Stairway to heaven . . . or hell?

All personal trainers get asked the question: 'what's the best piece of equipment I should be using'?

And the answer? 'No piece of gym equipment'. Because from Olympic athlete all the way down to couch potato, there's one way to supersize a workout, and it's by running stairs.

Why stairs? Because the stairs are hell. Because stairs call upon your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves, and they might be the only piece of equipment you need to get cardio fit, healthy, and strong.

I could bankrupt myself and many other personal trainers in saying this, but you don't need Zumba. You don't need the gym. You don't need your Ab Dominator – just the stairs.

And let's be clear - the stair machine visited so often by the tanned gym trixie is NOT 'the stairs'. A little weight shift-shimmy to the left and right is all it takes to get that piece of junk going, and it's not a full-body movement. Ditch the gym stair machine when you do your 20 minute routine, and try running real stairs for 20 minutes, then report back to me if you can still stand and breathe.

The best thing about the stairs? You can't cheat the stairs. There are so many exercises where people cheat – from cheat squats that don't use full range of motion, to cheat curls that don't utilise the right tempo, to crap exercise routines where you're cheating yourself the second you enter the gym.

Unless you use the hand rail or Grandma's motorised stair chair, the only way to get up the stairs is for you to move your body up those stairs. Here's how you can use stairs to make a change in your fitness and health:

Getting started

If you're getting started in your health and fitness regime, make sure you're doing more than just going for a casual walk while waving to the neighbours. Increase the intensity to see results, and climbing one hundred stairs is just the trick. Even by ditching the escalator during the day, you can get a little exercise in and have some fun – check this video out.


Ready to test yourself?

During a jogging session, find some stairs. After your heart rate comes down to resting level, time yourself running up and down 500 stairs. Run with 100 per cent intensity, and see how you go. Can you break 4 minutes and 30 seconds? That's a serious pace. Can you break 7 minutes? You're doing pretty well. If your times are higher than that, keep practicing, and you will get fitter and faster. And if 500 becomes too easy? Make it 1,000 or 1,500 to really push it during your run.

Use stairs for circuit training

The 108 stairs I visit in The Rocks, Sydney CBD are four sets of 27. I run 27 stairs, then it levels off for 3 metres until the next 27 appear. 27 more, then it levels again, etc.

During a level period, I might stop and perform 20 bodyweight squats, then continue climbing. At the next level, I will perform 20 push-ups, and at the next level 20 sit-ups. At the top level, I will stop for a 1 minute plank.

Anybody can incorporate body weight exercises during their stair workout to increase strength and make it an all-around workout. It's a guarantee to construct a stairway to hell-combo of sweat, increased heart rate, lactic acid, and swearing.

 Make it a sport

Around Australia (and the globe), people are competing in stair climbs from New York City (1,576 stairs in the Empire State Building) to Melbourne's 88 floors of the Eureka Tower, there are opportunities to test your stair fitness against the best in the world, and many raise money for some worthwhile charities.

Check out Tower Running Australia's website for more information on events around the country.

The stairs seem quite obvious – see stairs and run stairs, but there is some technique that will ensure a safe and efficient climb. Here are some tips:

❏ Pump your arms - your legs do most of the work, but your arms create momentum to get you moving upwards.

❏ Stay off your heels – you're wasting leg motion if your heels touch the ground with each stair. Stay on the front of your feet, and watch your ankle stability and calves strengthen.

❏ Be careful on the descent – on the way down, watch out. When you're tired and moving down a steep decline, descend at a safe pace.

❏ Switch it up – during some routines, run every stair (more emphasis on lower legs). During other routines, run every other stair (more emphasis upper legs).

During the cooler, Autumn months, it's a perfect time to hit the stairs and try something different in your exercise routine. And if you're away from your gym on business travel, all you need is to find a hotel stairwell.

Be safe, run with intensity, and watch your fitness and well-being increase.

How do you use stairs during your day and during your workout?

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