The Stairmaster, in all its iterations, is one of the most popular and misused pieces of equipment in the gym world, so I’m going to try and set the record straight and tell you how to use this equipment properly. I realize that here are many different types of machines, for the sake of brevity and clarity I will use the generic Stairmaster.

First off I am going to re-re-re-state that I have an extreme anti-equipment bias. Equipment is inferior in every aspect to ground-based, compound movements. Whether talking about strength training or cardiovascular exercise, machines do not and cannot compete with the non-equipment counterparts.

However, I still know how to use these machines properly and understand what they can – and cannot – do.

One of the most ridiculous things I see people do on a Stairmaster is what I call, “The Sleepwalk.” The Sleepwalk is performed on the revolving staircase or step treadmill-style Stairmaster, where the user walks at a slow pace – usually at the lowest setting possible – and extends the trail leg straight and back, ostensibly to work the buttocks. So silly and a total waste of time and effort.

The super-slow, “fat burning” pace is incredibly inefficient, as it delivers just about zero cardiovascular benefits and burns an absolutely minuscule amount of calories. Trying to “squeeze the glute,” as I’ve heard from personal trainers and clients alike, is a effort in futility in the misguided quest to “tone the butt.”  It’s like doing a biceps pose over and over again in the hope of developing the muscle.

I cannot believe how much time people waste – the vast majority are women – doing The Sleepwalk on the Stairmaster. People compound this bad behavior when they lock their arms and lean on the handrails. Just like when walking on a treadmill, hanging onto the handrails makes the exercise even less effective than it already is.

On the chain-driven Stairmasters people tend to use short, choppy, quick steps, which severely limits the range of motion and, as a result, makes the exercise less effective. Ideally, you want to take longer and slower (relatively speaking) steps in order to get the most out of Stairmaster-style exercise.

The common mistake people make on all cardiovascular machines is to hold on to, or lean their weight on, the handrails. More people do the Stairmaster the wrong way – locking their arms and leaning heavily on the handrails – than the correct way. This method of cheating on the Stairmaster puts a lot of unnecessary stress on the elbows, trapezius and rhomboid muscles and the neck, as well. The effectiveness of the exercise, regardless of the machine, is always diminished when holding on to the handrail.

The bottom line is that when using any kind of Stairmaster exercise at a pace that allows you to maintain proper form, which means no leaning, no Sleepwalking, no glute squeezing and no short, choppy strides. Hold on as little as possible, keep an upright posture and take strides with a full range of motion and you will get the most out of your Stairmaster experience.


  1. OK, NEEDLESS TO SAY, I am so thrilled MY MACHINE has officially made it onto your website!!! Regardless of your re-re-re-restatements noting their inferiority to ground based exercise.
    yeah, yeah, yeah!!!
    some of us over 40 who attempt ground based exercises such as sprinting usually pull hamstrings because well, we’re old. So I’ll head on over to craigslist and start my search for my fave cardio machine!!!

  2. I really like the Stairmaster as an adjunct to ‘ on-the-ground’ training – if done with the ‘heel down’ there is almost no impact – this, after a long marathon or mountain hike, gives a person his/her aerobic workout and rests the Achilles/calf, etc. Concur with the ‘elbows locked’ or ‘forward lean’ postures – not good for you and defeats the purpose of the machine. May as well get on the ‘dip machine’ and ‘free air’ pedal. See you running or snowshoeing!


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