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The best Stairmaster workout — how to get a crazy-good workout on the stair master

a photo of a woman using the stair stepper in the gym
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

So you’re keen to try something new in the cardio room in the gym, but you’re not sure what to do on the Stairmaster. 

This large piece of equipment will often be somewhere near the treadmills and elliptical machines in the gym, and will look like a tiny escalator. There are also smaller stepper machines, which usually look like two-foot pedals and can be easily added to a home gym. Both machines are a great way to boost your cardiovascular fitness, but when used properly, it can also give you a killer leg workout too. 

That said, not all steps are created equal, and there’s an art to crafting a good Stairmaster workout. If you’re just aimlessly climbing stairs to nowhere, you’re likely to get bored, fast. Using the Stairmaster for a structured workout can help keep you focused, and better target your calves, glutes and hamstrings as you climb. Personal trainer, Jenny Francis-Townson from wellness and nutrition brand, fourfive, says: “Just like squats can build our muscles for standing up effectively from sitting down, or lifting heavy objects – Stairmasters help us to build strength and endurance in the muscles we use to climb stairs and walk uphill.”

To help get you started, we’ve hand-picked some of the best Stairmaster workouts to try on your next visit to the gym. That said, while using the Starimaster does target the muscles in your lower body, it shouldn’t replace your strength training sessions. Instead, mix these stepper machine exercises with resistance band squats (here’s how to do a resistance band squat with correct form) or these resistance band leg workouts

How to use a Stairmaster with the correct form 

A Stairmaster is effectively a never-ending mini-escalator that replicates the motion of walking up stairs. All you have to do is stand on the pedals, grab onto the handrails and walk up the constantly revolving stairs. Here’s how to make sure you’re stepping with your best form, however. 

Firstly, think about your posture as you step — keep your body upright, and think about keeping your core engaged as you move. Leaning into the steps a little is fine,  but don’t slouch or lean forward on the console as you climb as you’ll be putting pressure on your lower back. 

Next, your grip on your handrails should be pretty light — like the arms on a treadmill, they’re only really there for safety. Again, don’t slouch or lean on the handrails, and feel free to forget them all together and swing your arms as you climb, you’ll get a better core workout this way. Talking of your core, if you hate planks, this exercise is just as good at blasting your abs

Finally, think about how you’re stepping. Make sure your foot is flat against each step to fully engage your whole leg, and don’t let your knee collapse too far forward over your toes as you step up. Start by setting the speed at a slower pace, and check in on your form to make sure you’re getting the little things right. 

What are the benefits of using a Stairmaster? 

While it may seem a little dull, stair-stepping provides a great cardio workout. Unlike running on the treadmill, the stair stepper gives you a relatively low-impact workout, and if used correctly, you shouldn’t get any knee pain using the machine. 

“A lot of us spend a large majority of our time sitting down these days, and then jump into a workout that uses lots of hugely dynamic powerful movements that we would never usually do day-to-day,” explains Jenny Francis-Townson, fourfive ambassador and personal trainer.

“The beauty of functional fitness is that some exercises and movements can help support our daily lives. Just like squats can build our muscles for standing up effectively from sitting down, or lifting heavy objects - Stairmasters help us to build strength and endurance in the muscles we use to climb stairs and walk uphill.”

As we’ll mention below, there are a number of different workouts to try to banish the boredom on the stair master. But unlike climbing the stairs in your office block, the stair master is easy to adjust, so you can make things as easy or as difficult as you want. You can customize features such as speed and resistance by picking a level between one and 20, with each level representing a different speed.

What’s more, as we’ve already mentioned, this is a great way to work on your cardio and your lower body strength in one exercise. 

Is a Stairmaster good for weight loss? 

In a word, yes! As a stepper machine is targeting some of the largest muscles in the body, you’re likely to burn a lot of calories during a stair master workout. 

“Low-impact exercises like using the Stairmaster are great activities to add to your day if your goal is to lose weight,” Jenny suggests.

“You still work hard and increase your heart rate, helping to burn calories as your body accesses your fat stores for energy. A lot of low impact movements also work the full body, meaning most of the major muscle groups are worked hard, helping to burn even more calories.”

Of course, it’s important to caveat that weight loss is a matter of being in a caloric deficit, so you’ll need to focus on your nutrition, as well as your workouts in the gym. Here are three simple ways to lose weight without dieting, how to lose weight by running, and 12 of the best healthy snacks to help weight loss.  

What are the best Stairmaster workouts to try? 

Here, we’ve hand-picked three of the best stepper machine workouts to try next time you’re in the gym. They’ll not only work your legs harder, they’ll help banish some of the boredom that comes with climbing stairs for hours on end. 

TikTok Stairmaster workout 

In 2022, Stairmasters have fast become the go-to workout on TikTok. Here's one of the most popular TikTok Stairmaster workouts, with over 80K likes on the platform, shared by Olivia Rae. It's only 15 minutes, but it's intense. 

Repeat the following workout for 15 minutes:

TIME LEVEL
20 seconds7
20 seconds 12
10 seconds 15

An 11-minute workout for a quick blast

If you're short on time, try this quick workout. It's suitable for most levels, but you'll need to master a couple of moves first: 

Side-steps: Turn your body toward the left side of the machine, feet at 45-degree angle, and lift the right foot to the step above. Follow immediately with the left foot in a slight crossing motion. This is a side-step on the right. To do a side-step on the left, repeat on the other side. 

High-knees: To do high-knees on the stepper machine, each time you step, lift your knee up so it's at waist height.

TIMEACTIONLEVEL
2 minutesWarmup3-5
30 secondsForward Climb5-8
30 secondsSide Step Right5-10
30 secondsSide Step Left5-10
30 secondsForward Climb5-10
1 minuteForward Climb8-12
15 secondsHigh Knee Climb8-12
15 secondsForward Climb8-12
15 secondsHigh Knee Climb8-12
15 secondsForward Climb8-12
1 minuteForward Climb6-10
15 secondsHigh Knee Side Step Right8-12
15 secondsHigh Knee Side Step Left8-12
15 secondsHigh Knee Side Step Right8-12
15 secondsHigh Knee Side Step Left8-12
1 minuteForward Climb6-10
1 minuteRear Leg Lift, 30 seconds each side4-5
1 minuteCool Down3-5

A booty-burning stair master workout

If you really want to torch your glutes on the stair master, try this workout. For this one, you'll need to incorporate the following exercises into the routine:

Kickbacks: After you've taken a step, extend one leg out and back behind you, keeping the leg straight and engaged, before stepping it up onto the next step.

Squat-walk: To do a squat-walk on the stair master, get into a squat, and try and stay in the squat position as you step. You might need to hold onto the handlebars for stability during this exercise. Yes, it's meant to burn. 

Two-at-a-time: Yep, you guessed it — take two steps up instead of one. Taking bigger steps works your glutes and inner thighs harder. 

TIME ACTIONLEVEL
2 minutes Warmup3-5
1 minute Forward climb5-10
1 minute Kickbacks8-12
30 seconds Recovery 5-10
1 minute Squat walk 8-12
30 seconds Recovery5-10
1 minute Two-at-a-time8-12
30 seconds Recovery5-10
1.5 minutes Kickbacks 8-12
30 seconds Recovery5-10
1.5 minutes Squat walk 8-12
30 seconds Recovery5-10
1.5 minutes Two-at-a-time8-12
2 minutes Cool down 3-5

An advanced cardio stair master workout

This one is not for the faint-hearted, and definitely not for beginners, as it involves picking up the pace. This HIIT workout is designed to get your heart rate soaring. 

TIME ACTIONEFFORT
5 minute Warm up3/10
30 seconds Jog up the stairs6/10
1 minute Recover3/10
30 secondsRun up the stairs8/10
1 minute Recover3/10
15 secondsJog up the stairs 6/10
1 minute Recover3/10
15 seconds Sprint up the stairs 9/10
5 minute Cool down3/10
Jane McGuire
Jane McGuire

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past four years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.