This Simple Piece of Equipment Could Elevate Your Workout

A jump rope can increase your agility and speed while giving you a great workout in half the time of a run.,

A jump rope can increase your agility and speed while giving you a great workout in half the time of a run.

If you’ve ever seen Bernadette Henry jump rope, as she often does around New York City, it’s hard to believe she ever does anything else. As the swings of her rope blur into a multi-curved arc, she hops, skips and jumps in a quick, ever-changing pattern, two separate rhythms stitched into a complex and dizzying dance.

For Ms. Henry, who teaches jump rope classes, juggles a full-time job as a caseworker and cares for her three children, two of whom are autistic, it’s the portability, versatility and high-intensity nature of jump rope that appeals to her. “I love jump rope because of how much work you can get in in such little time,” she said.

As we face another winter of pandemic stress and potentially limited access to gyms, finding new at-home workouts will be crucial. And a number of studies are showing that jump rope is an incredible tool for building strength, speed and agility, even if you weren’t gifted with a lot of athletic ability. It’s also a workout that can be done just about anywhere, with very little equipment, while exercising the entire body.

“The possibilities are endless, as long as you have some space and are on a good surface,” Ms. Henry said.

Jump rope increases speed and power.

In a recent meta-analysis of 21 studies, published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, jump training was linked to faster running times for endurance runners. That’s because when you are jumping, your foot hits the ground for shorter periods of time than while running.

“Less time spent on the ground is more time moving forward,” said Jason Moran, a researcher at the University of Essex and one of the authors of the paper. It’s this reduced contact time, along with the power it takes to push off from the ground, that helps increase speed in activities like running.

In addition to building speed, it also increases power. With the quick motion of jumping, your muscles and tendons have to contract and recoil faster, while still providing an equal amount of force. As Dr. Moran explained, while strength is the ability to exert force, power is the ability to do it within a certain time frame. Therefore, exerting the same amount of force in a shorter time frame builds power.

Your balance improves, as does your response time.

Any repetitive jumping activity increases the number and efficiency of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are used in quick, explosive movements. “When you jump rope, fast-twitch muscles are firing faster and giving feedback to the brain quicker,” said Alysia Robichau, a former college gymnast and sports medicine doctor at Houston Methodist Hospital.

In addition to its athletic benefits, the connection between your fast-twitch muscle fibers and your brain is a major part of what keeps your body in balance, especially if you have to react quickly. As Dr. Robichau explained it, fast-twitch muscles are used for sprinting, but “they’re also used to prevent you from falling off the curb.”

As we age we lose muscle, with our fast-twitch muscles declining the fastest, which is one of the reasons older people have a higher risk of falling. Exercises such as jump rope can prevent or reverse that decline in places like calves, hamstrings and quadriceps.

You gain increased bone density.

Bone tissue is dynamic, engaged in a constant cycle of building and breaking down. When your bones are put under repeated stress, such as by jumping rope, it stimulates them to build back thicker and stronger.

High-impact activities like jump rope have been shown to provide a force that is high enough to build bone density. Compared to other, lower-impact exercises, “this is going to be much better for you in terms of building your bone density,” said Dr. Michael Fredericson, an orthopedic surgeon at Stanford University School of Medicine.

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Research shows that exercises involving jumping build bone strength and explosive power while helping to stabilize joints.Credit…Ryan Young for The New York Times

Mixing it up can reduce injury.

All of the different movements in jump rope, such as hopping, skipping or shuffling, offer a more varied form of movement than what you get from something like running, where you are doing a single repetitive motion.

“You’re working the bone in different directions, as well as your muscles,” Dr. Fredericson said. This is what he calls a more multidirectional type of training, which research suggests can help prevent overuse injuries.

In his practice, Dr. Fredericson treats a lot of recreational tennis players with tennis leg, a torn calf muscle often caused by performing a rapid movement, such as pushing off to reach a shot. Most players, he said, are not training their calves for such quick, explosive movements. Jump rope, which is a similar motion, can help prevent this.

Start slow, give your body time to adapt.

Jump rope requires lower body strength and coordination, but you can develop the skill with a little patience and consistency. Working your way up to 10 minutes of continuous jumping is hard in many of the same ways that working up to 30 minutes of running is, so it’s important to start off slow, to give your body enough time to adapt. “Stay within your own pace,” Ms. Henry said.

Going slow is especially important if you are just starting to work out after a period of inactivity, if your body isn’t used to the impact of jumping or if you are recovering from injuries. It’s also important to speak with your doctor before starting any new exercise program.

In the beginning, it may be enough to do one or two jumps at a time, until you have enough awareness of how your feet and the rope are supposed to move together. Or try jumping in place as a way to break it into simpler components. Stand as you would normally, with the jump rope behind you, and jump without swinging the rope. This will help you become comfortable with the movement of jumping, while also establishing the coordination of holding the rope as you jump.

You can also swing the rope over your head, letting it stop before it reaches your feet, at which point you step over it to develop a sense of timing for when the rope will hit the ground.

Once your body is used to jumping, it shouldn’t feel too hard. “You want to be relaxed and easy in your movements,” said Dwight Pratchett, a former professional boxer and boxing coach based in Houston. “When you tense up, you use up your gas too fast.” For Mr. Pratchett, jump rope has been a valuable tool for improving footwork and aerobic capacity, both in his work as a coach, as well as his own fitness regimen.

If jumping doesn’t feel right, it’s important to look at your form. “You want to really nail down the basics,” Ms. Henry said. This includes jumping on the balls of your feet, rather than flat-footed, with a slight bend to your knees. In the beginning, it’s best to jump with both feet at the same time, until you feel comfortable enough to start alternating.

“It’s hard to get that rhythm, but once you get it down, you can feel it,” Mr. Pratchett said. “It’s almost like dancing.”

The right equipment is essential.

It’s important to have the right jump rope and shoes. To find the right rope length, stand on the middle of the rope and pull it taut. The ends should then reach to your armpits. It’s better to jump on a softer surface, such as a rubber mat, but a wood or concrete floor works just fine, as long as your shoes are supportive.

If you are in a room with a lower ceiling or in a crowded area, you can still do a jump rope workout, although you may need to modify your technique and avoid the higher jumps. “The more you practice in a restrictive space, the more you get used to it,” said Ms. Henry.

She said that more than 20 years of jumping rope has helped her lose weight, reverse her pre-diabetes, reduce her blood pressure and keep her strong. It’s also an invaluable source of stress relief. When she is jumping rope, she’s not thinking about work or family or any of the many other demands in her life. “I feel like I am on vacation,” she said.

Rachel Fairbank is a freelance science writer based in West Texas. Her work has appeared in publications such as Lifehacker, Texas Monthly, the Houston Chronicle and the Washington Post.

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