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Exercise Solutions: Upper Body Ergometer (UBE) for Scuba Fitness

Submitted by ScubaFit on 2011-03-03

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by Gretchen Ashton

A few months ago, I received a call from a diver with a complete tear of his Achilles tendon. He had just had it surgically repaired and was concerned about sustaining his fitness level during the rehabilitation period. One of the options we discussed to help him maintain his cardiovascular fitness was the use of an Upper Body Ergometer (UBE). An UBE is best described as a bicycle for the arms. It is an excellent alternative exercise modality for divers with short-term lower body injuries.

While new for some, UBEs have long been a beneficial option for adaptive scuba divers and divers with severe lower body medical conditions such as debilitating arthritis.

In physical therapy and medical rehabilitation centers UBEs are fundamental for restoring function to the upper body, shoulder and arms after injury. Typically, fitness centers do not provide UBEs and if they do, only a single UBE will be found among rows of treadmills, ellipticals and recumbent bikes. UBEs have also been applied to sports specific fitness regimes such as swimming and sailing, and have remarkably enabled lower extremity amputees to participate in running events such as the New York Marathon. Most recently, group UBE classes called "Kranking" have been introduced as a new form of fitness by Johnny G (Jonathan Goldberg), the founder of "Spinning". The UBE, a relatively unrecognized piece of fitness equipment, may well become the focus of a new fitness craze. If you've never heard of an UBE, chances are you will soon, and there are a number of important facts you should know when incorporating an UBE into your fitness program for scuba diving.

About UBEs

UBEs are designed and manufactured in many forms and with varying features. Small UBEs can sit on table tops while the largest forms include built in seats, accommodate wheel chairs and may be operated either sitting or standing. Older UBEs are typically belt-driven and resistance may be generated by air or water. Newer designs use magnets to control a wide range of resistance from feather light to practically immovable. Added features include digital read outs and bi-directional movement. UBEs, like all fitness equipment, should adjust to accommodate the individual. It is especially important to use an UBE with variable adjustments to the resistance, and the height and distance of the seat and cycling armature. Injuries can occur when exercises are performed without proper form or when the body is forced to function in an unnatural manner to fit poorly designed or adjusted equipment.

Proper Position

Use all of the adjustment options available on the UBE to best position your shoulders at the same height as the axis of the pedaling apparatus. Moving the seat up or down is the most obvious, but additional adjustments may be needed. Once shoulder height has been determined, use all adjustments available on the UBE to position the distance between the seat and pedaling handles so that your arms are at full length with a slight bend in the elbow. When pedaling, avoid over-reaching while simultaneously extending your arms as much as possible. Again, moving the seat forward or backward may be the obvious adjustment, but use other options, such as an adjustable pedaling apparatus, if available.

Workout Intensity

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is recommended as the primary training tool for UBE workouts in lieu of measuring exercise intensity based on heart rate (HR) alone. While heart rate can and should still be monitored, especially for beginners, typical HR training zones may not be entirely safe and can take months to develop. The most reasonable training RPE is recommended as 12 (between light and somewhat hard) on the Borg RPE Scale, which in one study maintained diastolic blood pressure (DBP) below 85 mm Hg. However, this still may not be safe for some individuals and as always you should consult your physician prior to participation in any new exercise program.


The physiology of an UBE workout is somewhat different than lower body only aerobic exercise, such as a treadmill or stationary bike, and also different than combined upper and lower body aerobic exercise, such as an elliptical. During UBE exercise upper body muscles and muscles of the torso perform double duty; a unique combination of movement and stabilization, which can lead to early fatigue and increased blood pressure. Initial workouts are recommended from five to 10 minutes in duration. Studies show that UBE exercise elicited a constant rise in RPE and a constant rise in DBP for the first 25 minutes before reaching a plateau. Whereas the elliptical for example, demonstrated a minor increase in DBP until 15 minutes and then decreased for the reminder of the exercise period, and a rise in RPE only until the 35th minute of exercise. Divers with cardiovascular disease and/or high blood pressure should seek the advice of a physician before beginning any program involving upper body aerobic exercise.

UBEs and Fitness for Scuba Diving

Aerobic exercise is the highest priority for scuba divers. While UBEs are not the first exercise choice to maintain cardiovascular health, UBEs are a reasonable alternative when lower body injuries or physical restrictions prevent divers from using the lower body for aerobic exercise. UBEs may be added to an existing lower body aerobic exercise program to add interest and challenge, and used to rehabilitate the upper body (i.e. shoulders, arms and wrists) after injury, which is beneficial for injured divers who are still able to perform lower body aerobic exercise. Considering the high prevalence of high blood pressure among divers, UBE exercise intensity should begin at a lower intensity with a gradual increase in exertion based on rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Divers with high blood pressure should consult their physician before using a UBE. If the UBE is to be relied on as the only source of aerobic exercise, it is recommended that beginners allow several months to establish heart rate training zones and always use rate of perceived exertion as the primary measure of exercise intensity.

Achilles Tendon and Scuba Diving

Stretching is important to preventing injury. One of best ways to stretch and strengthen the Achilles is by performing calf raises as part of a complete exercise program. Divers can also prevent injury of the Achilles by performing ankle rotations and stretches immediately before diving. After donning fins, the diver can hold onto the toe of the fin to gently pull up on the toes of the foot while flexing the ankle. This is the same movement for eliminating a calf cramp while diving.

Prevention and Awareness

Certain medications may weaken and can lead to rupture of the Achilles tendon. In particular, the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin which is marketed as Cipro®, Baycip®, Cetraxal®, Ciflox®, Cifran®, Ciplox®, Cyprobay®, and Quintor®.


Kranking is considered high-intensity by researchers with 25 of 30-minutes of an average Kranking class rated above 12 RPE and at 86% of heart rate max (HRmax). This means 90% of the 30-minute class is performed above 70 percent of HRmax. Data also showed that some participants actually exceeded HRmax as determined by the maximal UBE test. The program does not mention or include blood pressure monitoring or RPE. The class instructor directs changes in tempo, intensity, technique and heart rate. The founders attribute higher heart rate readings, which they correlate to increased calorie burning, to the standing option which engages larger muscles of the body and requires more oxygen. The founders also cite very broad heart rate ranges to justify the benefits of Kranking, when the class is actually conducted in a narrow heart rate range above the recommended standards in the industry. Ironically, the inspiration for developing the Krankcycle was in response to a virus that damaged the heart of founder, Johnny G., making it unsafe for him to continue Spinning.


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