Sprinting is one of the best cardio options. It represents the original and most natural task that got your blood pumping. Unfortunately it has a major disadvantage compared to running stairs.
Explosive movements that occur during regular sprinting without resistance can harm you. These cause force spikes that can lead to a muscle tear among other injuries. Running stairs slows you down enough to make it much safer.
Running up a flight of stairs is as old-school as it gets but works well. It raises the heart rate due to plenty of movement created by lots of muscle. Performing intervals on stairs rank alongside the other best ways to perform cardio such as resisted sprinting and jumping. If you chose this as your only cardio, you may grow bored but would meet all the criteria. It would work for a lifetime.
You can use any set of indoor or outdoor stairs. Any fair number of steps will work. Run more lengths for shorter distances and avoid going up too far if the flight extends too long.
While many machines focus on the lower body and lock you into an unnatural pattern of movement, you have complete control with stairs.
Stairclimbing uses the body as a unit and therefore fosters synergy. Synergy means that all the parts contribute to create an effect greater than each part added up but working alone. The legs, torso, arms, and core work together.
The major muscles attached to the hips, knees, and ankles launch you upward. The upper body works intensely during the arm swing, which means it is the most effective type of cardio. You will feel it in the chest, shoulders, back, and arms despite the focus on getting the legs moving.
Your core works to stabilize, resist the arms, and contribute through rotation. The other stabilizers work since your body is unrestricted, involving the inner thigh, outer hips, feet, legs, and so on.
Although stairs generate higher impact forces, this can strengthen the body if you are cautious enough to use good form and back off if you ever feel aching in your joints.
Stairs have clear conditions to measure progress. You can increase the resistance via a backpack or weighted vest. You can also cover more ground by increasing your pace. You have clear feedback and can improve even just a step at a time.
None of these disadvantages ultimately take away from the value of running stairs but you should still be aware of them.
- Seems harder to progress through speed.
For a given interval, you can only cover so much ground in a length of time. Since stair climbing relies on a high power output, getting another step hits a limit. At this point you can add resistance to your bodyweight but this carries some disadvantages as well.
- Can feel harsh on the joints.
Stairs are tougher on the back, knees, and ankles. As you fatigue, it grows harder to control the strikes with your feet. This will seem hard to resist as you fatigue. This feels more jolting versus running up a hill where your foot remains closer to the ground.
You need to apply discipline. Lower softly. Resist the foot strike especially going back down the stairs. Once your foot strikes a stair, move quickly with the other limb. The effect of the pre-stretch will help to protect you.
Some may find that stairs are simply too harsh and need to consider another option.
- Tests qualities beyond cardiovascular endurance.
Lactic acid will build up in the lower body. Climbing stairs require a brutal mix of strength and endurance. Stairs involve slower and heavier movements.
Other forms of cardio are more continuous, have less small breaks between strokes, involve less resistance, and therefore stress the heart and lungs as the limiting factors versus the muscles. Therefore stairs can easily focus on the receivers (muscles) more than the senders (heart and lungs). This is less ideal since effective cardio should challenge the senders foremost.
If you use proper form by leaning forward and aggressively swinging your arms, that should offset this issue. This will create more overall movement and allow more muscles to help, lessening the burden on the legs.
- Can feel quad-dominant versus hip dominant.
Due to various moment arms and positions you adopt, the quads can begin to dominate the movement. A good exercise, whether focused on strength or endurance, should balance the forces across multiple joints and muscles. Overstressing the quads could harm your knees in the long-run. Once again you can offset this by leaning forward and using your arms.
How to Perform Intervals with Stairs
Include an easy warm-up such as walking on level land or up and down the stairs for 3-5 minutes. You can stretch if needed. I suggest using the Tabata protocol for intervals as it works to develop both endurance for short sprints (anaerobic endurance) and for longer durations (aerobic endurance). This has you work for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest each cycle. It gives you an efficient and proven system.
Begin at the bottom of the stairs. If this is your first time, you need to pay attention to establish intensity. Figure out the rate for the first 20 second period. If a 10 represents the highest possible effort on a 1-10 scale, try to achieve 7-8 on your first cycle. Measure the distance you cover to find this out easily. For example, you may find that with a shorter flight of stairs that you can get up and down 6 times within 20 seconds. For a long length, you may get up and back down only once and halfway.
Once you establish an initial rate, you have a guideline that becomes your first goal to overcome. You can then improve upon this in future sessions. You repeat this cycle 6-10 times for a total of 3-5 minutes. If you achieve this pace for all 20 second periods lasting the full 3-5 minutes, try for a greater distance or resistance the next workout.
If you find it becomes too difficult to achieve your goal length in later cycles, finish doing your best. If you could achieve this pace for most of the cycles then keep it. If not, set an easier goal for yourself.
If you achieve this goal, bump up the demands for the next workout. Cover more distance or add a backpack with weight or a weight vest. Consider jumps of 1-5 pounds, adding less as you get better. Perform more work in the same amount of time.
Form and Considerations
You want to feel that getting out-of-breath is the factor that limits you. Yes, you may feel a burning in your thighs but you should never feel like this factor overwhelms you enough to stop running the stairs. You also never want to feel that the weight has grown so heavy as to prevent good form and stress your joints. If this becomes an issue, remember good form (lean forward, swing arms, land softly) and emphasize speed over adding too much weight. You need to figure out the proper balance for yourself.
Keep the rest intervals and time constant. This is the beauty of intervals. While most chumps just add time to their cardio workouts, you can keep time constant. As long as you hit a minimum time for aerobic work (which seems as anything above 2 minutes), then you will stimulate aerobic improvement.
I typically recommend bounding up every other step or even more. This works muscles at their strongest lengths and allows greater speed. It also allows you to move naturally and lean forward. Those that take one step at a time tend to adopt a more upright position that stresses the knees and limits their speed. You can manipulate this as well as you get in better shape.
Putting It All Together
How many times a week? An impossible question unfortunately. Pay attention to your body. The higher your performance, the less often you should do it. Some can perform it 5 times a week and others do best just twice. Make sure you can progress in some very small way each workout.
If you would run stairs, stretch as needed, and use the three basic lifts, you would have an effective program. You would develop every aspect of fitness. You would achieve far more than those chasing easy, complicated, and false solutions, stumbling toward nowhere and wasting time.
Try running stairs for intervals as your cardio.