Mastering The Stairs: Conquering Cardio At Home -

An IFM Training Blog by Tim Rigby, M.A., NSCA-CPT

During these unprecedented Lifestyle conditions, most of us have been scrambling to find ways to preserve hard-earned muscle since we don’t have access to our gyms. Exercise modes like resistance bands, bodyweight moves and light dumbbells are commonly incorporated to help us achieve this task. But let’s not fully neglect the other supreme category of fitness training: cardio. This is important not only so you can preserve endurance and stamina, but it also boosts your metabolism to help you fight fat and lose weight. It’s cardio that has the greatest effect on shaping and toning your muscles by etching in definition that produces great aesthetic value. So, in the absence of an exercise bike, treadmill or rowing machine, how can you perform a challenging and effective cardio workout using a form of equipment that just so happens to be a part of your living space anyway? Look no further than to the stairs that surround you. If you live in a split-level, bungalow or semi-detached house, you’re going to have at least one or two sets of stairs (sometimes three or four) with about a dozen steps at your disposal. If you live in a condominium or apartment building, then you’re actually in great luck when it comes to stairs, since you’ll have a full stairwell with multiple floors’ worth of stairs screaming at you to master them. Essentially, stairs are a universal phenomenon, and now that we’ve established this form of equipment is readily available to you, let’s examine the ways in which you can perform a great stair-centered cardio workout, based on your ability and objectives:

BEGINNERS (Steady-State) To reap the benefits of stairs, basically all you need to do is get moving. If you wish to take your time, or take a rest at the top or bottom of each flight, that’s okay – as long as you put the work in. The slower you go, the greater volume of work you should perform – this means more stairs – if you want to make a gentle cardio workout the most effective. With a little planning, you can eventually progress from a week of stopping intermittently to the next week of pausing less frequently. Eventually, you may not need to pause at all for a period of 10 to 15 minutes. At this stage of training, focus on technique, which is a little more intricate than you may think. Try to ensure as much of a comfortable flexion through your legs as you can, by bending them about 30-45 degrees; you’ll find that you won’t actually be able to get to the point where your thigh becomes parallel to the stair on which you’re landing. If you wish to work your quads more, you can land simply on the balls of your feet; if you wish to work your glutes and hamstrings more, land each step using more of your feet (almost to your heels).

INTERMEDIATE (Moderate Intensity) At this level of training, you can optimize stairs by employing the longest flight at your disposal. By this, we mean the flight available to you that contains the greatest number of stairs. The aim is to keep the climbing and descending motion in action for as long as possible without pausing momentarily at the top or bottom, even to take the time to turn around. Work within your means and if you go at a low to moderate pace, simply avoid pausing as much as you can. At this level, you can also experiment with ascending quickly, then descending (recovering) at a slower pace. Make sure here also to ensure you’re using good form. Keep your head up and in line with your spine. Keep in mind that although you want your back straight, on the ascent you should have it inclined slightly toward the direction you are walking. On the descent, you can naturally use a more upright torso position that’s around perpendicular to the stairs. Over time, your main objective is to pick up the pace and use less rests.

ADVANCED/ELITE (High Intensity) Here’s where stairs training gets really fun, if you have the capability to perform them at an advanced stage. Be creative and use your imagination. For starters, you can try high-intensity interval training (HIIT) which applies just as well to stairs as it does to the myriad of other cardio and resistance training exercise modes. Climb and descend the stairs very quickly for a period of say 45 seconds, then take 15 seconds at a slower pace, without stopping for a rest. If you’re familiar with a more intense version of HIIT known as tabata training, you can go all out for 20 seconds (as fast as you possibly can), then rest for 10 seconds and repeat this cycle eight times. That’s the whole workout. A little creativity also goes a long way here. Who says you have to perform stairs the conventional way of one step at a time? Go for double-steps, in which you reach higher with your lead leg and land on the second next step rather than the first. You’ll find that you’ll really involve your leg muscles more, since you’re inducing a greater flexion and extension. Going up two steps at a time is fairly straightforward for someone with advanced athleticism, but do use caution and deliberation when descending two steps at a time since it requires a good bit of coordination.

DID YOU KNOW? Going down a set of stairs may only produce half the calorie burn of going up them, but it actually involves more physical forces and stretches your legs muscles more (the standard “eccentric” portion of a range of motion). In this way, you can actually develop bone growth in a greater capacity and help reduce the risk of osteoporosis. A team of researchers from Australia reported that walking down stairs can also help overweight people reduce the risk of diabetes.

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