Jason Walsh was pissed. The 39-year old Los Angeles personal trainer, fresh from muscling-up Bradley Cooper for American Sniper, walked uninvited into the Sirens & Titans gym in high-rent Westwood last July to confront owner Jacques DeVore about a new group workout class the latter was promoting. "I invented the VersaClimber group workout," he told DeVore, accusing him of taking his idea for classes based on the vertical climbing machine. "I've been planning it for years."
"Are you kidding me?" replied DeVore. "I’ve been using the VersaClimber since before you were born.”
Soon after their exchange, DeVore was holding 25 high-intensity, music-blasting, 30-minute classes a week on 18 VersaClimbers. Walsh wouldn’t offer a class until after New Year’s, but when he did, it was on 33 machines in a dedicated VersaClimber studio called Rise Nation, five miles away from DeVore's setup. Most significantly: Walsh's press releases insist that he invented the first VersaClimber group workout, which he’ll take nationwide in a climb-to-the-music format akin to vertical Spinning.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the winner in this feud is the funky VersaClimber machine itself. Invented in 1980 by a mechanical engineer, the machine was—until now—one of the most-ignored pieces of fitness equipment of all time. The VersaClimber is a seven-foot, 75-degree vertical rail with alternately sliding hand and foot pegs that delivers a strenuous all-body, aerobic “climbing” workout. (Imagine climbing a never-ending ladder and you’ll get some idea of what it’s like.) The trouble: It’s too strenuous for most people. The rare gyms that still have a VersaClimber on the floor might as well use it as a coat hanger.
Although popular among pro and college sports teams and rehab therapists—“It’s the only cardio machine I approve for our players because the no-impact, contralateral motion mimics natural human motion without an injury risk,” says Dr. Dennis Collenello, team doctor for the L.A. Clippers—the VersaClimber scares average folk.
That’s why this VersaClimber war delights Dan Charnitski, son of the inventor and general manager of Heart Rate Inc., the Santa Ana, California–based manufacturer of the machine. “It’s the right product at the right time,” he says. “We hung in here. It only took 35 years.”
The VersaClimber’s heyday as a fourth option to treadmills, exer-bikes, and rowers disappeared when stair-stepper machines and ellipticals came along in the 1980s and ’90s. Heart Rate Inc. has sold just 40,000 VersaClimber units worldwide over three decades. “Not talking a lot of volume,” shrugs Charnitski. “We do better in Europe.”
So when Walsh came to VersaClimber in July 2012 with his plans to open the world’s first VersaClimber studio, Charnitski was thrilled. But he couldn’t talk about it because Walsh requested and got a nondisclosure agreement. “I kept it mum,” says Charnitski. “Then the article in Details magazine came out.”
The January 2014 Details story announced that Walsh, who had been using VersaClimbers for years to train private clients such as Jessica Biel, Ben Affleck, and Justin Timberlake, was “launching a high-intensity climbing class at his new Rise Nation studio in West Hollywood, with plans for a New York outpost to follow soon.”
DeVore, a high-performance specialist who claims to have once owned the VersaClimber mile record of 27 minutes, 30 seconds, was opening a large new gym on the city’s west side just around the time the article was published. “I’d seen the article in Details but already had made my decision,” he says. “Besides, I looked around and saw no gym anywhere. The sales manager said they’d been approached about classes for years, but I was the first to pull the trigger.”
VersaClimber classes at both gyms are 30 minutes long, but they’re different in atmosphere and intent—hardcore versus Hollywood. DeVore’s class is set in a concrete-floored room filled with weight machines, mats, and spin bikes. His competitive, all-out interval sessions are designed to ramp up the VO2 max of his high-performance, cyclist-runner-triathlete clientele.
Eighteen climbers are set up in groups of three. They hop off several times during the lung-heaving workout to write how many feet they’ve climbed (a stat shown on their VersaClimber’s monitor) on a whiteboard on the wall, much like CrossFitters jot down their reps or interval times.
DeVore walks around the room like a mad scientist, barking out instructions and syncing the throbbing music. It’s exhilarating. Excited classmates tell stories of weight loss and faster running and cycling times.
In contrast, Walsh’s facility is a dedicated single-room VersaClimber gym. It’s a futuristic visual feast, festooned with a faceted, neon-lighted mirror ceiling that changes color. Climbers are arranged in a semicircle around an instructor’s stage that’s bolted to the rubberized floor. A young female instructor led us in rhythmic “one-two-three-rip” stroke patterns and then all-out intervals. It’s fun. Less intense than DeVore’s class but still taxing and exhilarating.
Both leave you drenched in sweat and, according to Collenello, physiologically improved. “The cross-crawl motion with your butt pushed out is exactly the same thing you do as a baby learning to move,” he says. “So it reinforces natural neuromuscular movement patterns and strengthens your core, making it safe for your joints and great for your back.” In fact, 75-year-old Joy Hayward, a Pacific Palisades business manager and three-times-a-week climber, raved that her lifelong back pain disappeared after her second class.
While DeVore won the race to open the world’s first VersaClimber gym, he and Walsh both know, feud or not, that both win in the long run if their near-simultaneous debuts cause VersaClimbing classes to take off.
“I was just called by a reporter from Vogue doing a story on Jason’s gym,” says DeVore. “So because of him, I’m in Vogue!” Walsh remains adamant that DeVore ran with his idea but ultimately admits, “In truth, my ego is just bruised.”
As for VersaClimber, which features both classes on its website, there’s a strange and wonderful optimism in the air.
“We’re very excited about this,” says the low-key Charnitski. “Gosh, for me to say I’m excited means I’m excited. It’s awesome. We knew it was one of the best things you could do for exercise—biomechanically correct, super aerobic. Everybody wants an all-body workout nowadays. Climbing? Maybe its time has come.”
Roy M. Wallack writes a biweekly fitness gear column for the Los Angeles Times and is the author of Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100—and Beyond.