Great question! My answer? It depends (shocking, I know)!
As we’ve been exploring these past few weeks with my FAQ posts (check them out here and here), fitness is a very relative term. If you’re looking for good overall health and fitness (aka you don’t have any specific fitness goals) and are simply looking for a cheap (aka free) and easy (aka simple) way to move your body and challenge your fitness stairs might be your jam! Stairs can be a great way to get your heart pumping and challenge the strength and endurance of your muscles. In case you’re making a tally that’s 2/3 elements of the fitness equation). Paired with a stretch at the end we’ve got a big 3/3 win! Cardiovascular, Muscular strength + endurance AND Flexibility. #boom….BUT (you heard that coming didn’t you?) stairs are NOT for everyone. AND even if you fit in the category of who they may be good for there are a few very important considerations to keep in mind.
According to a study conducted at Queens University the strain at the knee when walking stairs was 3-6x the force of normal body weight. If you pick that up to a run that strain was as high as 8x the force of normal body weight! Want to geek out? Here’s the article.
What does this mean for you? If you have knee issues I would highly consider another mode of heart pumping, muscle building fun. Perhaps one that is a bit lower in impact. At least until your knees are happy.
If you ARE going to do them, FORM needs to be impeccable! If you aren’t tracking properly at the knee, or your technique isn’t spot on – you’re putting a high degree of strain on your knees and putting yourself at risk of injury. So, does this mean I’m kyboshing stairs? Nope. It just means I encourage you to be VERY careful and follow these 3 important tips:
1. Be mindful of your alignment. Stand tall, chest lifted and eyes up (tripping is another hazard – but also looking down cuts off your airway!). Most importantly, watch that your knees are stacking over your ankle as you climb (and as you descend – the “eccentric” or negative as you go down the steps is equally challenging and tends to get sloppy as you fatigue). Stay light on your feet and use your arms. Hold them at a 90 degree angle at the elbow and swing them intentionally to power up your legs.
2. Engage your core! I know this seems like an obvious one – but it’s essential that you maintain proper hip alignment in stair climbing. Watch that you’re not hitching your hips up side to side as you climb. Think of your hips as a bucket – don’t let that bucket tip front/back OR side/side. Lift the pelvic floor & engage!
3. Progress thoughtfully. Please do NOT go out and simply start walking OR running multiple repeats. Start on some hills and simply WALK some hill repeats. Once you feel strong there – then progress to including 1-2 sets of stairs. As that feels good, progress to a few more sets. ONLY once you have good form on more sets should you consider increasing your pace! Remember QUALITY always trumps QUANTITY! FORM is QUEEN!
4. More isn’t better. Do not start hitting the stairs multiple times per week. This is an INTENSE workout for both cardio and muscular strength/ endurance. Start with no more than once per week. I would personally recommend sticking with one, but if you’re SUPER committed to it I wouldn’t recommend any more than 2 in combination with other activities that offer less intensity (think 1 stair workout, 1-2 more gentle walks/ run/ swim/ bike, 1-2 strength based workouts – you might even check out my Anytime Anywhere workout to compliment your stair days). To download this workout for FREE click here.