The 1 Piece of Equipment That Belongs in Every Home Gym

If you want to work out fast, without much space or equipment, and without ever worrying about the weather, you don’t need a miracle or a made-for-TV gadget—you just need a rope. Jumping rope may seem like an activity you left behind in recess, but it’s one of the most convenient and efficient workouts around.

That convenience is what led Dan Witmer to start jumping. The former football player was traveling as a software salesman and loved that the jump rope let him meet his fitness goals anywhere he went.

"I wanted the freedom to focus on my career and travel, but I still wanted to get lean," he says, "I didn’t care about being big. I didn’t want to run."

But the jump rope was a perfect fit: It let him exercise no matter where his job took him while packing very little equipment. He loved jumping so much that he co-founded Jump Rope Dudes, a program for getting fit with the jump rope. The website has helped people lose more than 100 pounds while focusing their fitness on jumping.

Jumping rope is so much more than just the double-dutch you remember from elementary school—jumping rope can actually make your quest for fitness easier and more fun than you'd expect.

You don’t need much time.

You may have heard that jumping rope for 10 minutes burns as many calories as jogging for 30 minutes, but that’s not exactly true. According to the Harvard Medical School, a 185-pound person who jumps rope for 30 minutes will burn 444 calories, compared to 355 calories for that same person running for 30 minutes at a 12-minutes-per-mile pace.

Chances are, you can’t jump rope for 30 minutes straight, anyway—that’s tough! But that’s also okay: Jumping rope for short bursts of work is a form of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, an exercise format that has been found in multiple studies to burn more fat than exercising at a moderate, steady pace. In an early study on intervals, from 1994, people performing HIIT lost more fat over 15 weeks than other subjects who did steady-state work for 20 weeks.

Witmer suggests starting with bouts of jumping that last just 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest.

"Repeat that pattern eight times, and it’s four minutes" for a workout, he says. Beginners can do this as its own short workout, trying to do it five to six times per week. As you improve, he says, you can repeat the workout twice in a row: After the four minutes, rest for one minute, then do the four minutes again. Keep working until you can do the four-minute bout three times in total.

It’s easy to get started.

Even though it’s only 20 seconds of work, taking it back to the schoolyard with the jump rope can be intimidating. Not only is it a tough 20 seconds, but if you mess up, you could get whipped with the rope. You can both make the exercise slightly easier and avoid the pain of the whip with the same simple fix, though, Witmer says: Don’t jump so high.

"I see a lot of people when they start jumping, they jump really high off the ground," he explains. Scientists found in one study that beginning jumpers are less efficient and more likely to lift their knees high, which causes their heart rate to go up more than with other jumping strategies. Each jump is more work this way. "It’s actually about doing less. You want to be coming a centimeter or an inch off the ground."

A lower, two-foot jump can also help you stay in rhythm, which can reduce the risk of the whip. To practice getting the rhythm of jumping, Witmer suggests putting on some music and practicing without the rope for a minute or two to warm up. Just jump and breathe with the rhythm of the music.

When you’re practicing jumping without the rope, some coaches suggest holding both handles of the rope in one hand as you do this, swinging the rope next to you as you jump to get the rhythm. But eventually, Witmer says, you’ve got to just start jumping and risking being whipped. "It’s part of jumping rope," he sympathizes. "Whipping yourself is something even the most advanced jumpers are going to do."

While there are speed ropes with ball bearings and all kinds of gadgets, you don't need a fancy rope to get started. Witmer recommends focusing on durability when you purchase your first jump rope.

"When you’re a beginner, you're going to drop the rope a lot [so it hits the ground]," he says. On a rubberized floor, this won’t matter; if you’re jumping on cement, a traditional leather rope can wear out in a matter of weeks. Witmer’s favorite ropes are made of steel cable wrapped in thick plastic, which you can find on his website or at most sporting goods stores. Even though he jumps every day and treats his ropes of this kind "pretty poorly," he says the plastic coating can last up to six months before being replaced. "Once you can see the steel cable, get a new rope. [After this point, the steel cable can fray] and becomes pretty pointy."

It’s easy to progress as you improve.

Studies have shown that as people become more skilled at jumping rope, they become more efficient at it: They can jump just as fast without having their heart rate rise as high. Not a big surprise. Instead of just jumping for longer or faster, those looking for a continued challenge can easily progress their rope jumping by adding weight to the rope or changing up their technique.

"If you have a [really light] speed rope, it’s great for doing tricks and going 100 mph, but if you really want to lose weight with a jump rope, an interchangeable system is a key component," Witmer says. Jump Rope Dudes sells a set with multiple weights that latch onto the same handles, and Witmer says it’s easy to tell the difference between a .25-pound and one-pound rope. "It might not seem like much, but swinging a one-pound rope for 30 seconds is really hard."

It can also improve your agility and anaerobic power, or your ability to work once your muscles are out of oxygen. In one small study of adolescent volleyball players, those who trained with weighted jump ropes improved on these two things while increasing speed at the same rate as players who jumped with a standard rope.

If you don't have multiple weights of rope, you can still start progressing by changing your technique. Switching up how you get your body over the rope will not only keep your body guessing, which is key in long-term development, but you'll also keep yourself from getting bored over time. While the low, two-foot jump is the most efficient and safest for beginners, "running in place" as you jump can tax your body more. In a study of different rope jumping techniques, those who ran in place had higher heart rates than those doing the two-foot jump.

To get the hang of this technique, Witmer again suggests starting with a no-rope warmup. "Get the rhythm down without the jump rope," he says. "Pretend you have a rope, and every time it swings, you move one leg. You want to swing the rope with every step." After you’ve got it down, bring on the rope—and start jumping!