Every major city and college town has stairs where you can work out. When I went to Chico State, they had stadium stairs. At UConn, Eddy Hall has stairs six stories high. San Francisco has its historic Lyon Street stairs.
Here in Santa Monica, we have the iconic Santa Monica Stairs. Celebrities and athletes use the easier wooden stairs. A block south, we have less congested and tightly packed cement stairs, one with six stories of 20-30 stairs, another with one set of 30.
If you can locate a set of stairs with 20-plus steps, that's all you need. Before we get into the meat and potatoes, let's begin by going over what not to do on the stairs.
Don't Run Stairs
Running is fine if you're a long-distance runner. Aerobic capacity is important for endurance athletes, but if you're looking to improve your sports performance, running may be counterproductive. When you exercise at a low intensity, you recruit Type 1 muscle fibers, which are designed to do things for long durations and use fat as their main fuel source, but are not very powerful. When you lift heavy things and move fast, you recruit Type 2 muscle fibers. When stimulated, these fibers tend to grow larger than Type 1 fibers. More importantly, when you perform maximal lifts or run sprints, you maximize Excess Post-Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). Bottom line: If you want to maximize your gains, stop running stairs and start sprinting them.
VIDEO: Hill Sprint/Stadium Stairs
Don't Run Down the Stairs
When you run down stairs, the amount of force production and stress are much greater on the knees. I continually see athletes running down stairs to "maximize" their burn and sweat more. This is a problem. Why are we so concerned with sweating? If you sit in a sauna for an hour, does that mean you've had a good workout? Sweat is a natural mechanism for cooling the body, not a "good workout indicator." Bottom line: Sprint up stairs and walk down. This will optimize recovery and save your joints.
Now that we've covered what you shouldn't do, here's how to get the most out of a stair workout.
Change Up Your Reps
As with rep ranges in the gym, it's important to change things up. For speed, stick to single steps to develop stride rate. To develop more power, skip a step or two. Don't forget to move your arms. Arm movement is just as important as hip movement.
Side-Step Up the Stairs
If you were to engineer the human body, where would you strategically put rockets to maximize linear speed? Your butt! The glutes are designed to propel the body forward—and up. Running stairs is like having a BB gun on your backside. You don't want a BB gun, you want an M4 Sherman Tank. When you side-step up stairs, you maximally engage your glute muscles.
For an Increased Challenge, Jump Up the Stairs
When we jump and sprint, we engage our Type 2 muscle fibers. But be careful, because jumping is advanced. Don't start jumping until you've been sprinting stairs for at least a few months. Ideally, you should be able to squat twice your body weight. Besides, most people do jumping incorrectly. Type 2 muscle fibers fatigue quickly, so performing jumps for ten repetitions is probably worthless. You'll be training your Type 1 muscle fibers to develop power and speed—and they don't like to do that. It would be like teaching Dwight Howard to be a point guard. Makes no sense.
- 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up. Very important because you'll be performing exercises all out at 100% effort. Would you not warm up before a max Bench or Deadlift session?
- 4 sets of 5 plyometric jumps into 20- to 40-yard stair sprints. Rest 2-3 minutes.
- 4 sets of Band-Resisted Sprints 20-40 yards. Rest 2-3 minutes.
- 4 sets of 5- to 10-second Stair Sprints (every step). Rest 60 seconds.
- 4 sets of 5- to 10-second Side-Step Sprints. Rest 60 seconds
- 2 sets of Competition Sprints.
Plyometric Jumps Into Sprints
For a more advanced style of stair sprinting, incorporate plyometric jumps before you sprint. Find a bench and jump onto it for 5 to 10 reps, then sprint for 20 to 40 yards up the stairs. No need to set any records. A bench that's 16 to 32 inches tall is fine.
There are two ways to develop speed (stride length and stride frequency): Assisted Sprints and Resisted Sprints. Stride frequency is developed by running downhill (assisted); stride length is developed by sprinting up stairs (resisted). An technique we like is the Band-Resisted Stair Sprint followed by a max out Sprint. After you compete the Resistance Sprint, drop the band and sprint for 20 to 40 yards.
Who doesn't like a friendly race? At the end of our workouts, we have our athletes compete against each other. If you're the coach, make sure to get a head start like I did, because these young bucks have the advantage!