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Training 101: What Muscles Do Battle Ropes Work?

Battle ropes make waves—in more than one way. In addition to their popularity across social media feeds and workout videos, the undulating motions of battle rope exercises provide full-body benefits, improving your strength, endurance, flexibility, and body composition.

But what core muscles does this category of conditioning rope work, exactly? Battle rope training routines can stimulate a variety of muscle groups in the chest, core, arms, shoulders, back, glutes, and legs. And they’re good for your brain too, improving your mental stamina and concentration.

To better understand how battle ropes training can benefit your workout routine, let’s dig into muscle activation to explore what battle ropes are good for.

What is Muscle Activation?

Put simply, muscle activation is a measure of what core muscles are being used in any given activity.

However, all muscle activation isn’t created equal. There’s muscle activation required simply to remain standing (otherwise, you’d collapse onto the ground), but that level of muscle activation won’t help you if you’re trying to build muscle.

The higher the level of muscle activation, the more likely you will be able to build muscle and experience the many battle ropes benefits. Battle ropes, which are long, weighted ropes used in fitness training, help to activate your whole body. In particular, the thickness of the ropes adds a level of resistance to your workout to build strength while reducing any stress on your joints.

What do battle ropes work? Generally, battle rope exercises activate the upper body muscles like your biceps, triceps, and shoulder and back muscles, which include:

  • Deltoids
  • Trapezius
  • Latimus dorsi
  • Obliques

However, incorporating lower body movements such as jumps and lunges into your battle rope workout can target a variety of lower body muscles as well, including:

  • Glutes
  • Quads
  • Hamstrings

Backed by Science

So, do these workout ropes really work? Yes, but don’t just take our word for it. Let’s look at two recent scientific studies to give us a sense of what muscles do ropes work, and how they do it.

Study #1

This is a pretty straightforward study that was conducted in 2015 and serves almost as a proof of concept that battle ropes do work.1 For this study, young men were given the task of performing two different types of battle ropes exercises:

  • Bilateral waves – For this exercise, waves are made by using both arms in tandem. Both arms go up, then down in smooth motions, creating waves in the ropes. These are also sometimes called double arm waves.
  • Unilateral waves – Same basic idea with the up and down waves, but instead of the arms working in tandem, they work opposite to each other so when the right arm is up the left arm is down and vice versa. These are sometimes called double alternating waves.

While the exercises were performed, researchers measured muscle activity in four different muscle groups:

  • Anterior deltoid – This is your frontmost shoulder muscles. The delt has three separate heads, but for simplicity’s sake, you can think of this as the shoulder.
  • External oblique – Obliques, which are your side abs, play a major role in both stabilization and rotation while performing battle rope workouts.
  • Erector spinae – These are your back muscles, specifically the ones that are closest to your spine.
  • Gluteus medius – Your glutes are the muscles in your butt that help you stabilize yourself and perform many different activities, like sitting and walking.

Results

So what did they find? While performing both exercises, there was a large amount of muscle activation in the shoulders, abs, and back. The obliques showed more activation from the unilateral waves, while the back muscles were more activated by the bilateral waves.

However, for these particular battle rope exercises, the glutes did not see much activity. That’s because the lower body was planted firmly and therefore received limited activation compared to the upper body.

Study #2

While this study also looked at young men, its measurements were more expansive. They recorded the muscle activation of five different types of battle rope exercises to identify what muscles do battle ropes train. In addition to double arm waves and double alternating waves, the study also looked at:

  • Double arm slams – These have the arms working in tandem as they do with the double arm waves. But, rather than creating a smooth motion to create a wave, participants threw the ropes down with force, slamming them into the ground.2
  • Single arm wave – This uses only one arm to create the wave while the other arm rests. Once the exercise was completed on one side, participants would switch and do the same thing on the opposite side.
  • Double outside circles – Instead of moving your arms up and down to create waves (or slams), you create circles, keeping the ropes moving at all times.3

This study didn’t just add exercises, though. It also added to the muscles monitored. Glutes, delts, obliques, and lower back were monitored in addition to:

  • Vastus medialis – One of the muscles that make up your quadriceps. These are the thigh muscles in your legs.
  • Rectus abdominis – While the obliques cover the sides of your abs, this is the main section in the front. When you think of six-pack abs, these are the muscles you’re noticing.
  • Upper trapezius – Another set of back muscles, your traps are located across your upper back and connect at your spine.
  • Palmaris longus – This is one you may not have heard of and likely don’t train much. It’s your forearm muscle and is important when it comes to grip strength.

Results

To discuss the results of this study, it’s easiest to break them down based on which muscle groups saw the most activation based on each exercise. This study used a baseline of 40% muscle activation to identify the point at which you would be able to start seeing muscle gains. The results were as follows:

  • Quadriceps – Didn’t reach the 40% mark during double alternating waves or single arm waves. However, researchers did see high activation for all other observed exercises, with the most gains being during double arm slams (over 70% activation).
  • Glutes – Just hit 40% during double alternating waves and fell short of 40% during single arm waves. Researchers saw good activation with all other observed exercises and, like the quads, saw the most activation (over 70%) during double arm slams.
  • Lower back – Hit 40% on all exercises. The lowest activation (just above 40%) came during single arm waves. The most (over 80%) came during double arm slams.
  • Obliques – Over 40% on all exercises. The most activation (over 80%) came during the single arm waves and double alternating waves. The least (just over 40%) came during double outside circles and double arm waves.
  • Abs (rectus) – Only got over 40% during two of the exercises: Double arm slams resulted in over 60% activation, while double arm waves reached 50%.
  • Upper back – Over 70% activation for all exercises. Minimal differences across the five exercises.
  • Shoulders – Over 80% on all exercises except double outside circles. Still over 60% activation during double outside circles.
  • Forearms – Over 70% activation for all exercises. Minimal differences across the five exercises.

What the Science Means

That’s a lot of numbers to look at, but what does it all mean? At the base level, these studies show that battle ropes are effective at activating muscles throughout the body, which is a key component if you’re looking to build strength and muscle.

These studies also show that different battle rope exercises can target different muscle groups. And keep in mind, the exercises tested are far from the extent of exercises you can do—the great thing about battle ropes is that they’re extremely versatile.

You can move the ropes laterally to focus more on obliques and adduction or you can add in squats, lunges, or jumps to light up your lower body. Battle ropes also come in a variety of sizes and weights, meaning you can customize your workout to your fitness level and goals.

Other Important Muscles Worked

While battle rope workouts target many of your body’s muscles to help build strength and endurance, they’re also effective in cardio workouts and can even enhance your mental stamina:

  • Heart – Battle ropes are a great form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Just doing short bursts of the movement followed by rest periods will boost your heart rate considerably, which can be effective in burning fat, building lean muscle, and strengthening your overall cardiovascular function.4
  • Brain – You may not immediately think of your brain during training, but it’s getting a workout too. Using battle ropes correctly takes a lot of focus. It also takes mental endurance to push through physical fatigue. This may be a different type of brain workout than you get solving algebra equations, but it’s important nonetheless.

Make Waves with Tru Grit

Battle ropes are an effective tool if you’re looking for a holistic workout that targets each of your body’s main muscle groups. If you’re ready to start making waves (or slams and circles), Tru Grit has your back.

Our battle ropes come in two different weights and are the perfect addition to your home gym and fitness routine. Once you have your rope, all you need to do is secure it using a sturdy battle rope anchor.

Just remember, battle ropes are just the beginning when it comes to optimizing your workout. The best workouts will combine different techniques like HIIT battle ropes routines and weight and band resistance training. Luckily, at Tru Grit, we’ve got everything you need to start maximizing your gains and crushing your goals.


Sources:

The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Muscle Activity During Unilateral vs. Bilateral Battle Rope Exercises. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2015/10000/Muscle_Activity_During_Unilateral_vs__Bilateral.22.aspx 

International Journal of Research in Exercise Physiology. Muscle Activation During Several Battle Rope Exercises. https://ijrep.org/wp-content/uploads/lana-downloads/2019/07/salzgeber.et_.al_.spring.2019.pdf 

LinkedIn. Slam, Wave, and Whip. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/slam-wave-whip-omar-f-cordero-cmt-/ 

Dr. John Rusin. Top 30 Battle Rope Exercises For Power, Strength & Endurance. https://drjohnrusin.com/top-30-battle-rope-exercises-for-power-strength-endurance/ 

Arthur D'Amato, MS. Battle Ropes: Gimmick or No? https://arthurdamato.wordpress.com/2017/10/11/battle-ropes-gimmick-or-no/ 

 

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