Fitness Fundamental: How to Use the Stair Climber

Stair Climber

Stair climber. Stair stepper. Road to redemption! Whatever you call this piece of equipment doesn’t matter, but the effect it can have on your cardio routine certainly does. It’s one of the oldest pieces of equipment in the book—invented in 1983—but is still around 33 years later because it can be extremely effective.

stair machines

Stair Climber/Stepper & Stepmill

Note: Your gym may have another stair machine called a stepmill. It works the same basic muscle groups as the stair climber or stepper, but operates a little differently, with a mini rotating staircase versus alternating foot pedals. A stepmill requires a bit more balance and makes it’s harder to “cheat,” but either way, your how-to guidance is very similar.

If you haven’t used a stair climber yet, try it as soon as you can. It’s a great low-impact cardio option that can get your heart pumping and your legs burning in a completely different way than the elliptical, treadmill or bike. Unlike the treadmill, it’s easy to increase the intensity without putting additional impact on your lower body. The climbing motion can help shape the muscles in your quads, calves, and glutes. It will also make your heart stronger by the minute, and this kind of regular aerobic activity will give you the ability to exercise for longer periods of time, with more intensity, without getting as winded. Score!

Program Features:

Stair ClimberLike most cardio machines, you can begin by simply pressing “start” and adjusting the level to your liking. But if you want a bit more guidance, you can enter your personal stats (weight, age, and weight) and choose between a variety of programs that will vary the intensity for you.

Stair Stepper Tips:

Using this machine is pretty simple: Step up, and step on! But here are a few tips to keep your progress and safety in check.

1. Try not to hold onto the bars. I know it’s tempting because they are just sitting there staring at you, but don’t do it! You will burn more calories by not holding onto the bars. However, if you feel like you need to use them for balance, then go ahead. As trainer Shannon says above, safety first! But try to touch lightly without pressing any weight on them. Focus on maintaining a good, upright posture from head to heels and avoid bending at the waist to touch the bars.

2. Make sure to step with your whole foot. Many people step using their toes, allowing their heels to hang off the step. This will overtax your calves. By placing your entire foot on the steps, you will have a better range of motion and activate more muscles in the process. Range of motion is key in stair stepping: For the full benefit, let the step fully extend beneath you (without bottoming out) before you switch to the other foot.

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. I may or may not know from personal experience that it can be an embarrassing shin-crushing event if you fall!

4. Prepare for battle. Steppin’ may be harder than you think! Especially since it takes slow persistence. If you need motivation to keep going, pretend you’re climbing Mt. Doom to throw your ring into the fires of Mordor. We can learn a lot from hobbits—in the gym, and in the exercise of life.

A 180-lb. person can burn up to 735 calories in 60 minutes on the stair climber! That tells you how hard your body is working, and how many muscles are needed to keep you moving.

So the next time you’re looking for a good cardio workout—especially a HIIT workout—don’t forget the stair climber, stepper or stepmill are good options.

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Luke Andrus is a certified personal trainer, ACE health coach, writer, folk music drummer, husband, and a father. Most of his writing experience is in poetry and fictional short stories, and he also proposed to his wife with a self-published children's book. He is a Narnia nerd with a degree in History, a minor in English, and a semi-obsession with the French language. He believes that fitness is not just about vanity, but about lifestyle, integrity, and the ability to take control of your life.