Obstacle Course Training – How to Conquer Monkey Bars

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With the interest in obstacle course racing at an all time high, more and more people are signing up for races and beginning to train for what at first glance appears to be an impossible feat. The truth is that with the proper training approach anything is possible. One of the more daunting obstacles for newcomers are the Monkey Bars. We all did them as children during recess, but unless you are a rock climber or have been consistently keeping up with your pull ups you most likely haven’t used all of the muscles you may need in quite some time. Below I have listed some helpful tips and exercises that will get you ready for Tough Mudder’s ‘Funky Monkey’, Savage Race’s ‘Sawtooth’, or any other monkey bars an obstacle race or mud run might throw at you.

1. Pull Ups: This one is obvious, but also the most important. Form will be the key to making these count. More often than not folks doing pull ups will not fully extend their arms after the initial dead hang and only lower themselves down halfway. Make sure you go all the way down to a dead hang each time and then pull yourself back up. If you have trouble doing this then keep training and give yourself some time between reps. If you need pull up assistance, you can purchase Pull Up Bands that will reduce the weight you are pulling up so that your body can strengthen itself. Once you progress far enough, you can begin to do unassisted pull ups.

Depending on the type of pull up bar you have access to there are variations that can help simulate the obstacle. If your bar has multiple grips you can alternate grips on each rep of your pull up. For example, start with both palms facing out on your first rep and when you lower your weight back down switch one hand to face in. You will do another rep with one hand facing out and the other in. From each dead hang switch your grip to another hold. This works best if you incorporate a wide grip as well as an inside grip. This will help you prepare for the trip up and down the monkey bars as it improves your grip strength and allows you to practice moving your hands from one bar to another.

2. Playground Monkey Bars:
The best way to get your body ready for monkey bars is with…… yep, you guessed it! with Monkey Bars! The only downside to playground monkey bars is that these days they are not very long and typically are separated by an unavoidable step. This means you may not have as much length as you would like to practice on. Additionally, they will not be able to prepare you for the incline and decline of the ‘Funky Monkey.‘ That being said, the more you can get out to a playground the better off you will be. The first time you try them you will most likely do poorly as you won’t be used to them and the bars will start to callous your hands. It is amazing how much more we were able to do as children…. You will want to start by transferring each hand to each bar. Skipping bars can save time, but will require more strength and control. If you can use one hand on each bar that is great, but if you have trouble just stick with both hands on each bar. Once you get comfortable on the bars make sure to use your feet like you are pedaling a bike so you generate some momentum. This will help you get across smoothly and can take some stress off of your muscles. Another downside to local playground monkey bars? If you don’t have a kid you may end up being the awkward adult hanging out on a kids playground…..

3. Soccer Goal Swings
Another great way to practice for the monkey bars is to try what I call ‘Soccer Goal Swings.’  This is more of a lateral movement, but it allows you to exercise different parts of your shoulders that you might otherwise miss while also allowing you to practice swinging yourself and using your momentum to help carry your body weight. In addition, Tough Mudder’s Funky Monkey 2.0 features a horizontal bar traverse on the 2nd half of the obstacle, making this exercise a must!


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To begin this exercise, you will want to find a local soccer goal and dead hang from the crossbar with your arms shoulder width apart. Begin swinging your body from right to left and when you feel comfortable enough, lift your left hand and move it further left on the crossbar. As your left hand grasps you will quickly reach your right hand over so your hands are again shoulder width apart. You will repeat this until you reach the end of the crossbar. Once you finish you will repeat the exercise going from left to right.

Once you feel comfortable completing this exercise from a dead hang, you will eventually progress to locking out your arms at a 90 degree angle. The movement remains the same, but by locking out you engage more of your arm muscles and reduce the fatigue on your hands. This exercise can also come in handy when running a course with a Multi Rig with horizontal bar or Savage Race’s Pipe Dreams,  which is a horizontal bar for you to laterally cross a water ditch.


4. Hang Board Exercises

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If you are really serious about training and think you will be doing this for awhile, I recommend getting your hands on a Metolius Climbing Simulator 3D. Long story short, this board will really help improve your grip strength as well as your back and shoulder strength. It is a simulator and practice board for rock climbers and it adds a new dimension to anyone’s workout.
From Metolius’ Site:

  • The master is CNC milled for perfect symmetry
  • The holds are arranged along a broad arc that tapers outward and downward for
    better ergonomics and reduced injuries
  • Tapers from top to bottom in both dimensions for better forearm clearance
  • Fine texture
  • Massive variety of holds
  • Includes comprehensive instructions, training guide and all mounting hardware

The board can fit over your doorway (be sure to measure first) or in my case I mounted mine on the joists of my garage. It costs 79.95 and unless you have plywood for mounting you will want to invest 19.95 on their backboard mount. Adding up to just under $100, I consider that money well spent.

1.  Momentum is your friend. Use your body weight to help you, not hurt you. By acting as if you are riding a bike with your legs when you transfer from bar to bar you keep your weight constantly transferring, which helps to move you along. It also takes the stress off of your grip, because with momentum you won’t be hanging on one bar for too long.  Make sure you practice this on local monkey bars before your event.

2. Grip strength is key. If you dedicate yourself to improving your pull ups your grip strength should come along also. By adding a hang board into your workout, you can better isolate this area and speed up the process.

3. Just keep moving! The longer you hang in one place the quicker your strength will disappear, so keep it moving. If you end up falling, you will know what you need to improve on for next time.

For some additional  OCR-you-don’t-need-a-gym-membership tips and tricks, check out the article I wrote last year about training at your local park.

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Bonus Pic!!! Remember when Tough Mudder used to make Funky Monkey out of wood?!

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Keith Allen

Keith Allen is an Air Conditioning Salesman and an exhausted father of two. When not carrying his children around in Baby Bjorns he is often found cooking delicious homemade quesadillas to fuel his hunger from running OCR's

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