Pull-ups are like rope climbing right? Is there a pull-up that I can do that's like a rope climb?
Occasionally, and invariably, I get questions like this. Rope climbing could lay claim to being the ultimate in upper-body, BW pulling training. It's just brutally hard in all kinds of awesome ways. Frankly, these ways aren't shared with just about every pull-up variation you can do. You can't make a pull-up effectively simulate a rope climb just because you do it while gripping ropes. It doesn't matter that they're working the same muscle groups. That's like saying that dips and push-ups are the same, and equally good for chest development.
So what are those awesome ways that make rope work more of an upper body strengthener than most pull-ups ever thought of being?
1. Remember a while back where I talked about most exercises being one concentric movement followed by an eccentric movement? Well, the rope turns that one on its ear. You're doing one concentric contraction after another until you get to the top of the rope. Then, it's all eccentric on the way down. In other words, there's no way to cheat on this one by rescinding control of the eccentric part of the exercise.
2. Why is that? Well, DUH! You're on a rope, probably 10-25 feet off the ground! The power of your muscles is the only thing that stands between you and a shattered tailbone and busted knees. There is a life-or-death quality to rope climbing that forces you to get every last bit of strength out of your upper body pull muscles.
3. With most pull-ups(except one-handed, of course), there's two hands in contact with whatever it is you're grabbing. Sure, there are plyo versions but when you're done exploding, you're back to two hands. With ropes, you alternate between two hands and one hand.
Okay, while all of this is awesomeness makes for a brutal method of training, it's not available to everyone, or even for everyone. It's not for people afraid of heights or weak on pull-ups to begin with. Most of us probably don't have the ability to set up a rope either. So, in the spirit of my blog, we won't cry about what we don't have. We'll just find ways to make do.
So, how do we get reasonably close to a rope climb with a pull-up? While the First two points about rope climbing don't lend themselves to easy and obvious substitutes in the pull-up arena, the last point does. People have been switching grips during pull-up for a while. Here's a video from a fellow Vermonter, Matt, doing one such variation...
Yes, he's spending some time hanging one-handed from the bars but it's all from a dead hang. If we want to get closer to the rope, then we need to hang one handed like we would on the rope. That means hanging one handed at the top of the bar. Now, we're getting somewhere. I've tried this variation on the switching grip theme a few times and as far as I'm concerned, this is as close as a pull-up can get to replicating the rope climb experience.
I'm getting that superhuman-wannabe bug and becoming increasingly unable to do things simple or easy, even on my first time. I started out using a thick bar (aka the frame of my monkey bars) with two towels. Switching between thick grip and towel pull-ups proved to be all kinds of brutal on the grip and the biceps... and the calluses too. For anyone who follows the Facebook page, this is how I tore my calluses off my hand.
With this style of pull-ups, I don't get too concerned with form. Switching grip at the top of the movement makes things get a bit sloppy. Even four pull-ups to a set of these are pretty brutal. Besides, nobody critiques form on rope climbing, right?
This modest adjustment to this old pull-up theme should make for a nice progression between pull-ups and rope work. It also makes for a decent substitute if you don't have rope climbing capabilities. Just do your hands and elbows a favor and don't do what I did. Start modestly and work up to the harder stuff. It's always easier to fix undertraining than it is to fix overtraining.
...and check out Matt's place sometime!