Stair Climber 101: Everything You Need to Know to Make the Most Out of Your Climb

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women on stair climbers

Stair climber. Step mill. Step climber. What you call this piece of equipment doesn’t matter, but the effects a step machine can have on your heart rate and overall health certainly does. Because while it may appear to strictly be a lower body workout, climbing stairs is a great way to get your blood pumping from head to toe.

After making its debut in 1983 – as the Stairmaster – this workout staple has enjoyed many years of popularity because people still find it extremely effective.

So, step on up and give it a try!

Baby Steps

First you walked, then you ran, then you climbed. Operating a stair climber is very intuitive. You can figure it out in seconds, because we’ve all climbed stairs. And that is basically…no, literally, what you are doing with one of these machines.

While the Stairmaster was the first to make it big, it led to many variations on the stairs-as-exercise theme. But no matter what shape or size they take, climbers simply require you to take it one step at a time.

Your gym may have a type of stair machine called a step mill. It works the same basic muscle groups as the original Stairmaster, or any other stair-climber or stair-stepper, (except for a Jacob’s Ladder-style machine) but operates with a mini rotating staircase versus alternating foot pedals. A step mill requires a bit more balance and makes it harder to “cheat,” but either way, your how-to guidance is very similar.

So, if you haven’t used a Stairmaster, or any stair climber yet, we’d love to spend a few seconds on how-tos so you can give it a try and get the best results no matter your fitness level. It’s a great substitute to other types of machines for a low-impact cardio option that’s easy on your joints, but can get your heart pumping and your legs burning in minutes in a completely different way than on the elliptical, treadmill, or bike. And unlike other cardio machines, climbers make it easy to increase the intensity of all workout routines without putting additional impact on your lower body, especially your knees. And it can be safer than techniques like lunges which can put you at risk for knee hyperextension. The motion of climbing stairs can help shape the muscles in your quads, calves, and glutes. It will also make your heart stronger by the minute because it is one of those workouts you can feel working immediately.

And, bonus, just 10 minutes of stair climbing (or climbing on a Jacob’s Ladder) as a warmup before your resistance training or strength workout a few days per week, will give you the ability to exercise for longer periods of time, with more intensity and more endurance. It will also improve your weight loss goals, and increase injury prevention because it supports your joints. Big score for the stairs!

Next Steps

Like most cardio machines, you’ll have a quick start option. Which means you can begin in seconds by simply pressing “start” then adjusting the level to your liking as you go. But if you want a bit more guidance, you can enter your personal stats (age and weight) and choose between a variety of programs, resistance levels, and duration of minutes to vary the intensity.

Stair climbing machines are pretty simple to use: Step up, and step on. And in seconds, you’re doing it! But let’s go through a few tips before we jump into this stair climber workout for beginners to help keep your progress and safety in check.

Step-By-Step Guide

1. Try Not to Hold Onto the Handrails

We know it’s tempting to rest your hands on the bars, because, well, they’re there. But do your best to resist. Unlike a Jacob’s Ladder machine, which requires your hands to be on the rails, it can work against you on a stair climber. You will burn more fat and calories by keeping your hands off the handrails on a climber. However, handrails are a great way to maintain your balance if you need it, in which case, go ahead and hold them. Safety first. But try to touch lightly without leaning with your arms or putting your body weight on the handrails. Focus on maintaining a good, upright posture from head to heels and avoid bending at the waist.

2. Make Sure to Step with Your Whole Foot

Form is key! Many people climb stairs using their toes, allowing their heels to hang off the step. Stair climbing in this way will overtax your calf muscles and hamstrings. By placing your entire foot on the steps, you will have a better range of motion and activate more muscles for a workout that tones those thighs, tightens that booty, and strengthens those knees. Range of motion is important in stair stepping: For the full benefit, let the step fully extend beneath you (without bottoming out) before you switch feet slowly, don’t try and sprint. Square your hips and keep that core tight!

3. Check your Shoelaces

This one’s obvious, but like most machines, you don’t want to trip while you’re on it. It’s even easier for that to happen on a stepper. Trust us, it happens in seconds, and can be an embarrassing, shin-crushing, quad-pulling, knee-pain inducing event if you fall.

4. Prepare for Battle

Steppin’ may be harder than you think. Especially since you want to do a slow climb at a persistent pace. (Speed is not the objective here. You don’t want to sprint…or even jog and besides, you can’t.) If you need motivation to keep going, choose one of the programs that challenges you but doesn’t leave you feeling defeated, something with intervals so you can ramp up and down, test out varying degrees of elevation, or pretend you’re climbing Mt. Everest…while burning fat and calories!

If you’re interested in some facts touting the health benefits of stair climbing, a Harvard study showed the energy expenditure of working out on this gem of the gym. To break down their findings with an example, a 180-lb. person can burn up to 735 calories in 60 minutes on the stair-climber. That goes for men and women. And it tells you how hard your body is working, and how many muscles are needed to keep you moving even at a slow, steady pace, not a sprint. That’s some serious strength training and cardiorespiratory fitness. And those are just a few stair climbing benefits.

So if you’re looking for a good cardio workout to incorporate into your fitness routine – especially a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout – for maximum results in a short amount of time sprint to the gym for a slow roll on a stair-climber, stepper or stepmill.

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