When it comes to standard fitness equipment you’ll find in just about every gym, a stair-climber is at the top of the list. It’s usually somewhere between the ellipticals and the treadmills, but the cardio machine can be an amazing strength-training tool, too.
It’s easy enough to use — one never-ending step in front of another — and taking the stairs to get your daily steps in is important for weight control and building a strong lower body, right? Yes. But there’s an art to crafting an effective stair-climber workout.
Here, five ways to make sure you're the steps you're logging are worth your time (and not just wasted time climbing stairs to nowhere).
1. Focus on building lower-body muscle strength.
Every step on the stair-climber engages your calves, glutes, quads, and hamstrings, so it’s a good way to target and tone your lower body, says Lisa Niren, C.P.T., head trainer of CITYROW in New York City. The key, though, is making sure you keep your back upright and core engaged, so your lower half takes the force. Basically, don’t hunch over while doing a stair-climber workout if you want the best results. (FYI, core strength is super important for your overall well-being.)
What’s more, the way your foot lands on the step will actually determine if you are firing up more muscles in your butt or in your thighs during your stair-climber workout. Most people overuse their quads to scale stairs, but if you land with your heel on the step rather than let it hang off the edge as you climb, you can shift more toning to your hamstrings, says physiologist Michele Olson, Ph.D. Land and push off with the ball of your foot to target the quads. Skipping steps is another way to put the emphasis on the back of your legs, says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault. To really work your glutes, skip every other stair as you walk up, says Olson, and press through your heel and squeeze your glutes as you stand upright on the next step.
One catch: Even though the stair-climber machine targets your legs and butt, it doesn’t replace leg day, says Ashley Perez, NASM C.P.T., a trainer at Barry’s Boot Camp. That’s because while the machine will burn calories and improve muscular endurance, it’s still a bodyweight exercise. That means a stair-climber workout won’t build the muscles in the same way that resistance training moves such as weighted squats, deadlifts, or lunges will.
2. Use the stair-climber machine as an effective weight-loss tool.
A stair-climber workout is a smart choice if torching calories is your goal because it utilizes the largest, most metabolically active muscles in your body (quads, hamstrings, glutes, core). Working larger muscles will burn more calories at rest, says Niren. “So when you work larger muscles, you are not only strengthening those muscles, but you are strengthening and quickening your metabolism,” says Perez. The heart-rate boosting cardio mixed with the lower-body strength training means that you’ll burn more calories during and after your stair-climber workout than you would by doing moderate, steady-state cardio.
If weight loss is your goal, try a HIIT-style stair-climber workout. Interval training increases intensity, which increases oxygen to the working muscles, and ups the afterburn effect (the number of calories your body burns post-workout), says Niren. You don’t have to climb for long to see results. One study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that short bouts of stair climbing (starting with one two-minute session and increasing to five) five days a week for eight weeks increased women’s cardio capacity by 17 percent. “You’re anaerobically training whenever you take the stairs,” says Olson. Instead of just using the pre-designed “fat-burning” or “weight loss” programs on the machine, try making your own interval stair-climber workout. Use one of these HIIT routines from Niren to get you started.
RPE = rate of perceived exertion (how difficult an exercise is for you on a scale of 1 to 10)
Booty-Building Stair-Climber Workout
Perform 3 rounds of the following, with 1 minute of rest in between, for a total of 22 minutes.
20-Minute "All-Directions" Stair-Climber Workout
Complete a 3-minute walking warm-up at 3–4 RPE before performing 5 rounds of the below intervals, followed by a 2-minute cooldown, for a total of 20 minutes.
3. Do a stair-climber workout for recovery.
Using the stair-climber machine is a lower-impact exercise, so it’s a good option if you have back issues and can’t use the treadmill, says Niren. In fact, research published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development showed that it was a useful tool to relieve low-back pain partially because it’s so effective at activating the glute muscles, which takes pressure off your back. (Weak glutes are the catalyst to a host of body troubles, including piriformis syndrome and dead butt syndrome.) The injury-prevention exception: The stair-climber can be tough on your knees, so it’s not the best option if you have pre-existing knee joint issues, says Niren.
4. Climb to improve posture.
If you already have a tendency to lean forward when walking up a flight of stairs, you're likely going to have the same poor posture and form on the stair-climber, and hunching over the handrails isn't doing your body any favors. (Try this good posture workout.) It limits the amount of bodyweight you have to use/lift/move, therefore making it easier and burning fewer calories during your stair-climber workout. This stops you from engaging your core and can lead to worsening posture outside of the gym, says Wickham. While you don't have to avoid using the handrails altogether (they are there for your safety), you should never press or push down on them with your full bodyweight while doing a step machine workout, says Niren. (
But if you walk up the stairs to your office with good posture, it's safe to assume you have the adequate core strength to use the machine effectively and stay upright with a light grip on the handles. You'll increase that core strength with every step during a stair-climber workout, which not only keeps that solid posture intact but also helps to prevent or alleviate chronic back pain. Bonus: A strong core makes it easier to perform daily tasks using functional movement, says Niren.
5. Do a stair-climber workout if you're sick of the elliptical.
When it comes to cardio, you should feel fine simply choosing the machine you enjoy the most, says Wickham, but there’s something to be said about variety. Elliptical burnout is real, says Perez, so try switching it up. Plus, the stair-climber improves functional movement because most people climb stairs every day — you probably don’t exactly move your body like you would while on an elliptical. And moving steps are a good option if you’ve recently started referring to the treadmill as the dreadmill, says Niren. (Try out this fun 45-minute treadmill workout that’ll build your endurance.) You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the muscle gains and cardio burn from this OG fitness machine. Need a place to start? Try these two stair-climber workouts from Chris Powell of ABC’s Extreme Weight Loss.
Staircase Workout (on a regular set of immobile stairs)
Complete a dynamic warm-up (1 minute each of high knees, butt kicks, and side shuffles on flat ground), then complete 1 round of the following for a total of 30 minutes.
Stair-Climber Circuit Workout
Complete 3-minute warm-up (start at an easy pace, then increase by 1 level each minute) then complete 1 round of the following for a total of 30 minutes.