By Lisa Ziegel
Exercise aficionados are always looking for the ultimate total-body workout. Most people want a workout that is fun and fast-paced, yet challenging. Combining resistance training with cardiovascular endurance is another desired attribute, since it maximizes time spent exercising (which can often be minimized while still resulting in desired gains in fitness and body-toning). And last, high-intensity training (or HIT) is all the rage right now, so including a good measure of that in any workout is a plus.
Since many programs used in training athletes, such as football players, wrestling teams, swimmers, etc., are now popular among non-athletes, it is no wonder that a training regimen developed by a ‘strongman’ is now being used more widely. In the early ’90s John Brookefield, a man famous for being so strong he could tear entire decks of playing cards not just in half, but into tiny pieces with his bare hands (besides holding up multiple people in his arms at one time and such), also turned out to be a savvy training expert and developed a system of whole-body training using a utilitarian piece of equipment, rope. Nowadays, nearly every gym has ropes as part of standard equipment, along with rope classes, rope machines, and more.
The type of rope used in fitness training is simply a long length (it varies, but they are usually 1.5-2 inches in diameter, 75-80 feet long) with a covering over the ends (usually plastic or metal). The ends are held at even lengths with the middle part affixed on a pole or anchored on an immovable object. The exerciser stands back so that the rope is nearly fully extended and then proceeds to move it up and down, creating vertical ‘wave’ patterns. Now, depending on the material that the rope is comprised of (plant-based or synthetic), one of these can weigh 70 pounds or more. So it doesn’t take long for the arms to start screaming with fatigue, the back and shoulders to feel the work, and the legs and core muscles stabilizing. And then there’s the breathing — this is serious cardio work! The funny thing is for all the discomfort you feel when working the ropes, you quickly notice improvement and even when you have to stop because you just can’t go on anymore, you are eager to start right back up. Sounds like fun? Unsure how to get started? Here are some tips for beginners:
- First find a rope (available in sporting goods or boxing/MMA-supply stores) and start with a synthetic/lighter-weight version with a narrower diameter (1.5 inches vs. 2). Find a place to anchor it and where you will have a lot of room to accommodate its length. Or find a gym or studio where rope training is offered.
- Since you are firing up practically all the muscles in your body at once, some care and consideration need to be taken in using proper form. Maintaining a wide, stable ‘ready’ stance helps to anchor your body weight down to withstand the unpredictable movement of the ropes. Feet should be wider than hip-width apart with hips pointed back, knees slightly bent, and torso at a slight forward lean, with no rounding or arching in the spine. Inhale deeply through your nose to expand your diaphragm, push the air back up through your mouth and ‘brace’ yourself in your mid-section. Look straight ahead and keep your shoulders down.
- Initiate the movement in the core and back muscles — that is, rather than thinking of lifting with just your arms, think of bracing with your abdominals and using your lats (latissimus, or side-back muscles) to lift your arms. You are using your lower body to steady yourself, so keep your bodyweight back in your heels and hips.
- Maintain deep breathing — this means avoiding holding your breath or breathing from the chest. Draw air in deeply down into your belly and push it out through your open mouth.
- Start with short bouts of basic movements, such as the ‘double-wave’ (both arms moving together to create a smooth, rippling effect). Start with 20-30 seconds (that should be enough) and repeat 3-5 times. Rest as much as needed in between but take note of how long it takes to recover and try to shorten that period as you train.
- Work in other body-weight exercises in between rope intervals, such as jumping jacks, push-ups, burpees, squats, etc., to help build up endurance and stamina.
- Master one movement then move on to other rope patterns, such as alternating waves (rippling the rope first with one arm and then with the other). There are endless other patterns, and once you become comfortable with the rope, you can add squats, lunges, and jumps along with movements that emphasize your shoulders, biceps, triceps and more while you manipulate it.
- Know that coordination is something you have to learn in mastering the rope, and it may feel very awkward at first, but if you stick with it, your neuromuscular system will learn the patterns, and you’ll soon have it ‘hardwired’.
Besides lifting and flinging heavy ropes, rope pulling is another effective whole body workout, which also emphasizes building much-needed upper body strength, especially for women.
There are machines made for this. I have used them and can attest to their challenging, but very effective workout options. Using one is like pulling an endless length of rope, and the harder you pull, the harder it gets. Using an adjustable pulley, you can set the rope at any angle, and either stand or sit. Either way, again, you are getting a full-body workout. Even though you are pulling with the arms and back muscles, everything else is hard at work stabilizing, and the breathing feels like running. Of course, gathering some friends together and engaging in a good old-fashioned ‘tug of war’ can also be a great rope-pulling activity.
Rope training fits all the requirements of an effective, whole-body, fun, high-intensity workout, yet is safe for beginners when the basics are mastered, and for kids (when properly supervised). An exercise rope can also be made inexpensively, but know that the commercial ones are built to last and to be exact specifications, so be careful!
So go out and have fun on the ropes!