Climbing stairs is a good exercise routine. You can get more benefits than when you run or walk. Whether you choose to run up and down the stairs at your house or at work, or use a stair climber machine at the gym, the chances are that you will see tone muscles in your entire body.
Stair climber benefits
Climbing stairs can be a vigorous workout depending on the intensity and duration. Climbing makes you repeatedly lift your weight against gravity and engage the body’s largest muscle groups in the descent. But regardless of the duration, studies show that increased volumes of stair climbing can help lose weight, lower blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels; lower the risk of having a stroke or heart disease, increased aerobic fitness (heart and lung health) and body strength. With all these potential benefits and the fact that you don’t really need a machine nor specific skills, a lot of public health agencies are promoting stair climbing to improve cardiovascular health in less time than other forms of cardiovascular exercise might require.
For similar reasons, frequent stair climbing can make you a better overall athlete. Maybe it doesn’t look as intense and motivating as you would like, but when you climb stairs you burn calories at twice the rate compared to when you run and three times more than walking. It also helps with your lower body mobility, balance and strength.
Besides all the health and cardio benefits previously mentioned, the one that we are going to look deeper at is muscle building while stair climbing.
Stair climbing targets some of the largest muscles in the entire body, including the abdominal muscles, gluteal muscles, quads, and calf muscles—the same muscles you use for doing lunges and squats. This kind of exercise uses speed and strength in short intervals of time, causing the muscles to extend and contract in a rapid or explosive manner helping to increase bone density and enhance muscular strength.
Stair climbers engage more muscles than the regular cardiovascular fitness (walking, jogging or running on a flat surface). Moving on flat ground engages your leg muscles, while stair climbing also works out your glutes and provides a more thorough workout for your quads and hamstrings. As you can see, stair climbing makes you work against gravity requiring a lot of muscular engagement and muscular force.
Because you have to engage more muscle groups and move more than if you were on flat ground, stair climbing is an effective and time-efficient cardio workout. Your heart rate accelerates rapidly and makes you breathe faster to take in more oxygen. You are using your breath to increase tension throughout our body and this will subsequently increase the amount of strength you can produce. Increases in strength will help you have more power, pull harder, and be more explosive.
How to start stair climbing for exercise?
If you haven’t done stair workouts before, you should plan to start slowly. Gradually build up your time and intensity. If you are outdoors, any set of stairs will do but try to find one with at least 30 steps. We are looking to climb for at least six to twelve seconds.
Use some time to warm up, walking up and down the stairs for 5 minutes is a good alternative. This gets your heart and lungs warmed up and ready for the upcoming workout.
Go at a medium pace for 1-2 minutes. This breaks your system in, both physically and mentally so you’re prepared to work hard.
Spend the next four minutes doing Tabata (20 seconds of activity with 10 seconds of rest), one step at a time. For example, sprint 100% intensity for 20 seconds (up and down). Slow down for 10 seconds (walking pace) and focus on breathing and recovering. Repeat.
You can also add some intensity by changing from single-step to double-step climbing.
Over time, build up to a 30 minute session of stair climbing, with this duration you will start to take the most benefits of this exercise.
Tips for Using Stairs to Build Muscle:
Tip 1: On the way up, take a slight lean forward, arms close to your body (think T-Rex arms) and focus on actively extending your leg. Use the ball of your feet to push you up and engage all the muscles in the legs to get up to the top.
Tip 2: On the way down your feet should remain parallel. It is important to place your foot flat on the step before lifting the rear foot and bringing it down to the next step. Make sure your head is held high, your shoulder blades are pinched together and your chin and abdomen are pulled in toward your body’s center, and engage your glutes. This will help lower the pressure on the knees.On the way up, take a slight lean forward, arms close to your body (think T-Rex arms) and focus on actively extending your leg. Use the ball of your feet to push you up and engage all the muscles in the legs to get up to the top.
How many stairs should I climb for a good workout?
If your goal is improved health and longevity, the Harvard Alumni Health study reported that climbing 10-19 floors a week (two to four floors per day) reduces mortality risk.
If your goal is to get the health and fitness benefits of climbing stairs, research suggests that 30-160 minutes of vigorous stair climbing a week for 8 to 12 weeks will boost cardiovascular health. But if you like shorter and more intense workouts, you can climb 3 floors (60 stairs in average) 3 times a day with one to four hours recovery in between sets. Participants of the study showed a 5% boost in heart health and overall fitness improvement doing this routine three days a week for six weeks.
Both of these workouts demand a level of intensity that will make you sweat. Maybe consider changing your work outfit for something more comfortable and definitely jump into your running shoes before hitting the stairs.
Converting steps to miles
This information is useful even if you are working out using a stair climbing machine. Most of these machines track the number of steps you have climbed but not the distance you have accumulated. Heads up, the conversion is not exact but it will give you a reasonable estimate.
One way to calculate stairs climbed to distance is considering that the typical stair has a 13-inch elevation (rise = 7″, run = 11″). A mile is 63,360 inches. If you divide the number of inches in a mile by the length (in inches) per stair, you get the number of stairs in one mile:
63,360 inches/mile ÷ 13 inches/stair = 4,874 stairs per mile
Another option is to multiply the number of stairs you climbed by 13 (the standard inch elevation per stair). The result of this equation is the number of inches you are climbing, then you can compare that number with the 63,360 inches that equals one mile to track the total distance.
Disadvantages of climbing stairs
Unfortunately climbing stairs as a workout has downsides that you shouldn’t overlook, mostly if you have knee pain or any joint issues.
Walking downstairs puts more strain on your knees and ankles than walking up causing knee pain and inflammation of the leg muscle groups and tissues. Every step down makes you hit the ground harder, increasing the load in the lower body muscles and tendons. This is why you might experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Normally this pain appears 24-72 hours after a workout and goes away after 7 days on average. But if the pain persists for more than 7 days, reach out to your doctor.
Evenmore, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) says that patellofemoral pain syndrome, which is pain in front of the knee, can get worse from climbing stairs. The reason behind is that stair climbing puts repeated stress on the knee.
Listen to your body and notice any changes, for example swelling, redness or tenderness around the knee. Don’t hesitate to take time to recover and discuss this with your physician.
Final thoughts on “Does Stair Climbing Build Muscle?”
Forget the “I’m too busy” to workout. Thanks to stair climbing you can maintain health and wellbeing, with the added benefit of building strength, even by working out for short periods of time without leaving your work or house (if there are stairs around). The key is to accumulate sets, for instance 20 minutes of workout 2 – 3 days per week will make you burn more calories than running, plus obtain health benefits and improve your endurance.
Always listen to your body and stop your workout if you notice any aches, pains or other injury warning signs. Be properly warmed up and take time to stretch after you finish.
Giuliana is a yoga instructor and Crossfitter from Peru who is currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand with her Crossfit Coach (and husband) Tim.