Using the Stairs Can Take Your Fitness to New Heights

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July 08, 2016 • 66,026 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Doing the same exercise program every day can get boring and reduce the benefits you experience
  • Using the stairs allows you to take advantage of vertical work, against gravity, to increase intensity and get more results
  • Design a personalized program using just a set of stairs to build strength, endurance and flexibility

By Dr. Mercola

Your body has 360 joints. Your heart pumps 2,000 gallons of blood every day. Your body was made for movement. Unfortunately, global studies indicate you may be sitting between 7.7 and 15 waking hours each day.1

Prolonged hours in a chair may increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, depression and a host of muscle and joint problems. Researchers are catching up with my recommendation that you sit no more than three hours in your entire waking day.

Health experts now recommend Americans work standing up for at least two hours each day, and work up to standing for four of their eight hours at work each day.2 Increasing amounts of movement and exercise helps reduce your overall potential risks for illness and disease, and help you to feel better.

Changing your exercise routine can help improve your motivation to move, boost your metabolic rate and work different muscles in your body. Changing your routine doesn’t mean you need new equipment, a new sport or even a new gym though. You can simply use your surrounding environment to pump your fitness up a notch.

Use the Stairs

In an effort to reduce the effects of obesity on New Yorkers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg developed an initiative to require city agencies to promote the use of stairways over elevators and for future design strategies in new construction to encourage the use of stairs.3

While a consistent use of the steps won’t increase your weight loss, it will help to improve your fitness or the ability of your muscles to work.

And, stairs are an excellent way to get in a good cardio workout, especially when the heat index increases the potential for heat-related illness, were you to exercise outdoors, or when it’s raining.

All you’ll need are about 15 stairs, whether in your own home or another public building. If the weather is good, bring these exercises outdoors to absorb sunlight and enjoy the fresh air.

Although a recommendation for the height of the step you use is made, the step you use in each of the following exercises will depend upon the height of the steps and how tall you are.

This exercise routine can easily be incorporated in my Peak Fitness high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

By working up to do these movements with high intensity over 30 seconds, you may experience the benefits described in my previous article titled “Peak Fitness: Reap the Benefits of High-Intensity Interval Training.”

In the following video, I explain why a Peak Fitness Program is the key to producing natural human growth hormone (HGH), aka the “fitness hormone.”

Cardio on the Stairs

Cardiovascular exercise on stairs increases your heart rate quickly and engages your hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps and core muscles more than working out on a flat surface.4 The effect of working against gravity while climbing increases your work output.

Begin your exercise by warming up. Go up and down the steps slowly, head up and shoulders back, three times before beginning any of the following exercises. This increases the blood flow to your legs and starts your heart pumping faster.

Skating Steps

This movement works the outside of your thigh, so be sure to do the iliotibial (IT) band stretch below on the same day. Stand facing the steps. Lift your left foot to the second step on the far left side of the stairs. Follow with your right leg going to the far right of the fourth step.5

Continue up the stairs taking them two at a time. This action mimics the work of a speed skater, giving you both cardio and strength in your quadriceps and abductor muscles of your upper legs.

Alternatively, if you have access to wide, deep and short stairs you may accomplish the same muscle movements using just one step.6 

Stand facing the left with feet hip-width apart on the lower step. Hop up to the upper step with your right foot, bring your left foot behind your right leg and lunge forward to tap your hand to the ground.

You may not be able to “curtsy” to the ground in the lunge, but go as far as you are comfortable without losing your balance. Reverse the motion, hopping down the step with the left foot and bringing your right leg behind your left, bending the knee on the left and bending to tap the ground.

The motion should imitate the movement of a speed skater. Up and down the step once is one repetition. Aim for 12 repetitions facing left and another 12 facing right.

Running Mountains

This movement can also be done flat on the floor, but using the stairs to incline your body increases the work against gravity and the intensity of the movement.

Facing the stairs, place your hands firmly on the second step, keeping your arms and elbows aligned tightly with your shoulders.7 Extend your legs backwards and engage your core, as you would in a plank position or the start of a pushup.

Bring your left knee toward your left shoulder and replace it in the start position without touching the floor. Repeat with your right foot toward your right shoulder. This is one repetition. Start by doing 12 and work toward running in place for 30 to 60 seconds.

High Knees

This movement works your hip flexors, quadriceps and glutes. With head up and shoulders back, jog up the stairs, drawing your knees as high as possible. Take your time at first to avoid losing your balance. As you get better with the movement, you can increase the intensity by increasing your speed.

Bear Crawl

This movement works your quadriceps and core muscles, as well as your arms and shoulders.8

Start at the bottom of the stairs. Place your hands on the second or third step and “crawl” up the steps using just your hands and feet. Going up once is one repetition. Start with six reps and work up to doing the bear crawl for 30 to 60 seconds.

Muscle-Strengthening Step Exercises

The following exercises help to strengthen the large muscle groups in your legs while increasing your heart rate, doing double duty as strengthening and cardiovascular exercises. For a visual demonstration of several of these exercises, please see this Greatist article.9

Step Up to Reverse Lunge

The reverse lunge works your glutes, quadriceps, soleus (calves) and adductor magnus (inside of the leg).10 Doing them on the incline of the stairs increases the intensity of the exercise. Start facing the stairs with your left foot on the second step (use the first step if you’re a beginner) and your right leg behind you.11 Move forward and up the steps, raising your right knee toward your chest.

Step back to your start position. Take your left foot off the step and move it behind your right foot, dropping into lunge position. Proper positioning is necessary to reduce the risk of injury.

Be sure your knee does not go past your toes. Move your right leg back only as far as you’re comfortable and can maintain your balance. This is one repetition. Do 12 on the left and then switch feet, starting with your right leg on the second step, and do 12 more.

Triceps Dips

Looking for a way to reduce the flapping skin under your upper arms? The triceps dip is the perfect way to work those muscles, which aren’t often worked in your daily activities.

Turn your back to the steps and sit on the edge of the second or third step.12 Press the palms of your hands onto one step up behind you, with your fingers facing your body and your elbows tight to your body. Be sure your elbows don’t point out from your body but instead point straight back. Lift your body off the stairs a couple inches and slowly drop back down. Lift and repeat 12 times.

Incline or Decline Pushups

By changing your orientation, you can increase the intensity of pushups. Incline pushups work on indoor steps or outdoors on wide, shallow height steps, but decline pushups on indoor stairs are not for the faint of heart or beginners. The percent of incline using indoor stairs will be steep and is an advanced move.13

Place your hands on the first, second or third step, with your fingers pointing forward. The different heights will work different muscle groups, but the higher pushup may feel easier at first. Place your feet behind you and get into a pushup position. Raise and lower yourself one time slowly. This is one repetition. Try to do 12 for one set.

Decline pushups are more difficult as they place more weight on your upper extremities and require more work through your core. Place your hands on the floor and your feet on the first, second or third step. Because the steps are graduated, you may start on the first step and work up to the third step.

Place your hands on the floor in the pushup position. Lower your body to the floor slowly without releasing the tension in your arms and raise yourself back up to the starting position. This is one repetition. Try to do 12.

Alligator Crawl

The Alligator Crawl can be done on the steps when you have a wide set of stairs with a low rise.14 Face the left with your body the full width of the steps. Get into a plank or push up position on one step. Travel up the stairs initiating movement with your right arm and right leg going up the step and your left side following. Travel up eight steps and then back down. Turn facing the right side of the stairs and repeat with your left side leading up the steps.

Staggered Squat

Staggered squats are done on the stairs with one leg on a step and the other on the floor. These are best done on stairs without a high rise, or can be done on a low box or one large book. Don’t stack books to the height you want as they may slip and cause you to fall.

Start with feet shoulder-width apart, your right leg on a step no higher than 4 inches.15 Move into a squat position, driving your weight through your heels, hands at your waist or chest, head up and shoulders back. Don’t let your knees move over your toes to reduce pressure on the knee joints.

If the step is higher, it can cause an imbalance in your muscle development. Be sure you do an equal number of squats with your right leg on the upper plane and your left leg to ensure fairly equal muscle development.

Flexibility and Neurological Integration

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year millions over the age of 65 fall.16 Improving your flexibility and integration will help improve your balance, and therefore help reduce your risk of falling. It is easier to maintain your flexibility and balance than to regain it.

Calf Raise

A calf raise is both a strengthening movement for your soleus muscle (calf) and a dynamic stretch of the same area.17 Stand on a step, holding the wall or banister for balance. Allow your heel to hang off the step and drop your weight through your heel so it drops below the step.

This stretches your Achilles heel and your soleus muscle. Be careful not to overstretch and injure the area. Raise up on your toes and lower slowly to the starting position again. Repeat three or four times.18

Crossover Steps

Starting at the bottom of the steps and facing left, raise your right leg to the first step. Cross your left leg over the right to the next step higher. Raise the right foot to the next step and cross the left leg over again. Jog to the bottom and repeat on the other side.

Once you are confident going up the steps crossing over, you can go down crossing your legs. In this case, you will go up and down facing the same direction and then switch when you get to the bottom again. This ensures the muscles on both sides are worked equally.

Hamstring Stretch

Stretching your hamstring muscle group helps reduce the potential for injury. A light stretch on the steps can improve your flexibility, but overdoing it can injure your leg or your lower back.

Stand close to the wall, facing the steps.19 You can use the wall for balance if you are unable to maintain the position. Put your left leg on a step so your leg is at a 90-degree angle to your body. Lean slowly over, gradually increasing your range until you can touch your toe on the elevated leg.

IT Band Stretch

Your IT band is a thick fibrous band of muscles extending from your knee to your hip. When they become tight, you may experience knee or hip pain. Stand on the floor facing the stairs. Place your right hand on the banister or wall. Lift your right leg to the second or third step and cross it in front of your body. Lay the right side of your right ankle on the step and bend slowly to touch the step.20

Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat on the other side. This is one repetition. Do four to five repetitions slowly. Remember, do not bounce during a stretch as it may cause micro-tears in the muscle.

Adductor Stretch

Your adductor muscles are on the inside of your upper leg and responsible for pulling your leg inward, toward the center. Stretch them easily and slowly by standing at the bottom of the steps, facing the left side.21

Lift your left foot to the third or fourth step, or until you feel a slight stretch on the inside of your leg. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, turn and repeat on the other side. You should not stretch until you feel pain as you may cause damage to the muscles that could sideline you from your exercise program for weeks.

Gluteal Stretch

Most of the movements on the steps use your gluteal muscles. Stand on the floor facing the stairs. Put your right leg on the fourth step and lean in to the leg, hugging your knee. You’ll feel the stretch in your glutes. Bring your right leg down and repeat on the left, holding for 15 to 30 seconds. Do not stretch until you feel pain.

A 15-Minute Program You Can Live With

Consider using this list to develop your own 15-minute program. There are a couple of rules. It is important that you start slow. Especially if you don’t have a high level of fitness now, working against gravity makes the program more difficult. If you get so sore the first day that you can’t continue, you’ll reduce the benefit of the program.

Pain is not good. The adage of “no pain, no gain” is not appropriate here. You want to work out until it’s difficult but not until you feel pain in your muscles. Remembering to breathe through the workout, and not hold your breath, can help you relax and work harder.

Avoid doing strengthening exercises for your upper or lower body two days in a row. If you do triceps dips today, wait for two days to do them again. This helps your muscles to rebuild from the work done today. Choose two strengthening exercises, two cardio exercises and two from the flexibility list. Do each exercise back-to-back, each for 60 seconds. At the end of the first set rest, for 90 seconds and repeat two more times.

Consider interspersing stretches during your 90 seconds of rest. If an area of your body is chronically tight, you may want to stretch that area each day. Although in this program you choose two stretches, you may choose to do all the stretches daily. However, it is important you do not do the same strengthening exercises each day for the reasons outlined above.

If you repeat stair exercises the next day, vary the exercises. Your goal is to work different muscles with each workout to improve your strength and conditioning as well as keep your interest in the workout. Keep a journal of the exercises you choose so you don’t repeat them too often.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 The Facts About Sitting, Standing & Your Health | JustStand.org. (2016). Juststand.org. Retrieved 29 June 2016
  • 2 Schulte, B. (2016). Health experts have figured out how much time you should sit each day. Washington Post. Retrieved 29 June 2016,
  • 3 El-Naggar, M. (2013). Next Steps in Bloomberg’s Obesity Fight: Up the Stairs. Nytimes.com.
  • 4, 5, 7, 11, 12 15-Minute Stairs Workout. (2016). Real Simple
  • 6, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15 Ritterbeck, M. (2016). Staircase Moves to Take Your Workout to the Next Level. Greatist. Retrieved 29 June 2016
  • 10 Chrysanthou, A. (2016). What Muscle Does the Backward Lunge Work?. Healthyliving.azcentral.com.
  • 16 Important Facts about Falls | Home and Recreational Safety | CDC Injury Center. (2016). Cdc.gov.
  • 17, 18 Ankle Stretches Using Stairs. (2016). Livehealthy.chron.com.
  • 19, 20, 21 Using Stair Exercises To Improve Strength, Power, Flexibility & Conditioning!. (2004). Bodybuilding.com.