Once upon a time, stair steppers were the hottest thing in the gym. But their popularity faded along with that of skin-tight exercise gear. You're more likely to see a few steppers scattered in the cardio room instead of full banks of people furiously hustling away on stair steppers. But don't let that heavy coating of dust on the machine fool you; a stair stepper still provides a good workout if you use it right.
Gyms provide two primary types of stair steppers. Regular stair steppers have two pedals that either move independently of each other or have dependent foot action, which requires you to press down on one pedal to raise the other one for the next step. Independent foot action provides a more challenging workout. The other type of stair stepper, the stepmill, resembles a short escalator. You walk up the stairs as the mini-escalator moves down beneath you.
Both kinds of stair steppers engage the large muscles of your lower body, just like climbing real stairs. Muscles worked include your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. The more muscle fibers you work, the more calories you burn and the more intensely you develop your cardiovascular system. Although steppers don't offer upper-body workout options like elliptical trainers do, they still activate enough muscles to provide a strenuous cardiovascular workout.
As with any exercise equipment, you must use proper technique if you want the full benefit of your stair stepper workout. You can hold onto the side rails or handlebars for balance, but resist the temptation to lean on them. Carrying your own body weight makes you work harder, which translates to a better workout, more calories burned and a greater challenge to your cardiovascular system. Unless you have a specific reason to practice taking quick, small steps, use the fullest range of motion possible on your stair stepper to get a more intense workout.
If you stand up straight while you use a stair stepper, you force the bones, muscles and connective tissue of your feet, legs, hips and lower back to support your body weight. This type of weight-bearing exercise can help slow bone mineral loss. Stair steppers also provide a low-impact workout, which makes the stair stepper even more attractive if you have weak bones or injured joints.
Stair steppers do provide a good workout. But if you're a fan of fast-moving workouts, you might want to consider a different type of machine; neither stair steppers nor stepmills lend themselves to working out at a hard run.
If, on the other hand, you have a need to get better at climbing stairs or walking up steep hills, either type of stair stepper makes an ideal training device. Some stair steppers even include fitness test programs for fire fighters, who must be able to climb stairs while wearing heavy equipment. Mountain climbers also use stair steppers to train, wearing a heavy pack to simulate the physical strain of climbing a long, steep mountain.