Jan 29, 2015
The Power of Ropes

Rope training is making waves in weightrooms everywhere. Here, the Cincinnati Bengals’ strength and conditioning coach shares how he integrates the idea into the team’s programming.

By Chip Morton

Chip Morton, MA, CSCS, is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. He can be reached at: [email protected].

For many of us, our first exposure to ropes as an exercise modality came in gym class. Do you remember standing around while everyone took a turn climbing–some more successfully than others–a thick manila rope hanging from the gym rafters?

Climbing a rope has been, and always will be, an effective strength- and stamina-building workout. But more recently, the use of ropes for exercises beyond traditional climbing has gained attention from athletes, strength coaches, and personal trainers everywhere. For the purposes of this article, we will refer to these exercises as rope training.

Integrating ropes into workouts adds versatility by allowing for a wide variety of exercises to develop strength and endurance. Athletes can loop a single rope around a pole, attach one or two ropes to an anchor point, or if available, use a machine with a rope mounted on a pulley system to perform various pulling motions from different stances. With free standing or anchored ropes, athletes can create undulating, wave-like patterns (referred to as wave training).

Ropes can also be used to build strength by substituting them in place of conventional modalities like barbells, dumbbells, and weight machines. Since we started incorporating rope training into our programming with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2007, our players have exhibited positive adaptations in their conditioning; strength and stability through the midsection, back, biceps, triceps, shoulders, and lower body; and an increase in grip strength.

From a conditioning standpoint, wave training appears to provide significant stimulus to the cardiovascular system. It allows an athlete to perform high output training in a low impact manner, which gives a strength coach an effective alternative to more traditional higher impact conditioning drills.

Next to the physical benefits accrued, one of the most appealing things about rope training is its simplicity. If a rope machine is not readily available, all that’s required is a length of rope. The most commonly used ropes are between 25 and 50 feet long with a diameter of 1.5 to 2 inches.

In our program, rope training affords us a great way to change up some of our more traditional workouts and challenge our players’ work capacity and resilience. We utilize ropes in a number of different scenarios throughout the year. For example, with individual players who are injured and cannot perform ground-based running or agility drills, with players who desire extra work, or with groups in a circuit-type setting to develop work capacity.


There are numerous exercises that can be done with ropes. The movement we use most often is “making waves,” but we also perform other movements such as horizontal and vertical pulling. Each exercise recruits different muscle groups and places a unique demand upon the athlete. A needs analysis will help determine which method(s) should be used.

Horizontal Pulling: Using a rope machine with adjustable resistance or by simply wrapping a heavy rope around a cylindrical pole (usually three inches in diameter–a football goal post works well), the athlete sits or stands in various positions and pulls the rope toward themselves hand-over-hand at a brisk, constant pace, usually for a predetermined work interval or number of “lengths of rope.” When using a rope machine, the rope never runs out as it is on a pulley system. If using a rope wrapped around a pole, the athlete just releases the end of the rope when he reaches it, picks up the other end, and resumes pulling.

This method, known as the pole system, can be performed from a number of different body positions and by pulling from different angles. Pulling hand-over-hand, an athlete can stand, kneel, sit, or lie down. Performing the pulling motion while standing integrates the whole body and places demand on the entire kinetic chain, while a seated or lying position focuses more on the upper body musculature.

Facing the pole and pulling toward the waist targets the shoulder extensors (lats), elbow flexors (biceps), and grip. Standing sideways to the pole while pulling trains the rotational muscles of the midsection, and facing away from the pole and pulling through the legs places emphasis on the shoulder flexors and grip.

For another very effective variation of horizontal pulling, ropes can be attached to weighted sleds or other heavy objects for pulling and dragging. (If we want to make some of the exercises even more challenging, we have the players wear a weighted vest.) Loaded hand-over-hand pulling is a potent developer of upper back and grip strength, as well as endurance. Dragging a sled by walking, marching, or running in different directions targets torso stability and single-leg strength in a format that is appropriate for field and court athletes.

Vertical Pulling: Athletes can pull a single rope hand-over-hand in a vertical motion on a machine. Most of the current models have seats, so an athlete can sit and either face the rope so that it is centered on their body or put both of their legs to one side so they are focusing more on their oblique muscles. To make it a total body exercise, the athlete can also stand to the side of the seat.

In lieu of using a machine, a single rope can be looped around an overhead bar. The athlete then pulls the rope downward to train the shoulder and elbow extensors. Or to train the shoulders and elbow flexors, the rope can be looped around a ground-level attachment and the athlete pulls upward. As with horizontal pulling, the athlete can stand, sit, or kneel.

Wave Training: Arguably the most well known ropes exercise is wave training, also known as velocity training. Using this method, the athlete creates rhythmic waves with one long rope (50 feet long for advanced athletes) looped around an anchor point or two shorter ropes attached to a single anchor point. In its most basic form, the athlete grips the ropes with an overhand (“pushing” emphasis) or underhand (“pulling” emphasis) grip and creates wave patterns by moving both arms together in unison or by alternating them.

Other forms include making waves in different planes of motion, such as diagonally across the body, clockwise or counterclockwise circular waves, and side to side. Similar to the pole system of training, the athlete can “make waves” while standing, kneeling, or sitting on a stool, box, or physio ball.

Wave training presents a unique conditioning modality where the velocity and amplitude of the waves created by the athlete determines the intensity of the exercise. Performing wave patterns with the rope(s) for a predetermined length of time or number of waves is rhythmic in nature and provides no opportunity for rest, thereby training the athlete’s body and mind to sustain effort. Wave programming can include larger amplitude waves with lower frequency for power and strength, or shorter and more frequent waves for speed. Here, the options are almost limitless.

Variations on Conventional Exercises: In addition to the aforementioned rope-specific methods of training, ropes can be used in the weightroom by attaching them to a rack or cage system to perform grip-enhanced variations of standard exercises like pull-ups, recline rows, triceps extensions, and static holds. Static holds can be used as a stand-alone exercise to train the stabilizers and grip, or performed between other exercises to make “rest” periods more profitable. For example, have your athletes hold in the contracted position of a pull-up or recline row.


In Cincinnati, we follow the principles and training ideas outlined in the “Battling Ropes” training system developed by John Brookfield. During specific phases of the training year, different methods of rope training are programmed into our players’ workouts.

For example, during the week prior to starting voluntary on-field work with position coaches this past off-season, we moved a portion of our conditioning work from the field to the weightroom by having players perform a circuit that included a series of wave intervals after completing a lifting workout. Wave training with the ropes was a perfect fit for our needs during this time of year because it was lower impact, presented a significant training stimulus, and could be performed in a limited amount of space. (See “Post-Lift Circuit.”)

The low impact but cardio intensive workout reduced the actual and perceived orthopedic load on the players’ feet, ankles, knees, hips, and low backs. Our players really appreciate this type of consideration, as it allows them to continue the conditioning process while staying mentally and physically fresh for the skill-specific on-field work in the weeks to come.

We used another circuit with our first-year players after the conclusion of our mini camp. The goal of this particular circuit was the development of core stability, power, and endurance, all in a lower-impact setting. This three-station circuit was preceeded by mobility work and dynamic movement drills performed on the field. (See “On-field Circuit.”)

Another setting where we have used rope training with great success is in team camps with players who are limited by injury, reconditioning after an injury, or have specific goals such as weight control. In these instances, having a conditioning modality that elicits a substantial training response with a reduced-impact training load is especially appropriate because during these times, players may be completing multiple workouts in a day. For programming purposes, the strength coach can manipulate the duration of work and recovery intervals to match the energy system needs of the sport or player’s position, create an energy deficit, or train around an orthopedic limitation in the return-to-play process.

Rope training can also be incorporated into workouts to promote variety. For example, if the workout of the day calls for a horizontal pulling movement using the upper body, the movement may be performed using a machine, dumbbells, kettlebells, or bodyweight. If a bodyweight row is selected, we have the option to use suspension straps or ropes hanging from a rack.

And it’s a time saver, which comes in handy quite often. If we are dealing with a large number of players in a compressed time frame, this is a great option because no weight changes or recording is involved, making for quick transitions from one user to the next.

Training with ropes has been a difference maker in our strength and conditioning program. We have used all of the aforementioned variations to provide our players with an effective training modality that can be adjusted to our needs under a myriad of circumstances. That is the beauty of rope training: It is adjustable, simple to use but not easy, and will improve your athletes’ mental and physical ability to sustain effort. Any athlete playing any sport can use rope training as well–it’s not just for football players.

As is true when introducing any new exercise, the strength and conditioning coach should seek out a reputable source of information before implementation. Get familiar with the basic teaching cues and progressions before unleashing it on your athletes. Once a baseline level of understanding and confidence with the material has been established, insert exercises into the program incrementally over time and progress them gradually in volume and intensity to facilitate positive adaptations of the muscles and movements involved.

Sidebar: Post-Lift Circuit

In this circuit, players work at each station for approximately five minutes. The circuit “driver” is the first exercise. When the player is done cycling at station one, everyone moves to the next station in the rotation.

Station one: Cycling On an Airdyne bike, players sprint for five seconds at 100-plus RPMs, pedal easy for 25 seconds, and repeat 10 times.

Station two: Kettlebell carries Players perform single-arm overhead kettlebell carries (also known as a waiter’s walk) for approximately 60 feet, then repeat with the other arm. This drill can be done with a partner in an alternating format to allow for rest.

Station three: Waves and holds Using a rope around a pole, players perform two sets of both two-arm waves and alternate waves for 30 seconds each. The waves are alternated with two sets each of planks and static rope holds (an isometric hold at the top of a pull-up position) for 30 seconds each.

Sidebar: On-Field Circuit

In this circuit, players work at each section for approximately six minutes. The circuit “driver” is the first exercise. When the player is done with the waves and planks station, everyone moves on to the next station in the rotation.

Station one: Waves and planks Using a rope around a pole, players perform three sets each of two-arm waves and alternate waves for 30 seconds each. The waves are alternated with two sets of push-up extended planks (where the athlete holds at the top of a push-up position) and two sets of side planks (where the player is on the elbow for support).

Station two: Carries This station includes four sets of farmer’s walks for 40 yards and two sets of both single-hand carries and single-arm overhead kettlebell carries (waiter’s walk) for 40 yards each. A partner can be used so players get a break between exercises.

Station three: Med ball throw & chase relay With two players on each team, the race starts at one sideline. The first player throws a medicine ball and runs to it, repeating the throw and run all the way across the width of the field and back (approximately 106 yards). The ball must cross the starting sideline before the second player proceeds. We perform three “relays” using forward squat throws, reverse granny tosses, and forward scoop tosses.

Shop see all »

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
website development by deyo designs
Interested in receiving the print or digital edition of Training & Conditioning?

Subscribe Today »

Be sure to check out our sister sites: