Wood, Plastic or Metal Gymnastic Rings for Calisthenics?
When it comes to buying gymnastic rings there are three options: Wood, plastic or metal. Each material has its merits in terms in terms of grip, performance and price.
Another important factor to consider when choosing rings is where you are going to train with them. Which is best for outdoor use?
If its outside then this can also impact your choice of material. I have detailed the benefits and drawbacks of all three to help you make the best informed decision for your personal requirements.
In terms of performance, wooden rings are easily the best choice of the three. This primarily comes down to one factor:
The feel and texture of wooden rings is far superior to that of both plastic and metal rings. I have myself trained extensively with plastic rings for years and when I started using wooden rings, I felt the difference immediately.
With plastic rings, as a prerequisite to using them I had to use a lot of chalk in order to ensure a solid grip. But even after a number of reps the lack of texture takes its toll and your hands begin to slip, particularly if you are trying to maintain a false grip.
If you have built up a sweat during your workout then this can become and exacerbating factor and further diminish your grip.
This can be particularly problematic if you are attempting muscle ups. For a smooth transition the muscle up requires a false grip. This is where your hand and wrists are partially over the ring in order to convert from a pull up in to the dip position. (full muscle up tutorial)
It is crucial that your hands do not slide out of position during the transition phase of the muscle up, otherwise the technique will not be possible.
Therefore a good grip is paramount. This is also true of other exercises that are commonly performed on the rings such as dips and pull ups.
If you do not have sufficient traction between your hands and the rings then your grip will give up before you do. Particularly once you get into the higher reps and sweat becomes a factor.
The superior grip that comes form a combination of wooden rings and chalk allows you to lock in your false grip and concentrate on the movement rather then fight with a slippery grip.
Another significant advantage of wooden rings is that even with a high frequency of training I personally don't develop calluses or blisters. If you hands remain in hold and don't move or slide during the motion of exercise then you will greatly reduce the risk of calluses and blisters.
Calluses tend to develop when the skin is pinched during a heavy load bearing movement. Its the abrasion between the equipment and the skin on your hand when in motion that causes the discomfort.
If you hand simply stays in place then you should not have a problem.
The supremacy of wooden rings is highlighted by the fact that gymnasts at Olympic level use wooden rings exclusively. Olympic gymnasts complete far more intricate movements and transitions then even a competent calisthenics practitioner could ever hope to do.
If wooden rings are the equipment of choice for gymnasts that are at the very highest level then they will be good enough for myself and you to perform more down to earth calisthenics exercises.
There is however a downside to the wooden rings. If you plan to train on your rings outside then durability can become an issue. Outside elements such as moisture, sun and excessive cold can all lead to your rings deteriorating over time.
Leaving rings out on occasion is absolutely fine, however when left out for months on end in the rain and the elements, it can lead to the rings spoiling over time, as with any wood.
The easiest solution to this is to just take your rings inside every time after use. It takes less then a minute to throw the straps over your anchor point and adjust them to the right height, which is about the same time it takes to add plates to a barbell.
This way you can still reap the benefits of training with wooden rings.
Obviously if you have the luxury of training with the rings indoors, on a garage beam for example then this will not this will not be an issue and I'd full recommend wooden rings.
Summary of wooden rings
By far the best overall grip of the three options
Used by Olympic gymnasts
Very cost effective
Best for performance
Not as durable as plastic rings when left oustide
Plastic / poly-carbonate rings
The main benefit of plastic rings is simply there durability. You can leave them outside in full rain, snow and sun and the rings will be absolutely fine.
I personally have a pair which I have hung over a tree and I haven't taken them inside or adjusted them in years.
If the anchor point from where you hang your rings is fairly inaccessible then plastic rings may be the option for you.
For example if the only place you can hang your rings is a tree limb that is particularly high up then this can make it difficult to hang your rings every time. In which case it is more practical to hang them once and leave them out there.
The disadvantage is of course the grip. If the rings are still wet from rain or high humidity it may be necessary to give your rings a wipe down before use.
To mitigate the lack of grip you have to do two things:
Use plenty of chalk on the areas where your hand is going to be in most contact with the rings.
Buy textured plastic rings.
A completely smooth surface to a ring would make most exercises far more difficult then they should be.
Fortunately most good quality plastic rings are manufactured with a textured finish. Whilst the grip still is inferior to the wooden rings, this helps accentuate the grip significantly.
I have seen examples of people using sports tap (the sort that's designed to be wrapped around tennis handles or hockey sticks) to improve the grip of plastic rings.
This can be a valid solution, and it does work well from personal experience and cost effective but it will degrade somewhat over time so you have to be prepared to replace it.
Summary of plastic / polycarbonate rings
Very cost effective option
Can be left outside indefinitely without the rings degrading
The grip is inferior to wooden rings and therefore your performance
Can get very slippery when wet and require lots of chalk
The third and less common option is steel rings. The reason it tends to be less common is the price. A pair of steel rings from rogue fitness costs significantly more then a decent pair of wood or plastic rings.
The place where you most frequently see steel rings is in a calisthenics's parks with chains and securely attached to an A-frame.
I personally have trained on metal rings and the main difference I noticed was the weight of the individual rings. This affected how they feel in your hands as you perform different exercises.
This didn't necessarily make the exercises feel any easier or more difficult as you are either hanging underneath or in support holds and the weight of the rings doesn't add to the resistance of the exercise. However as I transitioned from pull up to dip during a strict ring muscle up, the rotation of the rings felt slightly more stable and authoritative.
Some people do say that the support holds are slightly easier with heavier steel rings however I didn't feel a appreciable difference and I suspect and advantage is negligible. Support holds rely on technique and shoulder stability above all else.
If you are in a cold climate and train outdoors then I would avoid steel rings. As I'm sure you can appreciate steel gets very cold on the hands and the steel rings will conduct heat away from your body. This has an impact on hand dexterity which makes it harder to hold false grip and perform transitions on the rings.
Steel rings also tend to make a rather loud clang when they bump together in the wind which can be annoying.
Another downside of the steel rings is that the grip becomes slippery when wet, even more so then the plastic. If you have recently applied sun block, you have worked up a sweat or its a humid day then you have to really chalk up in your hands in order to keep a good grip.
This being said, in the right environment I suspect that the steel rings are the most durable of all three options.
They are heavier which gives them distinctive reassuring feel
Can be left outdoors
They are more expensive then both plastic and wooden rings
The grip is inferior to wooden rings
They can be very cold to the touch if left outside or if your training in cold climates
The false grip in particular requires a lot of chalk to stop hand positioning slipping
Makes a loud clang when the rings clash together which can be annoying if you leave your rings oustside
Out of the three options, on balance, wooden rings are the best. Whilst they do have drawback (such as they are less durable when left outdoors) their performance is the better then both plastic and metal rings and the price is on par with plastic rings.
The tactile feel helps you to lock in your grip with full traction and concentrate on the movement.
Plastic however is the more viable option if you want to leave your rings outside for any length of time (e.g. over a tree limb in your garden).
With the right amount of chalk and perhaps some sports tape for extra grip you can keep your rings outside and still have enough grip to perform all the difficult ring exercises that rely on a secure hold.
However you may need to replace the sports tape from time to time.
In terms of steel rings I would generally avoid this option for use at home or the gym. If you are setting up a calisthenics park however, steel rings on a chain would be the best option in terms of security and durability like at muscle beach for example.
If you need any further advice comment in the section below and I will be happy to get back to you.