Look no further than a couple of stairs. You don’t need a full flight; using only two stairs and your own body weight, you can train your whole body.
When using stairs as a training tool, balance is essential for safety. Wear sneakers with minimal soles that still provide good traction. This is especially key on slicker surfaces, like marble, wood or tile.
When the sole is too thick, your ankle is more likely to roll laterally and you’ll have a harder time sensing ground contact. Get shoes with a minimal, flexible sole and adequate grip to get the sensory feedback needed for stable, intentional movement without sacrificing necessary traction.
Wearing the right footwear is important, but that alone can’t prevent falls if you’re not steady on your feet. Before beginning any stair-based exercises, do a balance check. Without holding anything for support, try standing on each leg for 10 seconds.
Even people with stellar balance can sometimes feel wobbly. When training on stairs, use the railing whenever necessary to steady yourself. And, as with any new exercise program, consult your doctor before attempting these exercises.
If you’re using a full flight of stairs, walking up and down them for two to three minutes can be a good warm up. Pay close attention to your steps, walking slowly at first to establish balance and control, before gradually speeding up as much as you feel comfortable.
Otherwise, if you only have a few stairs (again, you only need two steps for the workout), stay on the ground and warm up by doing a set of 20 jumping jacks and a minute or two of jogging in place.
The stair workout
Perform the seven exercises below for the prescribed number of reps. Repeat all exercises in order for two to five rounds. In between rounds, rest for a minute or two and drink plenty of water.
Step-up: 10 to 15 reps per side
This is one of the most obvious — and effective — exercises to perform when training on the stairs. Step-ups primarily target legs, glutes and core. As a unilateral (single-limb) exercise, it relies on one leg at at time to power the movement.
Begin by standing, facing the stairs. Step one foot up to the second stair. Drive through that heel to lift your opposite foot up off the floor, also placing it on the stair. Step back to the floor with the same foot you just lifted.
Repeat with the opposite foot on the stair.
Want an added challenge? When you bring your back foot up to meet the foot on the stair, pause at the top, balancing on one leg with your opposite knee lifted toward your chest before placing your foot down next to the other one.
If stepping up only two stairs doesn’t feel challenging enough, and you have more than two stairs, you can also try stepping up three stairs at a time.
Elevated hip lift: 10 to 20 reps per side
This hinging exercise offers a nice counterbalance to the squatting movements in this workout by taking the load off your hip flexors. It strengthens the backs of your legs, glutes and core.
Lie down in front of the stairs. Place your heels up on it, hip distance apart, with your knees bent and hips, back and head on the floor. If it’s more comfortable, place a mat or towel under you.
Exhale as you drive through your heels to lift your hips and back up off the floor in a bridge position. Do not arch your back: Keep it straight and flat. You should feel the muscle activation in your hamstrings and glutes (backs of legs and butt) — not your lower back. Return your hips to the floor.
Repeat on the other side.
To increase the challenge, do a single-leg variation with only one heel on the stair while keeping the other leg lifted and straight.
Rear-foot elevated split squat: 6 to 10 reps per side
Also known as Bulgarian split squats, this unilateral exercise strengthens quads and glutes as well as hip stability and mobility. Balance is definitely a factor, so be sure you establish a stable base through your front foot and leg before you begin the movement in your back leg.
Stand 1 to 2 feet in front of the stairs, facing away from them. How far you stand from the stairs will be determined by your leg length: closer if you’re shorter, like me, and further away if you’re taller. Lift one foot back behind you, bending your knee to place your toes onto the second stair. Keep your forward leg straight, grounding down into the floor to establish a firm base. This is your starting position.
When you feel balanced, begin the exercise by bending from your front knee to lower your back knee downward, keeping your torso upright and hips squared. Stop when your front knee is at 90 degrees without allowing your knee to track over your toes.
Drive through the heel of your front foot to straighten your leg and lift yourself back to the starting position. You should feel all of the effort coming from your front leg and core.
Switch legs and repeat.
If you struggle to steady yourself while performing this exercise, hold onto a broom handle or chair on the floor in front of you for support.
Decline plank with shoulder tap: 10 to 20 reps
As with any planking exercise, this one works your core and shoulders, but the shoulder tap movement and decline significantly increases the challenge to both areas.
Start in high plank position at the bottom of the stairs with your feet on the first step and hands on floor. Place your feet slightly wider than hip distance to help with balance and avoid rocking when you lift each hand. Establish good form by engaging your core to maintain a flat back.
Exhale as you lift your right hand and tap the front of your left shoulder before returning your hand to the floor. Repeat with your left hand touching your right shoulder. Continue alternating back and forth.
If this is too difficult for you, simply hold the declined plank position for 30 seconds without the shoulder taps. Alternatively, if you’d like an added challenge, bring your feet up to the second or third step.
Side squat: 8 to 12 reps per side
This movement promotes strength, stability and mobility in your legs and glutes. Like the earlier step-up and split-squat exercises, it can also be classified as a unilateral exercise, assisting in the correction of muscular imbalances.
Begin standing sideways at the bottom of the stairs. Sidestep the foot closest to the stairs up to the second step, keeping your body and feet sideways. In this starting position, you’ll need to bend the knee of your top leg and allow the bulk of your weight to be supported by the straight leg on the floor.
Squat down, pushing your hips back, avoiding letting your knees come past your toes. Drive through your heels, predominantly the heel of your foot on the floor, to come back up to starting position.
Switch sides and repeat.
Twisting mountain climber: 10 to 20 reps
This move gives the traditional mountain climber a twist. Like a basic mountain climber, it works shoulders, core and hips. While the added elevation of the stairs makes the exercise a little easier, the twist puts extra emphasis on side-waist muscles and inner thighs.
Standing facing the stairs, bend over to place your hands on the second step, walking your feet out into a high plank position. Establish good form by engaging your core to maintain a flat back.
Remain stable in your shoulders, avoiding rocking forward, while you alternate driving each knee up to your chest and twisting over toward the opposite elbow. Keep your shoulders stationary and back and neck neutral.
Perform these at a pace that feels right for you while maintaining good form.
Tricep dips: 8 to 12 reps
Dips work to strengthen your arms (triceps), shoulder girdle and core.
To set up for this exercise, begin by sitting on the second step with your hands holding the edge. Supporting yourself with your arms, slowly walk your feet out on the floor in front of you, keeping your knees bent and your hips up until your knees are right above your ankles.
In this starting position, you should feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders. If you feel any cautionary sensations in your shoulders, this exercise might not be for you right now.
With control, bend your elbows to lower your hips down as far as is comfortable before pushing back up to starting position. You should feel the back of your arms powering the movement.
For an added challenge, you can move your feet out further in front of you and perform the exercise with straight legs. Use care to avoid putting too much strain on your shoulders if they feel significantly tight.
Practicing this stair workout will not only step up your overall strength and balance but because of its focus on unilateral exercises that work one side at a time, it can also help address muscular imbalances to enhance functional, pain-free movement in daily life.
Dana Santas is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, registered yoga teacher and mind-body coach known as the Mobility Maker. Author of “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief,” she’s the yoga coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Lightning, and others in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the Professional Golfers’ Association and World Wrestling Entertainment.