PJ's Fitness Blog

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Rookie Stair Training

stairbabyI was interviewed today by Britt Thorson of KOMO 4’s SeattleRefined.com about beginner stair training and it dawned on me that I haven’t written a dedicated post on the subject, so I figured I should!

If you are considering stair workouts as a way to get in shape, you have stumbled onto a true golden nugget because stair training in my opinion is the best exercise on the planet and I’ve got seven reasons why:

1.) It’s the safest sport. Stairs cause the least injuries of any fitness sport. There are several reasons for this claim but one reason is that since stair training sessions are so intense, they are also very short. a shorter workout reduces the number of reps that you are doing so it’s harder to develop overuse injuries. Another reason is that going up stairs is also a low impact activity, so it’s easier on the joints than most other fitness workout. In fact, going up stairs is less impact then walking on flat ground! Heck, I’ve taken clients on stair climbs who have had double knee replacement or hip replacements with no problems whatsoever. If you are doing stairs outside, or on a staircase that requires you to go back down (because you don’t have access to an elevator), the down phase can be hard on the joints, but I have some tips below that will drastically help with that issue, so read on.

2.) Stair climbing is the fastest way to get in shape. You will enjoy rapid endurance, cardio and strength results with this type of training because of the vertical component. That is what makes it so unique from other sports and training programs. When I say fast, I mean results will come faster than other types of training, but I also mean it is the fastest workout compared with other types of training. If stairs are done right, a complete workout can be completed in 10 minutes or less.

3.) It’s free. No health club membership required, and you probably already have a pair of shoes.

4.) It’s easy and convenient. I’m sure there are some stairs near you, whether it’s in a nearby park or as building.

5.) It works your muscles harder then any other high intensity sport, but without the damage. Other high-intensity sports are usually ballistic in nature and incorporate heavy weights for fast movements that can tear muscles. Stair climbing feels slow and steady from a movement perspective, but from a physiological perspective, the intensity is unsurpassed. I know this personally, because I have tried most other sports and training techniques and nothing comes close to the fatigue I feel from stair training. Professional athletes I have raced with have also attested to this fact. Pro marathoners and triathletes have told me stair racing is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Don’t let this scare you away from stair training though, I am just using to stair racing to prove my point. You may find out later that you are cut out for the sport of stair racing (a.k.a. tower running), but even if not, stair training can’t be beat, so try it out or you will miss out big time!

6.) Stairs train your heart and lungs faster than any other workout. Because you are climbing against gravity, you are necessarily strength training as you do your cardio training, so fast stairclimbers need to have both strength and cardio to be competitive. With most other sports, you need either strength or cardio, but not usually both at the same time. Stair training will give you that.

7.) Stairs are the best training modality for fat loss and muscle toning. Again, because of the vertical component and stair training, the body wants to adapt to that style of training by being as efficient as possible. The body quickly realizes that excess weight is a huge liability with this type of training, so it tends to shed the kind of tissue that isn’t contributing to going vertical – namely your fat tissue – and tends to build up the kind of tissue that is contributing to going vertical – namely your muscle tissue. Stairs won’t bulk you up though, because the adaptation process builds toned muscles, not big muscles, because toned muscle has a better strength to weight ratio than big muscles. Another reason stairs are a great way to burn fat is due to the intensity of the activity, which activates the “fight of flight” mechanism in your body, which in turn activates hormone sensitive lipase in your muscle cells, signaling them to burn fat for energy. When I push myself 90% on stairs 2-3 times a week for 7-9 minutes, I find it easy to maintain a bodyfat level of 8-9%. When I push myself 98% to 100% however, like in a race, I actually end up losing about to 2-3 pounds of pure fat over the following 2-3 days. When I did a 24 hour climb with my teammates to set a new world record, I burned off 5 pounds of fat and actually put on 1 pound of muscle! No other sport could match those numbers. It might be possible to burn off that much fat in 24 hours with another extreme sport, but muscle would be burnt off with it instead of built up.

So if you are sold on stair training now, below are my 7 best training tips for a rookie. Before starting this or any other exercise program though, be sure to get clearance from your doctor because even though stair training is the safest workout in my opinion, any form of exercise carries risks. Of course being sedentary carries the highest health risk of all, but getting started is best advised by a trusted medical professional who knows you and your specific health condition.

1.) Start slow. Most people make the rookie mistake of running up stairs because they’re excited to get started. If your staircase is 50 stairs or less, you could probably handle that, but on longer staircases and especially in buildings taller than 10-15 floors, running is a really bad idea for a rookie, unless you are a rookie who likes to toss their cookies. A better idea is to take your time and enjoy yourself. Pace it out and go with a speed that you can sustain for 10-15 minutes without a break. That’s going to be slower than you think. Build your training volume slowly as well. Treat your first stair workout like an experiment to see how your body reacts to stairs. Limit that first workout 5 to 7 minutes at the most. Then try adding another 2 minutes each time until you are up to 15 minutes or so, following the routine below.

2.) If you are going down stairs, be sure to take it slow and easy. Descending stairs is the part that will make you really sore (especially your calves), so build slowly with your volume. You could go up stairs all day and not feel it the next day, but go down more than 300 steps and you will be shocked at how sore that can make you. If you mix up your gate when descending stairs, that will also help spread it around to different muscles, making you less sore. Go duck feet for a while, pigeon toed for a while, slightly sideways for a while, land on your heel first, heck, even try going down backwards if you can. Using the rail is very important too though, because using different gaits can be tricky at first and falling down stairs can really suck.

3.) Use the rail going up and down. Don’t worry, that’s not cheating. In fact, as far as I know, there are no official rules on stairclimbing, so even if someone told you that was cheating, they wouldn’t be able to produce any rulebook to prove it. In fact, using the rails will give you an upper body workout as well, making it a great full-body exercise.

4.) Breathe. This might sound like common sense, but breathing and especially using the right technique, helps a ton. Studies show that breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth can even improve your endurance because it increases nitric oxide production which reduces your need for oxygen and therefore allows you to push harder, resulting in a better work out.

5.) Double-step it. Single-stepping might feel like it’s faster, but it’s not. Single stepping is also harder, because it’s less efficient and wastes energy. Double-stepping (skipping one step) works the muscles harder and through a greater range of motion, so it’s a better workout for that reason too. Then if you ever decide to be competitive with racing, you will already have the double-stepping technique down, which will be key, because all fast stair racers double-step – no exceptions – even for the little short female stair racers I know who are under 5 feet tall and less than 90 pounds.

6.) Train in a building with an elevator to ride back down if possible. This is the best of all scenarios, because if you can get away with only going up stairs, you enjoy all the benefits of the exercise and none of the downside and impact of the descending phase. If you train in a building however, make sure it’s a building you live or work in so you don’t get busted by security or get trapped inside. Most buildings are locked on all floors except the bottom because stairs are usually meant to be a fire escape only. If you don’t have access to get out at the top, you will have to walk all the way back down and believe me, your muscles will regret that the next day!

7.) Smile and think happy thoughts. Research has shown that high intensity training requiring high amounts of sustained effort is most easily performed in a happy state. You will find that you have more energy and endurance when you are in a positive state and even “faking a smile” can be enough to help, but the real emotion is of course the most effective. Plus, you’ll have a better time.  🙂

Here’s a 7 step stair training workout for rookies:

1.) Build your volume slowly.

2.) Start slow with a warm up pace for the first 3-4 minutes. This will get your heart and lungs warmed up and ready for work as well as your joints lubed and prepared to train.

3.) Do a medium pace for 1-2 minutes. This will break your system in, both physically and mentally so you are prepared to work hard.

4.) Run with Dr. Tabata for 4 minutes. Tabataprotocol.com explains how to do the best interval training program I have found. The best part is, the work phase takes only four minutes! The gist of it is as follows:

  • Sprint 100% intensity for 20 seconds.
  • Slow down (to a near stop) for 10 seconds and concentrate on breathing, relaxing and recovering.
  • Another 100% sprint for 20 seconds. This sprint will probably be about as fast as your last sprint.
  • Another 10 seconds slow recovery interval.
  • Another 100% sprint for 20 seconds. This sprint won’t be as fast as the last one, but that’s okay – just make sure it’s still 100% effort.
  • Another 10 seconds slow recovery interval.
  • Another 100% sprint for 20 seconds. Now you are slowing down considerably on your sprints, but no worries – only the 100% effort matters!
  • Another 10 seconds slow recovery interval.
  • Another 100% sprint for 20 seconds. That this point, 100% effort feels more like cold molasses, but that’s okay, speed has become irrelevant and your continued full effort is all that remains.
  • Another 10 seconds slow recovery interval.
  • Another 100% sprint for 20 seconds. If you are really putting in 100% effort into all of your sprint segments, you will be laughing at yourself by this point at how slow your 100% is.
  • Another 10 seconds slow recovery interval.
  • Another 100% sprint for 20 seconds. You’re 100% now is a total joke, but remember that speed doesn’t matter, only 100% effort matters!
  • Another 10 seconds slow recovery interval.
  • Another 100% sprint for 20 seconds. Last one! Go for it! If you can go faster on this one then the last one, then you were sandbagging on some of the other sprints, so just learn from it and push harder next time.
  • Another 10 seconds slow recovery interval.

5.) End with an easy climb, smiling the whole time (even if you have to fake that smile). Your brain will remember the last part of your workout better than any other part, so ending with a pleasant experience instead of ending abruptly after your last sprint segment will help your brain remember things more favorably, which will make it more likely that you will return for subsequent high intensity workouts.

6.) Cool down and stretch. Take it easy, move your limbs around in full ranges of motion and stretch your muscles – especially your quads, glutes and calves.

7.) Wear a mask if you get “The Hack.” That’s me pictured below with a cheap dust mask from a local drugstore to keep me from getting the post-race “cough” caused by an eroded airway. The reason the airway gets eroded is due to the rapid movement and high volume of air across the throat surfaces. Different people get “The Hack” to different degrees, depending on the shape of their throat. I however, tend to cough for 3-4 days after a race, so I wear the mask to prevent that. The reason it works is because the mask traps the humidity from my exhaled air and as I breathe that humidity back in, my airway stays lubricated and doesn’t erode as much. For more info on this subject visit: http://stairsport.com/why-the-heck-do-i-get-the-hack/

And start climbing! See you at the top!