To level up your strength-training workout, embrace the battle rope
By Connie Chang
Maybe you’ve seen them at the gym — heavy coils of rope anchored at the middle to a post or the floor. They may look like they were brought up from a dungeon or off the deck of a boat, but they’re called “battle ropes” — and they’re an effective and safe tool for strength training.
Despite their daunting name and appearance, you don’t have to be a contestant on “American Ninja Warrior” to use them. While battle ropes have long been popular with elite athletes, they are also an excellent tool for beginners who want to build strength and cardiovascular health without being too hard on their bodies.
Lauren Weinhold, a personal trainer and yoga instructor in Columbia, Maryland, uses battle ropes with clients who are martial arts competitors and 70-year-olds with double knee replacements. “Not everyone wants to — or can — run miles on the treadmill,” said Weinhold. But with battle ropes, you can get much of running’s cardiovascular punch without hammering your joints.
That versatility is what drew Jesse Grund, a personal trainer in Orlando, Florida, to the tool, which he credits with sparking his interest in fitness. “If I was on a deserted island and I could only pick one piece of exercise equipment, I’d take the battle rope,” he said.
How do you use battle ropes?
In the classic battle ropes pose, you grasp the ends of each rope, shaking them rhythmically up and down — either together or alternating one side at a time — to send waves along the rope’s length to the anchor point. But there are endless variations on this basic theme.
Two beginners can work in tandem, each grabbing a rope end, and create waves together. At the Training Lab, a strength and conditioning gym in Manhattan, instructors tie battle ropes to weighted fitness sleds — platforms that can be dragged for resistance training — and the students pull the sleds toward themselves, working back, legs, core and arm muscles. Another way to use them is to add some resistance to jumping jacks by doing them while grasping the ends of an anchored rope.
What do they do for you?
Many people find their first battle ropes sessions challenging — their arms tremble with exertion and effort, the ropes tangle together, the waves stutter and peter out.
“You’re trying to create power output in a new way with your upper body, your lower body, your core and the ropes — and there’s a lot of coordination to that,” said Aaron Guyett, a coach and education director at Living.fit, a site that offers battle rope and conditioning classes online.
Once mastered, however, battle rope workouts are an intense, whole-body exercise that builds muscle and improves cardiovascular fitness. Studies show there are potential gains in core strength, endurance and how efficiently your body consumes oxygen. And while your shoulders, arms and hands are the obvious parts in motion, your core and legs must work to keep you stable as your upper body generates power.
Unlike traditional weight lifting, battle ropes also allow rapid changes in direction while maintaining high speeds, which trains your muscles to react quickly. Think of it like a sprint, where the lower body can suddenly change directions in mid-run, said Chiang Liu, a sports scientist at the University of Taipei in Taiwan.
“This explosive power is why battle ropes training is so popular for athletes,” he said. According to his group’s research, an eight-week battle rope regimen with a small sample of college basketball players in Taiwan translated to faster passes, more accurate shots and increased agility. That power has also improved Maurice Allen’s golf game. Allen, a two-time World Long Drive champion, said battle ropes had dramatically increased his club speed.
“In golf, I’m holding my body in place while my arms are moving; I need to recruit strength from a stable position,” Allen said. “Battle ropes allow me to work on stability and strength at the same time.”
How do you get started?
Because of the physical and mental demands of battle ropes, many people use them in a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) fashion — short bursts of moving the rope full tilt, interspersed with periods of rest. At the beginning, aim for moderate effort — elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat — and a one-to-three work-rest ratio, following every 10 seconds of activity with 30 seconds of rest. As you improve, shorten the rest time until you hit a one-to-one work-rest ratio — for example, 30 seconds of activity and 30 seconds of recuperation. Start with four to six of these intervals and then increase.
Grab the ends of the ropes — one in each hand — and hold them in front of you at about hip level and shoulder width apart. Make sure there’s sufficient slack in the ropes by taking two to three steps forward toward the anchor point. Guyett suggested a firm but relaxed hold. Think about gripping your pet hamster. You don’t want it to escape, but you also don’t want to crush it, he said.
Stand tall with your knees and hips slightly bent, your torso tilted forward, your back straight and your core muscles engaged. With battle ropes, the chances for injury are low compared with other strength training regimens, but bad form slashes the exercise’s effectiveness. The ropes can only push back as hard as you push them. Begin the exercise by raising one arm up and bringing it down to create a vertical wave. Alternate sides — as one arm goes up, the other comes down — to generate this move’s signature patterns. Be sure the ropes contain waves the entire time you’re moving them.
It’s not crucial to master different moves, though other motions work slightly different muscles. Lateral waves work the shoulders, core, and hips through their twisting motion.
Start in the same stance you did for alternating waves. With both hands, sweep the ropes together from side to side, rotating your torso slightly while keeping your arms straight and your hips square. The waves should look like sinuous snakes, slithering in unison. Intensify the exercise by forming larger waves and stepping closer to the anchor point, which increases the weight you have to lift.