Climbing stairs is a serious workout; that’s why they invented elevators!
It’s not realistic for us to tackle flight after flight in our everyday lives, especially if we live or work on the higher floors of a building, but it’s exactly what we’re looking for when trying to get in a great cardio workout.
According to a 2021 study by Harvard Health Publishing, using a stair climber can burn between 300 and 500 calories, depending on your age, weight, and general fitness level.
So, what makes it so much tougher than other forms of cardio?
It’s Like Being on a Never-Ending Staircase
Most people don’t reach the top of a staircase and say, “Gee, I wish that wasn’t over so soon.”
Often, it’s the opposite; we’re thrilled to be done with the stairs so we can catch our breath and get back to what we were doing.
The stair climber has no end, so you just climb and climb and climb endlessly. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, no definitive end to the suffering; just endless slogging up the stairs as you sweat and sweat.
Of course, the stair climber takes a physical toll, but the feeling of being on a never-ending staircase takes a mental toll too.
But it’s worth it!
A 2000 study published in Preventative Medicine measured the effects of “short, intermittent bouts” of stair climbing with previously sedentary individuals, and found that, even in small quantities, stair climbing yielded “considerable cardiovascular health benefits…lending credence to the potential public health benefits of this form of exercise.”
It Also Works Your Leg Muscles (Especially if You Have Added Resistance!)
It’s not just the cardio stimulus and mental challenge posed by the stair climber machine. A stair climber workout also involves the lower body, specifically posterior chain muscles, like the erector spinae, and leg muscles, including the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves.
A 2020 study published in Gait & Posture found that the stair stepper produced incredible muscle activation in the lower body, specifically in the biceps femoris and vastus lateralis, or your quads and your hammies respectively.
That means a stair stepper workout will not only torch calories, but it will also target your leg muscles big time, improving muscle strength, size, and endurance.
Unlike Cycling, You are Always Standing
We’d never disparage cycling workouts. According to Harvard Health Publishing, moderate cycling can burn nearly 600 calories in an hour, while pushing your pace shreds nearly 1,000 calories. That’s some serious calorie burning!
So, why does the stair machine feel harder than that if you’re, on average, burning less calories?
Well, what do our cyclists and spin class warriors do after their hills and sprints? They sit right back down in the saddle and rest up for the next high-intensity interval. They literally get to sit down in the middle of the workout!Stairmaster machines provide no rest, no refuge, and certainly nowhere to sit down and take a load off mid-workout. Once you’re grinding out the flights, you’re in it for the long haul.
You can get rest by reducing your pace for a few flights, but, no matter how you cut it, you’re still going up flight after flight until you finish or call it quits.
You Are Constantly Having to Lift Your Knees and Legs
The stair stepper machine is generally low-impact, meaning it won’t beat up your knees or ankles nearly as much as a treadmill would. It still has some impact, however, unlike no-impact alternatives stationary bikes, rowers, and elliptical machines.
Gait & Posture determined that stepping machine exercise “produced a significantly greater knee downward force compared to” other forms of exercise, which could over time contribute to knee pain or injury.
So, as you’re lifting up those knees and legs and planting them down over and over and over and over again, it’s going to eventually take a toll on your joints, unless you’re really focusing on maintaining strong posture and excellent form with each step.
That’s difficult to manage when each flight sucks a little more life out of you and you’re feeling beat, but it’s crucial to make sure this fantastic cardio workout is not also the reason you’ll be catering to a knee injury later in life.
It Forces You to Both Lift Your Body Up and Propel Yourself Forward
Jogging, running, and sprinting is certainly difficult, but you only have to worry about producing enough force to propel the body forward when you’re performing any of these activities.
Stairs exercise requires you to push your body forward and lift it simultaneously. That inherently presents a few challenges you won’t have to manage while running.
Your body will produce greater muscular activation to push your body up and forward simultaneously. While your lower body bears the brunt of this increased workload, specifically the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves, there are even more muscle groups at play here.
The lower back, for example, is a crucial component in this movement. You’ll need strong spinal stabilization to maintain proper alignment as you take step after step on the stair exerciser.
A strong core, including your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques, is important to maintain good form too, as a weak core increases strain on the lower back and could contribute to pain, strain, or injury.
Climbing stairs, because of the change in altitude, is a little more like running uphill than it is like running, which avid runners could attest is not easy.
Keeping Moving Upwards!
So, maybe the stationary bike burns more calories per hour. Maybe the rowing machine ropes in your upper body, making it a more comprehensive movement than climbing stairs.
But, you know what?
Using the stair climber for cardio poses challenges that other forms of cardio don’t even touch! Due to the mental component, getting over the idea that there isn’t a finish line, and the many reasons we cited above, we still consider the stair climber machine the toughest form of cardio. So next time you go to push that elevator button, think twice about the stairs, maybe that’s an opportunity to get in a workout while others are taking the easy way.
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