If you wanted to look at the Versaclimber as a Sport How Would You Design a Program?

The Versaclimber is becoming more and more popular and I think will eventually be something that athletes will compete on as a sport.  Kind of like the Concept 2 Erg.  When it first came out it was for athletes that rowed on the water to train indoors.  Now there are world records and it is a competitive sport outside of rowing on the water.

LeBron James, Andy Murray, Lady Gaga, and a large number of UFC fighters have recognized the advantage of the Versaclimber equipment as a wonderful training tool.  The Versaclimber has been around since the eighties, but is finally getting the respect it deserves.   We were the first center to offer group cardio classes on the climber over 2 years ago and have become really familiar with the climber.  Our group workouts are fitness game changers for so many clients.  The problem with the workouts is if you truly embrace the science of HIIT then these 30 min classes are very difficult.  It can be intimidating at first, but then once you get past the initial shock you want to see how fast you can go.

Recently I heard about the unofficial mile record on the Versaclimber and thought I would make a run at this effort.  5280 feet on the climber in 24:47 was the previous unofficial record for the mile.  About 10 years ago, I completed a mile in 27:30 which is a 192 feet per average pace on the climber.  I thought this was a pretty good time and was curious how I would do now.  So we had a little mile high challenge at our center and I wanted to see if I could break the “unofficial” record.  I am a cyclist as well as a weightlifter so I carry a descent aerobic base of fitness.  I gave it a go and I was able to come in at 23:13.  Then of course the next thing I thought was if I really focused on getting faster and trained on this with some purpose how would I design a training program for this event? 

Knowing what I know as a cycling coach and strength coach could I design a program that would bring me in around 21 minutes? This would be an eyeball bleeding pace of 250 feet per minute.  If you have not tried the Versaclimber this is a fast pace to hold for longer than a few minutes.

After my last attempt I now have a baseline and can better design what I will need to attempt 21 min.   

I believe that all efforts lasting longer than about 20 seconds should be looked at from a percentage of your absolute power output.  In other words a 200 meter runner needs to look at what percentage of their 100 meter time they have to maintain to win.  This helps to see where the biggest areas for improvement can be realized.  Are you really fast on the short end or vice versa and where you should put your training focus.   It is not always the fastest 100 meter runner that wins the 200 meter race.  It is the runner that can hold the highest percentage of their 100 meter speed longer.  It is the highest sustainable power or power efficiency that wins most events lasting longer than about 30 seconds yet too many athletes focus little time on how to improve this efficiency.

So the key to these long efforts is to keep the highest percentage of your maximum power output the longest.  I am no longer actively a bike racer, but I still ride enough to keep my fitness at a pretty good level for a noncompetitive cyclist.  However, the Versaclimber is a different animal. 

So this will be the first of a series of blogs on how I see the program design for a mile on the climber.

Strategy Development:

So when evaluating a sport and developing a strategy to improve performance to the highest level I look at the goal of performing at a world class level and work backwards.  In other words what are the components of the greatest performers?

I thought it would be fun to do this with the Versaclimber even though it is not a competitive sport it would give insight into how to look at designing programs for any discipline and be a fun exercise. 

So first what are the needs of the Versaclimber from a physiological and psychological perspective?  If I was to look at this as a sport what are the requirements?  I am only going to look at the physiological needs at this time. 

In general it is a power to weight effort,  the bigger you are the more difficult it can be as you have to carry the weight on the climber. However similar to rowing taller people have an advantage biomechanically as the longer stroke at the same pace covers more ground and also provides a longer lever for movement.  Similar to rowing there is a tipping point where more bodyweight is detrimental unless it can produce power at a higher percentage of others.  So there will be a sweet spot of height and weight that will produce the greatest speed.  Think of a tall light runner as more of the optimum size.    This is also what makes this machine so difficult for both short and longer efforts.  There is nowhere to hide and you cannot really rest.  If you are resting you are climbing slower or else you do not cover any ground.  In addition you have to have the ability to transfer power unilaterally.  In addition, your arms are working as well and for the most part they are above your heart so the blood has to be pumped to them and this has a greater metabolic load. 

So what are the basic needs of the sport of Versaclimbing?

·         Arm and leg length matter and impacts the leverage on the down stroke.  Taller lighter athletes will have a biomechanical advantage, however there is a limit on the total stroke length attainable at 21 inches.  Shorter people can excel if they have long legs and long arms and a shorter torso.  This can allow them to get a long stroke length even though they are not as tall.  Hip flexion and knee flexion can impact stroke length.

·         A power to weight sport.  There will be an optimum power to weight for longer efforts.  Shorter efforts are more determined by absolute power output, so body weight is not as impactful as it is on longer efforts.  

·         For longer duration efforts it is sustainable power that is most important not absolute power output like a short sprint.  It is similar to an uphill time trial in cycling or running up a hill. 

·         Short sprints need high absolute power output. 

·         Lower body centric, similar to rowing, but upper body pulling and stabilization is a component and can add to the speed.  There is minimum limit requirement of output while moving because of body weight being carried.  There is nowhere to hide below the minimum level!

·         Quad dominant, although with altered position hips can be highly engaged, as well as upper body, biceps, forearms, and upper and lower back. 

·         Linear vector of movement limited to up and down movement.

·         Cross crawl movement, so body is more stable with the points of contact being balanced.  Some core engagement, but not overly taxing on core, however lower back is highly engaged on longer efforts.   

·         Different handles can change load on upper body and wrists.

·         Foot positon on the platform can transfer load from quads to more hips or vice versa.

·         Metabolically very taxing, as the athlete has to carry body weight at all times if moving.  The only time there is not load is when foot platforms are even. 

·         There has to be a good aerobic engine for long efforts as there are a lot of muscle groups working in tandem.  This is why the heart rate can get so elevated and it is so metabolically taxing. 

So the list above establishes the basic physiological needs to perform on the climber.  The next thing I would look at is establishing the athletes’ current abilities to compete in this discipline and what are their specific strengths and weaknesses and where are the gaps between the list above and the current fitness of the athlete.  I am looking for tipping points where I can make big gains with small improvements.  In these discussions I will be discussing attempting to do the mile on the Versaclimber at a 250 pace and 21 minutes of time.

So looking at myself as the athlete I am coaching, I have to develop a program designed to accomplish this pace for the mile.  I can see from my last effort on the mile I have a baseline speed of 230 feet per minute currently.  I have to improve my speed from 230 to 250 per minute.  That is an 8.7 percent improvement.  The next step is to try to see where I can pick up this speed. 

I will start this process by looking at my maximum power output on the climber.  I consider that my best 30 seconds to one minute time.  Currently my best one minute time is 327 feet, and my best 30 seconds is 198 feet or a 396 pace.  My last mile effort was 230 feet average or 58% of my 30 second absolute power output.  So the first thing I have to ask is where am I going to get the speed.  I do not think that I can go much faster in a 30 second sprint, so I have to look at increasing the percentage of my absolute from 58 to 63 percent.  

So where do we start?  The first thing I will do is see how long I can maintain a 250 pace.  If I had to guess I would say currently it is only 8 minutes.  That is only 38% of the total time needed. 

So this is a starting point that will allow me to start developing a program designed to support these data points and the current gaps.  You could go through the same exercise for your training, but just apply this thought process to your own personal goals. 

I will be looking at how I can increase my sustainable power longer.  I will be looking for areas that need work.  I will be designing tactics that will allow me to hold higher percentages of my maximum power longer.   I already know that I have some issues with my right knee that could be a tipping point.  It has to do with a lot of old injuries and knee flexion.  I need to address this issue and that will help quite a bit.  In addition I need to start adding more efficiency at higher outputs.  This will include both long runs at a steady state and also longer intense short efforts.    I will slowly start to merge these types of efforts together so that the tempo is steadily increasing and that I am increasing the duration of the higher output runs until they merge to the pace I need to maintain to hit the goal.   

Recent Tactics:

The first workout I did with this in mind I focused on my pacing at the new level of output.  I call this getting weight on the bar to get the feel of the weight.    I climbed one minute at a 240 pace (this is higher than my current mile pace) and then followed with one minute at a 260 pace which is above my goal pace. I did this for 4 mins straight.   I then recovered and did again.  This design forces me to elevate to a higher level of output than needed for my goal and then partially recover and then go up again.  This is very taxing.     I will keep adding time all the while working on the shorter end of the range of 45 secs to 1.5 minutes at a pace closer to 300. 

In the next post I will focus on my evaluation of my current strengths and weakness and how that will impact the program design moving ahead.  


Truth in Fitness,

Jacques DeVore, CSCS