Because stairs are so accessible both outdoors in the community or as standard pieces of equipment at a gym, it’s easy to get started. Once you’ve located your steps, here’s what you need to know.
1. Warm Up
Before a cardio workout, warm up with an activity that increases your heart rate. Walk or pedal on an exercise bike first for about 5 to 10 minutes, recommends Bridget Behrmann, the vice president of operations at the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati and an ACE-certified personal trainer.
2. Start Slow
If you’re new to stair workouts, start with two to five minutes and then pause to gauge how you feel, says Behrmann. On a scale of 1 to 10, are you at a 5? Then, add one additional minute next time. If you’re at a 7 or 8? Next workout, you might want to stick with five minutes again. Gradually work your way up.
3. Control Your Tempo
It’s tempting to want to move up the first flight of stairs as fast as you can. But that’s a good way to peter out quickly. Berhmann suggests a stair climbing workout for beginners that breaks into a 1-2-3 workout.
- Start by walking up the stairs and walking down.
- On the second set, add your arms and increase your speed a little bit; descend the stairs with a walk or light jog. (This helps you recover before each stair climb.)
- On the third set of stairs, “go the hardest you can go safely,” says Behrmann. Again, on the descent, walk or lightly jog down.
For the remainder of the workout, you can repeat this pattern or create a pattern of your choice. (Alternate between 2 and 3, for example.)
If you’re on a machine, you can gradually increase your tempo in a similar way. What’s important is that you begin at a doable pace for you so that you can complete your planned workout. Also understand how to operate the machine in case you need to stop it quickly.
4. Mind the Rails
It’s easy to cheat when using some stair machines because you can hold onto the rails and use them to take weight off your lower body. The problem is, says Glassey, this puts undue pressure on your wrists and shoulders. Once you are comfortable using the machine and balancing on it, he recommends wrapping a towel around the back of the console of the machine so that the towel dangles straight down. Hold onto the towel and don’t touch the rails. If you need to hold onto the rails, that’s okay, but make sure you’re relying on them for stability — not to take a load off your body, he says.
5. Go Easy on Your Joints
One of the downsides to a stair workout is that going down the stairs can be high-impact on your lower body, says Glassey. (Going up stairs, on the other hand, does not cause this pounding.) Beginners are more likely to get extremely sore on stair workouts because of the downward component, which can be demotivating.
“Over time, this soreness will go away as your muscles become adapted, but the impact is still there,” he says. Glassey recommends climbing upstairs in a building and then taking an elevator down. If that’s not an option or you’re climbing stairs outside, you can go downstairs with less impact by changing your foot position. Descend slowly with toes turned in (pigeon toed) or out (duck feet). Additional resistance training that focuses on the lower body can help increase strength and take pressure off the joints.
With a stair machine this isn’t an issue, since you’re continuously climbing up.
6. Cool Down
You can cool down just as you began: Take an easy walk or ride on the exercise bike for five minutes, says Behrmann.
7. Incorporate Stair Workouts Gradually
When it comes to creating a beginner stair climber workout plan, ease into it. Avoid jumping into a plan that has you climbing stairs five days a week right off the bat. “Think about gradually introducing the activity and making slower, incremental increases to the activity demands by considering the FITT principles: frequency, intensity, time and type,” says Lempke.
That means: Slowly change these variables as you feel stronger and in need of more of a challenge — not all at once. Do a longer stair workout, lightly jog instead of walk, or do stairs twice a week instead of once.