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, C.S.C.S., 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 to 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 why 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, C.S.C.S., 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 onto 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 only have a short staircase, well, you’ll just go up and down them a few more times than if you had a longer one.