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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 is it a cardio machine or a strength-training tool?
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 some of the fitness pros we spoke to say that user error can mean the difference between an effective workout and wasted time climbing stairs to nowhere.
So, don’t bypass the machine entirely, just make sure to ask yourself these five questions before you get climbing to make sure the steps logged are worth your time.
#1 You want to build lower-body muscle.
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 if you want the best results.
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 your thighs. Land and push off with the ball of your foot to target the quads, or place more weight on your heels to target the glutes and hamstrings, suggests Niren. 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.
One catch: Even though the stair-climber 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 a bodyweight exercise. That means it won’t build the muscles in the same way that resistance training moves like weighted squats, deadlifts, or lunges will.
#2 You’re trying to lose weight.
The stair-climber 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 mixes with the lower-body strength training means that you’ll burn more calories during and after your 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. Instead of just using the pre-designed “fat burning” or “weight loss” programs on the machine, try making your own interval 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.
- Slow climb at 3–4 RPE for 45 seconds.
- Double step at 3–4 RPE for 25 seconds.
- Slow climb for 45 seconds.
- Side step at 3–4 RPE for 60 seconds (30 seconds on each side).
- Sprint at 7–8 RPE for 25 seconds.
- Slow climb for 45 seconds.
- Double step for 25 seconds.
- Slow climb for 45 seconds.
- Side step for 60 seconds (30 seconds on each side).
- Sprint for 25 seconds.
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.
- Double step at 3–4 RPE for 30 seconds.
- Side step left at 3–4 RPE for 30 seconds.
- Sprint at 7–8 RPE for 30 seconds.
- Side step right at 3–4 RPE for 30 seconds.
- Sprint at 7–8 RPE for 60 seconds.
#3 You’re recovering from an injury.
Using the stair-climber 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 the machine 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 You want to improve your 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 kettlebell workout that will also help improve your posture.) It limits the amount of bodyweight you have to use/lift/move, therefore making it easier and burning fewer calories. 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, says Niren.
But if you walk up the stairs to your office with good posture, you should feel free to hop right on the climber with confidence. 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, 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 You’re totally 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. (More help: The 30-Day Treadmill Workout Challenge That’s Actually Fun) You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the muscle gains and cardio burn from this OG fitness machine.