Lorne Opler by Lorne Opler

We live in a 24/7 world where time always seems to be in short supply—and that includes finding time to exercise. After a full day at work, a long commute home, getting dinner on the table and the kids to do their homework, the thought of lugging your tired body to an overcrowded gym is enough to keep your buttocks on the couch and your fingers on the remote.   But there is another option: an exercise workout that doesn’t require a gym, that works your entire body, makes you sweat like crazy, and can burn a heap of calories. What is it?

Stairs may very well be the most underutilized, underappreciated workhorse of workouts. Where else can you get such a challenging and productive workout that combines muscle conditioning and cardio all in one straightforward, uncomplicated routine? Compared to the treadmill, elliptical and stationary bike, however, stairs,  tend to be underutilized as an exercise option. Maybe it’s because stairs are not sexy. They’re dull looking and utilitarian, and don’t come with any TV screens to distract you or display monitors to record your progress. But stairs are unquestionably effective at getting you fit. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the many benefits of stair climbing:

First, there’s the cardio. It’s probably what comes to mind when people think about stair climbing—and for good reason. Stair climbing clearly benefits your heart, lungs and circulatory system. A study published in the journal Preventative Medicine showed that heart-rate efficiency increased, levels of lactate (the compound responsible for the “afterburn” effect) were cleared from the blood more efficiently, and VO2max levels (the amount of oxygen a body can use during exercise) improved, too. Blood levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL, the good cholesterol) increased, improving the clearance rate of low-density lipoproteins (LDL, the bad cholesterol) from the bloodstream.

In addition to providing a cardio workout, stair climbing is a muscle-conditioning workout for the legs, too. Ask anyone who’s participated in a charity stair climb. After bounding 40, 50 or 60-plus flights of stairs, participants’ legs are shakier than a wobble board. Stair climbing challenges your lower body from both a muscular strength and muscular endurance perspective. As a general rule in North America, steps are typically 7-8” in height, which is steep enough when climbing up a staircase to challenge your muscles and promote hypertrophy (an increase in muscle size) in your quads, hams, glutes and calves.   

Stair climbing also challenges unilateral strength (single-leg strength). “The basic stair movement—a single-leg step up—is a fundamental unilateral pattern that requires hip stability, quadriceps and glute strength,” explains Adam Balan, B.Ed., M.Sc., Level Three Twist Sport Conditioning and Coordinator of the Fitness and Health Promotion program at Centennial College in Toronto Ontario, “and, when completed in succession, cardiorespiratory and muscular endurance.”

Like any exercise, stair climbing can be ramped up to increase the challenge and the intensity of the workout. And the variety of stair climbing workout options is restricted only by your imagination.  

Consider the following approaches to get in a challenging stair workout. Before you get started, take the time to start with a light warm-up, such as jogging on the spot or walking up a flight or two. Note: The following workout examples are vigorous in nature and should be attempted only by those who are experienced exercisers and confident traversing stairs.

  1. Use the stairs for high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Go all out for one or more flights of stairs and then walk double the flights and repeat the sequence.
  2. Once walking becomes too easy, try bounding the stairs, taking them two at a time.
  3. Run up one flight as fast as you can, then return to where you started. Then do two flights up and back. Then do three and then four, and keep adding a flight until “the burn” kicks in.
  4. At the top of each landing, perform a set of 10 push-ups before tackling the next flight of stairs. Repeat each time you get to the top of the next flight.   
  5. Instead of 10 push-ups each time, try 10 burpees at the top of the next flight of stairs, 50 crunches on the next set, 25 triceps dips on the next one, and hold a plank for three minutes on the next landing. Keep changing up the exercises you do at each flight of stairs.

One of the great advantages of stair climbing is that it can whip you into shape for any of the hundreds of local charity stair-climbing events held across the United States. To learn about events in your area, visit the National Association of Fallen Firefighters.

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