Working out with stairs is nothing new. Athletes have been climbing them for years. And why not? It's a great cardiovascular workout that strengthens and tones the lower body. Let's face it, though: finding stairs to climb isn't always easy. No sweat. Add a stairclimber to your home gym and you can climb anytime, no matter what the weather.

Why Buy a Stairclimber?

Stairclimbers, also called steppers, provide excellent cardiovascular conditioning. "They're another alternative for people who want to condition their heart and attain fitness goals," says Carol Doniek, MS, exercise physiologist at Life Fitness, a leading manufacturer of commercial and consumer cardiovascular and strength training equipment. Runners, for example, will find stairclimbing a lower impact alternative to ]]>running]]> . Cyclists may even appreciate getting out of the saddle occasionally.

They also offer toning benefits, especially for lower body muscles like the hips, thighs, buttocks, and calves. For that reason, though, they've often been accused of increasing the size of the gluteal muscles. Doniek says that although a stairclimber will develop muscle, it won't add mass. "To build a lot of muscle," she says, "you have to use much more resistance than you'll find in a stairclimber."

Advantages and Disadvantages

As stairclimber enthusiasts know, stairclimbing burns calories in a short amount of time. "Stairclimbing consumes more calories per workout than an equal amount of time spent on a ]]>treadmill]]> or exercise bike ," writes Julie A. Spotts in the Complete Home Fitness Handbook .

And just like ]]>walking]]> , stairclimbing is easy to learn. "It's a natural motion," says Julie King, MS, public relations manager for Life Fitness who holds a Master's degree in exercise physiology. But don't be fooled by the small learning curve. Stairclimbing is still a tough workout, one that's often compromised by bad technique and bad form. That, in turn, can reduce the number of calories you burn, increase the risk of injury, and aggravate existing problems you may have.

Finally, unless you're using a model that incorporates handgrips placed at or above eye level to simulate ladder climbing, steppers don't provide a total body workout. Most only work the lower body.

Investigating Your Options

Like any other piece of fitness equipment, a stairclimber should be an investment in your health and well-being. Although you can pay as little as $200 for a stairclimber, remember that you get what you pay for. "The durability, reliability, comfort, and feel will be completely different with a lower-end model versus something that's more expensive," King says. Moderate-priced steppers might run between $500 and $700, while more expensive models can run as high as $2,500.

Also, test a particular model before buying it. Find a retail store and try out different models to find one that feels comfortable. In addition, check that it comes with a warranty.

Consider these issues as you investigate stairclimbers:

Pedal Action

Stairclimbers use either dependent or independent pedal action. With dependent action, the right and left pedals act together. When you push down the right pedal, for example, the left pedal comes up. Independent action, on the other hand, requires you to activate each pedal separately. In other words, it's not as easy to cheat your way through the workout. Doniek says dependent pedals are easier for people who are deconditioned, older adults, and individuals who have never used a stairclimber. Those people might eventually progress to independent pedals. The choice, though, largely depends on your preference. "Decide what's comfortable for you," Doniek says. Just make sure the pedals are quiet, secure, and smooth.

Pedal Power

Cheaper stairclimbers use hydraulic pistons or air pressure to power the pedals. These generally aren't as smooth as higher-priced steppers that use belt and chain drives. King says that chain drives tend to be harder to maintain than belt drives. They're also noisier, so if you want to watch television or listen to music, you might prefer the quieter belt.

Pedal Leveling

More expensive models feature self-leveling pedals, or pedals that remain horizontal or flat while you're moving. This takes the pressure off your knees, thus decreasing the risk of injury.

Programs and Intensities

If you're really serious about getting in shape with a stairclimber, then buy one that has a variety of programs and intensity levels. "More is better," Doniek says, adding that it's easier to progress when you have more intensity levels.

Weight Limits

Lower-end stairclimbers have lower weight limits, Doniek says. Make sure the stepper you're buying can handle your weight.

Optional items:

  • Heart rate monitoring
  • Towel and water bottle holders
  • Magazine/book rack

Using Stairclimbers Properly

To make your workout as effective as possible, follow these guidelines:

  • Think posture perfect. Lean forward slightly while keeping your abdominal muscles contracted. But don't use your arms to support your body and don't hang over the handrails. You'll decrease the amount of calories you burn as well as set yourself up for injury.
  • Position your feet. Many people tend to step on their tip-toes. Instead, King recommends keeping your heels flat and letting them ride naturally. Just keep your knees relaxed at all times.
  • Float through the pedals. Use a smooth pedal motion as you step, not hitting the top or bottom of the pedal stroke. "Float in between," Doniek says.
  • Think light. If you're new to stairclimbing, start with a small amount of resistance. If you use too much, Doniek says, you risk using improper form or injuring yourself.
  • Face front. Many people like to face backward when they step. Except for changing the scenery, this doesn't provide additional physical benefits. "It's actually a liability in clubs," King says, "so I wouldn't recommend doing it at home."