Take the Stairs to a Better Body

"HIIT" the stairs for a high intensity interval training workout

Stair running workout
Stair running workout. Inti St. Clair / Getty Images

High intensity interval training is one perhaps the most effective ways to build strength, stamina, and overall fitness. The trouble most people have with high intensity exercise is that it is typically hard to push yourself to the level needed to get the greatest benefits of the workout. Without some intense internal drive, or a good coach or a competitive spirit, it’s natural to slack off and convince yourself that you don’t have anything left to give.

Elite athletes know from experience that this is rarely the case. There is always just a little bit more to give.

Top athletes tend to have the determination and curiosity to see if they can find their personal limits. That sort of mindset is not common, but pushing yourself slightly harder during your interval sessions can help develop it. For example, when you think you can’t do one more push up, convince yourself to attempt just one more. You may be surprised. It is extremely uncomfortable to push yourself to the max. But without this sort of discomfort, there is a limit to the fitness gains you can achieve.

When it comes to high intensity interval training, one cleaver way to work around this inherent lack of motivation to work to your maximal threshold is to perform stair workouts. Whether you use the local high school bleachers, a public stairway, a tall office building or a sloping hillside, working against gravity will force your heart and lungs to their max whether or not your willpower wants to play along.

Stair Climbing and High Intensity Workouts

The benefits of stair climbing are vast. Research has shown that when sedentary people begin walking stairs regularly, they experience a dramatic increase in VO2 max in a few weeks. For one study, individuals begin walking up 200 steps twice a day for two months and found an average VO2 Max increase of 17 percent.

Studies on stair running, and stair climbing with a weighted vest (or backpack) find continued benefits even as an individual’s fitness level increases. Working against gravity on the stairs requires more muscles to be engaged than during walking or running on a flat surface. It also prevents any sort of cheating that many people find themselves doing (even if unconsciously) while using a stair machine, elliptical, or other exercise equipment. And for most people, stair climbing is safer than sprints when it comes to performing high intensity intervals. Other benefits of stair workouts include the fact that they can be free and you can tailor your workout to meet your fitness level.

Stair Workout Sampler

If you want to get started with a great interval training workout, consider stair climbing. Vary your pace and exercise duration with your fitness level and use the following three training routines as a guide.

Beginner Stair Workout

  • Beginners should start with stair walking
  • One sample workout is to find several flights of stairs that take 30-60 seconds to walk up.
  • Walk to the top, and walk back down
  • Repeat this for 3-5 sets

Intermediate Stair Workout

  • If you have an intermediate level of fitness, you can add more speed or more repetitions to your stair workouts.
  • For example, start jogging up the stairs for 30-60 seconds and then walk back down.
  • Or add extra repetitions and aim for 5-10 round trips up and down.
  • Intermediate workouts should last 15-20 minutes.

Advanced Stair Workout

  • Advanced athletes can increase speed, repetitions, and weight to stair workouts.
  • Run the stairs for 30-60 seconds bursts.
  • Walk or jog back down to allow recovery.
  • Repeat 10 times. 
  • Alternately, you can walk the stairs but add a weighted vest or pack for extra effort.

Safety Guidelines for Hight Intensity Interval Training

  • The first precaution for anyone who wants to get started with interval training workouts is to ensure that maximal exertion is safe for you. Your doctor is the best one to make that determination. If you have any heart conditions or blockages in your arteries, high intensity exercise can be dangerous and could lead to a heart attack. If you have other chronic conditions, or are not sure of your health status, check in with your healthcare provider before you start. For a general idea of your readiness for activity, take the physical activity readiness questionnaire (PAR-Q).
  • The next main precaution for anyone doing high intensity training is to pay attention to your body and learn the difference between discomfort and pain. Discomfort is part of the process for gaining strength and fitness. Pain is not. Many new exercisers get these two concepts confused and label muscle discomfort, burning lungs, and heavy breathing as pain when it’s really just uncomfortable in the moment. When you stop the effort, this sort of discomfort disappears. Pain, on the other hand, is typically cause for concern.
  • If you are unsure of the distinction or new to exercise it is recommended that you work with a coach or trainer until you learn more about how your body responds to exercise. Over time, you will learn what it ok for you and what you are capable of, but don’t expect to know this over night.
  • Even if you are an advanced athlete, start your intervals slowly with a good warm up. Intense exercise is stressful, so make sure your body, muscles, joints and cardiovascular system is prepared to handle the stress. Plan on a 5-10 minute warm up before your first full effort.
  • Stop your interval session if you have any warning signs of serious injuries
  • Stop your interval session if you experience sharp, shooting, acute pain.
  • Stop your interval session if you feel light-headed or dizzy.
  • Stop your interval session and follow up with your doctor if you have pain in your chest or neck.
  • Avoid running down stairs—that’s when the majority of accidents occur from tripping.
  • Breathe. Avoid holding your breath during your intervals and take nice long, deep breaths during your recovery.
  • Stretch or use a foam roller after your interval session.
  • Hydrate. Make sure to drink water before, during, and after your sessions.


Training effects of short bouts of stair climbing on cardiorespiratory fitness, blood lipids, and homocysteine in sedentary young women. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16118293 Boreham CA, Kennedy RA, et al. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2005 Sep;39(9):590-3.

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