My middle school wrestling team was a motley collection of budding athletes and what might, if I’m being generous, be termed filler. The coaching staff was superb though, making proper competitors out of many of us. Strangely, it is the assistant coach I recall best. He was a compact man—perhaps 5’5” and, though judging these things can be difficult, I imagine he weighed no more than 130 pounds. He had angular features, which suited the way he moved: silently and often before you realized he had. He was preternaturally quick, a quality valued more than strength in most combat sports, and could make mincemeat of men twice his size.
The memory of this person has remained all these years because he inspired me to take up skipping rope. He was a master, the rope a whirring forcefield, his feet moving in strange and beautiful rhythm. He seemed to levitate within, barely out of breath. I wanted to be a good wrestler; I wanted much more to skip rope with similar grace.
Form is crucial. You must skip with good posture—shoulders back, spine straight, belly drawn taught. The temptation is to look at the floor; resist in favor of a point on the horizon. This will ensure your neck remains unbent and will aid in balance. Minimize arm movement, turning the rope with your wrists rather than flailing arms. This too will help your balance. Don’t focus on jumping over the rope. Like shooting clay pigeons, you must visualize where your target will be rather than where it is. Imagine you are trying to strike the space between your feet and the floor with the rope. A rhythm, however slowly, will develop.
Once one does, and you feel you can skip without a tangle for several minutes at a time, increase the speed of the rope. You may also consider footwork at this point. Begin with shifting your weight from one foot to the other until you can jog in place alternating the jumping foot. Next try tapping the toes of your non-jumping foot between jumps, then add heel taps. Impressive patterns will emerge; so too will sculpted calves.
The list of practical advantages to skipping rope is long. If you have difficult joints or a problematic back skipping rope is a savior, providing rigorous cardiovascular exercise at a fraction of all the pounding that accompanies running. There is the low-tech aspect to consider too. I am not a fitness gadget person, preferring the classic and elemental. I use a leather rope that I’ve had for years because of its weight and speed, but virtually any cording will work—from plastic-coated electrical wire to hemp mooring rope. If you wish to avoid the nasty welts from the former and the calluses from the latter, a quality jumprope travels easily enough. I have skipped rope in plenty of hotel rooms; it’s particularly satisfying to channel Ali by wearing one of the terry-cloth robes provided.
I like to do intervals of five minutes or so punctuated by sets of pushups and sit-ups. Besides the cardiovascular benefits, learning to skip well seems to improve relations between your feet and your brain. I don’t know if I have achieved even half of my old coach’s ability with the rope. The discipline clicked for me, though, when I realized his confident footwork wasn’t what made his skipping so good; rather, the considerable time he spent spinning that rope is what gave him his grace.