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Whip yourself into shape with the rope workout

Whipped! is already one of the most popular classes at Equinox in Tysons Corner.
Whipped! is already one of the most popular classes at Equinox in Tysons Corner. (Lawrence Luk/express)
By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, February 25, 2010

Everyone remembers the rope climb from gym class. Probably not too fondly. So you might not like what I'm about to tell you: It's time to grab a rope again.

Instead of dangling from the ceiling, however, this one's anchored to the ground, and your job is to grasp the other end and heave it up and down. It doesn't sound too challenging, but try telling that to your heart and lungs -- not to mention your arms, shoulders, back, abs and legs -- after a few seconds. They'd argue if they weren't so tired. Get ready for rope burn, because this combination of strength training and low-impact cardio is probably headed to a gym near you, if it's not there already.

If you want someone to blame, look to John Brookfield, a North Carolina-based strongman who's known for dragging trucks, ripping up decks of cards and bending nails. About five years ago, he was searching for a new feat and came up with the idea of creating continuous waves with ropes, which turned out to be a challenge even for him. "If you lift a weight, as it comes down, you can use momentum," he says. "With ropes, it's all pure output. There's no lull in the action."

There's no rest for a single muscle, either, as the whipping motion requires you to fight against your own power. Not only do you need to generate the energy to create ripples, you also need to stabilize your body or you'll topple over.

Brookfield found he could make the motion even more exhausting by using two ropes and dueling a fit friend who held on to the opposite ends. In this sport version, both players furiously lift and lower the ropes until one person releases enough power to snap the ropes out of the other's hands.

Quickly, Brookfield noticed his rope experiments were boosting his performance in exercises from running to push-ups. So he gave his invention the name Battling Ropes, started presenting the product and soon got it into the hands of National Football League teams, Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters and Olympic athletes. And then folks like you and me.

Although the wave motion can tire out any jock, anyone -- including children, seniors and people in wheelchairs -- can do it, as long as it's modified with smaller ropes, less intense waves or a slower pace. That's what drew Adam Wharton, the area fitness director for Bally Total Fitness, to Brookfield's program a little over two years ago. "It can't be more intense than you can make it," says Wharton, who set about training his staff on the exercise. Now, the Washington region has one of the highest concentrations of certified Battling Ropes instructors in the country.

And they're getting a lot more company. That's because shortly after Brookfield began messing around with ropes in his back yard, Anthony DiLuglio, founder of the Punch Gym chain based in Rhode Island, had a chat with a friend about anxiety. The pal, a former Israeli Special Forces officer, recommended "undulating" objects, like they used to do with towels in the desert. DiLuglio gave it a try with hoses, chains and then the climbing ropes he had in the gym.

With that, he stumbled across the same benefits Brookfield had discovered and launched his own program, Ropes Gone Wild. "If people see you doing it, they can't wait to try it. They're looking at something that doesn't look hard. It looks fun," he says. So he's made Ropes Gone Wild the cornerstone of his Stop the Obesity program for schools while promoting it for adults in classes he's rolling out to gyms nationally. Around here, you can test it out at World Gym in Waldorf.

And would you believe that Marvin Aronson, a trainer with local chain Sport & Health, also came up with rope-whipping on his own a few years back? When he worked at a farm, he would regularly lug ropes to pitch tents. He used that as inspiration to tone up personal training clients and soon added the moves to a circuit training class he developed called the Spartan Workout, which he teaches at several locations in Northern Virginia. Other stops include slamming sledgehammers into tires and dragging weighted bags across a basketball court. But Aronson says those ropes are special: "Even at 30 seconds, you get a great cardio effect."

When Lisa Wheeler developed Whipped!, a class incorporating ropes for the high-end national gym chain Equinox, she knew she'd have to limit students to short intervals. But it's all she needs to convince them they're in the right place. "They see results. That's the best thing. They feel their heart rates going up," she says. Last month, Whipped! was launched in Tysons Corner, where it's one of the most popular classes.

So where will this rope climb lead? Wharton expects every gym will eventually have a few on hand, as they become staples like stability balls. And more people will be faster and stronger because of it.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company