MTI’s 3 Favorite Upper Body “Pull” Exercises

The Rope Climb … our favorite upper body pull exercise.

By Rob Shaul


Rope Climb

By far, the classic rope climb is my favorite upper body “pull” exercise.

There is so much involved with a rope climb – upper body pull strength, bicep/arm strength, grip strength, coordination, athleticism, and most of all, grit and tenacity. If you are hesitant or passive, the rope pushes you.

The rope climb is truly a total body exercise. My original lab rat, and now gym owner and coach, Josh Rempel, called the rope climb the “sled push for the upper body.”

The rope climb is the single upper body exercise I genuinely fear – it’s just so hard. Superset rope climbs with front squats, or back squats or power cleans,  – and you have a powerful, total body circuit.

The Double Eagle, Rope Climb superset, especially, is one of my favorite total body supersets as a coach, and least favorite as an athlete. Killer!

I also remember programming a work capacity event for myself and older lab rats of sandbag getups, burpees, and a rope climb. The getups and burpees were easy compared to the rope climb!

Another “nightmare” work capacity I recall involved a weight vest, 800m run, power cleans and a rope climb. Again, the run and power cleans were the easy part.

At MTI we have an 18-foot ceiling and use 1.5″ manila climbing ropes and have worn out several climbing ropes over the years.


Pull Up

There are several pull up variations we deploy, but the classic palms-away-from the face pull up is my favorite. It’s the most transferable to the real world, the hardest, and done strict, is brutal in its strength building ability.

Over the years we’ve studied the hell out of pull ups and how to improve them and as a result developed multiple progressions … volume, density, weight, eccentric, etc.

Few are “naturals” at this exercise. Women, especially, struggle, but many men do also. I’ve personally found push ups much easier than pull ups.


Mountain Guide, Christian, grinds through a set of Renegade Rows.

Renegade Row

These are quickly evolving into one of my favorite upper body pull exercises. Whereas the rope climb and pull ups are “vertical” pulling movements, Renegade Rows are a horizontal pulling movement.

We deploy several other horizontal pulling exercises – including horizontal pull ups, standing, kneeling and sitting rope pulls, barbell and dumbbell bent over rows, 1 and 2-arm horizontal ring rows and even reverse bench presses.

But I favor the Renegade Row most of all – it’s simple, has a total body element with the core rotation and anti-rotation work, and is easy to progress with reps or loading (heavier dumbbells).

I first began using this exercise when working with kayakers during their late-Spring, pre-season train up. Every kayak stroke involves a single arm push on the paddle with one hand, a single-arm pull on the paddle with the other hand, and anti-rotation and rotational core strength between the two. To match this movement in the gym we combined Renegade Rows with Kettlebell Floor Presses in mean, high-rep, density programming. Not only did these help my kayakers prepare for the season, they all got jacked upper bodies because of all the pressing and pulling. The old meatheads in the gym, myself included, were jealous!


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