Learning how to navigate obstacles is an important trait in becoming a better human being.
Let’s make any obstacle effortless.
Knowing how to climb over a wall could just save your life. Or at least give you a fast obstacle course race time, but that’s not even the best part.
Vaulting over a wall makes you look freakin’ cool!
Today, I don’t want to go over opinions or theories on how to navigate obstacles from the Weekend Warrior. No, I want to go over obstacle instructions the “Greatest Generation” received during WWII from Army Field Manual 21-22 and 21-20, 1944-1946. Nothing is better than war-tested instructions on how to vault walls, climb ropes and low crawl…right?
Turns out your grandpa was doing obstacle races before they were cool, and before they cost money. They had good training, and were even doing barbell snatches for functional fitness in the 1940’s! Eat your heart out CrossFit…
These instructions are just as sound today as they were in 1944, so let’s get to it.
Obstacles: The Easy
Some obstacles are easier than others. Often times it is more of feat of common sense rather than physicality. But we all know when you are sucking wind, wet, and cold you may just forget some of life’s basics. So just in case this happens to you, or if you have NO experience with obstacles, we will start with the basics.
Hurdles are elementary obstacles. A hurdle consists of a bar or rail 2 to 3.5 feet in height.
How to Navigate the Hurdle Obstacle:
- Hurdle in stride as in track hurdling; leaped over; or vaulted with the aid of one or both hands.
Fences are similar to hurdles but somewhat higher and more sturdily constructed.
How to Navigate the Fence Obstacle:
- Vault over the obstacle using both hands
- Swing the body and legs over; pivoting on either hand as it rests on the rail
- If unable to get over the fence: Straddle the obstacle and swing over with the aid of the hands, pivoting upon the buttocks as they are momentarily in contact with the rail.
Balance beams are constructed of logs or planks 4 to 12 inches wide, arranged in a zig-zag manner to test balance. Each section is from 8 to 12 feet long. Care must be exercised to avoid injury when the logs or planks are wet and slippery.
How to Navigate the Balance Beam Obstacle:
- Raise arms out by your side; forming a T-shape
- Focus on one object on the beam or close to the end of each section. This concentration will help you maintain balance.
Ditches and Trenches
Ditches or trenches may be wide or narrow, deep or shallow, dry or filled with water.
How to Navigate the Ditch and Trench Obstacles:
- Judge the distance and take-off area
- Use proper technique for jumping (either standing broad jump, step and jump, or run and jump)
- In landing, both feet should touch the ground simultaneously, 12 to 18 inches apart, knees should be flexed, and the body inclined slightly forward.
Tunnels or Low Obstacles
Tunnels or low obstacles call for locomotion on all fours in either of two ways:
How to Navigate Tunnels and Low Obstacles:
- Creeping – Moving forward on the elbows and knees, presenting a low silhouette at all times.
- Crawling – Moving forward with the chest and stomach in contact with the ground at all times.
Mazes may be either vertical or horizontal and should be executed with speed and coordination. Horizontal mazes usually consist of posts set in the ground at irregular narrow intervals. Vertical mazes are structures through which you climb and resemble jungle gyms.
How to Navigate Maze Obstacles:
- Carefully navigate the obstacle by keeping your eye on the next post
- Move quickly and smoothly
Barbed wire is usually of greater value as an adjunct to other obstacles than when used alone. More often, they are used in combination with some other fixed obstacle. Barbed wire may be utilized as an obstacle on its own or in connection with trenches and emplacements in the form of a double-apron or single-apron fence.
How to Navigate Barbed Wire Obstacles:
- Follow low obstacle instructions
- DON’T get stuck in the barbed wire
Obstacles: The Not-so-Easy (Ropes, Nets, and Walls)
Now, we get into the stuff which is a bit tougher! Unforgiving cargo nets, daunting walls, and precarious climbing ropes can defeat any human. These obstacles will not come easy for most, unless you’ve had some training. Of course, I don’t recommend you read this article, crack your knuckles and sign up for a Spartan Beast. Yet, this can be a good starting point before you head out to practice. Let’s cover some of the more difficult obstacles.
Ladder-type barriers are made of wood and/or rope and may be either vertical or horizontal. The most commonly used obstacles of this type are:
- Cargo Net
- Horizontal Ladder or Rope
How to Navigate Cargo Net Obstacles:
- In ascending the cargo net, grasp the vertical ropes with hands at shoulder width. Hold body close to the net and keep the eyes on the top of the obstacle. Ascend as rapidly as possible by means of short steps and short reaches with the arms. Upon reaching the top roll across it presenting a low silhouette. In descending, the same technique is used as in climbing. The descent is continued until both feet are on the ground. Participants should not be permitted to push loose from the net and jump.
How to Navigate Horizontal Ladder or Rope Obstacles (two methods):
- Grasp the rope or ladder with one hand on either side. Flex elbows and proceed hand-over-hand. Allow the body to swing freely and flex knees slightly. A variation of this hand-over-hand method is to grasp the ladder or rope with both hands on the same side. Forward movement is then attained by sliding the leading hand forward and bringing the trailing hand up to it.
- Facing away from the direction of travel, grasp the horizontal ladder or rope from each side. Hook the legs over the obstacle, one from either side, to help support the weight of the body. With the head leading, pull the body forward hand-over-hand.
There are four methods commonly used for surmounting a wall of moderate height, but only one for dropping from it.
How to Navigate Wall Obstacles:
- Running Jump and Vault – Approach the wall at a run, jump forward and upward at the wall and place one foot against it as high up as possible. Use the foot in contact with the wall to help push the body upward while grasping the top of the wall with the hands. Pull the body up with the arms, assisted by pressure of the foot against the wall, until the weight is over the wall.
- Hook and Swing – Approach the wall at a slow run and jump forward and upward at it. Hook one elbow over the wall, locking the arm into place by pulling up until the top of the wall is underneath the armpit. Then depress the elbow on the further side of the wall. Draw leg which is closer to the wall up as far toward the abdomen as possible. Then swing leg over the top of the wall. The body is then carried over with a rolling motion. A variation of this leg action can be used by men who are unable to draw up the leg as described. While hanging with both legs fully extended, start a swinging motion with the legs together. When sufficient momentum is gained, swing the outside leg over the top of the wall with a vigorous kick, then follow with the body.
- Creeping – Approach the wall either at a walk or a slow run. Jump upward and grasp the top of the wall. Make contact with both knees and start a creeping motion upward. As the knees reach their limit of upward motion, place both feet against the wall and continue with a walking, creeping method until one leg can be thrown over the top of the wall. Make sure a creeping walk is used.
- Chinning – Approach the wall at either a walk or a slow run. Jump upward and grasp the top of the wall, chin upward, until it is possible to change into a push-up. Place the chest on the wall and then kick vigorously upward and over, with both legs. A creeping motion with the toes against the wall, at all times, will help the upward progress of the chinning and pushing up.
- Dropping – All drops from the wall are executed in the same manner, regardless of the method employed to gain the top. One hand is placed against the further side of the wall while the other hand grasps the top. From this position the body is rolled over the wall and “vaulted” away from it with the legs swinging clear. As the body passes over the wall and drops it should at all times face the wall. Break the fall by retaining a grasp on the top of the wall as long as possible. There should be a sand pit or sawdust pit at the foot of the wall on the landing side to minimize injury.
Climbing a rope can be a difficult task, but here are plenty of options depending on what type of rope you are climbing:
The leg grip depends on the tautness or slackness of the rope, its size and weight, the length of descent, and the condition of the hands.
- Taut rope – On a taut rope the legs are crossed with one knee drawn up and the toes lifted. The rope runs along the inside of this leg, over the front of the ankle, and down the outside edge of the foot. The other foot is crossed over so it clenches the rope between the outside edges of the feet near the heels. Applying pressure with knees and feet slows the descent.
- Loose rope. When the rope is sufficiently loose either of two leg grips may be used (see below).
How to Grip the Rope:
- Stirrup grip – Legs are straight and held together. The rope lies along the outside of one leg, under the foot and over the foot of the other leg. Pressure of one foot against the other regulates the speed of descent. Hand under hand method may be used or the hands may slide together, taking a firm hold when foot pressure stops the descent. If the hands are disabled the rope is hugged with the arms, possibly with a half turn around one arm and with the other arched against it to check the slip.
- Secure foot grip – This grip is best for long descents where the arms may need to be rested. The rope drops between the legs and across the instep of one foot. The other foot steps on the rope where it crosses the instep and, by applying pressure, grasps or releases it.
Rope Climbing Tips:
Knotted ropes – The feet and hands can easily grasp the rope just above the knots, allowing some muscular relaxation and preventing slips and rope burns. The feet are kept together, pressing the rope between the insteps. Legs and arms are slightly bent. Grasp the rope with the hands just above a knot. Release the feet and lower them on to the next knot. Hold with the feet and bring the hands down one knot.
Deliberate descents – Rope descents should be deliberate and unhurried, legs and feet applying pressure to prevent arm strain and the consequent slipping and hurrying. Long or fast drops or slipping will cause severe rope burns. Skillful use of the feet and legs is the surest safeguard. There should be a sensation of holding and gripping, rather than hanging. Descend slowly, hand under hand.
Discipline – When a single rope is being used by several people either at the same time or in succession they should space themselves so that they do not crowd up, but keep well separated. Discipline must be maintained, and groups retained in control. Look out for other people coming down ropes. A person above may slip and fall heavily on the person below.
Climbing a rope – The rope is grasped with the hands as far up as possible and, holding with the hands, the legs are brought up as high as possible and grip the rope, using the taut leg grip. The hands are relaxed and reach for a new hold above; the legs are moved up for a new grip and the rope then is climbed by alternately pulling with the hands and holding fast with legs.
That should be enough to get you crushing any everyday obstacle!
What did I miss? Any experienced obstacle racers who want to add in tips on how to properly navigate a specific obstacle?
Sources: Army Manual FM 21-22 Watermanship, Army Manual FM 21-20 Physical Training