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.


Let’s first talk about the difference between these two types of fitness machines.

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.



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, you might find yourself with some pretty tight calf muscles. This type of movement pattern can also contribute to plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis.

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. 

My guess is, targeting your glutes was a big reason for getting on the stair climber in the first place.


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.

But, the fitness industry is great at spreading total nonsense. Just because it’s the newest craze, that doesn’t mean you should be doing it.

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

Cardio machines can be monotonous. I get it.

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 just plain silly).

Here’s why.

When I see people performing said kickback, I typically 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.

There’s a lot of ways to cheat movements and render them useless.

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

If you’re thinking, “But what if I can do the kickback correctly?

Great question.

If you can properly control the movement, 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.

For an easy review of lower body muscles and exercises that match, check out my article The Complete Guide To Lower Body Muscles For Exercise.

You can find other articles for upper body and core in my Fitness Anatomy section.

a woman running up a long stair case
image source: depositphotos.com


This is another popular move nowadays, so let me explain why this is a risky move.

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 for stabilizing the pelvis (which affects mechanics at the knee).

Weakness at the hip changes our movement patterns and places additional stress further down the leg, such as the knee and ankle.

Hip abductor weakness can also affect the low back.

If you notice that your knees collapse inward or have discomfort while doing this motion, there’s an issue.

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

If you’re looking to perform side step-ups and control the alignment of your knee, 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.

Isolating form on exercises can be challenging enough without adding a moving surface into the equation. Sometimes the basics are the best to accomplish the goal.

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


Internal eye roll and sigh whenever I see someone slumped over the handrails of a stair stepper.

Then 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 and let your legs do the work.

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.


Just climbing stairs is super boring which is probably why you see people kicking, spinning, and doing all kinds of silly things to avoid the repetitive mental drag.

One way to make your workout more exciting is to use a fitness app like Aaptiv that has fitness classes for cardio equipment.

I use this app all the time for stair climbers, ellipticals, and treadmills to pass the time and made the workout less monotonous. They have classes of all lengths and levels and the trainers take you through different intervals or HIIT workouts.

Before you know it, your time is done!

You can read my full review of Aaptiv here where I go deep into all the features of this versatile fitness app.

Grab a 30-day FREE trial of Aaptiv workouts here.

Another fun way to add motivation and variety to your workouts is searching the pre-mixed cardio fitness albums on Amazon Prime Music.

These albums are mixed to heart-pumping BPMs to match the pace of your workout and help you get into the groove.


Stair workouts are a great, low-impact 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.

Don’t just do things simply because you see other people in the gym doing it. Get to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

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

Featured image credit: kegfire / bigstockphoto.com

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