What Muscles Does A Stair Stepper Work? 6 Benefits Of Climbing Stairs

All cardio exercise machines strengthen your heart and lungs, but also they strengthen the specific muscles the exercise uses. Rowing machines, ellipticals, and ski ergs, to name just a few, will all target different muscle groups.

So, what muscles does a stair stepper work? What are the benefits of a stair climber machine or StairMaster workout?

In this article, we will discuss the muscles worked by a stair stepper machine, the benefits of the stair climber, and what you can expect in terms of stair stepper before and after results.

We will cover: 

  • What Is a Stair Stepper or Stair Climber?
  • What Muscles Does a Stair Stepper Work?
  • 6 Benefits of the Stair Climber

Let’s dive in! 

A person on a stair stepper.

What Is a Stair Stepper or Stair Climber?

A stair stepper machine, stair climber machine, or name-brand StairMaster, are all types of stationary exercise machines that involve either stepping up and down on foot pedals that simulate climbing stairs or stepping up rotating stairs that you ascend.

Most stair stepper machines involve just stepping on alternating pedals that mimic the resistance and incline of climbing stairs.

The StairMaster and other stair stepper machines have a bit of a learning curve, and they take coordination to use, but once you get the hang of the movement, stair climbers and stair stepper machines are pieces of cardio equipment that can offer a great aerobic workout.

Climbing stairs is a fantastic workout and is very challenging for your heart and lungs, but you also work quite a few muscles on the stair stepper, which is why one of the main benefits is that the workouts provide a hybrid of resistance and cardio.

Stair stepper machines.

What Muscles Does A Stair Stepper Work?

Stair climbing workouts will work the same muscles whether you are using a stair stepper machine, stair climber machine, StairMaster, or climbing real stairs, but the nuanced differences in movement patterns between the different types of stair stepper exercise machine may alter the relative workload on certain muscles.

This means that all types of stair-climbing machines use the same muscles to some degree, but any one type of stair-stepper machine might target some of these muscles slightly more and others slightly less than a different type of machine.

All stair stepper workouts predominantly work the quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes. You’ll build a lot of strength in the posterior chain muscles because you’re only ascending the stairs on these exercise machines rather than also descending the stairs.

Let’s look more closely at the muscles worked by the stair climber machines:

A person on a stair stepper.

Glutes

The glutes, or gluteal muscles, are the muscles in your butt that are responsible for hip extension and stabilizing the hips.

The Gluteus maximus is the largest and strongest gluteal muscle. It is involved in extending the leg when you step down on the stair stepper pedal, and your hip goes from a raised, flexed position into a straightened position.

The smaller gluteal muscles—gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and deeper gluteal muscles like piriformis and the obturator muscles—help stabilize the hips in the side-to-side direction or frontal plane.

These muscles are worked heavily during stair stepper workouts because the exercise is a unilateral movement, meaning that your two legs are operating independently. 

When one leg reaches up to the next step, the other is simultaneously pressing down on the other one. This puts your hips in the constant challenging position of stabilizing the pelvis when it is tilted on two different levels. 

As a result, all of these smaller gluteal and hip muscles are working during the entire stair climber workout throughout the pedal-stepping cycle.

A person on a stair stepper, what muscles are being worked? The calves.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are the group of muscles that run along the backside of your thigh from the base of the pelvis on the ischial tuberosity (sit bones) to the back of the knee.

There are three muscles that comprise the hamstrings muscle group: the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris. These muscles work in opposition to the quads on the front of your thigh. 

The hamstrings work with the glutes to extend the leg at your hip when you press down on the stair stepper pedal.

They also allow you to bend your knee at the end of the stair stepper pedal stroke when your leg is fully extended on the pedal that is lower down, and you are about to lift your leg up to allow the pedal to come back up to the top position.

Quads

The “quads” or “quad muscles” refer to the quadriceps, which are a group of four muscles that run along the front of your thigh between the pelvis and knee.

The quad muscle group includes the rectus femoris, which runs down the center of the thigh from the hip to the kneecap; the vastus lateralis, which is on the outer side of the front of the thigh; the vastus medialis, which runs along the more inner section of the front of the thigh; and the vastus intermedius, which also runs down the center. 

The four quad muscles work together to flex the leg at the hip, extend the knee, and stabilize the knee.

The quads play numerous roles on the stair climber machine, but their key function is to support your body weight and prevent the knee from collapsing when you are stepping onto one of the pedals (when you are on the weight-bearing leg).

The quads also flex the leg at the hip, which helps you lift your leg up at the bottom of the stepping motion to raise the pedal back up or climb onto the next step. 

A person on a stair stepper.

Hip Flexors

The hip flexors are a group of muscles along the front of the hip and pelvis that help flex the leg. 

The primary muscles in the hip flexor group are the psoas major and the iliacus (together called the iliopsoas), but the rectus femoris (one of the quad muscles), sartorius, and pectineus also are involved in allowing for hip flexion.

The hip flexor muscles play an important role in stair stepper exercise because they flex the hip so that you can drive your leg upward for the next step when transitioning from one foot to the other as you “climb” the stair stepper pedals in an alternating fashion.

Calves

The calf muscles, or calves, are found behind the lower leg, running from the back of the knee down to where they taper and connect to the heel in the prominent Achilles tendon.

There are two distinct muscles that form what we typically refer to as the calves: the two-headed gastrocnemius, which is the larger and stronger calf muscle, and the smaller and thinner underlying soleus.

The gastrocnemius helps flex the knee and plantarflex the ankle (like standing up on tiptoes). The soleus also helps plantarflex the foot and stabilizes the tibia so that your shin remains upright.

Together, the stair stepper works the muscles in the calves when you land on your foot and step upward, pressing upward and off on the pedal to transition to weight bearing on the opposite foot.

The calves also absorb the impact when you press down initially on each foot and the start of the stair-stepping motion during each step, helping decelerate and stabilize your leg. 

However, they are mainly involved in propelling your leg upward as you drive your weight-bearing leg up after pressing the pedal down as you’re about to bring that leg into the “swing phase” and step onto the other stair stepper foot pedal.

A person on a stair stepper.

Core and Upper-Body Muscles

Although the muscles worked by stair climber machines are dominated by those in the lower body and core, stair stepper workouts also use upper-body muscles.

Muscles in your arms (biceps and triceps), shoulders (deltoids and rotator cuff muscles), chest (pectoralis muscles), and upper back (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboids) are worked when you pump your arms (as long as you aren’t holding the handrails) and to support an upright posture with your chest up and shoulders back.

However, if you grip the handrails the whole time, you’ll negate the use of your upper body.

6 Benefits of the Stair Climber

In addition to providing a great muscular workout for many of the muscles in your body, there are other benefits of the stair stepper machine, including the following:

#1: Climbing Stairs Is a Great Cardio Workout

Stair climbing is a total-body workout, so you’ll quickly elevate your heart rate and respiration rate, improving the health, strength, and function of your heart and lungs.

A person on a stair stepper.

#2: Stair Stepper Workouts Burn a Lot of Calories

According to Obesity, stair climbing exercise burns more calories than jogging, so stair climbing can be an effective way to maintain a healthy weight.

Harvard Health Publishing reports that 30 minutes of “general stair stepper machine use” burns 180 calories for a 125-pound person, 216 calories for a 155-pound person, and 252 calories for a 185-pound person.

#3: Stair Stepper Workouts Can Improve Markers of Health and Reduce Your Risk of Lifestyle Diseases 

Aerobic exercise, such as using a stair climber machine, has been shown to improve markers of health, such as reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. 

There is evidence to suggest that walking up and down stairs for 3 minutes 1-3 hours after a meal can lower blood sugar levels.

Studies also have demonstrated that stair climbing exercise can reduce the risk of all-cause mortality. For example, a prospective health study of nearly 9,000 older men found that the number of stairs climbed on a routine basis was inversely associated with all-cause mortality, and even more so than regular walking.

Men who climbed an average of at least eight flights of stairs a day had a 33% lower mortality rate than men who were sedentary, while those that walked an average of 1.3 miles a day had only a 22% lower risk.

A person on a stair stepper.

#4: Stair Climber Workouts Can Improve Your Aerobic Capacity

Because stair climbing is such a cardiovascularly-demanding exercise, consistent stair stepper workouts can significantly improve your aerobic capacity or VO2 max.

One study found that even just short bouts of daily stair climbing can increase VO2 max. Previously sedentary women who performed up to five 2-minute bouts of stair climbing five days a week increased their VO2 by 17.1% over just 8 weeks. Moreover, there was a 7.7% reduction in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

Another 8-week study that used a very similar protocol of short bouts of stair climbing found that stair climbing exercise increased predictive VO2 max by 9.4%.

#5: Stair Stepper Workouts Improve Balance and Coordination

All types of stair climber machines involve engaging in a rhythmic, reciprocal, and repetitive activity that requires coordination, balance, agility, and core control, especially if you don’t hold onto the handrails.

Therefore, routinely performing stair stepper machine workouts can help hone these aspects of fitness.

A person climbing stairs.

#6: Stair Climbers Are a Low-Impact Exercise

Despite being a high-intensity exercise, stair stepper workouts are a low-impact activity, which can often be a difficult combination to find.

This makes stair stepper workouts ideal for anyone who suffers from joint pain or arthritis, as it can be a great low-impact cardio exercise alternative to running.

Overall, stair climber machines are a great low-impact exercise to work most of the major muscles in the body while improving cardiovascular health and boosting metabolism.

For some stair-climbing workouts to try yourself, check out our article: The 3 Best Stair Workout Variations To Push Yourself To New Levels.

People on stair stepper machines.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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