Got Some Rope? Get to Work!

One exercise for back, traps, biceps, and more. Bonus: It’s great for metabolic conditioning too.

Get brutally strong while blowing up your back, traps, lats, forearms, and biceps. Sound good? Then do rope pulls.

Sled Rope Pull

I know what you’re thinking: you don’t have regular access to a sled. No problem. You don’t need a specialized sled. All you really need is a semi-long rope with relatively thick handles. Check the hardware store.

Now loop it through whatever you’re using – a stack of plates, a kettlebell or two, a car, your passed-out roommate, whatever – and get to work. Here’s one way to set it up:

Why Do Rope Pulls?

1. Rope pulls impose non-stop time under tension.

Most rowing variations involve briefly resetting in between reps, but with rope pulls there’s zero “relaxation” time.

As a result, the back, traps, lats, forearms, and biceps are forced to withstand non-stop time under tension throughout the set. Pair that with the fact that they have a huge loading capacity, and rope pulls are guaranteed to pack slabs of muscle onto even the skinniest of frames.

2. They’re just as much of a strength-builder as they are a muscle-builder.

For starters, there’s nothing that screams “functional” upper-back strength like pulling a heavy load through space. Beyond that, rope pulls can have a direct carryover to strength in two additional ways.

First, they’re a great way to hammer your forearms and build grip strength. Due to the law of irradiation – the harder you grip a weight, the stronger the adjacent muscles will contract – a stronger grip makes you stronger at essentially everything else.

Second, rope pulls strengthen the lats, which play a huge role in all three of the big lifts.

The only limiting factor is strength (or a lack thereof). Most rowing exercises have external limiting factors that can cause a set to end prematurely. With bent-over barbell rows, for example, the low back often gives out before the target muscles. With single-arm dumbbell rows, most lifters wind up using excessive momentum once fatigue sets in, which subsequently robs the working muscles.

But with rope pulls, the only limiting factor is upper-body strength, which means that the entire back (as well as the biceps and forearms) can be pushed to their absolute limits.

3. They can be scaled up without much risk.

Rope pulls have an extremely low learning curve and are virtually impossible to mess up, which means you can tack on more load and go further (or for longer) without having to worry about technique.

4. They’re versatile.

Do them seated or standing. Beyond that, there are a number of other variables that can be manipulated to bias different muscle groups: forward/backward lean, the angle of the elbows relative to the torso, various grip positions, etc.

5. They combine conditioning with an upper-body pump.

Heavy rope pulls can jack up your heart rate just as much as any mindless form of cardio.

How To Program Rope Pulls

To place more emphasis on strength, plug rope pulls into your program as a max effort exercise or heavy accessory. Shoot for a relatively short distance of 10-20 yards.

For hypertrophy, go for a set amount of time, like 30-45 seconds, or a set distance of 20-40 yards.

An additional option is to throw them into your training as an upper-body finisher. The goal should be to accumulate as much metabolic stress as possible.