Getting in your daily steps doesn't necessarily mean you have to actually be moving forward. You can also step upward, using a stair climber. This cardio machine simulates walking upstairs, but with the added benefit that no matter how many sets of stairs you climb, you're always close to the ground.
You may be curious to learn what muscles are actually used on stair climbers (legs, obviously, but other muscle groups are involved, too), and if you should jump on one over the many other machines at the gym. So we asked fitness experts Brad Dieter, Ph.D., Kami Blease, and Kemma Cunningham to break down everything you need to know about this strength-building cardio machine. Read on for what they had to say.
Meet the Expert
What Are the Benefits of Stair Climbers?
If you've ever spent more than a few minutes on a stair climber, you know that it'll get your heart pumping quickly. But one of the primary benefits of the stair climber, especially when compared to other forms of cardiovascular training like running on a treadmill, is that it's more efficient at burning calories and generally requires more muscle work and force production, says Dieter. That makes the stair climber a great option if you're short on time but are still looking for an effective and efficient workout. Blease adds that stair climbers not only provide a cardio workout but also help strengthen your core and lower body muscles.
All of that said, using a stair climber can lead to many positives, including increased cardio endurance, stronger lower muscles (quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes), improved core strength, increased caloric expenditure, and healthier bones, Cunningham says.
What Are the Downsides of Stair Climbers?
Because stair climbers mainly target the lower body muscles, one of the downsides is that just using that one machine alone is not a full-body workout. And even though no machine or workout needs to work your entire body every time, Blease says you don't necessarily want to get stuck in a routine that is too focused on only certain parts of your body. It's important to mix things up every now and then.
Stair climbers are also a little more dangerous than flat cardio machines like treadmills or bikes, and there is the possibility of missing a step and falling off, says Dieter. And, says Cunningham, if you already have any balance or coordination issues, the machine could exacerbate them.
What Muscles Do Stair Climbers Use?
As stated earlier, stair climbers use a lot of your lower body. Specifically, the machine targets your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and even muscles in your ankle joint like your soleus, tibialis, and peroneal muscles. Bonus: Your core muscles (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and psoas) are also used quite extensively, says Dieter.
Stair Climbers vs. Other Cardio Machines
Stair Climbers vs. Treadmills
Stair climbers tend to burn more calories in the same amount of time as a brisk walk on a treadmill, says Dieter (though the opposite may be true once you start running, and both machines can be adjusted for higher intensity, so ultimately it depends on how you're using the machine). Stair climbers do require more force production from muscles because even though you're still staying stationary, there is more vertical displacement. Additionally, stair climbers provide a lower impact workout than treadmills while also building up your leg muscles.
Stair Climbers vs. Ellipticals
Ellipticals are generally low impact and can be more beginner-friendly than stair climbers as your feet never leave the pedals. You can also create a steady and comfortable cadence on an elliptical that can be kept up for a more extended period than a stair climber, says Blease. However, both Dieter and Blease point out that ellipticals incorporate more of the upper body because your arms are moving in tandem with your legs.
Stair Climbers vs. Stationary Bikes
Since you're sitting on a stationary bike versus standing on a stair climber, you're not bearing your own weight on a bike. This means your muscles' output will be less, and you won't develop your leg muscles like you would on a stair climber. You will likely burn fewer calories on a bike, but that could change if you pump up the intensity, so again, it depends on how you're using each machine. Stationary bikes are generally safer though, and as Blease adds, they can be a great option for people who are just getting started and want to move their bodies more.
Stair Climbers vs. Rowing Machines
It may not look like it at first, but rowing is a full-body workout. A rowing machine involves similar muscles groups to a stair climber, says Dieter, but the rower also includes upper body muscles like the back and biceps. And since you're sitting, you're not bearing your own weight, so the strain on your body is lower. Blease says you can get both a cardio and muscular strength workout on a rowing machine.
In general, most people can safely use a stair climber. However, if you have any balance or coordination concerns, you run the risk of falling off and may want to try an alternative machine. Anyone with back or knee problems should be slightly more cautious and focus on form to not aggravate pre-existing conditions, says Blease.
Proper form is important when it comes to using stair climbers effectively and safely. Cunningham recommends double-checking your shoelaces, starting slowly, and placing your entire foot on the step. As you build confidence, you can slowly increase the speed for more intensity.
Another factor is your posture. When you get tired, it can be easy to grip the handles and slouch, but that will take out a lot of the work and benefit of this workout, says Blease. Instead, focus on staying upright and only using the handles to keep you balanced. Try to push evenly through your foot with each step to fully target your legs and keep your core engaged, which will help you stay balanced on the machine.
The Final Takeaway
Stair climbers can provide a relatively low-impact and effective workout, especially for those looking to strengthen their lower body and core and get their cardio in at the same time. Since stair climbers do require balance and coordination, if you have issues with either, or any knee or back pain, you may want to be careful or avoid the stair climber in favor of something else.
Despite staying in the same place, the vertical movement of a stair climber ensures you're using more force production and building more leg muscles than you would with other cardio machines like treadmills, ellipticals, and stationary bikes. However, if you want to involve your upper body (e.g., arms and back), other machines may be a better alternative. Ultimately, most cardio machines can be adjusted to increase or decrease their intensity levels—so while stair climbers can be a great addition to your workout routine, the "best" machine for you will depend on your goals and what you're actually going to use regularly.