Stair climbing has been around as long as…well, as long as there have been stairs but stair climbing as a sport or form of fitness really emerged in the 1980s. That’s when StairMaster launched the first indoor rotating stair machine (now known as a ‘step mill’) and when indoor stair races started popping up around the country like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s 31-year-old Big Climb in Seattle’s Columbia Tower. Now, you’ll find stair machines in most gyms, hundreds of indoor races around the world and easily outdoor staircases most cities.
Before you stroll right by that set of stairs or stair machine at the gym, read on to find out why this is one of the most efficient and effective forms of cardiovascular exercise available.
The Benefits of Stair Climbing
On it’s face, stair climbing looks like a great cardio workout and possibly a way to lose a few pounds but the benefits far outweigh an improved physical appearance. “Psychology, it’s amazing to get to the top of a tall building,” says PJ Glassey, CSCS, Founder and CEO of X Gyms, “You’re pushing past what you think you can do since most people think they cant make it to the top.”
In addition, since stair climbing is a cardiovascular activity, the health benefits are tremendous.
“Running stairs results in a lower risk of stroke and can actually raise good cholesterol,” says Beth Cline, Director of Innovation & Wellness at Flow Fitness in Seattle, WA, “Walking down the stairs reduces high blood sugar levels, which can help impede the onset of type 2 diabetes.”
Weight Loss and Fat Burning Potential
Although most forms of cardiovascular exercise improve aerobic fitness, Glassey says “Stair climbing increases aerobic and anaerobic fitness faster than anything else.” You read that right. Faster than anything else. Glassey has always been into fitness but when he got into stair climbing, he was shocked at the results. “I have a machine at X Gym that tests anaerobic thresholds and I used to think that HIIT was the best way to get fit the fastest until I started stair climbing.” Glassey’s VO2 max went from about 43 (an expected level for a fitness enthusiast) to 50 (athletic level) after he began stair climbing and then it spiked to 63 (Olympic athlete level) after he implemented tower running.
“Stair climbing pushed me to be so fast that I thought the machine was broken,” said Glassey, “I went to my professor at SPU (Seattle Pacific University) to double-check my findings.” His professor agreed that it would usually take someone three years, not three months to attain these results but since Glassey had a friend with the same training regimen and results, his professor confirmed his findings and he was sold on the benefits of stair climbing.
After that transformation and after watching several other friends and clients go through a similar experience, Glassey says it’s not only the fastest way to get physically fit but also the best way to get in cardiovascular shape and to burn fat “because what I’ve seen it do for VO2 max and because it increases the number of mitochondria in your muscle cells which increases your metabolism.” That increased metabolism, improved aerobic and anaerobic fitness and the fact that you’re moving your body up all contribute to weight and fat loss. “Increasing the body’s adaptation to move up stuff and that tells the body to get lighter and stronger,” he says, “it builds muscle and not bulk.”
Glassey says that people can attain similar results from other vertical training like hill running but the results do not translate indoors and they are not sure why. You can still get fit and lean on an indoor machine but as far as the VO2 max benefits, he says, “It doesn’t happen on a stair mill or stair climber, it has to be real stairs.”
Similarly, these results don’t show up from horizontal training methods like steady-state, long-distance running. He says a lot of runners have excess fat they can’t get rid of and it tends to rest around the belly button for men and around the hips for women. Again, “Running on an incline trainer is great but its not the same as running up a real hill,” says Glassey.
Toning and Muscle Building Potential
While stair climbing is primarily a form of cardiovascular exercise, the fact that each step mimics a lunge means it can also help build muscle and the dramatic fat loss potential helps reveal muscle tone. “Stair workouts can firm up the glutes like nothing else,” says Cline, “Running on flat ground allows the glutes to relax, but that’s not possible on the stairs and you can work the entire lower body in one go.” To increase the lunge-like quality of your stair climb, Cline suggests skipping a step. To increase strength-building, she says you can wear a weighted vest, backpack or carry dumbbells for a charged up version of a farmer’s walk.
- Start Slow: “Stairs can be a great (and short, if you choose) cardio workout, but warming up is critical,” says Cline, “Warm up for the first five minutes, off of the stairs to get the body primed.”
- Have Fun: “It’s really about having a good experience,” says Glassey, “I tell beginners just go out and have fun. You’re going to have good days and bad days.”
- Don’t Go Down: Glassey says “You can go up stairs all day and not get sore” and explains that it’s the eccentric contraction of going down the stairs that wreaks havoc on knees and creates the unbelievable soreness associated with stair climbing. If at all possible, find a staircase where there’s a path with a more gradual decline to get back down.
- Focus on Form: Cline suggests keeping you upper body ahead of your foot because “this transfers the work from the hamstring into a leg extension” and she says to strike mid-foot with a short and quick arm swing.
- Mix it Up: Glassey says you should avoid doing the same thing every time and variations (think intervals, skip-a-step or side-stepping) are great if you are looking for general fitness but “if it’s for competitive racing, variations can get in the way because muscle memory is harder to train and racers need it to be automatic to be the most efficient.”
- End Easy: Even after your beginner days are behind you, Glassey says, “I tell everybody to finish slow. The top few floors should be easy and slow so you don’t finish in complete misery.” He says this is important because “The brain likes to remember the most recent thing. I’ve seen a lot of people get really enthusiastic about stair climbing and then lose interest and they don’t know why.”
Depending on your schedule or the climate where you live, outdoor stair climbing might not be available (or safe) year-round and although you won’t get all of the benefits of outdoor training inside, it’s a great backup option. Here are some tips to make the most of an indoor stair climbing workout:
- Stick with the Step Mill: As far as machines go, Glassey says the step mill is a close second to training on real stairs then an incline trainer, followed by a Jacob’s ladder. Avoid the ‘stepper’ or ‘stair climber’ (the machine with two little pedals) since it does not really mimic real stair climbing.
- Maintain Posture: Just like you should outside, Cline says to watch your posture on the machine. “Maintain a long spine as if someone is pulling you up by a string from the crown of your head,” she says, “Relax your shoulders, drop your chin. Lengthen!”
- Pretend the Rails don’t Exist: Not only should you not lean on the rails as many do, Glassey says you shouldn’t even touch the rails for a more authentic stair climbing experience. If you need a little balance support, he suggests a light touch with just the finger tips or wrapping a towel around the console and using that for light support.
- Leave the Book at Home: Cline says to leave your reading material at home because “if you can read, you’re not working hard enough.” It can also be dangerous on the tall step mill so focus on your workout and you’ll get more out of it in a shorter amount of time.
- Make it Hard: “Find ways to make your workout as hard as possible,” says Glassey, “so you can find the most benefits in the shortest amount of time.”
- Do What Feels Right: Cline admits that something is better than nothing when it comes to training indoors vs not at all but indoor staircases don’t work for everyone. She says if it feels claustrophobic, find a step mill or stick with the fresh air.
- Find an Elevator: If you are training on an indoor staircase, Glassey suggests finding a building with an elevator to go down and, again, avoid that descent.
Clothes and Proper Attire
Stair climbing is one area of fitness where you can get a break from all of the specialized gear. If you’re climbing outside, you might start of chilly and finish quite warm so dress in layers and inside or outside, pick wicking materials that draw sweat away from the body and comfortable, supportive shoes. For outdoor stair climbing, you may want to invest in a utility belt where you can store your water bottle (or just leave it at the bottom, middle or top for a sip each time you pass). If your favorite staircase doesn’t have much shade, don’t forget the sunscreen and a hat, visor and/or sunglasses!
Results and Success Stories
“I had been using the StairMaster at the gym a lot. I would motivate myself to use the StairMaster by pushing myself to climb the equivalent heights of skyscrapers around the world. I heard about a skyscraper stair race and thought, “well, if I’m climbing buildings hypothetically at the gym, why don’t I do it for real?” That first race was in 2012. I’m hooked on the sport, and since then, I’ve competed in 45 stair races, in 17 different cities around the country. I’ve literally raced up thousands of stories.
“Stair climbing has made me stronger, and definitely strengthened my heart and lungs. It’s a pretty grueling activity and that’s one of the reasons why I love it but the bigger picture reason is that competing in these races and setting training goals has helped me maintain a 160-pound weight loss. I document my efforts to stay healthy and keep the weight off on my blog, keepitudavid.com, and if you visit my website, you’ll see that stairs play a big part in my health and fitness regimen!
“There is no feeling I like more than the swirl of pride, accomplishment, fatigue and soreness that comes at the end of a stair race, when I’m standing at the top of a building, overlooking an entire city. Despite years of prior exercise, it was stair climbing that gave me the confidence to call myself an athlete. These races serve as a constant reminder that I am stronger than I think I am, and capable of doing amazing things, and those are empowering feelings that have benefited all aspects of my life.”
– David Garcia, Los Angeles-based blogger behind keepitupdavid.com
“My brother invited me to a climb and I went, reluctantly. I was overwhelmed physically and I realized how terribly out of shape I was…Then I was hooked as soon as I reached the top of the building – the 63 story AON Building in LA. I couldn’t wait to do it again and see if I could do it better. It made me strong, lean and fast. I combined climbing with walking and running and completely changed my appearance and improved my health.
“I lost over 80 pounds in less than a year and I felt free in my own body for the first time in over 25 years. I gained confidence, changed my eating habits, and gained teammates – I was embraced by a whole new circle of friends from all over the world. I had never worked toward (and accomplished!) an athletic goal before, which is an incredibly empowering experience.”
– Jane Trahanovsky, Author of See Jane Climb – How Competitive Stair Climbing Changed My Life
You can also check out Ashley Graham’s weight loss here.