The word alone is enough to strike terror into the hearts of most athletes. Why? Because cardio training is often associated with boring, repetitive, soul-sucking work. But cardiovascular endurance is a key part of succeeding in any athletic endeavor, so people force themselves onto the treadmill, elliptical or stationary bike for seemingly endless stretches of time.
Imagine an efficient cardio training machine that was actually fun to use. It may sound like a pipe dream, but the VersaClimber is real. You won't find it in every gym, but the popularity of this unique machine is on the rise. Peyton Manning, Kyrie Irving and Mike Trout are among the growing number of athletes who include the VersaClimber in their training. Often, athletes find it the most challenging, time-effective and beneficial piece of cardio equipment they've ever used.
While the use of the VersaClimber is a growing fitness trend, the machine itself is actually decades old. A mechanical engineer named Dick Charnitski built the first VersaClimber in 1981, and the device enjoyed modest popularity throughout the next decade. But as fitness fads came and went over the years, the VersaClimber was mostly forgotten. "The VersaClimber has been around for a long time. But it kind of went in and out of popularity," says Jason Walsh, owner of RISE NATION, a VersaClimber-focused gym in Los Angeles.
So what exactly is the VersaClimber? Quite simply, it's a machine that mimics the natural motion of climbing. If you're searching for it in a gym, look for a 75-degree vertical rail with pedals and handles. "It's intimidating. The thing looks like an alien. It's 7-feet tall," says Walsh. To use the machine, you get into an upright position by inserting your feet into the foot straps on the pedals and grabbing the handles.
From there, a number of variables can be tweaked, including handle height, stroke length and resistance. Walsh usually has his clients start with the handles at shoulder height. Stroke length is exactly what it sounds like—if you imagine the VersaClimber as a never-ending ladder, stroke length is the distance between rungs. There's no knob or dial for stroke length—the user simply strokes as long as he'd like and the machine accommodates.
"That's the biggest variable for how difficult it is," says Walsh. "The longer the stroke length, the more work you're doing, the more range of motion you're covering, the more muscle you're going to recruit."
A higher resistance setting makes the VersaClimber a more slow-paced, strength-building machine, whereas minimal resistance makes it more cardio-focused. "If you're moving slow and put resistance on, it's more of a strength-builder. That can actually help people get used to the movement. But with zero resistance, you're just fighting gravity one-hundred percent of the time," Walsh says.
Once the variables are set to your desired levels, you begin climbing. The VersaClimber measures distance covered in terms of total feet climbed. Moving it requires alternating reciprocal movement—when you move one arm up or down, the opposite knee does the same. Performing this motion from an upright position is a key reason why the VersaClimber is so effective, since it forces your entire body to work together and quickly exposes any weaknesses.
"You're in a natural position. You're utilizing the upper and lower body together in unison, the way you're supposed to," says Walsh. "It's reinforcing proper movement patterns. During training and everyday life, we can get so far from moving the right way. That really screws the body up and leads to weaknesses and injuries."
When users first try the VersaClimber, they often feel it most in the weakest areas of their bodies. Since postural issues are now rampant in our modern society, first-time users often feel it in under-used areas like the glutes, lower back and core.
"A lot of people will say 'I felt my lower back a lot on this." So I run them through a quick movement screening, and they're so damn dysfunctional. They have weak glutes that don't fire, weak spinal erectors. They're fatiguing there because they're weak there," Walsh says. Many other cardio machines allow your body to compensate for movement deficiencies, but the VersaClimber forces you to address them head-on.
Since it's also manually-powered, you can control your own pace with your movements. You can go as fast or as slow as you want. It depends on what your body is capable of.
The VersaClimber is also very low-impact. Since you're not actually driving off a surface like you would on a treadmill, the pounding on your joints is virtually zero. "Especially with big athletes, the last thing you want to do is cause micro-trauma from constant running. Especially in the off-season when they're lifting heavy and trying to get their strength up," says Walsh. The VersaClimber became Peyton Manning's go-to conditioning tool in the twilight of his career. Although his body was deteriorating at a rapid rate, the VersaClimber allowed Manning to stay in great cardio shape without putting unnecessary pressure on his ailing joints.
The full-body burn and minimal impact are great, but no one would use the VersaClimber if it were not effective. According to a study by Men's Health, classes at Rise Nation burn 22.3 calories per minute, while popular cycling, treadmill and rowing classes burn between 13 and 14 calories per minute. Quite simply, the VersaClimber gets your heart rate up fast and allows for efficient, butt-kicking cardio workouts.
"For me, time is money," Walsh says. "If we're burning more calories in our class in 30 minutes than these guys are in an hour, you do the math."
When you consider the bevy of benefits the VersaClimber offers, it's not hard to see why pro athletes love it. "It's a new experience for them. A lot of times conditioning becomes mundane and boring for pro athletes. But they know they have to do it so they do it, that's their job," Walsh says. "Derek Millender, the Cleveland Cavaliers strength and conditioning coach, brought some players in here recently and they loved it. They were like, 'this is actually fun.'"
Walsh's client list includes athletes from several different sports, including soccer, baseball and triathlon. One regular is renowned mountain climber Jimmy Chin, whose feats include climbing Mount Everest and skiing off the summit. "It's the best conditioning tool there is next to running up a mountain," Chin says of the VersaClimber. Celebrities are also no strangers to the machine. Rise Nation has helped A-listers such as Matt Damon, John Krasinski and Bradley Cooper get in stellar shape.
The 10-Minute VersaClimber Workout
If you're lucky enough to have access to a VersaClimber, you should definitely make use of it. This heart-pumping 10-minute workout is a great place to start:
- Start with the handles at shoulder height and a moderate amount of resistance
- For the first 1:30, perform medium-length strokes at a slow pace
- For the next 30 seconds, perform short-length strokes at a fast pace
- Repeat that same intervals until you reach a total time of 10 minutes
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