Stair Climber Workouts

by Chris Pruitt

Why Stairs?

Stair climbing is a serious workout with the potential for aerobic and anaerobic benefit. It can develop size, strength, and endurance in the muscles of the hips and legs, from the glutes to the hamstrings and quadriceps down to the calves.

Depending on the rise height from step to step, the number of stairs, and the speed at which the stairs are climbed, stair climbing will demand varying levels of flexibility, strength, and endurance. The rhythmic activity becomes a serious challenge for the heart and lungs if there are many flights of stairs.


It is good for a wide variety of sports training; sprinters, runners, swimmers, cyclists, rowers, football players, skiers and casual fitness enthusiasts all stand to benefit from this method of training against gravity.

Stair Climbing Machines

The “stair climber” is a generic reference to the exercise machines designed to mimic an actual staircase. Like the treadmill beside it in the fitness club, the stair climber offers convenience and predictability within a controlled environment.

Some machines offer a platform for each foot. The user pushes down on one while lifting up on the other to “climb.” Absolute exercise intensity is controlled either with changes to the stepping rate or with changes to the resistance under the platforms. Other machines are more like an escalator with actual stairs moving on a belt.

30 Minutes of Steady Stairs for the Beginner

An introductory workout with a stair climber involves first warming up for 5 minutes at a slow stepping rate without added resistance (i.e., only your bodyweight). However, this warm-up “climb” should not be so slow that you feel like you are doing nothing.

When 5 minutes have passed, speed up the stepping rate to a pace that is purposeful and brisk and maintain that pace for 20 minutes. End your workout by returning to the initial, slow stepping rate and maintain that pace for a 5-minute cool down.

This is something that can be done every day. If you’re altogether new to the experience of exercise and out of shape, simply repeat the above routine for a week, and if you aren’t nauseous or dizzy, you’ll likely be ready for more of a challenge sooner rather than later.

Your second week you can, after your usual 5-minute warm up, either increase the stepping rate above the usual or do the usual stepping rate for a longer time.

After the second week, if you’re still feeling up to it, challenge yourself further with another increase in stepping rate or lengthening of the workout. Whenever things get too easy for you, it’s time to push yourself.

Be sure to include your cool-down time so your heart rate can decline more smoothly back to its resting rate.

30 Minutes of Interval Training

As the “steady stairs” become too easy, after a few weeks, you’ll want to try training with intervals. Intervals are segments of greater hustle with segments of lesser hustle that condition the heart and lungs for intervals of higher cardiovascular and respiratory demand.

Start with the usual warm up. After warming up, speed up the stepping rate to a purposeful, brisk pace and maintain it for a few minutes. Then, add resistance at intervals.

You want the resistance to be a distinct challenge but not so much that you are unable to step.

45 Minutes in a Heart Rate Zone

Do you need a bigger challenge for your heart and lungs now that you’ve been on the stair climber for a few weeks or months? Use a stair climber with sensors on the handles or with a strap for your wrist to measure and report on your heart rate (i.e., beats per minute). Newer machines allow you to input your height, weight and age so the electronics can determine your target heart rate. Otherwise, look at available charts to discover your target.

As usual, start with a 5-minute warm-up. Thereafter, gradually increase stepping speed until your heart rate reaches a desired percentage of your maximum for a preferred effect.

For the next 35 minutes, be aware of your heart rate so that it is in the desired range. If your heart rate gets too low or too high, adjust your speed and resistance as needed.

It won’t be possible to stay in either the anaerobic or maximum heart rate zones for 35 minutes; but, if you choose to do so, you can do brief – like 1 minute – intervals crossing into those zones.

Real Stairs

If you don’t have a stair climber available, don’t worry. The craze of climbing stairs started by… you guessed it, climbing real stairs. From stairwells in a parking structure to bleachers in a stadium, athletes the world over have for years been pushed by their coaches to do stair climbs.

Real stairs open up another realm of possibility to more readily train beyond the aerobic zone: stationary lunges onto a stair, clearing several stairs at once, using banisters to pull with the upper body while driving with the lower, and wearing weighted vests and backpacks or holding free weights in hand.

Training on real stairs lends itself to plyometrics – like repeated lunges on and off a stair – that can develop coordination and power.

Commitment to a stair climber workout either on a stair climbing machine or on real stairs will see you seriously conditioned and in great shape.

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