A Historical Association

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Ladders in Historical Gymnastics and Modern Climbing  

The recorded use of ladders in gymnastics goes back at least to the late 1700s. It appears that sometime between 1778 and 1793, Johann Jakob Du Toit , while a teacher at the Philanthropinum in Dessau, Germany, introduced the oblique ladder as an apparatus to be used in physical education. He advocated walking up the rungs of the ladder without using the hands, and swinging from its underside and climbing hand-over-hand.

GutsMuth, who taught at the Schnepfenthal Educational Institute from 1786 until the early 1830s, benefited from Du Toit's recommendations at the Philanthropinum, since the Schnepfenthal Institute was designed to imitate the Dessau facility. In the late 1700s, he used the ladder as Du Toit had recommended - standing against a wall - for student exercises.  Here is the entire passage on ladders found in Gymnastik für die Jugend (1793), (my translation) :  

On Ladder climbing:  "This practice in condusive to the maintenance of balance, to exercising caution in dubious situations, and to the strengthening of the hands and arms. We lean a wooden ladder against a wall; beginners learn without fear to go up and down. Then, as on a stairway, they go up without using their hands. They also practice on the rear or under side using the hands and feet. But as gymnasts, they also climb the rear side with hands alone, prohibiting the feet. In these situations the pupil is compelled to hang onto a rung, change hands on the rung, then reach for the next rung while his body hangs perpendicular.

In addition, he might climb up the under side, squeeze through the rungs at the top, and descend on all fours, with the head down and feet above. Herewith he hangs carefully with a foot hooked over a rung, alternating hands moving down. Another, wanting to test his flexibility, winds like a snake through successive rungs, from top to bottom. A third climbs the ladder the usual way, but once up he circles to the underside and climbs down without using his feet. A fourth climbs to the middle of the ladder, clasps the ladder firmly, and turns it around so that its front becomes its back, against the wall.

These little feats can be learned gradually. A ladder having eleven rungs is long enough. The gymnast must be ready to support and hold the beginner - only one can practice at a time."

Jahn's Apparatus The small photo on the left is a scaled replica of Jahn's  Der Zweibaum. He had taken  the climbing frame, due (probably) to his predecessor J. Guts-Muth, and added braces and inclined ladders.


Stockholm Gym 1900
Wall ladders & stall bars in the Stockholm Central Inst., 1900
1912 Ladder Woman

Finnish female gymnast on the horizontal ladders, 1912

Vertical ladder exercises were described by Ernst Eiselen (turntafeln) in 1837.  Later, these took the form of Swedish Stall Bars & Swedish Wall Ladders .

Eiselen first used the horizontal ladder, an exercise apparatus which still may be found in many gyms and physical training sites.
  Somewhat later, Adolf Spiess employed the horizontal ladder as the main apparatus for girls.  

Jahn constructed his first parallel bars by setting a ladder horizontally upon supports and removing the rungs. Its purpose was to develop strength for vaulting or side (pommel) horse exercises.

1826 Gymnasium At some point giant A-frame ladders came into play for gymnasts. Some of these were called Roman Ladders, and were used in human pyramid building.  On the right is a drawing purportedly of the gymnasium at the Round Hill School in Boston in Northampton, Mass., circa 1826. The experimental school opened in 1823, but closed nine years later. In the background one sees gymnasts - not necessarily children - climbing what seems to be an asymmetrical A-frame ladder. At the Round Hill School the physical education curriculum consisted of  "running (one mile in 6.5 minutes), jumping, leaping, climbing, and Saturday afternoon hiking" It would not surprise me to learn that some of the pupils climbed on local rocks on these outings. 

Turner Gym (1886)

n the left is a drawing of an American Turner Gymnasium, circa 1860. Besides the state-of-the-art  A-frame ladder, there is a side horse (now called the pommel horse), parallel bars, climbing ropes, dumbbells, pyramid formation, and possibly a set of rings.  A climbing frame appears in the background.

Bachar LadderAbout 1980, John Bachar- as a training device for rock climbing - devised a rope & rung variation on his oblique ladder that was portable, but introduced an element of instability into ladder-climbing. Climbers found that the Bachar Ladder might cause elbow or shoulder injuries and had to be used with caution.

 Eric Hörst, from Training for Climbing

Eric Hörst comments: "For much of the 1970s and 1980s, the Bachar Ladder was a backbone exercise for high-end climbers. With the advent of the fingerboard and indoor climbing gyms, however, the ladder has fallen somewhat out of favor. Still, a well-conditioned climber can benefit from an occasional session on a Bachar Ladder . . . Only use Bachar Ladders constructed with static line rope. The springy nature of a ladder made with dynamic rope may lead to elbow tendonitis." He warns of  ". . . dangerous dynamic drops during the down phase."


In the 1990s, campus boards - a kind of variant of a ladder created by Wolfgang Güllich in a university campus gym - replaced rungs with small ledges, producing a training device for arms and fingers very similar to natural rock surfaces.

Campusing, from
Training for Climbing

Ladder Climbing of the Future . . .    
Dyno Ladders would be great fun and would separate the men from the boys! Rules would include banning the use of the feet and legs on the ladder - only the hands could touch the apparatus. Adjustable rungs would encourage competition. Free aerials would be the order of the day! 

uscular development would be a necessity - no more being punched out by skinny 14 year-old novice climbers and 80 pound female boulderers! No more contorted heel hooks or other athletic depravities - just pure macho flight!   This is the future, men!   Carpe Diem!  
21st Century ladder climber
(Thanks, Bruce McCall of The New Yorker, for inspiration!)

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