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More Training Info > Cardiovascular Equipment Training Options Review for Mountaineering

Cardiovascular Equipment Training Options Review for Mountaineering
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS

To evaluate the effectiveness of your cardiovascular training options, the first quality to consider is sport specificity – how closely your exercise choice trains the musculature and cardiovascular systems involved in your sport. Outdoor activities including hiking, mountaineering, and climbing require that you travel upright by foot, over varied mixed terrain, while carrying a loaded pack. Therefore, optimal choices for cardiovascular exercise should reflect your sport’s primary focus: spinal loading and going uphill.

Cardio Options Overview

Top forms of cardiovascular equipment would include the following:

Incline Treadmill
the higher the incline, the more you simulate travel over steeper terrain
Elliptical Cross Trainer
the higher the ramp, the more you recruit the uphill propulsion muscles of the glutes, calves and hamstrings
Step Mill
this revolving stair climbing machine is great for uphill climbing
this option allows upper body training as well, to simulate scrambling as well as vertical climbing
Jacobs Ladder
this option is not as widely available as some of the others but affords an awesome full body workout that trains the body in scrambling simulation
Stair Stepper
a good option that is readily available in most commercial gyms
Step Aerobics
great for the class enthusiast who likes to exercise to music

Other good general cardiovascular equipment options for early-season or off-season conditioning, but not as beneficial for hiking, mountaineering and climbing due to your body positioning for exercise performance and different muscle recruitment, include exercise bikes, rowing machines, and swimming, unless you participate in triathlons, kayaking or canoeing, or swimming as your primary sport.

Adding a Pack to Training

You can also use a loaded pack for all the forms mentioned in the first section above except for Step Aerobics. In early season, start with a very light pack (whatever you use for hikes) and increase weight no more than 10% per week for one or two weekly pack training sessions. If you can do a hike on one of the weekend days, add a mid-week pack session in your program – select one of the spinal loading options above -- and you have a well-rounded program that you can then supplement with appropriate strength training.

Cardiovascular Options Analysis

Below is a detailed analysis of the pros and cons for each of the cardiovascular options mentioned above. When evaluating the various choices of cardiovascular machine training for your wilderness sport, consider the following factors (among others):

  1. Muscle recuitment – how much you can access using the machine; generally, the more muscle mass required or body parts trained on any single piece of equipment, the higher caloric burn you can get out of your workout
  2. Adjustability – how easy it is to adjust speed, stride or step rate, and/or resistance for various types and intensities of workouts
  3. Sport specificity – how similar the option is to your particular sport for maximal training benefits that will carry over to your outdoor sport
  4. Cross-training benefits – for in-season, pre-season or post-season, including rehab purposes
  5. Overall intensity – this also factors in “multi-tasking” or the ability to be entertained in some way other than doing the particular movement, which can be of importance especially if you are unable to make it to the mountains to do a conditioning hike on a given weekend.

To put these factors to the test, we analyzed 7 common cardiovascular training options against each and discuss the pro’s and con’s for each category of machine.

Incline Treadmill

  • This training option works primarily the lower body and is a great option for pack carrying as well. Some models allow you to train up to as steep as a 40% incline and down to -6% which increases your training options significantly and provides a fantastic training stimulus for scrambling and alpine climbing.
  • This is a super machine for any sort of steady pace training but is lousy for intervals of shorter than 90 seconds of work or rest, given the amount of transition time it takes to get to a new speed or ramp height.
  • High specificity to mountaineering, hiking, trekking and scrambling for the approaches and long distance travel. The only thing better is getting out on real terrain with tree roots, ups and downs, sloping dirt paths that challenge calves, ankles, and feet as well as the thigh muscles.
  • Great option for inclement weather, or on days that you cannot spare the travel time to get to a hiking destination. Also super for anyone in flatland without ready access to a lot of elevation gain. Add a pack and you have a great workout highly specific to your outdoor sport. Perfect training option for trail runners AND walkers alike. Since this can be a moderate-impact activity, adequate footwear is required to prevent ailments like Plantar Fasciitis or stress fractures. If used as an early season conditioning tool leading up to outside or trail running, transition gradually to such training as the rubber surface of a treadmill is far more forgiving than paved concrete or asphalt surfaces.
  • Like the EFX, this option can be quite demanding at higher incline or higher speeds; great option for long distance endurance workouts which allows multi-tasking (such as reading or movie watching) to help diminish the psychological fatigue factor of staring at the same four walls for longer than about 75 minutes. At steeper grades you may need to hold onto the handrails to avoid being pitched off the back of the machine, but as much as possible try to train without hanging on.

Elliptical Cross-Trainer

  • Such training is great for the lower body, particularly as you pedal forwards on a high ramp (which works the glutes and hamstrings) or backwards (which works the quads). Some offer modest upper body training if you use the handles. Most are quite comfortable even if you are training with a pack.
  • Affords quick speed/intensity change, as the ramp height only takes a few seconds to adjust. Very versatile for intervals training but requires manual manipulation if you are doing anything other than 1:1 work/rest ratio on a set “intervals” program
  • High specificity (upright spinal loading) to hiking, scrambling, trekking, mountaineering, backpacking
  • Can be quite advantageous for people confronting a wide variety of lower extremity stresses, including mild shin splints, plantar Fasciitis, stress fractures, or some kinds of knee issues.
  • Can be quite demanding at higher resistances (enhancing muscle endurance) or higher speeds (i.e. for trail running); older models may not offer the highly experienced athlete enough resistance to allow anaerobic training. Great option for long distance endurance workouts which allows multi-tasking (such as reading or movie watching) to help diminish the psychological fatigue factor of staring at the same four walls.

Revolving Step Mill

  • These are becoming more popular at commercial gyms but are generally not as widely available as some of the other training options. They work more of the muscle mass involved in uphill climbing than a stairmaster, since you are required to pick up your foot with each and every step much like walking up a continuous flight of stairs. A decent lower body training option.
  • Step height itself is not adjustable (typically 8”), but step rate (30-156 spm) and resistance (commonly 1-20) frequently are.
  • Add a pack, adjust the speed, and you have a dynamite workout that is highly specific to hiking and mountaineering on fairly steep terrain.
  • Like any machine that has you exercising in any limited or shortened range of motion, overuse can be of concern and doing longer endurance workouts on such a machine should be limited to once a week. If you tend to feel discomfort in the knees when going up and down stairs, you might want to consider other machines before trying this one. Always train with upright posture rather than propping yourself up with arms on the hand rails.
  • Allows for multi-tasking (reading, listening to music, watching a movie) and at higher step speeds can be quite a high intensity training option.


  • Such a machine provides full body training that is great for vertical climbing (such as ice, crag, or alpine training) and general cardiovascular conditioning for all major muscle groups. If the full range of motion is uncomfortable for anyone with discomfort in knees, shorter steps can be taken; this can also become a lower-body-only training option if you hold onto the side rails lightly.
  • Simply step more slowly for a less intense workout; reduce the range of motion; or change the resistance dial. For interval training, increase the speed of stepping and arm movements and use an external timepiece.
  • Great spinal loading option for vertical sports; while you can certainly use a loaded pack, the straps could be uncomfortable given the arm movements above shoulder height; the other alternative is to use the machine as a stair climber (holding onto side rails) whenever you train with a pack.
  • Due to amount of muscle mass recruited, this machine would be extremely challenging for long endurance workouts. Multi-tasking would not work due to use of both arms and legs; focusing on a video would be a challenge. Such a machine requires a high ceiling or area of vertical clearance; some people keep these machines outside, in rooms with vaulted ceilings, or in garages. Always train with upright posture rather than propping yourself up with arms on the hand rails.
  • Good training option for short speed bursts or high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Jacob’s Ladder

  • This full body “revolving ladder” training option is not as widely available as some of the other cardiovascular training options discussed here, though it effectively trains the calves, glutes, core, triceps, shoulders, illiopsoas, hips and lower back all in one machine.
  • The higher you climb on the machine, the faster the spin or turn rate; intervals are relatively easy to perform on such a machine simply by climbing at a faster or slower “rung rate.” Resistance cannot be adjusted; intensity is controlled only by rate of climbing. To work the legs only with additional speed, you can grasp the handrails for support so coordination is not the limiting factor in how hard you can push. Adding a pack makes this workout doubly challenging.
  • This option has strong overlap in functionality for scrambling, climbing and mountaineering.
  • This machine has definite in-season training possibilities and would be great for very short, high intensity workouts where you are limited in available time.
  • Like the Versaclimber, due to the noise this device makes, music or entertainment would need to be played fairly loudly. Multi-tasking (books, movie watching) would be difficult since legs and arms are both involved and line of sight is forced straight into the body of the machine itself.

Stair Stepper, Stair Master, Stair Climber

  • These lower body training machines have been around for years and designs have evolved significantly to include bigger foot plates, stand-still capacity while you step on, and so forth. If you use bigger, deeper steps, you can fairly effectively train the quadriceps on these machines. The foot remains fixed to the pedal on such steppers, unlike the revolving Stepmill where you have to lift your foot and place it on the next stair with each step. Of the two, the stepmill works more of the hiking musculature than the stairmaster, but you are more likely to have access to a stepper than to a stepmill.
  • These machines are fairly easy to adjust, and by using a lower resistance or higher stride rate you can increase the intensity quite readily.
  • Another training option with high specificity to uphill travel, especially with deeper steps.
  • This option is typically a little harder on the knees, and if you have knee discomfort you may prefer one of the other training options. Avoid propping your body on the hand rails, as this reduces the load on the legs. Adjust weight input to factor in any additional pack weight.
  • When used in conjunction with other training options, the stair stepper allows multi-tasking for longer endurance pieces. Just watch out for the knees!

Step Aerobics

  • With arm movements or light hand-held weights, moving up and over a step in all directions and combinations can be a very effective full body workout. Advanced choreography also fully engages and challenges the mind, but a caveat for the athlete without much step experience: jumping into too hard or complex a program can result in overuse injuries, particularly to Achilles or knees. Be certain you are using the right step height and start with basic step choreography.
  • Widely varied in intensities; higher steps add more challenge, as does complexity of choreography. Adding jumps, hops, box lunges and the like using full range of motion also makes this a good challenge and can make it quite an anaerobic activity, the more time you spend either launched in the air or crouched down low.
  • Stepping safely up and down specifically trains the uphill propulsion muscles in the glutes, hamstrings and calves, while stepping over, sideways, and performing lateral movements train those muscles involved in traversing and side-stepping up steep slopes.
  • Step aerobics provides a good cross-training option for the person who likes to move to music, or who enjoys the social aspect of a class, or who has room at home and space for exercise videos or home class (TV) programs with minimal investment: all you need is an adjustable 6-10” high step.
  • Multi-tasking is next to impossible, as this sort of training requires mental concentration and auditory focus unless you are making up your own choreography and moving to your own selection of music.


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