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November 15, 2022 9 min read

Working out is a great way to stay in shape and healthy. The Stairmaster machine, also referred to as step machines and step mills, is great for cardio workouts.

Stair climbers are easy to use and offer a variety of options for different ways to include metabolic conditioning or cardio programming into your fitness routine.

Without having to run up flights of stairs at work, you can improve your movement, boost regeneration, and recovery, and decrease joint and tissue wear and tear by spending time on the Stairmaster at your local gym.

High-Impact stair climbing - Image from Shutterstock

Since stair climbers became available in the 1980s, advanced features like calorie-burning calculators and heart rate monitors have been added to the Stairmaster. Among the many high-level benefits, a Stairmaster workout can have you burn calories for up to 24 hours after your workout!

Muscles Activated by a Stairmaster Workout 

The Stairmaster is a cardio machine that primarily targets your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. However, your core muscles and hip flexors are also activated for balance and stability, making it an excellent lower-body workout.

Stairmaster muscles used - Image from Shutterstock

Tip: The higher the step, the harder your muscles must work. Therefore, taking the biggest step you can without compromising form can enhance your muscle activation.

The main muscle groups targeted in a Stairmaster workout include:

Quadriceps

Your quadriceps, located in the front of your thighs, work in almost all lower-body movements, from standing, walking, and kicking a ball, to standing up from a seated position. Your quads will likely be the first place you’ll feel the burn as you work out on the stair climber.

Hamstrings

Targeting your hamstrings is significantly harder than your quads. However, climbing any flight of stairs will nail them, and even more so on the Stairmaster. Your hamstrings must help with every step you take as you go up the stairs because they assist in the movement of bending your knees.

Gluteal muscles

Not many exercises offer a cardio workout and sculpting your butt simultaneously. The Stairmaster is the number one cardio machine, also recommended for weight loss and glute shaping.

Every time your foot is placed on the next step, pushing yourself up through your feet activates your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus to help get you to the next stair.

Calves

The calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) won’t work very hard if you use your whole foot and keep them flat as you climb the stairs. In contrast, if you use your toes and leave your heels off the step, your calves will get a good workout. However, you should alternate your foot positions if you want to target your calves because they can become overworked if you focus on them throughout your workout.

What is the proper form when using the Stairmaster?

Getting the most out of any exercise requires good posture and proper form, and the Stairmaster is no exception. Disregarding form requirements could target the wrong muscles, and even increase the risks of injury. Below are the most important notes about proper form for working out on the Stairmaster.

Pre- and Post-workout stretches

It is crucial to get your muscles out of a resting state gradually rather than going straight into your workout routine. A few dynamic climbing-movement stretches can prepare your back, hip, and leg muscles for the hard work that will follow. It is also a good idea to start with a slow climb before pushing your muscles all the way.

Equally important is the cool-down stretch session, to stretch and relax the muscles, ready for the recovery process.

Posture to maintain

Engage your back muscles to maintain a straight spine.

Push your chest up and your shoulders back and down. Hunching forward will put load your lower back with tension, increasing the risk of injuries and back pain that could become chronic in the long run.

Slight hinging at the hips is the natural body posture when you climb steps, which is perfectly OK because it facilitates your hip and lower-body movement. But keep on checking yourself. Going too far forward will cause muscle strain, but it could also increase the risk of losing your balance.

Keep your head up and look forward as you climb to avoid neck strain. At first, you might need to look down from time to time until you get the hang of it, but after a few minutes, you’ll be able to keep the pace comfortably.

Don’t grip the handrails

The Stairmaster is an aerobic exercise meant to target your lower body and work your leg muscles. However, if you hold on to the rail, you redirect the muscle activation to your arms. The rails are there for your safety, but to get optimal benefits, hold the rails lightly, without leaning on them with your body weight.

Check your shoelaces

Loose clothing, especially shoelaces, is risky whenever you work out on the Stairmaster. The motion of your foot going up and down can easily cause your shoelaces to become loose and catch in the rotating parts of the machine. Always ensure they have tight knots before you step onto the stair climber machine.

Use your whole foot

Very few people use their whole foot to step on when they go up a flight of stairs, but it is important to do so when working out on the Stairmaster. Using only the front of your foot is fine if you’re just going up a flight of stairs at home or at work, but when you’re climbing as a part of your workout, the muscles will be significantly more taxed.

By stepping with your heel first and then pushing down through your feet to climb the step, you’ll activate your glutes and your quads, and you’ll have a wider range of motion. More muscles will be activated at a time, allowing an overall better lower body workout. Using your entire foot will also allow you to work out for longer periods.

If you leave your heels hanging off the stairs by stepping on the balls of your feet, the weight distribution will leave you unbalanced. Your hamstring and calf muscles will become the targets. Doing this throughout your workout could overtax your hamstrings and calf muscles.

How to use the Stairmaster?

  1. The first thing to do is ensure the machine stands securely on a level and stable surface. A wobbling stair climber is an injury risk.

  2. Stand by the machine and place both your hands on the rails for support as you step up with either foot, placing the whole foot on the stairs.

  3. Don’t just stay on the first step, as the sudden movement when the machine starts could cause you to lose your balance. It’s best to settle mid-height up the stair climber before starting it. Place your feet flat, shoulder-width apart.

  4. Turn the Stairmaster on and select your workout variation to get started. You might want to reach out to your personal trainer to get you up to speed if you are a beginner.

  5. Start at a slow speed to warm up your muscles and get used to the rhythm of the machine before adjusting the speed.

  6. When you’re done, wait for the machine to come to a complete stop before stepping off. Make sure to watch your step when you dismount from the Stairmaster. Use the handles or rail to avoid slipping or tripping and getting injured.

  7. The Stairmaster taps your energy, and it might be a good idea to reenergize with a drink of water or, better yet,  a drink containing electrolytes  to replace the minerals lost with sweat during your workout.

How long should you stay on the stair climber?

Beginners, aim to climb for about  10 to 15 minutes.  That’s the best way to test your resistance and your speed. Your personal trainer can guide you with the amount of time you should climb stairs and the speed adjustments as you progress. The ideal is to gradually build up a 30-minute stair climbing session — which means a 200 to 300-calorie burn for the average person.

You could aim for a speed of between 60 and 80 steps per minute. However, it’s also great to vary the speed and alternate faster and slower speeds, which will help you build endurance and stamina.

How can you increase the challenge?

Once you’ve mastered the form required for working out on the Stairmaster, you might feel ready to find ways to make it more challenging. You’ll be happy to learn that there are several ways to add challenges, and you can even change it from a lower-body workout to a full-body workout.

1. CRANK UP THE PACE

The first thing to do is set the Stairmaster to go faster but do it gradually. You want to get used to a faster pace but not if you struggle with balance and stability. So, crank up the pace bit by bit to continue challenging your muscles rather than letting them grow used to a set pace.

2. CLIMB TWO STEPS AT A TIME

While climbing one step at a time is the regular way to climb any flight of stairs, and also the Stairmaster, you can make your muscles work harder by skipping one step and taking every second step up. That will increase your range of motion and your legs will need a lot more effort to lift your body up two steps at a time and you’ll have to squeeze your glutes a lot harder to drive your body weight up.

Not only will you build stronger legs because your quads and glutes will work much harder, but you will also burn loads more calories. Make sure you pay equal attention to both legs; you don’t want muscle imbalances.

3. ADD A RESISTANCE BAND

Decrease the Stairmaster’s intensity a bit, and add a resistance band around your thighs. Go for a light resistance band at first to give your glutes extra resistance to work against. You can step as usual until you feel comfortable enough to turn up the difficulty level.

You can do lateral side-walks, and even incorporate squatting down every time before stepping up, or work kickbacks into your Stairmaster workout.

4. VARY YOUR POSITION

Be creative and work on ways to hit your muscles from various angles to benefit as much as possible from the Stairmaster.

Do side-steps or cross-over steps as go step up, rotating at your waist to place your steps crisscrossing your legs. This targets your medial glute, abductors, quads, and other stabilizing muscles.

Here’s another way to boost your leg muscle activation. Turn around and climb backward. However, take care because you would need perfect balancing. Going in reverse will target your calves, hamstrings, and quads.

5. Add Weights

The Stairmaster even has the option to add strength training to your stair climbing sessions. Grab a pair of dumbbells and as you step up, add an overhead press, biceps curl, or some side raises. Such multitasking elevates your heart rate and activates even more muscle groups.

What are the benefits of using the Stairmaster machine?

Activates release of “feel-good” brain chemicals

Certain activities, one of which is stair climbing, encourage your body to release endorphins. They are brain chemicals that boost your mood and cause an overall “feel-good” mood. Endorphins also reduce stress levels, and despite being exhausted after the Stairmaster workout, you’ll feel good about your physical progress.

User-Friendly

The Stairmaster machine is easy to operate. You turn the machine on to make the stairs move, forcing you to climb them. You can get your personal trainer to explain all the features like the heart rate monitor and calorie calculator. Always maintain the proper form.

Suitable for all fitness levels

Stairmaster Age-friendly - Image from Shutterstock

Stairmaster machines are suitable for all ages, fitness levels, and workout types. Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast, strength builder, weightlifter, or field and track athlete, there’s a setting to suit you. The same applies to age, stair climbers are suitable for the elderly, teenagers, and everybody in between.

Low-impact

Many cardio workouts are high-impact exercises like HIIT workouts, jump rope, and running. Those exercises involve your feet impacting the ground rather hard. The pounding, high-impact consequences of running on a hard surface could cause long-term damage. In contrast, the Stairmaster is low-impact and therefore more accessible to those with limited mobility, joint or knee pain issues, or who are at a heavier weight.

Aerobic conditioning

Stair climbing strengthens your heart and lungs, which are the keys to aerobic fitness. With stronger lungs, you can breathe in more oxygen, and with a healthier heart, you can pump oxygen-rich blood more efficiently to all your muscles and organs.

Cardio Health

Cardiovascular health is essential for heart health. The American Heart Association recommends a weekly cardiovascular workout totaling 150 minutes, making the Stairmaster a valuable piece of equipment in your workout routine.

Muscle Building

Working out on the Stairmaster helps the development of lower body muscles in your glutes, hamstrings, calves, quads, and core. It lets you reap health benefits long after your stair climber workout is through.

Stronger Core

Climbing stairs tasks your core muscles with keeping you stable and balanced throughout. Using those muscles builds strong abs and back muscles, improving your posture, balance, and stability, and helping you to decrease injury risks.

Calorie Burning

Stairmaster for weight loss - Image from Shutterstock

A half-hour workout on the Stairmaster can burn between 180 and 260 calories, depending on your body weight and the intensity of the workout.

Exercise Variety

The Stairmaster offers a variety of workouts that can also be incorporated into your cardio circuit workouts and high-intensity interval training. When used as a HIIT workout, the intensity increases significantly, setting up the perfect environment for serious fat burn. Unlike low-intensity, steady-state cardio workouts (like most typical treadmill workouts), HIIT has been proven to burn fat more effectively than any other type of workout.

In a nutshell

If you have never used a Stairmaster machine, reach out to a personal trainer to learn how to use the machine, the proper form, and technique, and to help you design a fitness routine based on your goals and your unique needs and fitness level.

Using a Stairmaster is a relatively simple exercise, so you won’t need a lot of training or supervision. And if you find you can use one safely and on a consistent basis, you may be quite pleased with the energy boost you feel from improved fitness.

Unfortunately, the Stairmaster machine is typically only available in gyms. If you don’t have access to a stair climber, there are several other HIIT exercises that require no equipment.