If there’s a constant in the fitness industry, it’s change. Stationary bikes and treadmills were enough in the 70s, but eventually there became a demand for recumbent and elliptical cycles, stair climbers, and arc trainers. As for resistance-training machines, commercial gyms now offer countless contraptions that enable you to work every muscle from every angle. In the world of interval training, no gym is complete without a set of battle ropes.
Battle ropes are ropes that come in various thicknesses and lengths. One end is attached to a sturdy object, and the user holds the other end to perform a variety of dynamic movements. The thickness and length of the ropes influence the difficultly of the exercise. A thick rope will be harder to work than a thinner one, and a long rope will be harder to work than a short one. A gym catering to a diverse population will have an assortment of ropes to cater to all conditioning levels.
Consider that battle ropes are part of an entire workout – not a workout in itself. Although there are easier variations of rope exercises and training protocols, maintaining quality work on this type of training tool is especially difficult for extended periods. Because the exercises are so challenging, it’s often best to use them as “finishers” as they can leave you too fatigued to put in quality work on other exercises.
From a scientific perspective, the American College of Sports Medicine says that due to their extreme cardiovascular and metabolic demands, “rope training may be most appropriate for individuals acclimated to high habitual amounts of vigorous-intensity exercise.” Research shows that among the muscle groups most strongly affected by battle ropes are the anterior deltoid (shoulder), external obliques (trunk), and erector spinae (spine).
In one study involving 11 fit adults using a 10-minute workout with a 15-seconds work/ 45-seconds rest protocol, heart rate reached 86 percent of age-predicted maximum. Concluded the researchers, “Our results suggest that rope training can provide a high-intensity stimulus for strength and conditioning professionals who seek alternative or reduced impact-conditioning methods for athletes or clients.”
Another benefit of rope training is that because this is such an intense form of exercise, it can also build muscle mass. And the more muscle mass you possess, the higher your metabolic rate (i.e., the rate at which you burn calories). They also create an “afterburn effect,” such that your metabolic rate remains at a much higher rate after the workout is completed – much more so than with low-intensity aerobic exercise.
The media loves filming athletes, especially MMA fighters and professional football players, alternating whipping the ropes in a wave-like fashion. This is certainly one great exercise, but there are many other exercises that can be performed with ropes. Here are a few:
Double Wave. This is a simple exercise that is a good starting point for a beginner. Grasp the ropes with your palms facing each other (neutral grip) and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Tighten your abs and whip your arms up (to shoulder level) and down at the same time; this action will create a wave in the rope.
Alternate Wave. Assume the same position as the double wave, but alternately raise your arms up (to shoulder level) and down to create waves in the rope. Research has shown that this form of rope exercise more strongly works the external oblique muscles of the trunk, whereas the double wave more strongly works the erector spinae muscles of the spine. With this exercise, and many others, you can perform the exercise from a half squat to increase the work of the quads.
Circles. If you’re involved in a sport that involves powerful rotation of the shoulders, such as swimming or tennis, this is the rope exercise of choice. Grasp the ropes with your palms facing down (pronated grip) and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Move your hands in large circles, first clockwise and then counter-clockwise.
Snake. Another unique shoulder exercise, grasp the ropes with a neutral grip, position your feet shoulder-width apart, and lower yourself into a half squat. Move your hands together and apart without crossing your hands such that the ropes move in a snake-live wave on the floor.
Slams. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold the ropes with a neutral grip. Lift both arms up, higher than shoulder-level, then slam them hard onto the floor, bending your knees to increase the force of the slam. Return to the start and repeat. You can also perform this exercise one arm at a time.
Jump Squats. This is an explosive movement that strongly involves the legs. Grasp the ropes with a neutral grip and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Lift both hands up (as with a double-wave exercise) while jumping, then slam the ropes down and descend into a half squat. Repeat, jumping up and descending into a half-squat with every rep.
Iron Mike Double-Slam. Rather than jumping from a squat position, with an Iron Mike exercise you jump while alternately splitting your legs. Grasp the ropes with a neutral grip and assume a split position. Whip the ropes in a double-wave fashion while splitting your legs front to back.
Regarding program design, consider that battle rope exercises cannot be performed for long periods without sacrificing technique. Beginners should use short work periods combined with longer rest times. For example, a beginner might perform double waves for 10 seconds of work followed by 90 seconds of rest for 3-5 sets. An intermediate-level individual might perform 15-20 seconds of work followed by 60 seconds of rest for 5-8 sets.
Another factor to consider is that because battle ropes are such an intense form of exercise, to keep motivation high a good idea is to workout with one or more training partners. For example, you perform 10-15 seconds of an exercise, give the ropes to a training partner so that they can perform 10-15 seconds of an exercise; then repeat. The same type of sequence can be performed with 3 or more training partners, giving you more rest time between sets.
There are countless fads that come and go in the fitness industry, but the effectiveness of battle ropes assures that it’s a training tool that is here to stay.