Climb Your Way to Massive Arms

If curls stop working, there’s an old school drill that can add inches to your pipes and crank up your athleticism.

Rope climbing has become a lost art in physical training. If done at all, it’s generally reserved for lighter athletes and gymnasts. That’s a shame. Rope climbing is a fantastic grip, forearm, and upper body exercise that can benefit strength athletes, Olympic lifters, and even bodybuilders. Climbing is also a mainstay in combat training, as well as being a staple in military and police academies.

Good things happen when the body is challenged to move its entire weight against gravity in a coordinated manner. The rope climb fits into the highest category of neuromuscular activation; it’s one of the best “bang for your buck” moves. For years, old school coaches have quietly touted rope climbs as a serious arm and grip builder. The problem is that so few have taken the advice seriously.

Warming Up

Jumping right into climbing cold is a bad idea. Unless you want your elbows and shoulders to feel like you’ve rubbed them in broken glass, put the effort into an upper body warm-up as you would for any compound lift. Remember, the rope provides a line of pull that’s not common. The goal with the warm-up should be to prepare the structures of the elbow to handle this new stimulus. Take this seriously – from experience I can say that when the elbows get touchy it can take up to a year for them to heal.

Beyond your standard upper body warm-up, do some drills that are specific to the hand, wrist, and elbow, such as:

  • Wrist Rotation: 1 x 15-20 each direction
  • Sand Bucket or Elastic-Band Finger Extension: 1 x 25-50
  • Sand or Sledgehammer Supination/Pronation: 1 x 15-20
  • Wrist Roller: 1 each direction
  • Band Pushdown/Curl: 1 x 25-50
  • Light static stretching of the forearm flexors and extensors
  • Static Rope Hold: 1-2 x 6-8 seconds

How To Do It

There’s no right or wrong way to go about climbing. Grabbing the rope at eye height each time dramatically challenges the elbow flexors in the mid-range position. On the other hand, competitive climbers reach for distance, accompanied by leg pumping to increase speed. To minimize body swing, contract the glutes, extend the legs, and point the toes downward, almost like a hanging plank. Your abs will remind you for days afterward. Vary your methods and keep your eyes on the rope at all times. Can’t climb yet? Improve your pull-up numbers and relative body strength.


Despite its benefits, rope work isn’t the most convenient of exercises. If your gym already has a rope, great, otherwise you’ll need to get creative – scour gymnastic schools, wrestling clubs, high schools, military gyms, and rock climbing centers. Failing that, you may need to MacGyver your own set-up in a power rack for rope pull-ups or rows. You’ll still derive the benefits. Also, considering common sense isn’t so common, regardless of the set-up it’s imperative that the rope is secure and that you have a spotter and a crash mat.



Eventually progress yourself to doing multiple climbs without touching the ground.

Lead Hand

Directs most of the work to the top arm.


Weight vest, dip belt, or anchored band tension.

Thumbs Down

AKA the hammer curl from hell.


Much like warming up, being conservative (at least at first) is crucial to keeping your joints healthy. The length of the rope doesn’t dictate how high you need to go. Your high school phys-ed teacher won’t be yelling at you if you don’t ring the proverbial bell at the top. Gradually progress your sets at a manageable distance and then work on going higher or moving on to a more challenging variation. For obvious reasons, avoid fatigue and technique breakdown.

Climb as the first compound exercise on your pull/back day or as a standalone workout in place of your upper back work. Treat them with the same respect you’d give deadlifts – rope work is highly CNS dependent and you’ll need substantial rest between sets and workouts. Acclimatize your joints to the stress by initially reducing your training volume on vertical pulling, elbow flexion, and grip work. This isn’t a high frequency movement. Do no more than two sessions per week.

This is a standalone template that has worked well for improving climbing proficiency.

Month 1 (Volume): 1-2 Sessions per Week

  • Week 1: Go halfway up or less for a number of sets, stopping 1 set short of failure.
  • Week 2: Add a set if possible.
  • Week 3: Add a set if possible.
  • Week 4: No climbing.

Focus on slowing down the descent.

Month 2 (Intensity): 1 Session per Week

  • Week 1: Twice the distance for half the number of sets you did the previous week. Continue stopping 1 set short of failure.
  • Week 2: Add a set if possible.
  • Week 3: Add a set if possible.
  • Week 4: No climbing.

Alternate back and forth until you can do 8-10 full climbs. From here you can follow the same procedure with a more difficult variation.

Ropin’ To Win

If you a want a set of arms that are as strong as they look or if your biceps haven’t budged an inch in years, rope climbing just might be what you’ve been missing. Put those callused hands to good use and start climbing your way to better gains in size and strength.