How You Can Develop Grip Strength to Become a Better Rope Climber

A 911th Security Forces Squadron patrolman shows airmen rope climbing leg lockout techniques during an Air Assault School assessment.
Tech Sgt. Erick Sowinski, 911th Security Forces Squadron patrolman, shows airmen rope climbing leg lockout techniques during an Air Assault School assessment at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, May 1, 2021. (Tech. Sgt. Richard Kaulfers/U.S. Air Force photo)

Climbing ropes is a difficult challenge that has haunted young athletes, from middle-school PE class to military recruits, for generations. You need to develop two things to master climbing rope, especially if you have a future of military-style obstacle courses -- grip strength and technique. Here is a question from a young recruit working to improve a few weaknesses he has discovered while doing an obstacle course race.

Do you have any tips on improving grip strength for rope climbing and hanging bars for OCR racing and this future Marine? Is thumbless grip deadlifting body weight for max reps good enough for that? Thanks, Ralph

Ralph, obstacle course racing (OCR) is a fun activity and a way to prepare for the many challenges you will see in your future military training. It's a more demanding exercise than running, especially when the courses are set on a ski slope or hilly terrain and trails. These races will help you assess and improve various physical elements, such as endurance, leg stamina, balance, rope climbing and grip strength, all of which are crucial for future military training.

The J-Hook

This technique of rock climbing refers to the shape of the rope as it is placed through your feet. In a J-Hook, the rope flows alongside your leg on the outside of the foot and under the right foot. The left foot grabs the rope and places the top of the foot tightly next to and under the right foot. The rope makes a "J" shape as your feet grip it.

This innovative technique creates a braking method that allows the climber to squat up the rope, versus using 100% of your upper body to pull yourself up the rope. By squatting up the rope, all that is required is the ability to grip the rope with arms extended over your head. Bring your feet up the rope and reestablish a new grip a few feet higher with each squat and brake. This method is a game-changer in rope-climbing techniques.


You still need to work on your grip strength, and you can improve it with exercises such as deadlifts, farmer walks, pull-ups, pull-up bar hangs and several supplemental options in this video. Getting better at pull-ups will also help you with rope climbing, but with the J-Hook method, pull-ups are not as needed; grip strength is, though. Try the following grip strength additions to your workout on days you do pull-ups or deadlifts:

Towel/rope pull-ups: Drape a rope or rolled towel over the bar and grab each end with both hands. Then try pull-ups. If you cannot do a pull-up with this method, try hanging from the towel or rope for as long as possible.

Rock climbing: If possible, find a place to learn how to rock-climb. Some of the best grippers in the world are rock climbers.

Squeeze toys: Grip devices, balls and stress toys can help you work your grip any time of the day. Whether you're at work, sitting in a car or watching TV, work your grip by squeezing something in your hand for multiple sets of 10-20 reps throughout the day.

Continue with your workouts and add a few additional sets of grip activities to your pull-up and deadlift days. With about five additional minutes of grip training each day, your forearms will feel like Popeye by the end of the workout, and your rope climbs will get easier (with or without your feet to assist).

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