Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
The pandemic has been the ultimate off-season for runners and everyone approached this time with a different mindset. Some runners wanted to take a break, others forged ahead and focused on improving their weaknesses. Regardless of your personal approach to training at home or in isolation, we are all in search of ways to increase our fitness, improve running form, and reduce the risk of injury. Achieving all of these aims efficiently is a big task.
Enter: The vertical climbing machine.
Not only do climbing machines check all of these boxes, but they also negate the heavy impact of running. If you’re wondering how this is possible, read on to dig into the science supporting your new soon-to-be-favorite cross training machine for whichever area of running you are trying to target.
As runners, we spend countless hours on the trail, treadmill, or track. Sometimes the best thing to step up your game is to mix things up a bit. By mimicking the motion of climbing, a movement altogether different from running, a vertical climbing machine can help to break the monotony of the treadmill without sacrificing the intensity of your workout. And in an incredibly efficient way. Because a vertical climber engages your entire body, it quickly increases your heart rate and provides you with both cardiovascular and strength benefits. In this way, you can burn four times the calories on a vertical climber as opposed to a bike moving the same speed. This means you can get a better workout in less time (most climbing workouts are between 20 to 45 minutes) while torching calories and improving your fitness (via a sustained elevated heart rate). Not bad.
Improve Running Form
We’ve all seen the Trendelenburg gait pattern: the runner seems to be almost limping as their hip drops on the non-weight bearing side. It’s a gait pattern caused by unilateral weakness of the hip abductors, mainly the gluteal muscles. Not only is this form inefficient, it can also become painful and causing issues like ITB syndrome and low back pain if repeated over time. In order to correct this gait problem, we need to strengthen the hip abductors (gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, tensor fasciae latae), oblique abdominal muscles and quadratus lumborum of the lower back. The flat back posture used with climbing movements strengthens all of the aforementioned musculature, effectively improving gait while simultaneously obtaining cardiovascular benefits.
Reduce Injury Risk
Over 80% of running injuries are the result of repetitive stress. So, the key question is how can we combat this repetitive stress and, thus, reduce our risk of most injuries? There are a few strategies we can employ, but in general being weak, tight, or tired will exacerbate injury risk. So increasing strength is our best weapon against overuse injuries. Strong muscles produce consistent and reliable foot strikes helping the body to know what to expect and how to react to every step. However, if one side of the body, or one muscle, is weak then the other muscles become overworked in order to compensate. Over time, this imbalance can lead to injury. For this reason, tight muscles, particularly hip flexors and hamstrings, are common sources of trouble for runners. So stretching and increasing range of motion in these areas is another key strategy for reducing injury risk. Besides strengthening and increasing range of motion, another way in which we can combat overuse injuries is through variety. Performing the same movement repetitively, without giving the body a chance to adapt or recover can cause trauma.
Vertical climbing machines can assist with each of those injury reducing strategies by strengthening the entire body, increasing range of motion, and performing a natural movement pattern other than running. They work all of the body’s major muscle groups, including the gluteal and abdominal muscles, which are critical for runners to increase their power and maintain proper form. Furthermore, certain vertical climbers that use contralateral motions (when the same-side arms and legs move in opposite directions) produce full body extension. This extension is a great way to actively stretch your hip flexors, latissimus dorsi, external oblique and sartorius muscles. Lastly, after repeatedly logging miles on the road, vertical climbers can provide a different motion from running that improves your cardiovascular fitness and strength, while adding some variety to your routine. All of these attributes can help keep you injury-free and running strong for miles.
Individuals with knee or back issues may find the constant pounding of a treadmill, trail, or road to be problematic. Runners with these concerns may find the low-impact nature of vertical climbers to be easier on their joints. Additionally, low-impact exercises reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury. Since vertical climbers are capable of producing a high intensity workout, runners can achieve all the benefits of their normal running workout while taking a break from their normal high-impact training.
How to Choose a Machine
So, how do you know what vertical climbing machine to purchase?
Like most exercise equipment, vertical climbers have a wide price range. Machines like Tinsay sell for as little as $109.99, CrossClimber has a midrange price tag with some added benefits, while VersaClimber costs upwards of $2,000. Everyone wants a deal, but be wary of the overly-affordable vertical climbers because, in general, you get what you pay for.
Here are a few of the characteristics that we look for in a vertical climbing machine:
- A small footprint or folding capabilities (we don’t want it to take up the entire room);
- A reasonable price point
- Customizable step height;
- Workout instructions;
- The ability to switch between ipsilateral and contralateral modes.
The VersaClimber and CrossClimber both have similar footprints. However, only CrossClimber folds away for easy storage. Both machines are stable, which is typical of the well-constructed vertical climbers. The price points of these machines vary considerably. CrossClimber is by far the most budget friendly at $699 with the VersaClimber residential model costing over $2,000. Both machines have customizable step height, allowing the user to take large steps to emphasize glute strength or small, fast steps for a cardiovascular benefit If you’re looking for some workout instructions and Youtube isn’t cutting it, for an additional fee VersaClimber can integrate Bluetooth capabilities to sync workouts with their app. CrossClimber is the only model that has the ability to switch between ipsilateral (same-side arms and legs always move together) and contralateral (same-side arms and legs always move in opposite directions) modes. The ability to switch allows the user to emphasize different muscles and add some variety to their workouts.
The Bottom Line
Specificity of training is always important. With respect to running, improving factors such as pacing and stride length are best achieved by practicing that specific task, i.e. running. However, when it comes to cross training, runners typically seek to enhance a few key principles. They want to maintain (or improve) their cardiovascular fitness, increase strength, fine tune their form, and reduce the risk of injury. Vertical climbers allow runners to achieve all of their cross training goals while also maintaining a natural human motion for locomotion. Plus, vertical climbers bring this super efficient workout machine to the comfort of the living room.
About the Author
Colleen Gulick, Ph.D., M.S., E.I.T., CSCS, Podium Sports, LLC Founder & CEO. Colleen’s academic pursuits have combined the areas of engineering and exercise physiology to analyze multiple avenues of athletic performance. Colleen received her B.S. in Bioengineering and E.I.T. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maryland. Her MS in exercise physiology was obtained from California State University, Fullerton. Colleen lived in Dunedin, New Zealand to earn her PhD in exercise physiology with an emphasis in endocrinology from the University of Otago. Her research has investigated topics including: EMG and MMG activity during isometric muscle actions in women, muscle activation comparing different squatting techniques, the influence of a padded hand wrap on punching force, gait analysis of shoes and prostheses, as well as the effects of dietary protein and exercise on IGF-1.