How I Learned to Love the Stair Master

by Deb Malkin; @movewithdeb

“Of course, I know how to walk. I’m almost 50 and I’ve been walking for a long time.” That’s what I thought until I started studying with Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and creator of Nutritious Movement, a whole-body movement program. Through her work, I discovered my “walking” was really controlled falling, a quad dominant style of walking that underutilizes some of the largest muscle groups we have in our bodies. It also creates a lot of high impact wear and tear on our knees.

According to Bowman, “Walking is essentially one bout of single-leg balance followed by another and another. When we are on a single leg, this leg—specifically its lateral hip musculature—must be strong enough to carry the load created by the rest of the body.” Quote from: 

What this means is that each leg needs to be able to bear your entire bodyweight, using a posterior push off gait to push yourself forward from behind, using all those delicious and giant muscles you have behind you, like your glutes, hamstrings, calves, and the side muscles like the lateral hip muscles to help keep you upright as you are balanced on one leg. Controlled falling, on the other hand, uses your quadriceps to pull yourself forward after you land on your outstretched foot and leg.

To climb Kilimanjaro, we are essentially going to be walking many hours a day for an entire week, going up for 5 days and down for 2! Besides training by walking outside on natural terrain, I decided the best bang for my gym time buck would be to use the stair master because there are not always hills readily available to climb. I groaned when I first realized that it was my perfect machine match. Stairs are torture, who likes stairs I thought? Well, honestly folks who want to climb mountains. It’s also very useful for people who have stairs in their home or workplaces. 

I jumped on, and quickly the stair master became my favorite machine at the gym to use. I even pop into the gym when I only have 10-20 minutes just to get an SM session on. See what I did there? SM? Stair Master? Well, it’s only a little bit like sadomasochism.  

Here are three things I like the best about the stair master: 

  1. It’s a great machine to use slowly.  
    When you walk slowly on the stair master you can pay attention to your alignment and muscular engagement. You cannot use momentum to fake your way through getting the movement done without loading the muscles you are trying to target. I find it rhythmic and relaxing to use at a gentle pace. There is no need for speed on this machine.
  2. You can see improvements quickly.
    I went from being able to only do 5 minutes on the stair master to doing 20 minutes in less than a month. I could really feel the strength building in my glutes and hamstrings. I was only using the stair master 3 or fewer times a week, but I think the act of slowly and deliberately engaging those muscles in lifting my whole body up helped show them that it was possible to do. In our culture that has us sitting a great deal of the time, we don’t really ask our muscles to hold us up and therefore build the strength to do that on a repeated basis.
  3. It beats “cardio”.
    I am not a believer of cardio as a gym activity. I believe that cardiovascular health is built when we get the blood pumping through activities that engage our whole body and where muscle and joint movements help push the blood into the tiniest capillaries, bringing the oxygen and nutrients to our cells. With this definition, weightlifting is cardio. And also, the stair master is cardio. You’ll get sweaty and breathe hard just as hard but in less time. 

Here are a few tips on how to use the stair master safely and getting the best results.

  1. Alignment is key.
    To properly load the muscles, you’re targeting you need your shoulders, over your hips, over your knees, over your ankles. This means, no leaning forward, no having the machine support your bodyweight. Please have your hands on the rails for safety but ideally, you’re not pressing down on them to push yourself up the stairs. If you are only able to lift yourself up the stairs by pushing down on the rails, that’s ok for right now, but try to rely on it less and less as your muscles get stronger. To build muscle you need to work it to the point of exhaustion. Meaning, this is going to be hard and challenging. And sweaty. And heart pumping.
  2. Pay attention to your foot position. 
    Depending on the length of your feet this will be easier or more difficult but try to put your whole foot down and push through your heel or at least the mid-foot. Pushing down through the toes will strengthen the quads more and we are trying to target the glute side with this one.
  3. If your stair master time is limited you can always ramp it up in two ways. You can take two stairs at a time (as a short person with short legs I haven’t tried this one.) Or you can create your own intervals by jacking up the speed for 30 seconds to a minute. But only do this if you feel like you can maintain your alignment while climbing.  

My darling #CurvyKiliCrew has me to thank for our multiple stair master fitness challenges but I think they’ve all come to share my enthusiasm for this gem of a machine at the gym, I hope you do too.  


Deb Malkin is a Certified Massage Therapist with the state of California, CAMTC #45112. She believes that all people deserve fierce love and dedication to their well-being.
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