Stair Mill vs Stairs for Aerobic Pace Workouts

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  • #13462
    Felipe Q

    I have been working through the time crunched mountaineering training plan and have come to the longer aerobic pace hike/workouts. This involves sustaining heart rate in a prescribed zone for the entire length of the activity. Due to living in the flat lands, I have two options for this training, a stair mill machine in the gym which has a rolling staircase that you have to step up on, and real stairs which require ascending to the top of the building, about 250 feet, and then riding the elevator down and repeating.

    You have mentioned previously that real stairs are preferable to a stair machine due to the stairs falling away from you and reducing the effort required. I do notice that my sustainable pace on a stair machine is noticeably higher than when climbing real stairs which supports the fact that climbing real stairs is harder than riding a stair machine. The down side to using real stairs is the requirement to stop at the top after a 7-8 minute ascent, and then travel back down to the bottom for 2-3 minutes while my HR drops back down into the recovery zone.

    For a workout which requires a steady HR to be maintained for an extended period of time, my inclination is to do this on a machine which allows for an uninterrupted ascent and a steady HR for the prescribed period. I’m not sure though if the harder effort on real stairs may be preferable to machines in all types of workouts. There are “interval” type workouts built into the plan which require sustained work for a short period followed by rest periods in between. These lend themselves nicely to a real stair workout. Any guidance from the community would be appreciated.

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    Anonymous on #13465

    For these long aerobic workouts I recommend using the stair machine for just the reasons you state. Steady state will be better training than intermittent.

    Good question!


    Land on #13491

    What about box steps?

    I’ve done a couple longer box step workouts. In physics terms, you are still doing work against gravity, so during the up phase, it seems to be more specific to moving uphill. But going back down each step really slows you down and is far from specific.

    Would a stair stepper be better because it has no down phase, or worse because you don’t actually do work?

    Mariner_9 on #13493

    Is there a ‘ranking’ of gym equipment? E.g. box steps > cross-ramp > elliptical, or something like that.

    Colin Simon on #13506

    For what it’s worth, one of these machines which is basically a tiny escalator is the same thing to your legs as real stairs:×1000/af097278c5db4767b0fe9bb92fe21690/s/t/stairmaster-gauntlet-series-8-lcd-xlg.jpg

    And a machine where the pedals simply rise up and down under you will be less effective:

    Felipe Q on #13507

    There is a ranking done by Scott done somewhere in a forum post which I was not able to find. I think it was real stairs, stair mill, treadmill, then elliptical last. But don’t quote me on that. I think the issue with the stair mill is that as you lift your foot up to reach for the next step, the step is moving lower, so that by the time you step on it, the height of the step is reduced by a few inches, making for shorter, easier steps. This is better than an elliptical or stair master where your downward stepping energy is absorbed as the step is pushed down by your weight. If you don’t have a building with 150 floors though, and you need to keep your HR steady for an hour or two, I think the stair mill is the next best think for folks who can’t easily find hilly terrain. This is the first machine in the photos that Colin Simon posted and is what I use.

    Anonymous on #13511

    The box step is similar to climbing real stairs in that you actually have to raise your body against gravity as Land says above. While stepping down off the box backward, which you are forced to do, is slower and not very specific, except for down climbing facing in :-). But there is not alternative I know of using a box.

    The stair machine like a Stairmaster is not the same as stairs because the stairs fall away from under your so you are not lifting your body weight the full height of the step. That’s ok. But take with a grain of salt the elevation gain that machine records.

    For longer workouts it is more the boredom factor that is going to reduce the training effect than the no-speciificity of the stair machine or steep incline treadmill.


    Colin Simon on #13519

    Once you are in motion on a stairmaster, it doesn’t matter if the stairs fall away under you, because you are still falling as well, and gravity retains the same pull on both of you.

    Because any stairmaster is imperfect, there may be play in the steps, but besides that, cheating with the rails, or some negligible air resistance, it doesn’t matter.

    If you were inside of an elevator that has finished accelerating and is moving at a constant rate, climbing a ladder inside the elevator is the same thing as doing it on the ground. Doesn’t even matter if the elevator is going up or down.

    Anonymous on #13528

    I agree that in steady state conditions in an elevator (or any non-accelerating system), climbing a ladder is the same regardless of the relative speed of the system. But in that system (in your case, the elevator) you are still needing to raise you center of gravity (CG) with each step up on the ladder. On the stair machine you do not lift your CG the full height of the step because the step falls away beneath you. Your CG stays “pretty much” in the same place where as on the ladder in the elevator your CG moves upward by one full step height. I say “pretty much” because you do raise your CG some part of the height of the step. If you look at the side view of someone on a stair machine and measure the displacement of some point on their body you will see that this displacement is not the full height of the step but rather some faction of it. Counterintuitively the slower the stair machine moves them more vertical displacement of your CG. The faster the stairs are moving the less your CG moves up with each step. The increased effort at higher speeds is caused by the increase leg turn over. The recovery of your legs is makes up a big part of the energy requirements.


    s.luedtke on #13536

    Do you think that subtracting about 20% of the recorded vertical would even up the playing field when using the stair master?

    For example I did 104 floors today, 104 x 10’ is 1,040’. Substract 20% puts me at 832’ of vertical for the day.



    Anonymous on #13656

    I’m not really sure you can compare indoors to outdoors this way. It is probably some % reduction for sure. How much I can’t say. Kind of an apples to oranges thing. What ever you do be consistent.


    vencislav.popov on #19263


    I’m really confused by your comment concerning CG. What matters in this case is not your CG relative to the ground, but relative to the moving stairs themselves. Regardless of the fact that the stair is moving down, your relative displacement to the stair is exactly the same as if it would be if the stairs were stationary. As a result your leg muscles perform the same amount of work – they are raising the same amount of mass the same distance (because you are moving down with the stairs as well, so the effect is negated). Imagine three escalators next to each other. E1 is moving down without accelerating, E2 is moving up without accelerating, E3 is stationary. You perform the exact same motion at the exact same rate on each. Since motion is only relative to a specific frame of reference (special theory of relativity), if your frame of reference is the steps themselves, you have moved the same vertical distance on E1, E2 and E3, and as a consequence have performed the same amount of work (which is force multiplied by distance traveled in the opposite vector direction). The fact that the three elevators are moving in different directions (or not at all) is irrelevant with respect to your body and the amount of work it has done. They could even be moving at different speeds, but as long as your relative speed to the steps remains the same, there would be no difference in the amount of work performed or in the relative displacement. Because your relative displacement with respect to the grounds frame of reference is irrelevant – it doesn’t factor in at all in how the physics of motion and work play out. Maybe I’m just missing some nuance to your argument?


    johnepearson on #19298

    Ven, your analysis of the physics is correct. (I have a Ph.D. in it so I feel qualified to comment. Special relativity is a distraction that isn’t particularly relevant though. Newton and Galileo are adequate.) Still something nags at me and I don’t have a solid answer. I can get 4,000′ of vertical on a treadmill and barely notice it. If I do 4,000′ of vertical outdoors I’ll feel it. It might be nothing more than the difference between trails and treadmills and hiking at altitude, post holing in deep snow, the fact that I generally have to go a lot further outdoors to get 4,000′ of vertical outdoors than on a treadmill, etc. Whatever the explanation, 4,000′ of vertical on trails is a hell of a lot harder for me than it is on a treadmill.

    vencislav.popov on #19300

    I think that in addition to the factors you listed, it’s the uniformity of movement on a stairmill/treadmill vs the variance in terrain outdoors. I’ve personally noticed that if I go on a consolidated snow slope where I go straight up on snowshoes with the heel lift on, then it feels pretty similar to the stairs/stairmill, because the motion is extremely similar. Anyhow, the main comparison was about training on stairmill machines vs actual stairs or box steps, and as a friend of my noted recently, all of them are much more similar to one another than to climbing a hill, so in my mind training on all should be pretty equivalent.

    I did some additional research over the weekend. While there haven’t been explicit comparisons between stairmaster and stair climbing (that I could find), there has been a ton of research comparing treadmill and overground running (on homogeneous terrain). The case should be analogous, because the differences between the two are similar.

    This research has concluded that:

    1) For a fixed velocity and angle, there is no difference between the energy consumption between running on a treadmill vs running overground (Bassett et al, 1985; Thus, even though the treadmill moves away and downwards from you (if you are on an angle), if you maintain the same speed, you exert the same effort and get the same training result.

    2) The biomechanics of motion over a treadmill and overground are the same (Van Ingen Schenau, 1980; This article is particularly good because it goes through the math and the frame of reference issue that is the same in the stairmaster vs stair debate. Basically, the fact that the machine is moving is completely irrelevant, since your relative motion is the same when you adopt a frame of reference fixed on the moving surface. None of the forces applied to the body change in any way between the two situations.

    In the absence of research on stairmaster vs stair climbing, we could extend these results by analogy, because the situation is pretty similar (moving forward and upwards on stationary ground, vs the treadmill moving backwards and downward and you staying stationary). I’ve added links to the papers above after I accessed them through my university’s subscription.


    Bassett, J. D., Giese, M. D., Nagle, F. J., Ward, A., Raab, D. M., & Balke, B. R. U. N. O. (1985). Aerobic requirements of overground versus treadmill running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 17(4), 477-481.

    van Ingen, S. G. (1980). Some fundamental aspects of the biomechanics of overground versus treadmill locomotion. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 12(4), 257.

    johnepearson on #19699

    venicslav said: “I think that in addition to the factors you listed, it’s the uniformity of movement on a stairmill/treadmill vs the variance in terrain outdoors.”

    I agree. I think variability is huge: loose rocks, mud, boulders, snow, … & the possibility of getting lost. All that stuff tires you out. I’ve never heard of a treadmill epic. From one of the articles (Br J Sports Med 2003;37:160–163) you linked to:

    “Our experiment indicates on the basis of significantly higher strain and strain rates during overground running that this style of running is more likely to achieve tibial bone strengthening or maintenance than treadmill running.

    **(These studies were low power and the conclusions have to be taken with a grain of salt. If I read correctly, the study used only two people so it should be taken as merely suggestive. It is in accord with my experiences though.)

    NotOnEiger on #19738

    Very interesting stuff here – thanks everybody for those constructive discussions.

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