How to Use a Stair Climber Machine

A stair climber could be the secret to burning major calories during your workout. We're demystifying this common gym machine.

“A stair climber machine is just big, actual, moveable stairs,” says Aaptiv trainer Candice Cunningham.

“There are many different brands, but most are similar in what they do. You adjust speeds or levels to get stairs to go faster or slower.” 

What types of stair climber machines exist, and what are the similarities and differences?

Stair climber machine, step mill, StairMaster, stair stepper machine, stair workout machine, step machine, step climber—there are tons of names for this machine. It became a fan favorite after being introduced in the 1980s due to its low impact nature. It’s also popular due to its ability to increase both endurance and stamina.

Technically you’re on a slow road to nowhere on the stair climber. However, you can easily customize your workout for speed and resistance to combat boredom. Trust us when we say that the right stair climber workout can leave you dripping in sweat within minutes. You’ll tone and strengthen your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and booty, plus get your heart and lungs pumping.

“You can easily customize your workout for speed and resistance to combat boredom.”

Climbing machines with pedals are usually called “steppers.” These move fast, forcing you to take quick steps. Other types have a rolling set of stairs, known as stepmills. All these are considered stationary cardio machines that can be customized with workout programming, explains Mark Allison, Fitness Manager III of 24 Hour Fitness Escondido North County Mall Club in Escondido, CA. And, most stair climber machines tend to offer heart rate monitor compatibility, handrails, LCD consoles, and even TV options.

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What are some tips and tricks for using a stair climber in your exercise routine?

Stair climber workouts allow you to burn calories while developing strength and power. You can modify to make your stair climber workout more challenging or add variability, such as intervals, taking stairs one step at a time in a workout for beginners, or exploring the challenge of two or three steps at a time.

“Drive through your heels, not toes, to target glutes and hamstrings versus being knee dominant and using your quads,” adds Cunningham. “Stand tall and keep a neutral spine. Hold the handrails lightly out in front of you, not below. And when turning around on it, always go slower until you get the hang of it.”

Allison says if you have any lower back or knee pain, warm up with basic mobility exercises for your foot, ankle, hips, and spine prior to getting on the stair climber. “Foam roll your calves, inner thighs, quads, glutes, and mid-back. This will hydrate your tissues and help create more space between your joints so you can climb more without pain, tightness, or stiffness.”

Why are stair climber workouts effective?

You may wonder what does the stair stepper work. Although step climbing works your heart, it also uses your legs in a strenuous fashion to build muscle, creating an effective workout.

“Stair climbers are easy to use and offer a variety of options for different types of metabolic conditioning or cardio programming,” says Allison. “Users will improve movement, improve recovery and regeneration and decrease wear and tear on tissues and joints, among other high-level benefits. It’ll also burn calories up to 24 hours after a workout!”

Cunningham warns the benefits depend on the type of stair climber workout, though. “All stair climber or step machine workouts and speeds are different, so it depends on what you are specifically doing. Stairs cause you to work on cardiovascular strength. You engage the lower body in a way that is different than running, as you are going against gravity with climbing, which can make it more difficult. Always start slow, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes—just like anything else.”

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What sorts of workouts can you do on stair climbers?

“Variable metabolic conditioning or cardio-based workouts can be done on stair climbers ranging from high-intensity to recovery and regeneration,” says Allison. He recommends a focus on HIIT variations and recovery-based interval training as a whole. Favorites include high-intensity interval training, high-intensity steady state, and sub-threshold Intensity Interval Training defined as aerobic interval training that is all about creating intermittent bouts of sustainable activity.

Cunningham suggests going in multiple directions with your stair climber workouts in order to target different glute muscles. “You can do fat burning, HIIT style, Endurance, Stamina, Progressive climbing, lower body toning focused, and strength.”

Is there anything you should avoid when working out on a stair stepper?

“Stand tall—do not hunch over!” Cunningham says. “That causes pressure on your lower back and takes away from targeting your glutes and lower body like it should. Also, don’t go faster than you can build up speed over time. Finally, never get on it while it is moving; turn it on after you get on the machine.”

Allison echoes proper form when it comes to posture: “When using the stair climber, do not take the weight off your legs by leaning on the handrails. Apply only light pressure to balance yourself. Keep your shoulders back and look straight ahead.”

Both experts says to always consult your physician or a personal trainer/health coach before embarking on stair climber workouts, to make sure it is a good fit for your exercise routine.

According to Allison, the most common models of stair climber machines are below, with some outlined differences in features:

StairMaster Gauntlet 8 StepMill

StairMaster Free Climber 8

Precor Adaptive Motion Trainer (AMT)

What sort of programming is available on common stair climber models?

Allison says each machine has adjustable preset and customized programs, where you can enter your age and weight for accurate calorie expenditure estimates, target heart rates, or desired time frames.

The Precor AMT has specific programs for weight loss, fat burning, manual or interval training, and the Free Climber includes 10 standard console programs (Quick Start, Fat Burner, Calorie Burner, Speed Intervals, Custom Intervals, Random Intervals, Heart Rate Intervals, Calorie Goal, and Heart Rate Zone Trainer) plus two fitness tests.

The Gauntlet model has the most comprehensive set of pre-programmed workouts. It offers 10 standard console programs (very similar to the Free Climber), several fitness tests, and a Landmark Challenge Program. “Users can climb well-known landmarks from around the world, like the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the Taj Mahal,” says Allison. It also provides adjustable programs ranging from manual—where you set the pace—to interval—where the machines automatically speed up and slow down based on a set time schedule.

What do all the buttons on a stair climber machine mean?

“The buttons allow you to safely start, stop or pause the machine, enter your age, weight, desired heart rate or heart rate zones, calorie burn, program, interval levels and time, adjust speed of the revolving staircase (StairMaster Gauntlet 8), resistance level and intensity of the StairMaster Free Climber 8 and Precor AMT),” notes Allison.

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