Learn Rope Climb Technique from CrossFitter Pat Vellner

The 2021 CrossFit Games runner-up shares how he out-climbs his competition.

Pat Vellner has been a top contender at the CrossFit Games since 2016, where his easy-going attitude and sense of humor have made him a fan favorite. The 2022 CrossFit Games on Aug. 3-7, 2022, will beVellner’s eighth time competing on the sport’s grandest stage (his seventh as an Individual). He reached the Games podium four times, including a runner-up finish to reigning Fittest Man on Earth® Justin Medeiros in 2021.

Vellner has been publishing more consistently on his YouTube channel, sharing a mix of behind-the-scenes vlogs, coaching tips, and educational content. In a video published on July 23, 2022, Vellner shared a tutorial on the different foot techniques he uses when executing rope climbs. Check it out below:

Vellner is one of CrossFit’s top athletes. He has finished on the Games podium nearly 60 percent of the time he’s competed as an Individual. The combination of his competitive experience and professional expertise as a chiropractor make his tips all the more reliable. 

Safety, Preparation, and Tips

Vellner starts the video with two safety tips to prepare for rope climbs: 

  1. Double Knot Your Shoelaces
  2. Wear Shin Protection

Doubling the knots in your lacing will better ensure the rope doesn’t unto them. A loose lace can snag your feet when grabbing the rope and throw you off balance or slip. Shin protection is self-explanatory, but not having to endure skin damage while recovering is preferable.

J-Hook Technique

The first rope climb technique Vellner covers is the J-hook technique. Named after a J-hooks that hold a barbell in a squat rack, the J-hook technique involves using one foot to hold the rope in front of the shin to start the movement. The bottom foot then wraps the rope up and over the top foot, pressing down to lock it in place. 

The advantage of the J-hook technique is the ability to create a strong and tight lock on the rope, which is less likely to otherwise slip between the feet. This is a great option for athletes who may lack upper body pulling strength.

The disadvantage of this technique is that it’s more difficult to come down, requiring more work to unravel the feet, while transitioning into the descent. This leads to a slower cycle rate each rep. 

Heel Lock

The second technique Vellner covers is the heel lock. The rope sits behind the outside of the ankle to start the movement. The bottom foot sweeps the rope under and is then pulled up between both feet, where it is squeezed to lock the rope in place.

The advantage of the heel lock is an easier release of the rope for a faster descent. This is a great option for athletes who have a large strength reserve in the upper body and can rely on their arms if the feet were to slip out. It’s also a great option for competitive athletes aiming to be as efficient as possible. 

The disadvantage of this technique is that it’s not as secure of a lock between the feet and the rope. This could be more dangerous for athletes who are lacking in upper body strength. 


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[Related: Watch 2022 CrossFit Games Athlete Joke Dikhoff Perform a Legless Rope Climb at Age 72]

Use the Legs

Vellner attributes his success in rope climb workouts to relying heavily on the use of his legs. Using the lower body helps to conserve energy and strength, since the legs are a much larger muscle group than the arms

Keep the Feet Under the Body 

One of the cues Vellner gives is to pull the feet under the body before standing up on the rope. A common fault is athletes locking their feet in and pushing away, which creates a horizontal force on the upper body. Pulling the feet under will allow the athlete to push down to the ground, propelling the body vertically towards the top of the rope climb. 

Rope Climb Progression 

Below is a simple rope climb progression to practice the J-hook and/or heel lock, while gradually increasing the upper body demand on the athlete. 

Seated Box Footwork Drill

This video below shows the seated box footwork drill done specifically for the J-hook, but both of the techniques Vellner reviewed can be done while sitting on a box. This drill allows the athlete to focus solely on the footwork, without any demand on the upper body. 

A good way to see how well you’ve mastered the footwork is to practice it with your eyes closed. This can improve muscle memory, which is essential when fatigued or stressed during a workout or competition. It is also a great way to warm-up and refine the movement patterns before training rope climbs.

Pull-up Bar Assisted Rope Climbs 

This second drill builds off the box footwork. Since hanging from a pull-up bar is significantly easier than dangling from a rope, this drill allows athletes to practice hanging and hooking their feet simultaneously. Once the feet are securely locked in, the athlete can stand tall with the legs and complete the pull-up

This is a great way to bridge the box drill to a real rope climb. The athlete has to trust their grip while focusing on the footwork. Additionally, it teaches the proper sequence of the movement: 

  1. Hang and hook the feet 
  2. Pull the feet under the body 
  3. Stand with the legs 
  4. Finish with the arms 

[Related: 2022 CrossFit Games Demo Team — Who’s Testing the Events in Madison?]

Practice Hanging Knees-to-Elbow on a Rope 

For athletes struggling to move from the pull-up bar drill to a real rope climb, a great assistance exercise is the hanging knees-to-elbow from a rope. This movement builds strength and confidence in the initial hook of a rope climb. Practice this movement until bringing the knees to the elbow is no longer challenging for multiple reps. As this becomes easier, begin attempting to lift the legs and practice getting the foot locks in place while hanging. 

[Related: A Look Inside Justin Medeiros’ Gym Bag]

Master The Basics

Vellner will attempt to become the Fittest Man on Earth® from August 3-7, 2022, in Madison, WI. He’s a veteran CrossFit athlete who has found a way to remain at the top of the sport for nearly a decade. His emphasis on the fundamentals should remind others not to overlook the little things in the gym. The best in the world do the common uncommonly well.

Featured image: @pvellner on Instagram