StairMaster StepMill gets competition

Now that the patent on the StairClimber’s StepMill technology has run out, two other manufacturers, Johnson Health Tech and Med-Fit Systems, are introducing new products to the rotating staircase market – Matrix ClimbMill and Nautilus K2 Vertical Climber. Plus, Star Trac has something in store for later this year. SNEWS takes a look.

We all know the one — the dominating (and sometimes intimidating) rotating staircase at the gym that seems to kick our butts faster and harder than most other cardio equipment. The StairMaster StepMill has long been popular with hard-core fitness enthusiasts, and it’s gaining ground among regular people looking to torch calories.

That's attracting new players to the category, more than two years after StairMaster's ( patent expired on the technology. Med-Fit Systems, owner of Nautilus commercial products, Johnson Health Tech, owner of the commerical Matrix brand, and Star Trac are all throwing their hats into the rotating staircase ring. One new competitor may even go after a market that has long belonged to StepMill, firefighters in training.

“I’m actually surprised it’s taken this long for someone to come out with a competing product," StairMaster Director of Product Marketing Travis Vaughan told SNEWS. "The fact that we’ve got two other companies looking to come out with units is a validation of the trend.”

Since the machines are all somewhat similar, it behooves retailers and fitness clubs to take a look at the details and decide what works best for their business. SNEWS sneaks a peek at a few of the new stair-climbing products on the market, except the product from Star Trac, which Kevin Corbalis, executive vice president of marketing and product development for the company, said would be most similar to the StepMill and be released later this year.

New kids in town

It’s been a one-player game since the '80s when StairMaster's The Gauntlet was introduced. And recently stair climber products have gained popularity at gyms with people waiting to use them — SNEWS knows from experience at a 24 Hour Fitness club in Denver, Colo.

Dean Sbragia, CEO of Med-Fit Systems ( sees expansion on the horizon.

“I think the market will grow,” Sbragia said. “It’s been stagnant for many years because there’s only been one player in it.”

Now that Med-Fit Systems is launching the Nautilus K2 Vertical Climber and Johnson Health Tech is launching the Matrix ClimbMill (photo, right), StairMaster is no longer the sole option. Still, the company is pressing forward as it proved with the IHRSA 2011 launch of the StepMill 5 (click here to read an April 4, 2011 SNEWS wrap-up of IHRSA).

Officials with each of the three companies told SNEWS their goal is to capitalize on the growing popularity of the exercise, which StairMaster confirms is increasing.

“You now have major players like 24 Hour Fitness, which a year ago went from a standard eight per club to 12 StepMills; and L.A. Fitness, which within the last year went from a standard two to four per club to six to eight,” Vaughan said.

The equipment is also popular among firefighters in training, even though that market remains relatively small because it’s publicly funded and products get less use than those at clubs, Vaughan said. Jeff Long, training captain for the Boulder, Colo. Fire Department said he thinks most firefighters will remain loyal to StairMaster because the company's specifications meet those used for the CPAT (Candidate Physical Ability Test) required of most firefighters to become certified. But both Matrix and StairMaster meet that CPAT requirement of a 7.5-inch step height so loyalties could change.

“There aren’t that many sales to be had by explicitly targeting that market,” Vaughan said. If competitors do target the firefighter market, he said, “It would be more of a marketing than a volume play.”

Mrako Fenster, director of industrial design for Johnson Health Tech, which own's Matrix (, Lifestrong Fitness, AFG and Horizon Fitness, said he would love to get an endorsement from firefighters or agents that condust CPAT testing.

While Sbragia said he hopes to sell K2 Vertical Climbers to fire departments, looming nationwide budget cuts at the local government level could make it difficult for departments to make new investments.

It’s all in the details

All three products feature an option to do the CPAT test as a workout. That CPAT (which normally entails participants wearing 60- to 75-pound weighted vests and climbing at a rate of 60 steps per minute for three to five minutes) is done on steps that have different depths and heights.

StairMaster’s StepMill 5 (photo, left) went back to a step depth of 9 inches, addressing complaints that consumers’ heels were hanging off the back of the steps during workouts. The Matrix ClimbMill goes one inch further with a step depth of 10 inches, while Nautilus K2 Vertical Climber comes in right in the middle at 9.5 inches.

CPAT requires a 7.5 inch step height, Boulder Fire Department’s Long said, and Nautlus misses the mark with a step depth of 7.25 inches, according to a product spec sheet. But both Matrix and StairMaster have steps that are 8 inches high.

Also, the StepMill is stepping it up in terms of programs. In addition to the CPAT test, it also has the Landmark Challenge, in which users can choose from different landmarks to climb during a workout.

A common complaint of StepMill enthusiasts is the great step one must take to get onto the machine. All three companies addressed this: StairMaster added a step-up assist, two small steps on each side of the product that make it easier for users to step on an off; the ClimbMill has step positioning software that ensures the unit stops the stairs at the lowest possible point after a workout, and also includes a step-up assist; and Nautilus lowered first-step height to just more than a foot.

The products are all different weights. StairMaster’s StepMill has shedded some pounds from its previous monstrous versions, coming in at 343 pounds with a maximum user weight of 350 pounds. The ClimbMill comes in at 348 with a maximum user weight of 400 pounds. The Nautlius K2 Vertical Climber comes in at 400 pounds with a max user weight of 400 pounds.

As for step widths, Nautilus and StairMaster both have a 22-inch wide stair, making it easier for people who want to engage their hip flexors by climbing sideways and those with bigger frames to use.

All products have several options for consoles, including touch screens and embedded televisions, but Matrix offers Braille on its hand toggles. All products also now feature wheels, making the large stair steppers easier to move around.

All their own

Despite similarities, each product has varying features. As many gym-goers know, StepMill users usually stand nearly a whole torso above everybody else on cardio machines, drawing attention from other patrons. That could be daunting to newbies, Sbragia said, so Nautilus lowered the ceiling height.


“This brought the product more in line with ellipticals and treadmills,” Sbragia said, with the StepMill, “There’s a subset of people who don’t mind that attention but a large segment of the gym population doesn’t want that attention.”

Sbragia also noted the K2 Vertical Climber (photo, right) is manufactured in the United States at Med-Fit Systems’ Virginia facility. “This should be important to anybody running a gym in the U.S., with the unemployment rate so high,” he said. Because of its domestic manufacturing, the product is mostly welded, which decreases potential for rust on nuts and bolts in high moisture environments like gyms. Plus, the Vertical Climber’s fan system increases power as users increase intensity.

Matrix and Nautilus focused on making maintenance easier and neater — Matrix with the Climb Mill's removable dirt tray to catch debris from users’ shoes, and Nautilus with its control boards located in a separate compartment. “The analogy is that it’s like opening a hood on a car,” Nautlius’ Sbragia said.

Nautilus has two models: one self-generating model that doesn’t need to be plugged in and another that does need to be plugged in. Nautilus also has step inserts that contrast in color to the steps, meant to help users avoid tripping.

The StepMill added some tweaks, including its ergonomic handrails that make it less likely for people to “cheat the exercise” by holding much of their body weight up with their arms.

Though officials seemed confident the market for rotating stairs will continue to grow, Vaughan wasn’t so certain. “We’ll see if the market grows or if we’re all biting off pieces of the same market,” he said. But, with hope he added, “I suspect it’s going to grow a bit.”

--Ana Trujillo