Research Review

Give someone enough rope?

Title: Metabolic Cost of Rope Training
Author: Dr’s Charles Fountaine and Brad Schmidt (University of Minnesota and Creighton University, USA)
Source: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2013.

Introduction: It’s a beautiful morning here in South East Queensland, and as I make my way back from an early surf I notice the personal trainers and performance enhancement specialists out in force, directing a number of outdoor strength and conditioning activities. There’s one new commonality in particular that seems to be becoming very popular among fitness professionals and their clients, namely ‘thick/heavy rope training’. And its popularity is substantiated as there are even several rope training/instruction certifications now available. Although there have been quite a number of research studies on jumping rope and kettlebells, this is the first research article I’ve come across that specifically investigated rope training. This type of training has recently been referred to as ‘dynamic specific action training’ (as it may have occupational and tactical specific benefits) and as ‘undulation training’.

Dr Fountaine and his colleague describe rope training as typically using a nine to 15 metre length rope, three to five centimetres in diameter, which is looped around a fixed object. The rope is then ‘vigorously undulated’ in a series of waves for a set period of time, generally 10 to 30 seconds, dependent upon the weight and length of the rope. The researchers state there are numerous options for rope undulations; the upper body can move while the lower body remains fixed, or undulations can be made with simultaneous movement in the lower body. They further add that this low-impact, upper body exercise is an intense workout (aerobic and anaerobic) that strengthens the grip, shoulders and core, representing total body conditioning. However, these claims have remained unsubstantiated – until this study.

Methodology: A total of 11 healthy, physically active participants (5 male, 6 female, average age 24.7yrs) volunteered for the study which consisted of a 10-minute rope training workout comprising 15-second intervals of rope training (double arm waves) followed by 45 seconds of rest. This cycle was repeated for a total of 10 reps. The rope the researchers used was 15.25 metres long, weighed 16.3 kilograms and was 3.8 centimetres in diameter. With the rope anchored, participants held 7.6 metres of rope with each hand.

The researchers measured heart rate, oxygen consumption and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). EPOC was measured to help estimate the total energy expenditure to determine the metabolic cost of rope training.

Results: The participants averaged 25 rope undulations per 15-second work interval. Peak exercise heart rate was 178bpm, which equated to approximately 94 per cent of age predicted maximum heart rate. The average exercise heart rate was 163bpm, which is approximately 86 per cent of age predicted heart rate max. There was no significant difference between males and females with regards to peak and average heart rate, however, females tended to have higher heart rates. Peak oxygen consumption was just over 35 ml/kg/min, which equates to 10 METS. Males had a significantly higher oxygen uptake than females (40.2 versus 31.3 ml/kg/min). Total energy expenditure was quite high at 467 kilojoules. The majority of energy expenditure was attributed to aerobic exercise (363 kilojoules) versus anaerobic exercise (60 kilojoules). Peak lactic acid was moderate at approximately 12 mmol (no difference between males and females).

The results of this study demonstrated that a 10-minute session of rope training constitutes a vigorous workout, resulting in high exercise heart rates and energy expenditure. According to the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for cardiorespiratory fitness, this rope training workout would meet their requirements for ‘vigorous-intensity’ exercise.

Based on these findings, specifically the differences observed in the responses between males and females (males weighed ≈30kg more than females) the investigators recommend that fitness professionals may want to consider smaller length and smaller diameter ropes for rope training with females.

The authors conclude that their findings are similar to research conducted on kettlebell training. Specifically, a 10-minute kettlebell routine (35 seconds swing, followed by 25 seconds rest) resulted in average heart rates of 180bpm, VO2 of 24 ml/kg/min and 52 kilojoules energy expenditure per minute.

Pros: This is a great study, well controlled and practical. Given the popularity of rope training and all of the anecdotal claims, it’s great to see actual empirical evidence as to its tangible cardiometabolic demands. Additionally, no musculoskeletal injuries were incurred by any of the participants.

Cons: It would have been interesting to see the responses to a number of ropes, varying in length/weight and/or varying frequencies of undulations.

Dr Mike and Joe Walsh are supported in writing their Research Reviews by Human Kinetics.


Associate Professor Mike Climstein, PhD FASMF FACSM FAAESS AEP
Dr Mike is the program director of Clinical Exercise Science and co-director of the Water Based Research Unit at the Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine at Bond University, QLD. He is recognised as one of Australia’s leading accredited exercise physiologists working with patients suffering from a wide array of chronic diseases and disorders. For more information on this, or any recent Research Reviews, email michael_climstein@bond.edu.au.

Joe Walsh, MSc
Joe is a highly experienced sport and exercise scientist, currently working as a principle investigator on a series of observational studies investigating the demographics of various cohorts of master athletes. Joe’s research interests include mathematical modelling, in particular use of Monte Carlo Methods and Markov Chains for modelling sports performance. He and Dr Mike have authored many scientific publications with findings presented at international conferences in Europe, Asia and North America.