It was halftime of Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots, and Lady Gaga was performing like we've never seen from her before. Known for her outrageous outfits and tremendous vocals, on this night, the 30-year-old recording artist commanded the massive stage at NRG Stadium in Houston with a physical performance one might associate with Beyonce's act.
Gaga opened her 13-minute set by standing on the ledge of the upper bowl of the stadium with the starlit sky behind her before plunging 260 feet toward the field below, suspended by wires as she danced in the air. Once on the ground, she shuffled through her hits and moved her body in a kinetic carnival of steps, kicks, shimmies and hand gestures without missing a note.
The halftime show was critically acclaimed, and Gaga credited her ability to execute the taxing performance to an esoteric piece of exercise equipment that was developed in the garage of a mechanical engineer during the fitness craze of the early 1980s.
"Well, I work out a lot, and I do VersaClimbing while I sing," Gaga told "Good Morning America." "I'm singing the show while I'm doing it. Because the show is full-on cardio ... it's cardio while singing."
The VersaClimber isn't just revered by the entertainment booked at major sporting events, however. It's also exalted by some of the athletes who play in those big games, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And as the Cavs prepare to make what they hope will be a third straight trip to the NBA Finals, it is the VersaClimber -- an apparatus so demanding it is often referred to as "a beast" or "a monster" by members of the team -- that is keeping them sharp in between playoff series.
"If I could only have one piece of equipment to train with for the rest of my life," James says to ESPN, "this would be it."
James, 32, is defying the odds in extending his prime -- once considered a three- to four-year window for a player -- well into a decade of dominance even as his odometer will hit 50,000 career minutes played during the first quarter of Wednesday's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston. James did not get to this point without carefully managing his body.
He was introduced to the VersaClimber in his third season in the league by a former Cavs strength coach and has included it in his workout routine ever since.
"We've been doing it for a long, long time," says Mike Mancias, James' personal trainer. "And the reason we do it is to conserve. No pounding on the joints. No wear on his back, his knees, his ankles, all that, his hips. It's just all non-weight-bearing cardio. It was a godsend, really. And I have to, we need to thank our ex-strength coach Stan Kellers, who kind of guided us to start using that. And Stan Kellers is a legend for it."
Just like Kellers introduced the gospel to James, he has spread the word to teammates in both Miami and Cleveland. They've embraced the torturous training, particularly during the Cavs' downtime in between playoff series. By sweeping Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinals 4-0, Cleveland became the first team in NBA history to amass six sweeps of seven-game series over a three-year period (the Los Angeles Lakers also had six sweeps from 1987-89, but some of them were only five-game series).
With the sweeps have come extended breaks -- Cleveland earned seven days off after ousting Indiana 4-0 in the first round and another nine days off after making quick work of the Raptors -- and the Cavs have filled those gaps with team conditioning competitions featuring the VersaClimber.
"Probably last year and the year before, I've kind of fallen in love with how quickly you can get in shape with the VersaClimber," says Kyrie Irving. "It's just exertion of your full body, of everything, and then the mental part of just putting your body through high physical exertion; I love it.
"And as a team, I think guys love it, as well. If you do even two minutes or three minutes, it's comparable to a lot of the conditioning things you would use to get in shape. Literally, you could do that for about three days and it will make a world of difference. And I love it. But it's made for the strong, though. It's made for the strong."
Much like cleaning out a messy garage, the VersaClimber experience is best appreciated when it's over.
"It's the best machine in the weight room, but it's the one everyone hates the most," says Tristan Thompson. "It's a bad word, but it gets us right."
Adds Kevin Love: "You can really put yourself in a pretty big hole in that thing. It can put you on the ground, in the best way possible."
The Cavs own seven VersaClimbers and at a cost of approximately $4,500 per machine, it's no small financial investment. Derek Millender, the Cavs' strength and conditioning coach, says the team had only one machine back in 2011 when the NBA lockout occurred. Millender set fitness standards that players would have to meet on the VersaClimber to be allowed to participate in training camp when the labor dispute ended.
Millender prefers to put his players through their paces on the VersaClimber over the exercise bike or the altered-gravity treadmill or the elliptical machine because of the complete immersion it requires.
"It's total-body," says Millender. "So it's hamstrings, it's quads, it's glutes, it's also lats because you're pulling and climbing, and it's also grip strength because you're holding on to those handles.
"And what's really unique about it is that the way the climber is designed, is that it works in a contra-lateral pattern, which is how your body works. If you think about this X pattern crossing your body, so when your right arm goes up, your left leg goes down and vice versa, when your left arm goes up, your right leg goes down. So that's a natural functional pattern movement. That's like the basic crawling movement how you start in your early development years, which turns into walking, into running and so forth."
During the weeklong breaks that the Cavs have benefited from in between playoff sweeps, Millender has sought to solve the rest-versus-rust conundrum by mixing in a couple of VersaClimber-competition days, in which he splits up the Cavs into five groups of three and has them battle each other out, each team trying to climb the most amount of combined feet in a timed interval.
While the Cavs thrive on the competition, there is a mental hurdle associated with it.
"One of the most feared days in training," Richard Jefferson wrote on his Snapchat account last week over a video he shot of a row of VersaClimber machines in the Cavs' weight room at the practice facility in Independence, Ohio.
To boost team morale during the VersaClimber workouts, the Cavs will often invite DJ Steph Floss -- the house DJ for home games at Quicken Loans Arena -- to infuse music into the proceedings.
"I know the VersaClimber isn't the easiest workout, so if I can keep the guys' energy up with their favorite songs, it helps them push through," says Floss.
What does he play?
"Anything by Jeezy; Tee Grizzley, First Day Out; Kendrick Lamar, DNA; and UGK, Murder," Floss says. No, Lady Gaga does not make the rotation.
"They enjoy it and I enjoy it a little bit and it's just something different," says Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. "They enjoy it and they work harder when the music is on. I don't know, it's worked the last couple years for us, so we're just going to continue to do it."
Having Gaga, with her combined 90.7 million Twitter and Instagram followers, and James, with a combined 65.4 million followers, offering free testimonials about VersaClimber on those social media platforms would seem to be a boon for the small, Southern California-based company.
"Well, the big heyday for VersaClimber was probably the late '80s," says Brett Collins, who runs the company's sales, marketing and advertising efforts as a one-man band. "That was like the biggest that it hit. Close to 50 employees, and it was running on all cylinders. It was very, very busy. Now, since that time, it went down. The lack of popularity, the misconception that it was just way too hard and then the advent of treadmills and ellipticals just kind of pushed it off into the corner."
To Collins' point, it's one thing for a professional athlete to gravitate toward the product, it's another for folks looking to get fit at the local gym. However, that hasn't stopped people around the Cavs -- coaches, front office members, security guards and even members of James' inner circle -- from testing themselves on the machine.
"There was one in my building in Miami in the gym," says Maverick Carter, James' business manager. "Nobody used it for the whole five years I lived there, except for me. Like, people don't like to use it."
There's always a pressure in today's multitasking world to work on more than one thing at once. Why just work out when you can do so while answering emails and listening to a podcast? Yet there is a payoff to going all-in with the VersaClimber. According to MensHealth.com, 30 minutes in a VersaClimber class burns 670 calories compared to 399 calories burned in 30 minutes on an exercise bike.
The same way a sect of society seems to be turning back toward transcendentalism by unplugging in response to the barrage of information we receive, the VersaClimber is getting a second look, too.
"It was always a niche product, a very unique product for those who embraced it and understood what it did and the true results," says Collins. "So it always maintained. Now I would say, since 2010, there's been a strong resurgence back."
Part of that spike has been because of other influential figures such as James and Gaga swearing by the product -- Justin Timberlake, Matt Damon, Bradley Cooper, tennis pro Andy Murray and a score of MMA fighters are fellow climbers -- but also because of VersaClimber classes popping up around the country.
On several occasions last summer, about a dozen of the Cavs' players, coaches, trainers, security guards and friends (Dwyane Wade joined in once) got together for "Rise Nation" classes -- a sweat session lasting 30 to 45 minutes in a VersaClimber-lined room in Los Angeles, where many on the team make their offseason home. Millender was so encouraged by the enthusiasm stemming from the group workouts, with folks getting together as early as 7 a.m. for the class, that he is partnering to open up a Rise Nation gym in downtown Cleveland in the coming months.
"We enjoy it, man," says James. "We enjoy it. We really like the class, too, that we take in L.A. The Rise Nation. It's a great class. They got some pretty good instructors if you find the right class, they got different genres like if you want techno music or you want hip-hop music or if you want certain music. So the hip-hop one is always great."
It was close to an hour after the Cavs' Game 2 win over Toronto, and Deron Williams had already showered but still found himself sweating through his shirt. He played well in the win -- four points, four rebounds, four assists and a steal in 18 minutes -- but his work was far from finished at the final buzzer.
After reporting to the Cavs out of shape once he fell out of the Dallas Mavericks' rotation when the Mavs started a midseason full-fledged youth movement, Williams needed to get himself ready to contribute. Only he couldn't get his wind back through practicing with the team because the Cavs, based on their schedule, hardly ever practiced. And so he came up with a strict, solo, VersaClimber regiment he sticks to, even on game days.
"Every day -- not every day, but a lot," Williams says. "If I'm not playing 30 minutes, I'm on that thing. As soon as the game is over, as soon as T-Lue comes and talks."
The work is showing, not just on Williams' frame, which is noticeably slimmer since he first came to Cleveland, but in Williams' game, as well. The point guard looks quicker on the court and shot 62.1 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3 through the first two rounds of the playoffs, up from the 46.3 percent from the field (41.5 percent from 3) he connected on in 24 regular-season games with the Cavs.
The machine has not only helped rotation players, but provided an outlet for bench players to prove their value to the team.
"If I put them in groups and we're competing, now they have an opportunity to show the team how hard they've been working," says Millender. "Even though [they] haven't been on the court and [they] haven't been able to show you guys that [they've] been working. Now they're winning races that we have in these competitions.
"So it's a great opportunity for guys like James Jones, guys like Richard Jefferson, guys like Derrick Williams that aren't getting a lot of court time, but for them to be able to get out there on that climber and in their group hold their own and show, 'Hey guys, if my number is called, I'm going to be ready.'"
Jones, 36, is considered one of the top VersaClimber performers on the team -- right there with James, Love and Thompson (the competition is swayed toward taller players because their longer bodies climb more feet with each motion).
"It's like climbing a mountain," Jones says. "It's really climbing. It tests your mental resolve, it tests your mental stability, and I've always prided myself on taking that challenge, so for me, being a guy that's not in the rotation, a guy that's not playing, to be 14 years in and have to be in peak condition, that's the one machine I'll say that gives me a run for my money.
"It's not just the cardio aspect. Mentally, it's challenging. So when you have these long off days and these long rest periods between games, there's nothing that can really push you back to that adrenaline, physical exertion level besides playing the game. I think this is the closest thing to it."
Less than three weeks after the Cavs beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, with James putting the final touches on a championship round for the ages with a chase-down block on Andre Iguodala in the waning minutes, James declared his summer vacation was effectively over with an Instagram post.
The post, a video of a shirtless James grinding away on the VersaClimber for 59 seconds, includes the caption: "Me and my girlfriend! All I need. VersaClimber is her name. #LoveHer #BackAtIt #StriveForGreatness"
James owns three VersaClimbers, which he keeps at his various homes around the country.
There is no secret to James' success. As he strives to make a seventh straight Finals appearance this June and has soared through the first two rounds of the playoffs averaging 34.4 points on 55.7 percent shooting, 9 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.5 blocks, the results are some combination of natural-born talent and an extreme work ethic.
The VersaClimber simply provided an outlet for that desire to improve. First for James personally, and now for his teammates along with him.
"I mean, it's just an edge," James says. "You got to have some kind of an edge to get on that machine, in my opinion. And you can't beat it. It's you versus the machine. It ain't going to talk back to you, it ain't going to say nothing to you, you got to be willing to put in the work on it."
The commitment has worked out for James. Others are finding it worth the work, as well.
"He would always do it solo, and then a lot of the players started to see what he was doing in the summertime, see what he was doing in between playoff sessions and figured, 'Let me give it a shot,'" says Mancias. "And it just kicked everyone's ass. So guys were like, 'I like that. I like the challenge.' More and more guys started following it so now, guys are all over it.
"We're proud and happy," Mancias adds. "Another trend that we started."