After 12 storeys up a high-rise stairwell, your aching muscles and burning lungs may claim otherwise. But if you want to get in shape fast, stair-climbing workouts—hellaciousness notwithstanding —are your new best friend.
“Stair climbing is so effective because it forces your body to work against gravity,” says Regina-based personal trainer Trevor Folgering. Besides providing a blast of cardio, it boosts endurance, burns calories and strengthens and tones glutes, quads, hamstrings and other leg muscles. (No wonder it’s rumoured to be the workout of choice for celebs, including Kate Hudson, Jennifer Aniston and Fergie.)
“I feel amazing. I’ve seen results quite quickly from stair climbing: I’ve lost 20 pounds and have toned up a lot. And I have more energy,” says Kim Kulach, 35, who has been stair climbing since last June.
Kim climbs with a group in Regina, but a key benefit of stair climbing is that you can fit it into your schedule in whatever way works for you. It’s easy to find time and space for a workout, whether you’re at home, at the office or on the road. “Sometimes if I’m travelling and don’t have time to exercise, I’ll climb 10 flights of stairs at my hotel, walk back down, then do it again,” says Professor Martin Gibala, chair of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. He likes that it’s an interval workout, which research shows can boost cardiovascular health and may help improve the ratio of good (HDL) to bad (LDL) cholesterol.
Kat Tancock, a 33-year-old writer in Toronto, runs, rock climbs and practises yoga. She says stair climbing intervals helped her reach a new personal best 10K time by shaving off two and a half minutes. “It’s a killer workout for your legs, and it’s cardio,” she says, adding the scenic green space where she trains and the “natural challenge of stairs make it more exciting than doing speed work on a track.”
Gibala agrees that stair climbing may have a psychological edge over speed drills. “Generally, stairs require a significant effort. It’s hard to climb stairs ‘easy’: The intensity required is quite high,” says Gibala. It’s twice as difficult to climb stairs as it is to walk briskly, and it’s 50 percent harder than lifting weights. The upshot: You don’t need to force yourself to up the intensity of your cardio—“OMG, now I have to run five whole minutes!”—because you’re probably already there. And you won’t be tempted to cheat by slowing down or cutting a minute or two off your time.
The best part? Stair climbing is suitable for almost all fitness levels. Begin by gearing up with comfortably layered clothing and cross-trainers. “They offer good support and stability,” says Folgering.
If you’re just starting out, you might want to climb with a partner or group, so you’ll feel more secure in isolated high-rise stairwells. And then there’s the motivation a group provides: Kim likes the team environment and built-in support of her Regina-based stair-climbing sessions, which include a coach and attract anywhere from five to 20 people per session.
Whether you climb indoors or out, proper form is essential, advises Folgering. Land with a heel strike. “As your foot contacts the step, your heel will touch down on the stair first. This helps decrease any strain on the knee and transfers all the force to the hamstrings and gluteus maximus. Plant down with your heel and focus on pushing hard up the stairs,” says Folgering. As your hamstrings and glutes strengthen, you’ll get faster—and your workout will feel easier.
Amp it up
Kim’s group uses stair climbing as the foundation for a whole-body workout: “Depending on where you are in the program, and what floor you’re at, you climb up to that floor four times, with a short rest in between climbs. There’s a group ‘bonus’ workout at the end, which can be fun,” says Kim. These exercises may include speed climbs or between-floor squats and burpees, followed by five minutes of core work like planks, crunches and leg raises, then cool-down stretches.
Kat took a more individual approach, adding stair-climbing intervals to some of her regular outdoor 5K runs, which lead her to a popular stair-climbing spot: the approximately 110-step outdoor staircase outside Toronto’s historic Casa Loma castle. “The beauty of the location is it’s very green with a nice view at the top. It’s about 10 to 15 minutes from my home, which is a nice warm-up, and then I’ll usually go for five laps, running up [the steps] and then walking down. My max was eight. Then my legs are jelly, and I have to walk for a few minutes before running home,” says Kat.
Ready to climb? Four tips to get you started
1. Opt for the stairs.
Make the five-minute climb to your office twice a day, and you’ll burn 550 calories a week—the same as going for a 7K run on Saturday.
2. Visit your city’s scenic staircases.
Find a favourite one by a historic site, on an escarpment or even in a shopping mall, and make climbing it a regular part of your fitness plan.
3. Add steps to your routine.
If you run or power walk at a high school or university track, climb up the bleachers or stadium steps, too. Or hop on the Stairmaster between weight-training sets at home or the gym.
4. Work toward a goal.
Sign up for a charity stair-climb race—it’ll keep you motivated to work out.
Click here to see our favourite charity climbing races.