Exercise Equipment: Stair-Climbers

Exercise Equipment: Stair-Climbers


After the 1990`s, a new craze in fitness was born. In health clubs across the country, lines were forming in front of the newest piece of exercise equipment: the stair climbing machine. The stair climber quickly grew in popularity, and more than 10 years later it is still a favorite piece of aerobic equipment.

Stair climbing is not a new idea, however. For years, coaches everywhere used bleacher stands and stairs to condition their athletes. Although there was no research to back up the efficacy of these training techniques, coaches knew that stair climbing produced positive results. Today research shows that a fitness program using stair-climbing machines can produce significant aerobic benefits and is a safer alternative than climbing bleachers or stairwells.

Stair climbing’s primary purpose is to provide aerobic conditioning: strengthening the heart and burning calories to reduce fat. It also tones your calves, thighs, and buttocks. But exercise bikes and treadmills can offer the same benefits, so why buy a stair climber? There are several reasons. First, stair climbing requires a higher metabolic equivalent (MET), or power requirement, than cycling or running. (A MET correlates the amount of energy required to perform a specific activity with that needed in a resting state.) In simple terms, stair climbing consumes more calories per workout than an equal amount of time spent on a treadmill or exercise bike. Second, it is a lower impact alternative to running. Finally, stair climbing offers a refreshing change from the saddle sores associated with riding an exercise bike.


Choosing the Right Stair Climber For You

Once you have decided to purchase a stair climber, the choices may seem overwhelming. To help narrow your options, first identify the features that are most important to you. The answers to the following questions will help determine the type or class of machine you will need.

  1. How much money do you have to spend?
  2. How much floor space is available for the machine?
  3. Do you want a computer that accurately calculates calories burned, power output, and/or heart rate?
  4. Do you want a computer to control and vary the resistance of the machine?
  5. Do you want independent or dependent stepping action?

Usually, price will be the biggest factor in your decision. No need to worry, though, as there are some very reasonably priced, high quality stair climbers on the market today.


One way to distinguish between stair climbers is according to whether the mechanical action of the stepping pedals is dependent or independent. In a stair climber with dependent action, the right and left pedals are tied together such that when the user pushes down the right pedal, the left pedal comes up, and vice versa. The most popular line of dependent-action stair climbers in health clubs today is manufactured by Life Fitness. Both Precor and Tunturi manufacture dependent-action stair climbers that are designed for home use. These machines make it easier to develop a rhythm, which can be beneficial for beginners.

Stair climbers with pedals that move independently eliminate the user’s ability to shift his or her weight from side to side to keep the pedals moving (an action that is possible on stair climbers with dependent action). This side-to-side shifting can reduce the effectiveness of a workout. Thus, stair climbers with independent pedal action can minimize the user’s ability to cheat his or her workout. More importantly, research has shown that independent-action stair climbers reduce the risk of orthopedic trauma compared to stepping on dependent-action stair climbers or climbing stairwells. Schwinn Cycling & Fitness, Inc. has developed a line of independent-action stair climbing machines designed for home and health club use.


Classes Of Stair Climbers
For simplicity, stair-climbing machines can be classified into three different categories: cylinder-driven, wind-driven, and computer-controlled. In general, you can find both independent- and dependent- action stair climbers in all three categories.
Cylinder-Driven Stair Climbers
The most common type of stair climbers in the lower price market are those with cylinders that use air or hydraulic fluid to provide resistance. Some machines allow you to change the resistance setting on the cylinder. This type of machine is highly recommended because, as your stepping ability increases, so will your need for various resistance settings.
If you are looking for independent stepping action, you will probably have to pay slightly more for your machine. With independent action stair climbers, the pedals are not tied together with a belt or cable, so the cylinders are required to bear the full load of the user. Thus, you will want to buy a stair climber with heavy-duty cylinders. A rule of thumb is the thicker or greater the outer diameter of the cylinder, the greater the load capacity. Schwinn Cycling and Fitness carries an independent-action cylinder-driven stair climber for approximately $299. Retail prices run between $250 and $600 for an independent-action cylinder-driven stair climber and between $180 and $300 for a dependent-action cylinder-driven stair climber.
Because the resistance of these machines is not controlled by a computer, most units come with simple programs that keep track of your workout time, total number of steps, and approximate distance climbed. Some will also calculate the average number of calories burned for the number of steps you have climbed.
One last note about cylinder-driven stair climbers. The market is now supplying some dual-action stair climbers that also train the upper body. Although these machines offer an improved total body workout, you will notice the difference in the sticker price. An inexpensive alternative is to buy a set of hand weights and develop your own upper body workout.
Wind-Driven Stair Climbers

The next major category of stair climbers are those that use a fan to provide resistance. The user varies the resistance by speeding up or slowing down the stepping rate (i.e., the slower the step rate, the lower the resistance). These machines cost more than cylinder-driven stair climbers but are more durable. The cooling effect of the fan is an added benefit. Ultra Fit manufactures a wind-driven stair climber that retails for approximately $650. This unit combines a fan with a friction belt for even more variability in resistance.

Computer-Controlled Stair Climbers

These stair climbers use computers to control the resistance provided by a brake. One advantage of this type of system is that resistance changes can occur without input from the user. With this feature, pre-programmed workouts can be selected at the beginning of a session. The computer can simulate changes in speed or force as the user encounters hills or valleys. These types of programs add variety to your workout and help alleviate boredom. Another advantage of computer-controlled stair climbers is that they provide more accurate feedback on calorie consumption and energy expenditure.

Computer-controlled machines are available with various features and in many price categories, but an important differentiator is the type of braking mechanism used. Your choice of brake will depend on which features you require. 

The 4000 PT, manufactured by Stair Master, is an example of an alternator-driven computer-controlled stair climber. This model retails for approximately $2,195. A more economical model manufactured by Schwinn Cycling and Fitness retails for approximately $1,299. This model, the CI-330, is driven with an electromagnetic brake.