Last Updated on
Jennifer Lopez kicked off 2018 doing one of the things she does best: a killer workout. In a video posted on Instagram by her boyfriend, Alex Rodriguez, the pair crushed some burpees, barbell squats, and medicine ball throws on an outdoor track, along with some particularly badass sets of running stairs in the stands.
Running stairs has a varsity-esque vibe—maybe it reminds you of your high school sports days or classic movie training sequences. But just because it’s old-school doesn’t mean it isn’t majorly challenging. (If you’ve ever felt exhausted after climbing a few flights of stairs in a parking garage or apartment building, you know the feeling.)
To power your body up the stairs, you also need to engage nearly every muscle in your lower body.
If just the thought of a stairs workout makes you groan, you’re not wrong about how hard it can be. Compared to many other cardio modalities, “it feels like it’s more work because it is more work,” exercise physiologist and ACE-certified personal trainer Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness podcast, tells SELF. It also happens to be extremely effective.
You probably know that running stairs is great cardio because it drives your heart rate up, but it also incorporates some strength training. To power your body up the stairs, you also need to engage nearly every muscle in your lower body.
“On the way up, you’re doing a lot more hip flexion and extension—your hip is going through a much greater range of motion [than with walking or running], so you’re getting more work out of your hip extensor muscles,” explains McCall. Namely, these include your glutes, hamstrings (the muscles along the backs of your thighs), and adductors (inner thighs). These are some of the largest muscle groups in your body, which is why running stairs is such a cardio challenge: Your body requires a lot of oxygen to fuel those large muscle groups.
This strength component ups the intensity of the cardio workout, and research suggests that running stairs really is as taxing as it feels. Here’s the deal: One measure of intensity is METs, or metabolic equivalents, explains McCall, which refers to how much oxygen your body uses during an activity. One MET is what your body uses at rest—specifically, 3.5 milliliters of oxygen consumed per kilogram of bodyweight per minute.
For reference, running a 10-minute mile is about 9.8 METs (or 9.8 times the amount of oxygen your body uses at rest), according to the Compendium of Physical Activities. (The exact number depends on your personal fitness level; the standardized table is based on averages.) Running stairs? That’s estimated to be about 15 METs.
So, it’s no wonder stair running feels pretty damn tough. An exercise with higher METs also happens to mean more calories burned, but that’s certainly not the only reason to do challenging exercise. Cardio improves your VO2 max, or your body’s ability to transport and use oxygen during a workout, which means you can push harder and longer during your workouts as it improves.
Plus, “you use your lower body and your legs to move you around, so having strong legs means you’re much more effective doing anything else you want to do,” says McCall. Strengthening your lower body also helps prevent pain and injury.
Running stairs may be hard, but it’s a win-win workout. If you’ve got access to a set of them at a school track or outdoor venue, it’s a great way to mix things up with your regular exercise routine.
A quick note on form: Make sure you straighten your back leg all the way every time you push off a step. If you keep both knees fully bent the whole time, your quads will be doing the work that your glutes and hamstrings should be doing.
Here’s a simple interval stair workout from McCall that you can try.
- Sprint to the top of your stairs (depending on how many stairs you have, it should take about six to 10 seconds).
- Walk or jog back to the bottom (about 30 seconds). If you have knee issues, try walking down angled slightly sideways. (Going down stairs is actually harder on your knees than going up stairs.)
- Repeat for five sets total.
- Rest for two to three minutes, then repeat everything for two to three rounds total.
Optional step: Channel your inner J. Lo.