The Best Vertical Climbing Workouts

Vertical climbing workouts have been expanding their reach in recent years, as more people look for innovative and efficient ways of getting and staying fit. No longer just one of those neglected machines tucked in a corner at the gym or the province of uber-elite athletes, vertical climbers can now be found in many a home gym.

Vertical climbing workouts can be delivered via either a stair stepper machine or a climber.

With a stair stepper, you’re mimicking the same motion you use when climbing a flight of stairs. With some of them, you don’t move your feet out of the foot beds, on others you do physically step up onto the next step.

On vertical climbing machines, the motion is more akin to climbing a ladder, with your hands overhead. Most models have the handles affixed to a central beam, but the CLMBR, a digitally-connected vertical climbing machine coming in 2021, moves those handles to two outer wings instead of a central monopole to increase stability and to help the user get into a crawling body position.

[Read: Best Fitness Apps and Home Workouts.]

Benefits of a Climbing Exercise

Whether you’re using a stair stepper or a climbing machine to get a vertical climbing workout, the benefits are similar, says Chris Kolba, a physical therapist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

These benefits include:

A full-body, cardiovascular workout:
The movement mimics the motion of climbing a staircase or a ladder, and as such, it’s a full-body workout. Climbing workouts may be superior to other cardio workouts because you have to bear your own body weight.

“You’re working against gravity, so you’re definitely going to get a little bit more bang for your buck in terms of cardiovascular benefits” than with some other types of cardio that don’t have that weight-bearing aspect, Kolba says.

Strength and endurance gains:
Vertical climbing workouts can build both strength and stamina via high-intensity interval workouts or steady-state endurance workouts. A combination of both is best for overall fitness and the vertical climber is versatile enough to offer both.

Low-impact calorie burning:
Climbing workouts can burn a significant number of calories in short order, making it an efficient way of burning calories if you’re looking to lose weight. And because it’s low-impact — meaning that you’re not pounding the pavement like you do when running — it may be a suitable form of exercise for people who have joint issues in the lower body.

“Historically, climbing has been something that elite athletes are very familiar with,” says Christa Dellebovi, director of training and education at CLMBR in Denver. But because it’s a low-impact, high-intensity exercise, it’s gaining followers outside of professional sports teams and rock climbers and is finding its way into many more homes around the country for fitness enthusiasts.

[READ: Best Foods to Eat Before and After Your Workout.]

Getting Started With Climbing Workouts

Starting a routine of vertical climbing workouts at home can be a lot of fun, but before you jump in with both feet, Kolba cautions you to make sure you’re good to go first. If you have “any type of significant cardiac or breathing issues, you should consult your physician. The average person always wants to overdo it and just jumps on and goes crazy, but if you have heart issues, you need to be more careful.”

If you have joint issues, you should also clear the activity with your doctor first. Even though climbing is relatively low-impact, it can still put wear and tear on joints because you’re bearing your own body weight. Always make sure you’re working within the parameters of your own abilities and health needs.

If you develop any lightheadedness, dizziness or excessive fatigue when using these machines, or performing any kind of exercise for that matter, Kolba says you should stop and get it checked out. “There could be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.”

If you’re new to climbing workouts, Kolba recommends starting out slowly and gently ramping up over time as your body adapts to the new routine. “Even through we’ve all climbed stairs, when we get on a machine that’s trying to replace it, it’s just different.”

The motion on a vertical climber may also be quite new to you if you’ve never used one of these machines, so make sure you understand how it works and what ideal form looks like. Using good form can help you prevent injury. Kolba recommends reading the manual before you start to be sure you understand how the machine works and getting an orientation from a fitness professional.

When you start working out, “make sure you’re at an intensity or speed that allows you to maintain good form,” he says, rather than trying to move your feet so fast that you have to hang onto the handles or rails just to stay upright.

[READ: Best Lower Body Workouts.]

Workouts Styles Using a Climbing Machine

When it comes to how to design a workout on a vertical climber at home, Dellebovi says there are a few different styles of workouts you should try to mix in, including:

Rhythm-based workouts. This approach is similar to a spin class, where you’re climbing to the beat of the music. “With that, the music is going to kind of drive the energy and you’re going to match your movement to the intensity of the songs,” she says.

Time-based workouts. This is a more steady-state cardio approach to climbing that uses either intervals or a single length of time where you’re climbing continuously in a controlled manner. This is good for building stamina and muscle endurance.

Tabata-style workouts. This approach uses quick, 20-second hits of high-intensity work interspersed with 10 seconds of rest for a cycle of 8 minutes. It’s a killer approach that can get you into super shape quickly.

Circuit workouts. You can also incorporate vertical climbing as a station in a circuit training workout that uses free-weights, rowing, jump rope or other exercises to get the heart rate up and work all areas of the body.

When you’re first starting out, Kolba recommends aiming for several short bouts of exercise instead of one long workout to help you adjust to the movement and “orient your body towards the machine.” As you get stronger, you can increase the duration and intensity of your workouts.

Indeed, Dellebovi says setting goals and challenges — seeing how quickly you can climb the equivalent of Mount Everest, for example — can help you establish and stick with a vertical climbing workout routine at home over the long term.

Lastly, Kolba recommends paying attention to hydration and nutrition to get the most out of your workout efforts.

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