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Stair training challenge

Looking for a time efficient and effective way to increase overall fitness?  Stair training is relatively low impact exercise and you don’t need any fancy gear or equipment, just a decent pair of shoes. We are blessed with well-maintained stairs and tracks in our local National Parks, but any set of stairs will do. And stair training is free.

Stair training strengthens the calves, quads and gluts as you lift your body up each step, while also providing a cardiovascular workout. A great combination for trek training, general fitness and weight control.

High intensity interval training

HIIT (high intensity interval training) is the latest fashion in the fitness industry, however this technique has been used for decades by trekkers and athletes. Short bursts of high intensity exercise are followed by recovery periods. Stair training is a brilliant form of HIIT. A ratio of 1:1 work:rest is ideal.

Aim for each interval to be between 1 and 2 minutes and for the overall session to last between 30 and 45 minutes. HIIT can easily be incorporated into a 2 or 3 hour endurance session.

RPE – Perceived Rate of Exertion – is a method used to gauge the intensity level of exercise. 10 is maximum effort and 1 is very light, 9 is very hard, 7 to 8 vigorous, 4 to 6 moderate. For stair training, aim for an RPE between 8 and 9.

Stair training guidelines

Warm up with a ten minute walk to your first set of stairs. Warm up is particularly important before a stair training session, to prepare the body for harder exercise and to prevent injury.

Posture – shoulders back, down and relaxed. Lead with the chest and have a slight bend at the hips to bring your centre of gravity over your hips. Turn your core on by gently pulling the naval back towards the spine to protect the lower back and provide stability. Don’t forget to use the arms. And look ahead, not down.

Footwork – where possible aim to place the whole foot on the stair, striking the ground between ball and mid-foot. This allows you to use those gluteal muscles and save the quads for the downward flight. Landing only on the toes puts more strain on the calves and shins. To work your muscles, take the stairs two at a time. Mix it up during the session, but be careful not to aggravate any grumpy knees.

Intensity – No need to get too scientific here. If you can still talk you are not going at a hard enough pace. Save the talk for descending. As mentioned above you can aim for a time-based interval say 1 to 2 minutes. I like to aim for the top of the stairs or a particular landing. Rest to let the heart rate drop slightly and then continue going up, or use the downward flight as your recovery.

Descending – What goes up must come down. It’s important to train the downhill as well as the uphill. Think light, fast and relaxed when descending. Walk down (don’t run) and stay focussed to prevent falls. Arms can be used for balance. A railing can be used for support if necessary.

Increasing intensity – As your fitness increases you will need to increase the intensity of the workout. This can be done in a number of ways.

Wearing a pack is the obvious one if you are training for a trek. Start with around 5kg and only increase very gradually, maximum 1kg per week.  Take care when descending with a heavy pack.  Mix it up, do a few sets with pack on and a few sets with no pack.

Other ways to up the intensity are to increase the pace, the length of each interval, or the number of intervals.

Hiking Poles – can be used to protect ageing knees or when carrying a heavy pack. When ascending place the poles on the step in front of you, step up without hoisting yourself, then think about pushing off with a backwards movement – great for the triceps. When descending have the poles in front and remember they are for support, don’t lean on them.

Cross training

Stair training is a great complement to other forms of training. It is important to also do endurance walking to condition the muscles and joints to longer sustained exercise. And you should also consider throwing in some basic strength and core exercises. I am a great fan of – you guessed it – no frills, old fashioned body weight exercises such as planks, squats and push ups.

We are surprised at how popular our stair training sessions are. Who would have thought stair training could be so much fun?


Do you know any great city or bush stairs for interval workouts? Let us know in the comments.

Stair Routes

The Stairs

Some of our favourite stair training locations in Sydney city and bush

Stair Events

UTA951 – Ultratrail dash up the 951 Furber Steps – our training inspiration
Stadium Chomp  – capital cities, various challenges
Sydney Tower, Sydney – 1504 stairs
Eureka Climb, Melbourne – 1600 stairs

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