Getting Started With Stair Climbing (Beginner’s Guide)

Stair climbing is a common human action that plagues many of us who live in multi-story houses or have to climb the stairs to our apartments or workplaces.

It’s also an incredible exercise that does great things to the body when done in sufficient quantity. (That’s why so many fitness articles include “Take the stairs, instead of the elevator” as a top everyday fitness tip.)

Like other exercises that rely only on bodyweight and immediate surroundings, stair climbing is also super accessible, and can be easily combined with other common exercises, like walking or running, to create a more intense, full-bodied fitness routine.

If you’ve been looking for a way to build strength and endurance while maxing out your cardio and aerobic efforts, stair climbing could be just the thing to start shuffling into your circuit.

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What Is Stair Climbing?

Stair climbing is just that – climbing stairs.

These could be the stairs in your home or apartment building, at your local park, or in a nearby museum (Ya gettin’ the jive, Rocky?).

You don’t need a machine (though, stairclimbers are great too) and you don’t need any special equipment.

You and gravity do all the work.

Benefits of Stair Climbing

The benefits of stair climbing are intense, and get even more intense the more you weigh and the faster you go.

Some of these benefits include:

  • Improved lower-body strength (a helluva lot of it)
  • Improved bone health
  • Improved joint health (especially at the knees and hips)
  • Improved flexibility
  • Improved posture
  • Improved endurance
  • Improved heart health (including lower blood pressure)
  • Improved respiratory rates
  • Improved sleep
  • Enhanced immune response
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Weight loss
  • Fat loss
  • Increased life expectancy

woman climbs stairs for fitness

Are stairs bad for knees?

Much like running, which can cause knee pain in susceptible people (people with arthritis, people with pre-existing conditions, etc.) climbing stairs is actually good for the knees.

Stair climbing helps strengthen both the muscles and joints, which reduces pain over time and can help prevent injury.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the right exercise for some people.

If you experience pain when you climb (or descend) stairs, it’s essential to assess the situation to try to figure out what’s causing it.

The question can really be broken down into two parts:

  • Why do I have knee pain walking upstairs?
  • Why do I have knee pain walking downstairs?

Why do I have knee pain walking upstairs?

Walking upstairs engages the muscles and joints of the knee, forcing both to work, the muscles to lift your weight and the joints to flex.

It also forces the cartilage of the knee to provide extra cushioning, as there is more pressure exerted on the knee (2.5x your bodyweight) when stepping up than when walking on a flat surface.

Any of these things may be the cause of pain when walking upstairs.

Why do I have knee pain walking downstairs?

Walking downstairs also forces the muscles and joints of the knees to work, mostly on the bend of the highest leg, but it’s the sheer amount of force on the knee that causes most problems.

Force when walking downstairs is 3.5x your bodyweight, considerably more than when walking upstairs, and the joints and cartilage in your knees take the brunt of that force.

Conditions That May Cause Knee Pain on Stairs

Two conditions that are well-known contributors to knee pain when walking up or downstairs are arthritis (chronic joint inflammation) and chondromalacia patellae (the wearing of cartilage in the knee).

Whether you should continue stair climbing as part of your exercise routine greatly depends on which one of these you might have, and how bad it is.

Though it might be painful, climbing stairs can actually improve the symptoms of people with arthritis.

The act of stepping up helps strengthen joints and muscles, reducing inflammation and preventing flare-ups.

More importantly, climbing stairs won’t cause any additional damage if your pain comes from arthritis.

If you have chondromalacia patellae, you have a reduction in cartilage beneath your kneecap.

Since this condition is caused entirely by wear or injury, no amount of stair climbing is going to improve it.

It can only make the condition worse.

While anyone can develop pain from climbing too many stairs – you could just have a simple muscle or joint overuse injury too – knee paint when climbing stairs is not something you should diagnose for yourself.

If you experience knee pain every time you take the stairs, you should see your doctor to find out what’s causing it to prevent doing further damage.

Is climbing stairs bad for hips?

Like the knees, the hip joints bear an increased amount of force when going up and down stairs.

And, like the knees, the hips are prone to both arthritis and the breakdown of cartilage.

If you have hip pain whenever you climb stairs, make sure you know what’s causing it before you add stair climbing to your exercise routine.

Risks of Stair Climbing

The main risk of stair climbing is the potential for falling. Obviously, falling down (or even up) stairs is never a good idea.

While stair climbing as an exercise doesn’t increase your risk of a fall, it does add some potentially dangerous elements, like fatigue and lightheadedness that can arise from increased heart and respiratory rates.

Like with any exercise, it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on in both your body and your head as you run or walk stairs to avoid a fall.

To reduce the risk of fall while stair climbing:

  • Choose stairs with a handrail and utilize it.
  • Put your entire foot on each step.
  • Never skip steps.
  • Walk (instead of running) back down the stairs.

Is it good to climb stairs every day?

Since climbing stairs is such a common human movement, it won’t hurt you to climb stairs every day.

In fact, climbing a few flights of stairs each day has been linked to vastly improved health.

One long-term study found climbing just three to five floors per day reduced risk of stroke by 29% in men, without any additional exercise.

However, climbing stairs for an extended period as part of an exercise routine can give you quite the burn in your thighs, glutes, and calves, so taking time to rest between climbs is also important.

If you’re stair climbing as part of your workout, every other day might be a better option. On days between, you can do less intense lower body exercises, like taking walks, to stay stretched out, and work on your upper body and core.

Is climbing stairs good exercise?

Climbing stairs is insanely good exercise.

At a moderate pace, it puts incredible demands on the heart, lungs, and muscles and requires twice as much effort as walking on a flat surface and 50% more effort than walking up an incline.

How many stairs should I climb for a good workout?

When it comes to just how many stairs you should climb for a good workout, several factors come into play.

These include your height, weight, pace, and the height of the stairs you’re climbing.

We’ve already mentioned the amazing benefits of just a few flights of stairs per day, but, when it comes to fitness and weight loss, more is, of course, better.

But how much more?

The answer is, don’t worry about it.

Instead of focusing on how many stairs you’re climbing, focus on how much time you’re putting in and your heart rate.

Doing 30 minutes on stairs with your heart rate in your fat-burn or cardio zones is a good workout, no matter how many (or how few) stairs you climb.

Walking Stairs to Lose Weight

If your main fitness goal is weight loss, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a simple, natural activity more effective than climbing stairs.

Stair climbing is such a good calorie-burner, in fact, studies have shown just two minutes of climbing stairs per day can off-set the one-pound average weight gain American adults have each year.

And it really is about the sheer calorie-burn.

Walking Stairs Calories

Climbing stairs at a slow pace (a normal, leisurely climb) comes in at 4.0 METs (metabolic equivalent), which is like walking at a brisk (moderate to intense) pace on a flat surface.

Carry small items with you or pick up the pace even a little bit, and you’ll increase those METs and your calorie-burn.

At the lowest-end (4.0 METs), a 150-lb. person can expect to burn approximately 5 cal./min., or 300 cal./hr.

Running Stairs Calories

Running upstairs is similar to walking upstairs in that you burn more calories at a slower pace than you do on a flat surface.

When you run upstairs, though, you near a whopping 15.0 METs, or about the equivalent of running more than 10 mph (that’s a 6-minute mile!) over a flat surface.

At 15.0 METs, a 150-lb. person can expect to burn approximately 23 cal./min., or nearly 1,400 cal./hr.

Does climbing stairs burn fat?

Yup. Calories aren’t the only things that stair climbing burns.

The combination of cardio/aerobic expenditure + lower-body (and, to some extent, core) muscle engagement makes climbing stairs closer to calisthenics than to walking or running.

Basically, it takes power to lift yourself up onto a stair, and those sudden bursts of power dig into fat stores better than steps over a flat surface.

Does climbing stairs help lose belly fat?

Yes, stair climbing has been shown to reduce belly fat, but that reduction is more a matter of overall calorie-burn and fat loss than a targeted result.

Does stair climbing build muscle?

Yes. Some.

While many exercises that rely solely on bodyweight as resistance don’t build much muscle, stair climbing is one notable exception.

That’s because, when climbing stairs, it isn’t just your bodyweight that provides the resistance.

Gravity is also hard at work, pulling you down as you try to ascend.

So, each step up you take makes your muscles work harder than when you walk or run on a level surface.

However, there’s only so much extra resistance gravity can provide, so your muscles will stop growing at a certain point and just get leaner and more toned.

If you want to build your leg muscles through stair climbing, you can do so by adding weight (either carrying things or wearing a loaded backpack or weighted vest.)

Just make sure you’re still maintaining proper posture to prevent injury.

Will stair climbing make legs bigger?

Possibly. Up to a point. By working against gravity, you do add more resistance, which is how muscles grow.

But, as stated above, there’s only so much resistance gravity can add, so your legs won’t grow much before they level off and become leaner and more sculpted instead.

Muscles Used in Stair Climbing

If you’re wondering ‘what muscles does stair climbing work?,’ the answer is probably more than you think.

You might expect climbing stairs to engage every muscle in the lower body, and it does.

Leg muscles engaged when climbing stairs include the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.

Stair climbing is also a great exercise for your glutes and hip flexors, which get more movement than just about any other muscle or joint during the act of stepping up.

Although all the work you see is in your lower half, though, climbing stairs does actually engage some muscles above the waist.

Holding yourself upright, either on your home stairs or on a stairclimber, requires your posture muscles, namely your abs, obliques, and lower back muscles.

They won’t get a ton of work, but they do have to constantly engage, so you’ll likely see some toning and sculpting in those areas as well.

Stair Climbing for Beginners

Ready to start stair climbing? Just start stair climbing.

That’s one of the best things about climbing stairs as an exercise.

You don’t need anything to get started but a decent pair of sneakers and vacant set of stairs.

If those stairs are carpeted, or otherwise padded, all the better.

It can save wear and tear on your joints.

If you don’t have the perfect set of stairs already at home, in your neighborhood, or on your way to work, here are some other ways you can make stair climbing easier on the body.

Home Stair Climber/Stepmill

While you don’t need a machine to start stair climbing, machines can be highly beneficial if you plan to make climbing part of your regular workout routine.

First off, since you put more pressure on your joints coming back down stairs, a stairclimber can eliminate this part of the journey.

Second, stairclimbers are intentionally designed with soft steps to reduce pressure on joints, which can be essential if you want to start stair climbing with a pre-existing condition or suffer from arthritis.

Third, stairclimbers make it easier to do other things, like watch TV, while you exercise, which can help take your mind off the exercise itself and result in longer workouts. (For more on the benefits of distraction while you exercise, see Exercises To Do While Watching TV.)

All that said, though, there are some issues with buying a stairclimber for your home.

Two main ones:

  • Stairclimbers are expensive.
  • Stairclimbers are BULKY.

And, unlike treadmills and exercise bikes, which are largely bulky in one direction, stairclimbers are bulky both horizontally and vertically.

So, not only do they take up a lot of floor space, they need good clearance.

Seriously, you’re not getting one of these things in your low-ceilinged basement.

We wouldn’t put you off buying one.

If you’re serious about adding stair climbing to your long-term workout routine, a stair climbing machine can be a good investment, but it’s worth testing one out at a gym before you commit.

If you do want to start looking into your own dedicated stair climber, though, here are a few we like –

See, what we’re talking about with those prices? Yikes!

If you can find a local gym with a stairclimber/stepmill, you can pay your membership fees for a lot of years before it adds up to the price of a single stairclimber.

Just something to think about before you go on an equipment buying frenzy.

How else to eliminate walking back downstairs?

You want to know our favorite secret for climbing stairs as exercise?

Find a place where you don’t have to walk back downstairs. (We know, it’s not a particularly exciting secret.)

Walking downstairs burns only 1/3 of the calories of walking upstairs, so you won’t be greatly cutting into your calorie-burn if you walk upstairs and take another way back down.

Some places you might find like this are:

Buildings with both stairs and escalators/elevators.

  • Some good examples of buildings like this are malls/large department stores, office buildings, apartment buildings, and museums.
  • In a building with this stair-escalator/elevator combination, you can take the stairs up and the escalator or elevator back down.

Slides

  • That’s right. I’m talking about going back to the playground, or even better, finding one of those long community slides that keep popping up all over the world.
  • The ones at Slide Hill on Governors Island in New York are three stories of slide with steps to carry you right back up.
  • While we understand these types of slides aren’t many places, they could serve as inspiration. If you have enough of a hill on your property (or in your neighborhood), you can build your own hillside slide and staircase (likely, for a fraction of the cost of a machine).

Parks

  • If you have a nearby park with stairs, it’s highly likely there is green space (or some other type of downward slope) right next to them.
  • That means you can take the stairs up and the grassy slope back down.
  • Yes, walking downhill still engages the muscles in the legs and core, but it does so a little differently than walking downstairs, so while it’s not the best solution of the three, it will spare your muscles and joints some strain. (Especially if the stairs you’re taking up are concrete.)

Climbing Stairs for Exercise

While it may not be offered as a class at your local gym, or the most fun exercise you can do, stair climbing is an incredibly effective means of working the muscles of the lower body in a highly targeted and intense way.

It’s a great calorie-burner, a formidable strengthener, and builds stamina in the heart and lungs and resilience in the knees and hips over time.

While it’s not for everyone, it is for most people, and you don’t need a whole lot of it.

Each set of stairs you climb counts (just a few extra flights a day has ample health benefits).

So, even if you have no extra time to dedicate to stair climbing and just take a few more sets of stairs each day, you’re doing your body good.

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