Jumping rope is an unbeatable cardio workout—if you do it correctly

The exercise is freakin’ hard, but a thrilling activity regardless of where you live.

This story has been updated. It was originally published in May, 2020.

Jump ropes are more complex than you may realize. They range from the classic, nostalgia-inducing beaded ropes of playgrounds, to speed ropes equipped with a light, thin metal wire that can cost north of $100.

The pandemic has forced so many people to revaluate how they work out, but a good rope will allow you to exercise within whatever space you have available. All you need is a park or backyard where you can fling one around, sweat buckets, and gasp for breath like a champion. Wherever you attempt it, jumping will almost definitely translate into pulse-pounding cardiovascular exercise and stronger muscles.

Because—and you know this if you’ve tried it—using a jump rope is challenging and completely exhausting. Here’s what to know to get started, if you’re a rookie like I am.

A jump-rope workout for beginners

“Jump rope is one of the oldest fitness tools,” David Newman, the CEO and founder of Rx Smart Gear—the company that makes the rope I’ve been trying—says. “It allows you to stay stationary in one spot, but really get your whole body moving for cardio.”

Picking the right rope starts with the handles. Most of these pieces of equipment have a mechanism that allows for the rope to rotate in the grips. The simplest is a rope with a knot on the end that fits into a plastic handle, which is fine for the playground. Other jump ropes use a synthetic bushing in the handle. The one I tried, a Rapid Fit, employs two stainless steel bearings in each handle to allow the grips to easily spin and the rope—in this case, it’s actually PVC-coated stainless steel wire—to rotate around you extremely quickly.

Before buying one, consider how tall you are. Some ropes, like that Rx model, list a height range (such as an option for people between 5 feet and 6 feet tall) in a dropdown menu. Others let you choose the rope length in feet based on a sizing guide. After you have the rope on hand, many allow you to further tweak, inch by inch, the length of the cable that you’re going to be swinging over your head like the old Energizer bunny beats its drum. In some cases, like with this beginner rope, you may need to literally cut the wire; the Rapid Fit has a simple system within the handles to adjust the length by the inch.

If you’re just beginning, you definitely shouldn’t start with a pure speed rope. Instead, look for a rope designed for general fitness. Newman recommends starting with a cable-based rope, because that cable won’t stretch as you use it. Ideally, the cable should weigh between 3 and 4 ounces.

For the proper fit once you have the rope on hand, Newman suggests placing the middle of the rope underneath the arch of one foot. Standing straight up with a you’re-in-the-Army-now posture, pull the cable up vertically and see how it measures against your torso while holding those handles parallel to the ground, so their size doesn’t figure into the measurement. The ends of the cables should be even with, or below, the “bottom of your sternum,” Newman says.

“We don’t want the rope to be too long—I’d rather you trained yourself to use a rope that’s even a little bit shorter,” he says. The rope, when doubled up with the handles held together sideways (and again, ignore the length of the handles), should be about three quarters your height. Since you’re going to be flinging it around your body until you can’t do it anymore, you want its length to be ideal.

Then, to find the correct hand position, remember that the rope is going to basically rotate around those handles like a wheel spins around its axle. Newman suggests that your hands should be somewhere in front of your pelvis—generally the middle of your body—or near where your pockets are. Your elbows should be slightly bent, and you don’t want your hands to be too far away from your body out to the sides.

On that point, one pitfall is that people sometimes “like to be way out here,” Newman says, extending his hands out far from his body sideways. That makes the rope shorter, meaning that it can get too close to your crown and toes.

Your hands should be positioned so that your thumbs are towards the outside of your body, with your forearms facing forwards, and you’re lightly gripping each handle between your thumb and index finger. The other fingers provide gentle support. Once you’re jumping, move your hands in “tight circles,” Newman says, comparing the motion to something like the way an old-school train moves its wheels.

An easy way to start, he says, is with a toe catch. You start with the rope behind you, pulling on your calves, and your hands in front of you and the cable end of the handles pointing frontwards. Then you do a big initial swing to get things started. “Your arms have to do a big, wide, kick back, and pull the rope like you’re pulling the covers over your head,” he says. For the toe catch drill, just swing that rope over your head once and then trap it with the front of your feet. Don’t jump. After you do that, try to jump over it just once, and then catch it; and then twice, and catch it, and continue. After that initial flip of the rope, don’t forget to bring your hands back to that position near your hips. “The mistake most people make, is they leave their arms out there,” he says, again spreading his arms far out from the sides of his body. That’s bad.

Once you’re going, the rope should have a pleasant “horseshoe” shape, Newman says. Your feet should be close together, and the rope should contact the ground about 10 inches or a foot in front of you. Stay on the balls of your feet.

A jump-rope workout is incredible for your heart

Along the way, I made a few mistakes. One was that not only did I jump over the rope, but I made another hop as the rope was swinging over my head. That was because I wasn’t swinging the rope around fast enough—the solution was to boost my swinging speed. Another error was not moving my left hand as much as I was relying on my right. I also needed to incorporate more “elbow action,” according to Newman.

Ultimately, jumping rope is very hard. Even trying it for just three minutes—with lots of stopping and mess-ups along the way—gets my heart rate north of 100 beats per minute. People far better at jump rope can pull off double-unders or even triple-unders—the rope goes under their feet twice or three times per every jump. As for me, I’m sticking with just attempting single-unders for now.

Rob Verger

Rob Vergeris an associate editor at PopSci, where he covers aviation, the military, transportation, outdoor gear and gadgets, and other tech topics. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, he's also written for The Boston Globe, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, CJR, VICE News, and other publications. Contact the author here.