woman performing a stairmaster workout in a gym

4 Stair Climber Workout Mistakes You Need to Stop Making

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Stair climber machines are making a come back. There can be some stiff competition for this fitness equipment at peak times, and for good reason.

A stair climber workout can get your heart rate up in a hurry, improve your cardiovascular endurance, and strengthen the muscle groups in your lower body all in a very functional way.

Sounds like a win-win right?! 

Before you go running up the stairs, there are a few things that can sabotage your workout and put you at risk for injury.

This article will highlight some critical stair climber workout mistakes you need to stop making!

Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes and is not medical advice. Read the full disclaimer.

STAIR CLIMBER VS. STAIR STEPPER

These are two different pieces of fitness equipment.

A stair climber looks like a staircase that rolls around the machine for you to keep climbing.

A stair stepper has pedals that you pump up and down but you’re really just sort of marching in place unless you take the machine up to a high setting.

Sometimes people refer to both of these machines as a Stairmaster, but Stairmaster is really just a brand that makes these types of fitness machines. It’s like saying “Kleenex” instead of tissue.

Which machine is better? They both have cardio benefits, however a stair climber has the potential to work your muscles better in a more functional way.

Most tips here apply to both types of cardio machines.

ARE YOU MAKING THESE STAIR CLIMBER WORKOUT MISTAKES?

1. STAYING ON YOUR TOES THE ENTIRE TIME

If I had a dollar for every person I’ve seen climbing up on their tippy-toes.

Why does it matter? It’s about optimizing your movement for the best muscle activation. Injury, weakness, and poor form can alter these patterns leading to overuse and injury of other muscles that were just there to pick up the slack. The body likes to move in patterns, meaning several muscles work together to perform movements.

By staying on your toes, you’re keeping your calf muscles active the entire time, altering the mechanics of how you move. My guess is that you got on the stairs to work your quadriceps and glutes.

If you do a lot of stair climbing on your toes, your calf muscles can start to become very tight.

The fix: put more of your foot on the step and drive through the heel.

Pushing through the midfoot and heel will help engage the glute muscles more effectively.

The glutes were designed to perform heavy work, for example when climbing stairs, propelling forward with walking, or even getting up from a chair. 

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2. KICKING BACKWARD BETWEEN STEPS

I’m not sure when the Stairmaster kickback became a thing, but I’m going to take a stance and say I’m not a fan – and it’s a little disturbing that more people aren’t catching on to this.

Before you form a line around the block, let me explain.

I fully understand cardio machines can be monotonous.

It might feel like you’re adding some flair to an otherwise dull and repetitive workout. Many articles even encourage adding kickbacks on Stairmaster and claim that you’re “toning your glutes”.

Here’s the “kicker”: You’re not getting booty gains from kicking back on a stair climber machine and it can aggravate your lower back (and it’s silly).

When I see people performing said kickback, I see increased extension at the lumbar spine from forcefully whipping their leg backward as they feverishly strain to keep up with the pace of the machine.

Aggressively extending the lumbar spine can exacerbate existing conditions or cause new issues. Not to mention, if you’re flailing your legs around, you’re not putting intention into the movement, which is the whole point when you’re trying to strengthen.

Not all exercises and movements are created equal and the kickback is not giving you the results you’re after anyway.

But what if I can do the kickback right?

That’s fine, but what’s your goal for doing it in the first place? If you’re trying to strengthen your glutes, there are better ways to do it (that actually work).

Some alternate options are squats, lunges, bridging, leg extensions with a cable machine, donkey kicks, and leg press just to name a few.

With these exercises you’ll be able to focus on proper form and strength training, rather than quickly bringing your leg back, so you don’t miss a step.

Don’t just do things because you see other people doing things. Get to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

3. SIDESTEPPING, TURNING, OR ANYTHING THAT ISN’T CLIMBING FORWARDS

You wouldn’t do this in real life, and it’s a great way to cause knee injuries.

Or slip and fall. You know, safety. #gymfail

If you’re looking to perform side and back stepping, use a step in the gym and keep yourself safe. Use a BOSU round side up if you’re looking to add a balance challenge.

Today it seems we’re always looking to remix everything and make it super complex and Instagram worthy.

Sometimes the basics are the best to accomplish the goal.

Long answer: The hip abductors (the muscles on the side of your hip) are often a neglected area of focus in exercise, and they serve such an important function.

If there is any weakness in these muscles, it changes our movement patterns and places additional stress further down the leg, such as the knee and ankle. Or even up to the low back.

Your body will always figure out how to accomplish a motion, often with bad mechanics at the expense of overusing the wrong structures.

Performing side-stepping with poor mechanics can aggravate other areas.

Isolating form on exercises can be challenging enough without adding a moving surface into the equation.

When the goal is to work your hip abductors, you can get more bang for your buck elsewhere, sans risk of falling down a moving staircase.  

woman standing upright on a cardio machine - a decorative image in an article about stair climber workout mistakes
image source: depositphotos.com

4. IT’S ALL ABOUT POSTURE – STAND UP STRAIGHT!

Internal eye roll and sigh whenever I see someone slumped over the handrails of a stair stepper. Add in cranking their neck up to look at their phone.

Many people do this so they can crank up the level, but if you need to lay over the machine to do this, you’re doing it wrong.

Stand upright with hands placed (lightly) on the handrails.

Avoid leaning or slumping over the machine to support yourself. This may mean you need to adjust the level.

Slumping over the machine gives you a false sense of efficiency. Good posture will give you a better workout with less risk of injury.

Slouching forward overworks neck and back muscles. These are the same muscles that are already overworked with poor posture slumped over a computer or phone most of the day.

You took time out of your busy day to get a workout in, might as well do things the right way.

WRAPPING UP

Stair workouts are a great way to improve cardiovascular fitness and build strength in the lower body. Stair machines offer another cardio option from the same old treadmill and elliptical machine.

Your time is valuable, don’t waste it on poor form.

Keep these tips in mind for your next stair climber workout to keep yourself active and safe! 

Try some interval programs or HIIT workouts to challenge your stair climbing!

​Craving more workout tips? Check out Body Awareness for Injury Prevention and Exercise Modifications!

Featured image credit: kegfire / bigstockphoto.com

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