It’s one of the most effective workout programs out there. It works your entire body, makes you sweat like crazy, and can torch a torrent of calories. And it’s literally right under our feet. What is it? Stairs—the underutilized, underappreciated workhorse of workouts. Think about it. Where else can you get such a challenging and productive workout that combines both strength training and cardio into one straightforward, uncomplicated routine, and all for free? And yet, compared to the treadmill, the elliptical, and the stationary bike, the stair workout gets no respect. Maybe because it’s not sexy enough—no bells and whistles, no TV screens to look at, or display monitors to record your progress. So it’s time to review the many benefits of stair climbing…(ahem) step by step. 

Want an unbeatable cardio workout? Run up the closest set of stairs.

Want an unbeatable cardio workout? Run up the clos...

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Firstly, there’s the cardio. It’s probably what most people think of first when they think of stair climbing. And for good reason. Stair climbing clearly benefits your heart and lungs and circulatory system. A study in the Preventative Medicine showed that heart rate efficiency increased, levels of lactate (the compound responsible for the “afterburn” effect) were cleared from the blood more efficiently, and VO2 max levels (the amount of oxygen a body can use during exercise) improved. To boot, levels of blood HDL (the good cholesterol) increased too.
But stair climbing is every bit strength training as it is cardio training too. Stair climbing can fry your entire lower body. Ask anyone who’s done a charity stair climb. After bounding 40, 50, 60-plus flights of stairs, their legs are shakier than a wobble board. Stair climbing overloads your legs repeatedly. Stairs are typically steep, forcing you to work against gravity. Muscles, therefore, have to work harder which leads to hypertrophy gains in the quads, hams, glutes, and calves.   

Stair climbing also challenges unilateral strength. According to Adam Balan, MSc (comp), B.Ed., Level Three Twist Sport Conditioning and Coordinator of the Fitness and Health Promotion program at Centennial College in Toronto, “The basic stair movement—a single-leg step up—is a fundamental unilateral pattern that requires hip stability, quad and glute strength, and, when completed in succession, cardio-respiratory and muscular endurance.” In essence, stair climbing is endurance, strength, core, balance, and coordination training all in one.

Like any exercise, stair climbing can be ramped up to increase the challenge and the intensity of the workout. And the variety of stair climbing workout options is restricted only by your imagination.  

Consider the following approaches to get in a killer stair workout, anytime. *Always start with a light warm up, (jogging on the spot, walking up a flight or two) to get your body prepared for the onslaught. 

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1. Use the stairs for HIIT training: go all out for one, two, three, or as many flights of stairs as you can…then walk double the flights and repeat the sequence.

2. Once the walking becomes too easy, try bounding the stairs, taking them two at a time.

3. To really feel the burn, run up one flight as fast as you can, then return to start. Then do two flights up and back. Then three, then four, and keep adding a flight until “the burn” kicks in.

4. At the top of each landing, perform a set of 10 pushups before tackling the next flight of stairs. Repeat each time you get to the top of the next flight.   

5. Add variety by doing a different exercise each time you reach the next landing; instead of 10 pushups each time, try 10 burpees at the top of the next flight of stairs, then 50 crunches on the next set, 25 triceps dips on the next one, hold a plank for three minutes on the next landing, etc. 

6. To add an upper-body resistance workout, grab a pair of challenging dumbbells and really crank those arms to propel your body up the steps. Or perform dumbbell shoulder presses with each step up you take.

7. Want even more of an upper-body challenge? Stuff a backpack with as much weight as you comfortably can to add load to your upper body.