Swim gear review: the Vasa Trainer machine

Credit: Courtesy www.vasatrainer.com
Every now and again, a product arrives on the world marketplace that takes people by storm.

I guess that sliced bread would be one such example, to cite an oft-used clich ("It's the best thing since you-know-what!"). I have recently come across a device that could potentially revolutionize the sport of recreational swimming if it catches on with the masses.

Used for nearly a decade among elite swimmers across the United States and abroad, the Vasa Trainer is a dry-land exercise machine that strengthens the most vital swimming muscles -- and then some.

Why hadn't I heard of it before, you ask, given my claims to longtime "elite" swimmer status? Because I had retired from amateur swimming just as the Vasa Trainer was making its mark, and I never had the opportunity to use it during my collegiate swimming career (oh, what might have been!).

To be honest, I wasn't prepared to like the Vasa Trainer all that much ... and I certainly wasn't prepared to love it.

As a lifelong swimmer and somewhat of a purist, I was skeptical of any machine or device that promised swimming self-improvement. This is because I have always believed that the most effective way to better one's swimming abilities was to spend more time in the water swimming!

Thus, I was hesitant to warm up to a product that, on the surface, looked like it was designed to mimic swimming and potentially encourage devout pool junkies to spend less time in the water. No supporter of this was I!

However, as a proponent of cross training, I've often written about the swimming benefits to be gleaned from weights, band exercises, and light running. So I gave the Vasa Trainer a trial run for the last six weeks of 2001, figuring I could use the convenient machine at home during the busy pre-holiday crunch when I wasn't able to get to a pool. If it made a difference, I'd know it, and if it didn't, well, it could go in the closet with the Ab Roller.

What is the Vasa Trainer?

Unlike a stationary bike or treadmill, the Vasa Trainer is not electronic. Deceptively simple looking, this machine needs no bells, whistles, or computer chips to get your heart rate up and your muscles straining. Rather, it relies on the user's own body weight as the primary form of resistance, with Pilates-like rubber bands for secondary tension.

Invented in 1986 by sports physiologist Rob Sleamaker, co-author of Serious Training for Endurance Athletes, the Vasa Trainer places the user on a padded, rolling swim bench with hand paddles attached to straps at the front end of the machine. The user "swims" by pulling his body up an adjustable inclined monorail. Stretch cords of varying thickness can be affixed from the bench to the rear of the machine to provide added resistance. As the swimmer pulls his body up the rail, the fundamental swimming concept of "pulling the body past the hands" is forced upon the user.

While other forms of dry-land swim training -- most notably band training -- force you to pull the hands toward the body, the Vasa Trainer conversely makes you pull your body past the hands, a crucial and effective difference. There is simply nothing on the market like it.

What does the Vasa Trainer do for you?

The Vasa Trainer can be used as a cardiovascular machine, or as a more intense form of specialized strength training. While these are good enough reasons to invest in one, there is a third vital bonus that the Vasa Trainer provides: correct stroke technique. Using the Trainer virtually ensures proper form because it is nearly impossible to use it with bad technique.

Two of the most common swimming mistakes -- dropping your elbows, and an incomplete stroke finish -- are now obsolete, thanks to the engineering mechanics of the Trainer.

If you drop your elbows, you will fail to glide up the rail as easily as if you keep them elevated. If you don't complete your stroke, you will miss out on the valuable split-second of weightlessness at the top of the rail between your up-pull and your down-glide (this moment is your only chance of rest during each repetition).

This machine actually forces the user to practice correct stroke technique, with the reward being easier completion of the exercise and brief recovery at the midpoint of the repetition.

How many ways can you use the Vasa Trainer?

The Trainer actually offers more than 100 different exercises, not all of which are swim-specific. The owners manual outlines all four strokes and the proper exercises necessary to improve those strokes, in addition to exercises and stretches that can benefit triathletes, surfers, basketball players, gymnasts, skiers, runners, and cyclists.

Indeed, the most fun I had was doing the explosive leg push-off drill, where you line the Trainer up perpendicular to a wall, and lying on your back on the rolling bench you propel yourself off the wall using your legs. These jumping squats are ideal for swimmers who need to improve their starts and turns, and any athlete wishing to improve vertical leaping ability. The owners manual also offers detailed instructions for overall conditioning exercises such as bicep curls, triceps extensions, chest presses, deltoid flys, and rowing.

Personally, I prefer the strength training to the cardiovascular training offered by the Vasa Trainer. I like the strength training because you hit two birds with one stone; in addition to strengthening your back, lat, and forearm muscles on the Trainer, you will get a cardiovascular workout to boot. Use the pulley system for longer periods of endurance freestyle, or to reduce resistance for other strength exercises (especially if you are prone to swimmer's shoulder).

If you have time for a cardio swim workout, hit the pool. But use the Trainer three times a week (much like you would lift weights, with a day of recovery between sessions) to build strength.

What the Vasa Trainer did for me

Although I have only used the Vasa Trainer for six weeks, and I have only focused on about six different drills, I noticed a marked difference in how I felt in the water immediately. For starters, the day after I used the Trainer for the first time, I could barely raise my arms above my head! I had done 10 x 1-minute of double-arm stroke on the machine, with 15 seconds' rest between each minute. This is the most basic, user-friendly exercise. Halfway through the set, I had to take an extra minute rest, and after 10 minutes I was exhausted! I really felt sore in my triceps and lat muscles, and a little in my forearms (the result of being forced to "swim" properly without dropping my elbows).

I am always looking for convenient, new, and efficient ways to exercise. With an unpredictable work schedule, I sometimes forgo a traditional workout altogether because I only have 30 minutes to spare at the end of a long day. In cases like this, the Trainer is a perfect solution; after only 15 minutes I am wiped out, yet I know I'm getting stronger and I certainly feel it in all the right places the next time I make it to the pool.

The Vasa Trainer instruction manual explains that it is a machine to be used in conjunction with swimming and other activities. It can be a good substitute for weight training that is swim-specific, and a convenient time-saver if you find yourself making excuses about missing workouts due to lack of time.

Designed for and used by world-class athletes and fitness buffs (Ironman Dave Scott is a big fan), the machine really isn't designed to be a "substitute" for swimming, as I had initially feared. Rather, it's a novel approach to overall conditioning that, when implemented with the sport of your choice, can result in increased strength, endurance, power, speed, technique, and flexibility.

That said, the Trainer is no walk in the park; the aforementioned 10-minute workouts I have been doing are a humbling beginning to what I hope will be even more impressive long-term results.

Pros and cons

The Vasa Trainer's price range ($699 - $1,149) may seem steep for a machine with nary a cord to plug into the wall, but in all fairness it's half of what an effective stationary bike or treadmill costs, and a lot less likely to malfunction.

What exactly are you paying for? Industrial-strength stainless-steel components, various interchangeable parts that can increase resistance and intensity (and allow your machine to be personalized to your specifications and athletic goals), a lifetime guarantee on the frame, and a no-questions-asked warranty policy on the rest of the machine from the accommodating Vasa family.

Indeed, customer service is top-notch and something that the company takes pride in providing to every client. My questions were dutifully answered every time I called, and I genuinely got the impression that I was part of an eager "family" of Vasa Trainer users.

The owners manual is a meticulously designed 90-page book replete with photographs and humorous bits to make otherwise "dry" reading more fun, and there is a helpful toll-free number to answer your questions at the bottom of nearly every page. Did I mention that I managed to assemble the Trainer in only 90 minutes (this from a man who has yet to figure out how to set his VCR clock)?

Somewhat cumbersome, the Vasa is not exactly a device you can put in the back of your closet after each use. It's close to 8 feet long, and those sturdy stainless steel components don't fold into a briefcase-size package. However, when compared to the more expensive stationary bikes and treadmills again (which take up half a small room and cannot be stored outside), the Trainer seems the ideal choice for people who prefer convenience to clutter.

It can be kept outside, and many swim programs in the United States have a fleet of Vasa Trainers on their pool decks year round. It can also be flattened down and rolled under a bed or leaned against a wall if need be. Just try that with a stationary bike!

The Vasa Trainer is currently available direct from Vasa via their Web site (www.vasatrainer.com), phone and mail order. It's a shame the company doesn't have the distribution channels in place to have floor space in sporting goods stores. This would allow potential customers to try out the Vasa prior to plunking down their tax refund checks or Christmas money to buy one. Yet the Vasa folks have even thought out that potential fly in the ointment: There's a "no-questions-asked" 90-day money-back guarantee if you're not pleased with the product.

Biased? Who, me?

As I indicated before, I had reservations about the Vasa Trainer. Clearly I've been won over, and I'm well aware that the above text may verge on an unabashed abuse of superlatives. But what I can be sure of is that several of my former high-profile coaches, including multiple-time Olympic coaches Richard Quick and Mark Schubert, have come to rely on the Vasa Trainer in their renowned swim programs at Stanford and USC, respectively.

Of course, I am proclaiming a "discovery" that is already over 12 years old. But given the Vasa Trainer's status as a machine for the elite, it's about time someone brought it to the mainstream. Maybe I'm putting the cart before the horse, but maybe Vasa Training will become the "group" fitness craze of the future, taking the place of aerobics and spinning since it gives the upper body a cardiovascular workout (and not just the legs). If so, remember that you heard it here first.

There's simply no better way to increase your swimming strength while simultaneously (and automatically) correcting your stroke.

Heck, it's probably the best thing since sliced bread!

In early summer, Alex Kostich will do a follow-up product review of the Vasa Trainer and its long-term effects. If you use or purchase your own Vasa Trainer, feel free to e-mail him your experience with the product.

Get advice for getting back on track with Alex's Fitness Makeover column

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