doesn’t show up very often in a workout, but when it does the reaction can be two-fold. For those of us that excel in the rope climb, it’s game on. For those that struggle with it, it’s “what do I do with my feet again” and how can this unicorn even be real.

The following six steps are a detailed step through how to find that unicorn for those still searching for it. For others, it might a different way of approaching the movement, in one way or another. The aim is to get better, one step at a time - foreshadowing :) 

Before we start thinking about the rope climb, take a quick inventory of all the other movements you already perform. Believe it or not, if you do many of these moments correctly, proper technique, posture, and position, the rope climb really becomes an exercise in skill transfer, combining these exercises into one beautiful whole, and strength of movement endeavor.

Step One - Before You Get On That Rope

You might be thinking, what are these movements and how strong do I have to be in them. The rope climb incorporates strength and stability of the upper body including areas of the upper to mid back, upper chest, biceps, and forearms - everything to help you to hold on to that rope. In the video below we provide relative milestones you should have in place and accessory movements familiar to CrossFit, Gymnastics, and traditional bodybuilding exercises that will facilitate the development of the required strength and stability.

Step Two - Getting Comfortable From the Ground Up

Once we have achieved the necessary prerequisites in terms of movement pattern strength off the rope, on the rig, on the bench, and grip wise, we have officially graduated to the rope. However, we’re not gonna rush. We are going to apply that new found strength working with the rope from the ground up, keeping it close, and by simply hanging in a number of variations. In the next video in the progression, we cover a simple series of movements that focus on utilizing the core musculature involved in pulling and stability once on the rope.


 Step Three - Protection

Many athletes complain of getting rope burns on their shins and inner quads while performing the exercise. This is a matter of both technique and gear. The burns on the inner quads usually happen on the descent due to having a death gripping on the rope with your legs (see step six). The shins are more difficult to avoid even with proper technique, as such, shin guards. There are many places to get them and they can either be relatively inexpensive or budget-busting. WOD Nation doesn’t sell shin guards per se but their awesome knee sleeves can certainly come in handy and double as protection

Step Four - The Mystical Wrap

The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20, states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In our case and for many of the athletes I work with, this comes down to how we wrap our feet around the rope. Three key factors in learning how to apply the most effective and efficient wrap - patience, patience, patience. In this short clip, we once again slow it down, starting on the box, focusing on our body position in relation to the rope, how to apply the wrap, keep it close, and “stand up”. Take it one step at a time.

Step Five - Tying It All Together

Box jumps, power snatches. Example of two exercises we frequently perform in the gym. Both of which have one crucial item in common with the rope climb - hip extension. This is where the rubber meets the road and we apply everything we have learned up to this point.

Step Six - Coming Down

Great, so you’ve made it all the way to the top but now how exactly do we get down without tearing up our hands, burning the insides of our quads, shins or any other part our legs, and landing softly and safely. The descent can also become much more taxing than going up. Cue Ben Dziwulski of WOD Prep. Here is how to make coming down controlled, quick and safe with the “lean back and “slide” method.

There you have it, six “simple” steps to get you up and down from that ceiling in no time. Remember, everything is related! How you do one movement correlates with another. If for some reason you think you have everything nailed down and still having trouble with the rope climb, evaluate the related movements, better yet have a seasoned coach evaluate you. Trust me, the unicorn exists.

Pawel Wencel is the head Olympic Weightlifting coach of at Black Flag Barbell, Assistant Coach and Media Director at Black Flag Athletics, and co-host of Black Flag Radio. Pawel possesses over 15 years of experience in strength training through the exploration and adaptation of various training methods, including Olympic Weightlifting, CrossFit, Strongman, Powerlifting, and Bodybuilding. He holds the following certifications: USAW Level 1 Sports Performance Coach, USAW Program Design, Catalyst Athletics Level 1, CrossFit Level 1, CrossFit Scaling, and FMS Level 1. He is keen on athletes, members and clients utilizing their strength and movement practice to get outside, travel, hike, and find adventure outside the confines of the gym. His claim to fame is his great set of legs :) For more of Black Flag Radio catch the podcasts on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.