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HomeTech: Rope Gymnastics article

Allunaariaqattaarneq – Inuit rope gymnastics

Greg Stamer

This article was originally published in the February 2003 issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine

“The rope gymnastics are useful for practicing and exercising in all seasons of the year. These techniques are excellent exercise for working and strengthening your muscles and tendons. If you want to be an excellent kayak roller and strong paddler you should practice rope gymnastics! Practicing rope gymnastics will make your body strong and flexible”.
– Maligiaq Padilla, Greenland National Kayaking Champion

Kayaking Champion

Many sea kayakers are at least vaguely aware of the many Greenland kayak-rolling methods, 30 in all, which are performed at the annual Greenland National Kayaking Championship. As impressive as that number of techniques is, there is an off-the-water event at the competition, Allunaariaqattaarneq that consists of more than twice as many maneuvers, 74 in all (click here for a complete list).

Allunaariaqattaarneq, “games performed using harpoon line” (rope gymnastics), are known throughout the arctic. The rope gymnastics performed at the Greenland championship are a mix of techniques from both East and West Greenland. Rope gymnastics is an ancient Inuit form of sport, which demands and develops balance, strength, flexibility, coordination and pain tolerance. The exercises toughen the hands which may allow you to paddle long hours without developing blisters. Many of the maneuvers are extremely strenuous and painful. Performing them helps to build mental and physical toughness, qualities that were very useful for the hard life of a kayak hunter.

During competition the athletes are allowed 30 minutes to perform as many of the 74 rope maneuvers as possible. Competitors are allowed only one attempt at each maneuver, but they are permitted to perform the most difficult maneuvers first while they are still fresh. Smaller, lighter athletes dominate the rope events in Greenland. Many of the stout, heavier racers skip the event entirely. Until recently I was not aware of any foreign participants to have competed in the rope gymnastics event. Last July in Ilulissat, Ray O’Brien from the UK, and myself, representing Qajaq USA, competed on the ropes for the first time. Although Ray studied the maneuvers closely and gave a spirited effort, and my effort left me bruised from my chest to my shins, we both were just shy of the 30-point minimum required for our points to be tallied.

Show Me the Ropes

The rope gymnastics setup is composed of two very different rope arrangements, which I will simply refer to as the ”low ropes” and the “high ropes”. The low ropes setup is constructed with two poles spread wide, at a maximum distance of five meters (16.4 feet) apart. Two ropes, hanging side-by-side, are tied to the poles 2 meters (6.6 feet) above the ground and are allowed to sag to 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) from the ground at the center, when downward pressure is applied. It is important that the center does not sag lower than 1.4 meters or your head and upper body might strike the ground when you flip over.  The high ropes setup uses two poles usually spaced closer together than for the low ropes, at least three meters (9.8 feet) apart, with either a single or dual ropes stretched very taut, 2 meters (6.6 feet) or more above the ground. You should be able to just reach up and grip the high ropes while on standing on your toes.  In days of old the line used was seal-skin harpoon line tied to driftwood poles. Today 10-15 mm (3/8” – 5/8”) nylon rope is commonly used. I have seen both three-strand and braided rope used during rope gymnastics events in Greenland. Although braided rope is more expensive, its smoother surface is much easier on your body. If you have trees spaced conveniently apart you can set ropes very quickly. Otherwise if you install wood poles, I recommend at least 4”x 6” posts or preferable larger, for stiffness and strength, firmly cemented into place, with the long dimension of the posts parallel to the ropes. You can build a ropes setup using only three poles, with one pole sharing the load, as shown in the photographs. This setup was described by John Heath in his article “Maligiaq Makes Waves on his U.S. Visit”, SK, June 2000. Some rope setups in Greenland have only two poles, and the length of the rope is adjusted to suit either the high or the low rope exercises.

Qajaasaarneq: Like Rolling a Kayak

Qajaasaarneq video clip
Click on image above to download and view video clip of Qajaasaarneq.

Many Greenlanders start young to master as many of the 74 techniques as possible. One very common technique, and the technique perhaps of most interest and benefit to kayakers, is called qajaasaarneq, meaning, “like rolling a kayak.” This is performed while sitting on the low sagging ropes and the objective is to spin in a manner reminiscent of kayak rolling. You will probably find that “rolling on the ropes” feels much different and is much more difficult than rolling a kayak but I find that it teaches independent control of your upper and lower body, and builds strength and flexibility. These benefits will add power and grace to your kayak rolls.

Starting Position

To setup for qajaasaarneq, face one post and straddle the ropes, with your butt hanging down low between the ropes. The ropes should press against you just behind your knees and around your sides, at about belt-level. Cross your legs with one ankle over another. Maligiaq crosses his left leg over his right but use your own preference. Tuck your head and torso forward and downward, similar to how you setup for a kayak roll. Study the photographs to ensure that your body is in the correct setup position.

Key Grip

Pay close attention to how you grip the ropes. Rotate your torso so that your shoulders are roughly parallel to thQajaasaarneq setupe rope and place one hand in front of your body and another behind you with your arms slightly bent. The thumb of each hand should be upward and pointing approximately toward the closest pole. A common mistake is to reverse the grip of the rearward hand so that the thumb points downward. This must be avoided. Once in the tuck position, you may get a sense that rather than falling over to the left or right that you are falling over backward (on your back) or forward (on your chest). This is important to understand since some maneuvers are only done in only one of these two directions. For your first attempts, most right handed folks will prefer to place their right hand in front of their body and fall backward (to the right in this case). The two capsize directions, combined with two possible hand positions (right hand in front or left hand in front), yield four different combinations to practice. In competition each combination is worth three points for a total of twelve possible points.

Rock and Roll

To perform this technique and other techniques on the low ropes, your first instinct will probably be to rock from side to side and strongly lunge in the direction of the roll attempting to create enough momentum to carry you completely around. This is the wrong approach. Although momentum does play a key part, these techniques require you to roll by subtle shifts of your weight. To "capsize", bend your torso and head over to one side. This “unbalances” you and you start to fall over. As you fall, allow your head to come out of its tuck, which permits you to fall faster and gain momentum. Once upside-down, transition from moving your upper body to your lower body by bending at the waist and twisting your hips by lifting the knee on the side that you capsized on. Although the physical movements will be subtle, a good mental image is to think that while upside-down you are trying to bend your feet and legs over the top of the ropes, toward the side you wish to recover on (analogous to your upper body leaning over the ropes to start the capsize). You can also slightly extend your Qajaasaarneq, invertedlegs, while inverted, to maximize this effect. This transition of weight drives the rotation of your body around the ropes. The transition must be smooth and seamless but don’t be afraid to give the movements some “snap”, timed to take full advantage of your momentum.  There are two keys to help you spin completely around. First, as you start to rise from an inverted position, allow your upper body to return to its low, tucked position. Second, a very important concept, taught by Maligiaq Padilla, is managing the rope tension. Pulling your arms toward each other removes some tension from the rope and aids recovery (note the slack in the rope visible behind my back in the image at right). I emphasize this as soon as I turn upside-down. Once you understand these concepts you can “roll” either very fast or extremely slowly and in perfect control.

Maligiaq noted that it took him two years of practice until he no longer bruised from the ropes pressing against his body for the advanced maneuvers. To avoid bruising and to make practicing more comfortable, wear thick clothing or place pipe insulation over the ropes where they contact you behind the knees. Gloves are useful for training (not permitted for competition) but only if they provide an excellent grip. I strongly recommend thick padding on the ground, especially at first, to cushion the inevitable falls, and ensure that the area under the ropes is free of rocks, tree roots and other dangers. Although Maligiaq reports that no one has been injured while performing rope gymnastics in competition, injuries to the head, neck and shoulders due to falls while training are possible and a strong dose of caution and common sense is advised.

Variations on Qajaasaarneq

There are several variations similar to qajaasaarneq that are performed in competition. Except where noted below each technique must be demonstrated while “capsizing” in both directions and alternating your forward hand giving four possible combinations.Pakassumillugu setup

  • Pakassumillugu “riding and pulling.” This is the only variant that uses a different hand orientation than qajaasaarneq. The forearm of your rearward hand is placed under the rope on the same side as that hand, behind your back, and you grip the far rope, palm up. For example if your left hand holds the rope in front of you, the forearm of your right hand should be placed under the rope on your right side, behind your back, and grip the rope on your left side with your palm facing upward. Three points are awarded for each combination.
  • Illuinnarmik “riding, holding only one cord.”This technique is performed only falling  Illuinnarmik setup“backward”. Assuming that your right hand is in front of you, rotate strongly counterclockwise until you can place your left(rearward) hand on the rope closest to your right side. The rope on your left side will be unsupported by your rearward hand. With this hand position you will capsize on the right side. Ensure that you are using the same hand position as for qajaasaarneq (thumbs pointing toward the poles). This technique must be done very slowly or the loose rope that is not gripped by your rearward hand will slip off your hip. Three points are awarded for each of the two hand combinations (falling backward only).
  • Tigusilluni “riding followed with a turn/roll.” Similar to qajaasaarneq except that you “capsize” and stop all motion, and then, taking your front hand off the ropes, pick up anTigusilluni object from the ground (e.g. reach down and pick up a cap and place it on your head or place a  pen in your mouth), replace your front hand on the ropes, and then roll back up. It is very difficult to hang inverted without falling out of the ropes. Placing your rearward hand close to your back will help to prevent this. It is also very difficult to recover from this stationary inverted position. Tuck your upper body as close as possible to the ropes (it takes strong abdominal muscles) and “snap” your lower body while you pull each arm toward each other, to recover. Five points are awarded for each combination.
  • Usiagalerluni. Same as qajaasaarneq except performed while wearing a backpack containing 10 kg (22 lb.) of weight. This is very difficult; six points are awarded for each combination.
  • Tallimariarluni. Same as qajaasaarneq except roll five times in rapid succession. Since there are four possible hand/capsize direction combinations, a full set of these maneuvers is 20 rolls. You are permitted to rest after each set of five rolls. Four points are awarded for each combination.

The Lowdown

Qajaasaarneq is an excellent exercise, but it might take you some time to achieve your first successful roll. Following are several additional techniques that are easier to learn and perform, to get you started.

Akulaammillugu “straddling the cord”

Straddle the ropes with them pressing against the hamstrings of your left or right leg, and with your torso facing away from the poles. Grip the ropes, palms-up, with your arms comfortably spread and with a little bend in your elbows. The object is to rotate slowly backwards and forwards. Keep your legs straight and your back tall and bend only at the waist.  Don’t try to muscle your way around; your body movements should be minimal. The setup is critical. You need to find exactly where to place the rope against your hamstrings so that you can balance and control your movements. If set too far forward (toward your knee) or backward (toward your crotch) you might not succeed. Don’t spread your arms too wide as this can inhibit how much you can bend your torso. Rotating forward and backward is worth one point each.

Oqaatsuaasaarneq “with cord under one knee”.

Starting from the setup of akulaammillugi (above) move the cord from under your hamstrings to under your knee. If you have the rope under your right knee, hook your right foot under your left calf. Spread you arms comfortably apart, with a slight bend in your elbows, gripping the rope with your palms facing upward. Keep your spine fairly straight, but bend strongly at the waist so that your chest is fairly close to your thighs. The starting position is with the rope under your knee, with that knee deeply bent, and with your body leaning back so that your shoulders are roughly at rope level. To rotate backward you will find it helpful to straighten your legs as much as possible and crunch with your abdominal muscles to keep your torso close to your legs. Most people find it easier to fall forwards rather than backwards. There are four combinations of this technique depending on which knee goes under the rope and rolling either forwards or backwards. Each combination is worth one point.

Ignilluni “turning from sitting position with arms spread out”.  Face away from the poles and sit with the ropes pressing against your hamstrings, like a child on a swing. Grip the ropes with your palms facing upward and with your arms spread comfortably apart. Allow your knees to bend but do not cross your legs (although for initial practice you may find more security in crossing them). Rotate both forwards and backwards. This technique is more difficult than it looks. Use your arms to help press the rope against your thighs while inverted. A variation on this technique is to roll while you swing gently forward and backward (you roll forward while the ropes are swinging backward and vice-versa, to add difficulty) Two points are awarded for each combination.

The 360. Another interesting technique that is one of Maligiaq’s favorites, is to sit upright on the low ropes, facing away from the poles, and while not touching the ropes with your hands, turn completely around by slow, careful moments on the ropes, and leaning slightly backward while lifting your legs over the ropes. Maligiaq often practices this with his eyes closed. This is a difficult maneuver and is not performed in competition, but is excellent for honing balance. Don’t neglect to pad the ground under the ropes as you are very likely to fall.


Tiguinnarlugu is the most popular maneuver performed on the high ropes and involves hauling your body up and over the ropes chest-first, and then going over the rope in the opposite direction, feet-first. The hand position for the most common variation is with your hands facing opposite directions. There are two grip variations, a wide grip (hands over shoulder width apart), and a narrow grip (hands touching). The following directions assume that the back of your right hand is facing you using the wider hand position. Grip the ropes, and, without your feet touching the ground, lift your body quickly upward similar to a chin-up (but with a faster motion). When your head and chest clears the ropes, support your weight with your left hand and raise your right elbow above the rope (your forearm will be nearly vertical) allowing you to push down strongly to lift your upper body over the ropes. This is done in one smooth motion. At the top of the ropes your torso should be angled strongly to the left of perpendicular with the ropes pressing against your right side near your waist, with enough of your body leaning over the rope to enable you to topple over to the other side, while retaining your grip on the ropes. Most folks find that going the opposite direction, feet-first, to be much easier. For this bend at the waist and lift your legs over your head and keep your legs straight as you pull down on the ropes. Raise your legs until your body is resting on the ropes at about waist level, before falling over the opposite side of the ropes.

Other hand variations (also used with both a wide and narrow grip) are both palms facing away from you and both palms facing towards you. An interesting variation of this technique is performed by placing one or both hands in thin loops, made of sealskin or nylon, that are suspended on the line. The longer the loop the more difficult it is to haul your body up and over the rope. Loops used in competition are 12 cm, 22 cm long and 40 cm long. All of these techniques take good upper body strength and technique. An easy way to slowly build your strength is to initially hang your ropes low enough so that you can “cheat” by using your legs to help propel you over the ropes.

Kisitineq. If you are really into pain you will enjoy kisitineq, where you hang from the high ropes with your chin and a fist or just a fist, and are scored by how long you can endure this difficult position. For the “chin hang” start with place both hands side-by-side, gripping the rope, palms facing you, and lift your chin above the rope as per a chin-up. Rest your chin on top of your strong hand/arm and place your weaker arm behind your back. You are permitted to keep your forearm and bicep pressed tightly against your chest for additional support. Raise your legs so that your thighs are roughly horizontal to the ground and bend your knees so your feet hang downward with your legs crossed at your ankles. You get one point for every five seconds suspended in this position.  An even tougher test is the same basic setup but without your chin resting on top of your strong hand/arm. Every two seconds suspended is worth one point.

Roped In

I hope this short introduction to rope gymnastics will increase your appreciation and understanding of the variety and the difficulty of these interesting techniques.  I also hope that some of you will choose to give them a try. If so, you may discover them to be challenging to learn, as well as proving a very beneficial form of exercise that enhances your rolling and kayaking by improving your strength and flexibility. Please use common sense and caution when performing these exercises and be prepared to come up with innovative explanations when asked about how you obtained your strange bruises!

Resources for rope gymnastics are listed on the Qajaq USA website ( Qaannat Kattuffiat, the Greenland Kayaking Association, has recently produced an instructional video for rope gymnastics, featuring Maligiaq Padilla. Once available, details will be added to the Qajaq USA site.

The author wishes to thank Maligiaq Padilla of Qajaq Sisimiut, Kaalinnguaq Olsvig of Qajaq Ilulissat and Kampe Absalonsen of Qaannat Kattuffiat for their encouragement and patient instruction in the art of rope gymnastics during the 2002 Greenland National Kayaking Competition. Photographs by Dan Stamer, Pat McCaffrey, Greg Stamer.

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