Gymnastics rings are an incredibly versatile training tool for rock climbing. While they will not train your finger strength, they do work a lot of important muscles, like your arms, shoulders, back, and core. They also build a high strength to weight ratio, which is important to gymnasts and climbers alike.
I bought my own pair of rings four years ago and have not gone back to conventional weight training since. Not only do they provide a wonderful workout, but they are also simply more fun to use than free weights. In fact, I found that rings target more muscle groups at once and build strength more efficiently than traditional weight lifting.
You can use rings for pull-ups, muscle ups, pushups, leg raises, levers, and more. In addition, the inherently unstable nature of rings requires all of your muscles to work together, so your entire upper body is engaged instead of only isolating one muscle at a time.
John Gill, the "Father of modern bouldering," was a trained gymnastic and trained on rings throughout his life. He was famous for his one armed pull ups and front levers. These powerful moves allowed him to excel at bouldering like no one had before him.
While there are many other important aspects of climbing to focus on as well, incorporating some ring training can efficiently boost your overall strength and might well find a way into your regular climbing training.
Getting started with rings
Gymnastics rings are simple to set up and get started with. Although the movements performed on them can be extremely difficult, the rings themselves are a simple device. The popularity of rings as a workout tool outside of gymnastics has been growing.
You do not need the professional set up that gymnasts use; most basic rings consist of a nylon strap that runs through the ring with a buckle on the end. They can be purchased easily online, and for the amount of versatility and training they provide are fairly cheap too. Set up is simple, you simply throw the strap over a beam, branch, or other horizontal pole, and fasten the buckle. The rings can then be lowered for pushups or raised for pull-ups and dips.
Exercises on gymnastics rings
While there are many advanced moves that can be performed on the rings, I will stick to describing moves that can more directly help with rock climbing training. On the most basic level rings can be used simply for pull ups. If you do not have a pull up bar available then rings are great!
One of the first advanced tricks to learn is the muscle up. Muscle ups work the chest, arms, back, and core … pretty much everything! They start from a dead hang on the rings and proceed like a pull-up. However, when you reach the top of the pull you continue pushing yourself up into the dip position. Done correctly this looks smooth and easy, but do not be fooled! Your first time trying it will most likely end with wobbling and flailing.
If you do succeed you will most likely find your arms shaking uncontrollably as you try to hold yourself up. I've taught many people muscle ups, and every one of them struggled and wobbled their first few times! It really makes you appreciate how many different muscles gymnastics rings target.
Technique is very important when trying a muscle up. It is important to use a false grip, where your wrist is over the top of the ring, in order to easily switch from pulling up to pushing into a dip. Practice your dips and pull-ups separately until you can transition from one into the other in a successful muscle up.
Hanging Leg Raises
Leg raises are my go-to core workout. They can be done on many things, from pull up bars to railroads, but my favorite is leg raises from the dip position of the rings. Not only does it give your abs a great workout, but it also challenges your back, chest, and arms to stabilize you in the process.
As a warning, these are difficult to do. They first require you to be able to do a muscle up and dips. Once you've accomplished that though, give leg raises a try. Remember to keep your back straight and your elbows locked as you bring your legs up as high as you can. Mentally focus on contracting your abs as much as possible to get the most out of it.
Hanging knee raises are also valuable. Performing them on rings adds so much difficulty that most often I do these instead of the whole leg. After a few sets my abs are burning and my arms and chest are beat. That's a good workout!
The front lever is a difficult skill to master. It involves holding your body horizontally from a bar or rings. This requires incredible strength in your arms, back, and core, making it an ideal climbing exercise. John Gill famously performed this skill one handed … now that requires serious strength!
The strength that front levers build is great for climbing training. To perform one, hang from the rings with straight arms. Then lift your body up until you are horizontal to the ground. The tough part is keeping your body straight!
It will be impossible to do a full front lever the first time you try it. Instead, you will have to progress towards the full lever in stages. Start with the normal lever position but pull your knee in and keep them tucked towards your chest. After you can hold that position for thirty seconds, work on slowly progressing to holding your legs out flat. Keep a flat back and lock your elbows.
When you get close to the full lever you can try an exercise called ice cream makers. Hang in the pull up position and pull yourself up into the front lever position, hold it briefly and then lower yourself back down. Sets of these will help to improve your lever.
These are the main exercises that I use gymnastics rings for. There are many more cool strength moves on the rings, such as the iron cross and planche, but the strength that these require does not help with climbing well enough to justify training them. If you have the desire though, there are hundreds of movement variations on the rings you can find.
If you're looking for a chest workout, one of my favorites is archer push ups. To do these, lower your rings to the ground and get in the push up position. Extend one arm straight off to the side while lowering yourself with the other arm. Push back up and alternate arms. This is basically an assisted one arm push up and demands much more strength than normal push ups. Rings also allow the extra challenge of lowering yourself below your hands, which works a larger range of motion. For added difficulty try elevating your feet behind you; this adds weight to your push up.
The iron cross is one of the most famous ring movements. It involves holding yourself in the air with your arms extended straight out horizontally. This is a much more difficult move and takes a lot of time to develop. Care must be taken when training for it because the move places high stress on your shoulders and elbows. It is easy to injure yourself if your technique is wrong, so be careful if you attempt it.
Overall, small workouts on gymnastics rings can be used very successfully in a climbing training regiment. The bulk of your training should still be on climbing and finger strength, but rings provide a great opportunity to build body strength. They are a very efficient exercise because of the stabilization required, and just a few sets a weeks will show results. Try them out, and see how much easier overhangs, lock offs, and stabilization become!