By Roger Smith
You see the wrong approach to a monkey bar or ring crossing obstacle at every race. Most people think that they should hang, reach, and swing like a monkey in order to cross a monkey bar. The word “monkey” is in the name, so it must be the right way to do it? Yes? No!
The universal mistake by a novice or mediocre obstacle racer is to reach up with one arm, grab the bar in your fist, then try to swing far enough to reach the next bar with the other hand, release the back hand, and hope your momentum carries you far enough to snag the next bar. That approach will work just fine for one rung, two rungs, and maybe three rungs. Then, like hundreds before you, you will lose momentum, your hand strength will give out, you will miss a bar, and you will fall into the water trap below.
How did that happen? What went wrong? Other people make it look so easy.
The Wrong Monkey
So let’s look at what is wrong with that method. Then we will describe a couple of techniques that will work much, much better.
First, your grip was wrong. Do not grab the bar in your fist. When four fingers go over the top and the thumb goes around the bottom, you have just removed your thumb strength from the equation. It is on the bottom doing no good at all. Even though you are trying to curl it around the bottom far enough to lock to your fingertips, it is mostly worthless. Also, as your hand rotates during the swing, your weight is going to shift in your hand until it hits the weakest point in the grip. This is when the bar is pressing against your fingertips and the curled thumb. Most people’s grip gives out right there and they fall. Finally, releasing and relocking that kind of grip on each bar is a lot of movement to coordinate. It is easy to make a mistake and come tumbling off.
Second, you started the swing with just one hand on a bar. So you are expecting one hand to hold all of your weight, plus the momentum of dropping into position and swinging. That is too much force for one hand to support.
Third, you tried to swing with your arms fully extended. Your arm, shoulder, and back muscles are fully stretched out. This is where they are the weakest. If you lift weights you know that your arms are weakest when they are fully straight and strongest when they are about 50% bent.
Fourth, your form was to swing like a monkey reaching for each bar while your body is swinging. That is a tricky set of movements to get right multiple times in a row. Your hand is going to miss the bar on one of these and you are going to come tumbling down.
The Better Monkey
So let’s rebuild your method by replacing each of those with something that will work much better.
First your grip. Make your hands into simple hooks with the thumb running along the side of your index finger, giving it extra strength. You are not going to grip the bar, you are going to put your hand-hooks on the bar. Your hand works like the hook on the end of a crane cable or a grappling hook. This retains some of the strength of the thumb, eliminates the fingertip weak spot, and reduces the chances that you will miss the grab for the bar. When you swing, your hand will not rotate very much, instead the movement is mostly in your wrist and arm swinging under your hook.
Second, when you mount up on the first bar hook both hands onto that bar. When your weight hits the end of your arms the first time you do not want to stress, exhaust, or strain your hand strength before you even get started.
Third, since both arms are holding your weight, try to keep your arms bent like you are halfway through a pull-up. You do this to put your muscles in a stronger position, to keep your body higher up and closer to the bar, and to flex your arms, shoulders, back, and abs during the movement. It will help your body be a tight spring instead of a loose rubber band as you move. Most of this tightening will happen automatically when you keep your arms bent.
Fourth, you are not a monkey. Starting with both hands on the first bar, reach for the second bar with your strongest arm. This reach is the trickiest part of the move. You are most likely to get it right with your dominant hand. That hand and arm will move the fastest, be the most accurate at hooking the next bar, and be the strongest at holding it. Once your strong hand has the second bar, bring your weakest hand to that same bar. That’s right, do not be a monkey reaching for bar number three. That is for the experts. You are going to lead with your strong hand, bring your weak hand to the same bar, lead with your strong hand again, and repeat to the end.
These four changes will significantly improve your chances of reaching the other side of the monkey bars.
Does this really work? At this year’s Rugged Maniac I crossed the monkey bars successfully, then immediately went right around and did it a second time, and a third, and a fourth. I was showing off for the obstacle volunteers. At another race I crossed their monkey bars, did a U-turn and went back and forth five times before I missed a grab and fell into the water. At the Savage Race I have never fallen off the Sawtooth, and can usually do it two or three times if I feel like it. Some of this comes from experience and strength, but half of it is this technique. Using the Bad Monkey method I am as likely to fall off as any novice.
The Tricky Monkey
Some courses are adding difficulty to their courses with new tricks. Here are some of the most common and how to handle them.
Rolling Bars and Fat Pipes
Races have created bars which are not firmly mounted. The bar itself will roll as you swing on it. They also achieve this by putting a larger sleeve around the central bar. This will really throw off anyone who is gripping the bar with their thumb underneath. The bar rolls to the weak point in the grip right away and off they come. Your new hooked hands are going to help with this a lot.
Another way to compensate for the rolling bar and the larger sleeve is to turn your hook hands inward so they point toward each other. This will make your body turn sideways to the rows of bars. You start by reaching out with your strongest hand and hooking it on the far side of the bar. Then bring your weak hand up and hook it on the close side. Then reach out for the next bar. This means your hands are pointed toward each other and the rolling of the two bars is going to cancel out. Since both hands are not on the same side of the bar, the bar is less likely to roll backward and drop you off.
A popular variation on the monkey bars is a set of rings hanging from straps. It is almost the same, except that the rings may be swinging a little. This makes them more tricky to grab. You use the same technique described above. You will find that on a round ring it can be a tight fit to get both hands into the ring. Just hook them side-by-side and carry on.
With the swinging straps it is also helpful get your strong arm more involved. When you grab a ring with your leading strong arm, pause a half-second before releasing your back arm. In that time, flex your strong arm and pull that ring closer to your body. That pull will give your more swing when you release your back hand. This will be a big help in getting closer to the next ring. You have seen people out in the middle who ran out of swing and were stranded, unable to reach the next ring. The flex and pull will help with that problem.
Replacing the bars and the rings with a simple series of hanging ropes is the latest monkey trick. With these it is doubly important that you do not drop your full weight onto a single arm. Get the first rope with both hands. If there is a knot in the rope, your strong hand should be lowest and right above that knot. You are going to use your grip and the resistance against that knot to hang onto that rope. When you reach out with your strong hand for the next rope, always grab it immediately above the knot. Then put your weak hand right above your strong hand.
How do you train for this obstacle? The best way is to do monkey bars, rings, and ropes regularly at a gym or playground. This is great if you can find it, but most of us are doing our strength training at a traditional gym. The obvious exercises are pull-ups and some type of grip squeezer.
Beyond strength, one of the best things you can do it just plain lose weight. The less weight you carry across the bars, the better you will do. I have noticed that skinnier people seem to do better at this obstacle than big bodybuilders. You would think that the muscle guys would be great, but their grip strength is being countered by the weight of all of their muscles. But for most people, too much lean muscle is not the problem, it is the excess table muscle that needs to go.
Will wearing gloves help? My experience is that these don’t improve your performance much. The right gloves will improve the stickiness of your grip, but they also tend to slip around on your hands and you have to compensate for that. I do not wear gloves when running my first lap around the course. But if I going to run the course a second or third time, then I definitely put on gloves. The obstacle wear-and-tear and the water softening up my skin on the first lap, will lead to me ripping the calluses off my hands during the second and third laps if I am not wearing gloves.
Do not get leather palmed gloves, like weight lifting, bicycling, and work gloves. These are very slippery when they are wet. Try a simple pair of Madgrip gloves with a rubber palm for about $10.
This method is not the only way to do monkey bars. You will see experienced racers doing it a number of different ways. They have found what works best of them, what looks good to the crowd, and what fits the specific form of the obstacle. You should learn this method and practice until you are successful. Then watch others who are successful to see what they are doing right.
For now you just want to get to the other side without falling into the drink.