If you’re looking for a low-impact cardio workout to burn calories, increase core strength, and boost your heart rate, then stair climber machines might be the perfect way to switch things up. But, like any type of stationary cardio, good form is essential if you want to reap the benefits of stair climber workouts. Here are the top three stair climber mistakes that trainers see most often, and how to avoid them.
Hanging On The Handrails
“While holding onto the railings is inherently a matter of safety, it tremendously decreases the amount of load onto your legs. [This] decreases the amount of muscle work from our glutes and hamstrings,” explains Dr. Cindy Liang, a physical therapist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. “A method to avoid this, while still being safe, is to simply place fingertips from each hand onto the railing. Or just use one hand lightly without leaning to that side. Focus on engaging and tightening your legs to propel your body upward.”
If it feels like your legs are “treading” behind you, then you’re probably putting too much weight on the handrails, notes James Shapiro, an NYC-based trainer. Doing so also places unnecessary stress on your shoulders, and reduces core engagement, notes Trainer and Coach Melis Edwards.
“The point of the exercise is for you to ‘mimic’ climbing stairs or hiking up a hillside. [And] the work needed for your legs, core, and upper body to perform this motion,” adds Edwards. “By hanging on, or leaning over onto the display, you have just decreased your body weight through the support of your arms, making the activity easier to perform. By standing tall, and only using the handrails for guidance, you will place the workout demand on the intended muscles, gaining strength in your limbs and through your entire torso, while also [reaping] cardiovascular benefits.”
Leaning Too Far Forward
Shapiro says collapsing your chest, and leaning forward to face down toward the steps, is another of the common stair climber mistakes he sees. It prevents optimal lung capacity. Maintaining an upright posture keeps your hip flexors from overworking.
“It is easy to lean forward in order to avoid falling backward off the stair climber. Or to accidentally cheat and make the exercise easier,” says Dr. Liang. “Unfortunately, this also decreases the amount of muscle contraction, mainly through our buttocks and quadriceps. It is better to stay upright and initiate each step with a butt squeeze while maintaining the position of the hips over the legs. As always, engage your core to increase oblique activation and deep stabilizers.”
Taking Tiny Steps Off The Balls of Your Feet
One stair climber myth? Taking short, quick steps based on the assumption that the faster you move, the better your workout. Edwards says that this is true to some extent since you’ll send your heart rate up. However, doing so doesn’t actually impact larger muscle groups.
“Over the years, I’ve seen individuals climbing stairs that do not exist in real life—meaning, [that] they are about one inch high,” Edwards continues. “You can work these little steps at such a quick turnover, typically with only toes resting on the step. Calves are then the true recipient of the effort. To get a better workout, take true steps. These will be six to eight inches high, with your foot placed firmly on the step. Press your foot down and step your body up rather than forward.”
Dr. Liang says that stair climber mistakes can lead to decreased benefits. Stair climbers are an excellent choice if you want to target your glutes, thighs, and abdominals. Using a stair climber can also improve bone strength and promote weight loss, as well as heart health. But the maximum benefit will only be received when you focus on proper form.
“As with all exercises, form should be the first thing we master,” concludes Edwards. “However, we are a society of wanting quick results—doing exercises faster and faster without learning why we should do them correctly, if not slower. To get better gains out of your workouts, learn how to move correctly first. Think of it this way: form overpower or effort.”