If your cardio routine has been feeling a little blah lately, you can shake things up with a sweaty stair workout.
Using a set of steps in your home, apartment building, or an uncrowded public area for a stair workout can be a great way to combine total-body strengthening, cardio, explosive power, balance, and coordination. You can do it at home if you have access to stairs—which makes it a safe choice during the new coronavirus pandemic—and you don’t need any additional equipment. All you need is your bodyweight.
A flight of stairs is a wonderful tool that lets you get in a great workout without going to the gym, Janet Hamilton, CSCS, exercise physiologist, and running coach with Running Strong in Atlanta, tells SELF.
So if you’re not a runner or a cyclist (or are just looking for a fresh new kind of cardio routine), read on to find out how to turn a set of stairs into a challenging workout—and why you should definitely give it a try.
The benefits of a stair workout
If you’ve ever just walked up a flight of stairs, you know it can get your heart rate up, fast. But what makes stair workouts—even short ones—feel so freaking hard? The answer is simple: gravity.
Compared with walking or running on level ground, walking or running up a flight of stairs places more load on the muscles in your lower half, namely your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves, says Hamilton. That’s because as you ascend a staircase, gravity is trying to pull you back down, and your muscles have to work extra hard to overcome that resistance. It’s the same reason running, hiking, or biking up a hill feels more intense—and jacks up your heart rate more—than covering the same distance on a flat trail.
“Going up steps is definitely more stressful on the body,” certified exercise physiologist DeAnne Davis Brooks, Ed.D, CSCS, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and USATF Level 1 track coach, tells SELF. “It’s higher intensity than walking on level ground.”
Stair workouts can also be really versatile. Depending on how fast and intensely you climb, you can emphasize strength (especially if you pepper in moves that use the bottom steps as an elevated platform—like push-ups, dips, planks, split squats, calf raises, and mountain climbers), cardio, or a combo of the two. The fact that stair workouts can deliver both strength and cardio make them a good bang-for-your-buck workout tool, says Brooks.
And you can do more than just walking or running up and down them: Adding squat jumps up stairs can train explosive power (similar to doing a box jump from one step to the next—you’d just want to make sure the steps you’re using are wide enough that you can easily land with both feet firmly planted). Or climbing stairs sideways grapevine-style (face the railing, hold on to it for balance, and repeatedly cross one leg in front of the other, then behind) can challenge your coordination and work your muscles laterally, strengthening your inner and outer thigh muscles, says Brooks.
To add one more benefit to the list: Stair workouts demand—and train—some serious balance, since “the base of support is changing and shifting as you’re moving,” explains Brooks. (Secondary bonus: You won’t be tempted to zone out during these workouts, since you’ll need to focus to keep your balance on point.)
What makes a great stair workout
The number of stairs you need for a good stair workout isn’t that important, say Brooks and Hamilton. Simply work with what you’ve got. If you have only a short staircase, well, you’ll just go up and down them a few more times than if you had a longer one.
For a solid cardio workout, Hamilton suggests doing sets of three to five minutes of continuous climbing and descending followed by one minute (or more) of recovery. Then repeat that pattern for as long as you need to feel like you’ve gotten in a quality sweat session—beginners can start with just one set and build from there, suggests Hamilton. If you’re tackling several flights of stairs, Hamilton suggests climbing at a steady effort and then jogging back down. More advanced exercisers can increase their pace (try jogging, running, or even sprinting up the stairs) and extend the working time of each set, she says.
If you want to train quickness, you can run up the stairs as fast as possible without skipping any steps. Or if you’re looking to develop explosive power, you can run up the stairs as fast as possible while skipping one or two steps, says Brooks. By lifting your bodyweight a significant distance (two or three stairs at a time, compared with just one) at a fast pace, you’re combining work and speed, which makes this a power-centric move, explains Brooks. But if you’re looking for more strength and endurance, you could slow down the speed at which you descend steps to create a controlled, eccentric contraction in your quads, adds Brooks. Or you can vary the way you climb or descend—like the grapevine style mentioned above—to change up the load a little bit, which challenges your muscles differently, says Hamilton.
To make it more than just a cardio workout, you can add in some bodyweight strength-training moves—in many cases, you can easily adjust the difficulty of moves by altering your body positioning and/or the number of steps you’re using. With planks, side planks, and push-ups, for example, you can stand at the bottom of the staircase and place your hands several steps above to make the move beginner-friendly, says Hamilton. The higher your place your hands up the staircase, the easier the move will be. Or you can crank up the challenge by placing your hands on the floor before the first step and raising your feet up a step or two higher behind you.
With dips, you can bend your knees to make things easier, or to up the intensity, you can straighten your legs in front of you so that just your heels touch the ground. For an even greater challenge, lift one leg off the ground, suggests Hamilton. Stairs are also great for heel raises, which strengthen your calves and the muscles around your ankles, says Brooks. And doing heel raises on a step (versus flat ground) allows you to achieve a greater range of motion, she adds.
How to stay safe during a stair workout
Be extra careful if you’re using stairs where the tread (the part that your foot lands on) hangs over the riser (the vertical part of the step). You’re more likely to trip on this type of step, warns Hamilton. You should also pay attention to your foot placement, says Brooks, who recommends planting your entire foot on each step.
If you’re new to stair workouts, put your hand on the railing as you climb and descend for added support and balance, says Hamilton. You’ll still get a great workout with this extra help, and if/when you feel confident enough, you can switch to a hands-free approach. Using the railing for support is also a good idea when you’re attempting more challenging moves, like the ones mentioned above.
Because you can trip going up or down stairs if you’re not careful, it’s important to stay mentally engaged during a stair workout. “When you get tired in particular, you do have to focus, or you can bite the dust,” says Brooks.
So if your form starts faltering or you are struggling to stay balanced, ease up the intensity of your stair workout. If you’re having a hard time running up steps, for example, switch to jogging or walking. Then if you’re still struggling, stop your stair workout and either move to flat ground or just call it a day, says Brooks: “You don’t want to push through on the flight of stairs where you can really fall and have a serious injury.”
That’s why it’s also important to practice any moves at a slow, controlled pace before trying them in a workout. With squat jumps, for example, practice jumping one step at a time and return to the base of the staircase in between each attempt, suggests Hamilton. Once you’ve completely mastered that movement, you can jump up the staircase one step at a time, returning to the base of the staircase in between each attempt, she says. These are advanced movements, so you should attempt them on stairs only if you’re really confident in your body awareness and balance on stairs when doing less advanced moves, like jogging.
Also, if any part of your stair workout causes pain (we’re talking about sharp, acute pain—not the sensation of muscles working), that’s a sign that something isn’t right. Maybe your form is off, you’ve pushed yourself too far, or you’re not yet at the needed fitness level for the move you’re attempting. Try tweaking your form or regressing the move (like, switch to walking instead of jogging). If the pain continues, stop what you’re doing immediately. “Don’t push through pain,” says Hamilton. “You’re rarely going to get rewarded for that.”
In general, if you have a history of knee pain or injury, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor or physical therapist before doing a stair workout. And if your balance is compromised, you should skip stair workouts altogether, adds Brooks.
A 20-minute sweaty stair workout
What you’ll need: A set of stairs and your bodyweight. (Make sure you are wearing sturdy athletic shoes.)
Directions: Perform the following sequence straight through with no rest (though of course take breaks if you feel like you can’t catch your breath or your form is faltering). This workout is intended to be a strength-slash-aerobic workout, so in terms of intensity, your heart rate should climb, but you don’t want to feel like you’re gasping for air, says Hamilton. If that’s the case, take a break or dial down the intensity. Work at whatever pace you need.
For the nontimed moves, do as many reps as needed to feel like you’ve taxed your muscles, but stop before you lose your ability to maintain proper form. That may mean five, or it could mean 20 (or more). Again, work within your level. As mentioned above, you can adjust the difficulty of the dips, planks, and push-ups by changing where you place your hands and feet.
This workout will take about 20 minutes, though exact time will vary based on how long you do the bodyweight moves. You don’t need to do a warm-up beforehand because this workout has one built in. If you don’t feel comfortable doing the more advanced moves (like grapevine and squat jump), just walk or jog instead.
- Climb and descend for three minutes. Go at whatever pace you need to get your heart rate up without feeling like you’re gasping for air.
- Elevated push-ups to fatigue.
- Grapevine up and down for three minutes. Be sure to switch your lead leg every time you return to the bottom of the staircase so that you work both sides evenly.
- Dips to fatigue.
- Climb and descend for three minutes. Again, go at whatever pace you need to get your heart rate up without feeling like you’re gasping for air.
- Elevated plank for 15 to 45 seconds.
- Climb and descend for three minutes at the same moderate intensity pace.
- Elevated side plank for 15 to 45 seconds on each side.
- Squat jump up; walk down. Continue for three minutes.