During one of my earliest networking efforts as the communications director of the Burn Machine, I thought it would be wise to ingratiate myself with some of the prominent strength-and-conditioning coaches in the Metro Detroit area. Which is how I wound up inside the Art of Strength, a boutique gym in West Bloomfield where several of the Detroit Red Wings trained during the NHL off-season.
The head trainer there stood patiently as I demonstrated our line of rotating free-weight equipment for him. “I see the applications for it, but that’s not really what we do here,” he explained. “We have a theme that we need to stick with, where the training is low-impact, plyometric and easy on the joints.”
Then he escorted me into the gym’s relatively small training area. “Have you ever used battle ropes before?” he asked.
After I admitted that I hadn’t, he suggested, with a knowing smirk, “Why don’t you pick those up and give them a try?”
He then ran me through a continual series of four rope-swinging, rope-slamming and rope-shimmying movements over the next three minutes that left my arms and lungs obliterated for the remainder of the afternoon. As I exited the gym with my tail between my legs, I was certain of one thing: As long as the trainers there had a set of battle ropes handy, no one could ever claim that they hadn’t felt the burn of an adequate workout.
How do you even use battle ropes?
Before we get to that, let’s talk about what battle ropes are.
They’re available in different diameters and lengths, with the diameters typically ranging from 1 to 2.5 inches, and the lengths usually falling between 30 and 50 feet. In most cases, the battle rope will be anchored to a stable point by wrapping it around or through something — like a dedicated hook or a kettlebell. While the entire rope typically weighs between 15 and 40 pounds depending on its length and thickness, it’s important to note that you’re never lifting the full weight of the rope. The idea is that you’re moving the ends of the rope with sufficient enough force to cause a wave to reverberate all the way to the anchor point.
This often results in battle ropes being used for rapid expressions of maximum power, as they can be repeatedly raised and slammed to the ground in different motions. In that sense, we can extend the definition of plyometric training beyond jumping exercises to include battle-rope training, because you’re able to explosively train your muscles by repeatedly exerting serious force without having to deal with loading heavy weight upon them.
But what is it exactly that battle ropes can do for me?
The benefits of battle ropes have been demonstrated by studies that have found how increasing battle-rope weights during high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has resulted in boosted shoulder power and push-up and sit-up endurance without any other changes in diet or exercise. Those are noteworthy improvements from such a minor training modification.
How much muscle can battle ropes generate for you on their own, though? That’s a more complicated answer to provide. Battle ropes lack an eccentric element to them, which is the segment of strength training where the body is controlling the weight as it returns to the point that it’s going to be lifted from again. So while you’re creating force whenever you slam or shift ropes that are generally much lighter than free weights at a rapid rate of speed, you’re not loading up the muscle in the manner that’s most conducive to strength gains.
To be blunt, no bodybuilder of any renown is going to turn to battle ropes as a primary tool for muscle development.
Okay, but can battle ropes burn calories for me?
Once again, the answer is yes, but this is where we can hastily lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish when we use different training modalities.
Battle-rope training is designed to be explosive, and when it’s not explosive, it isn’t nearly as effective as a training tool. In the same way that people say you can train long, and you can train hard, but you can’t train long and hard, you can train balls out for only so long before muscle fatigue requires you to pack it in. Because battle ropes are designed to respond optimally to a sprint-style of training, most people can only maintain their peak effort for so long before they’re left feeling absolutely crushed. This makes battle ropes an ideal training tool for the Tabata protocol or for the aforementioned HIIT sessions, but if your sole goal is to burn lots of calories, you’re better off spending an hour jogging on a treadmill or maintaining an above average pace on the elliptical.
Now, will battle ropes condition your upper body? Without a doubt. Upper-body conditioning is precisely why battle ropes are an incredible tool for athletes who require endurance for optimal performance. The rapid rate of explosive movements inherent in proper battle-rope training will prepare them to recover from every force-generating movement that flows through the shoulders, which incorporates almost every upper-body motion executed during most sports, including football, basketball, volleyball, boxing, hockey and lacrosse. Personally speaking, no other HIIT form of a dryland exercise made me feel more like I was doing butterfly sprints in a pool than battle-rope slams in the gym.
So should I be using the battle rope or not?
As your primary means of strength building or calorie burning, I’d say absolutely not. But if you intend to use battle ropes in a manner that builds endurance and conditioning in your upper body, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything more reliable, or that does less potential damage to your joints. In short, don’t use battle ropes to get jacked or burn calories, but definitely embrace them for building upper-body endurance, particularly if you have a specific sport you’re preparing for where upper-body conditioning is critical.
The famous Persian poet Rumi was quoted as saying, “Why should I stay at the bottom of a well when a strong rope is in my hand?” Well, if you know how to handle a battle rope when one is placed in your hands, your well of muscle endurance will seldom run dry.