Struggling to Walk Up Stairs? Here’s What Your Body’s Trying to Tell You

There are plenty of reasons why you might be struggling to walk up stairs.
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Walking up the stairs is something many of us do several times a day. And while some people can climb two at a time with minimal effort, others may struggle with just one.

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Being able to walk up the stairs requires muscular strength, endurance, mobility, coordination and balance. In other words, your lower-body muscles have a lot going on at one time. If you feel weak and/or unsteady on your feet or experience pain in the knees, hips or ankles, you may need to strengthen a few parts of your body and focus on mobility and balance exercises.

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We asked Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault, to weigh in on why you might be struggling to walk up the stairs and tips to make it easier.

If You: Feel Weak in the Lower Body

You Might: Have Low Muscular Strength

The old saying "weak in the knees" is a reality for many people who struggle with climbing the stairs. According to Wickham, you need a baseline amount of leg strength to walk up stairs. And if you don't have it, getting up and down the stairs may not happen very easily, if at all.

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The primary muscles involved in walking up stairs include your glutes, quadriceps and gastrocnemius (part of your calf). To get up and down the stairs, Wickham says you need to improve strength in these muscles.

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Wickham recommends focusing on incorporating squat variations such as back squats, front squats, goblet squats and even body-weight squats to improve quadriceps strength.

For glute strength, include exercise such as glute bridges and deadlift variations such as single-leg deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts and traditional deadlifts with or without weight. And you can improve calf strength with exercises like calf raises or tip-toe walks, Wickham says.

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Aim for 5 to 15 reps per set, with the last reps in your set being relatively difficult to perform. "You will typically use a heavier weight when focusing on improving muscular strength," Wickham says.

Move 1: Body-Weight Squat

  1. Start standing, feet hip-width apart.
  2. Extend your arms out in front of you and slowly bend your knees as you push your hips back to squat down. Focus on lowering your body as if you were going to sit on a chair.
  3. Squat down until your thighs are parallel with the floor, or as low as you can go comfortably while maintaining good form. Your knees should be over your toes and your gaze should be straight ahead.
  4. Pause for a moment at the bottom of your squat.
  5. On an exhale, reverse the motion by pressing through your heels to return to standing. As you stand, lower your arms back to your sides.

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Move 2: Glute Bridge

  1. Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, feet flat on the ground and knees bent.
  2. On an exhale, squeeze your glutes, press into your heels and drive your hips up toward the sky.
  3. Raise your hips until you form a diagonal line from knees to hips to chest.
  4. Pause here for a moment.
  5. Reverse the motion and return to the starting position.

Move 3: Calf Raise

  1. Stand on the balls of your feet at the edge of a step or other raised platform.
  2. Lower your heels a few inches toward the floor.
  3. Press through the balls of your feet and raise up as high as possible, elevating the heels toward the sky.
  4. Pause here for a second.
  5. Fully lower your heels toward the floor so your calves are in a stretch.
  6. Pause here for a moment.
  7. Return to the middle position and repeat.

If You: Feel Tired or Experience Muscle Fatigue

You Might: Lack Muscular Endurance

Sure, you need to have the requisite amount of strength, but Wickham says you also need to have an adequate amount of endurance to walk up numerous steps or flights of steps. "Muscular endurance is the ability to repeatedly perform a movement or task without your muscles getting fatigued," he says.

Also, if you're out of breath, your heart and lungs might not be working efficiently. This could be due to a medical condition related to the pulmonary (lunge) or cardiovascular (heart) system. If you're concerned that it might be something more than just being out of shape, consult with a doctor before adding to your exercise routine.

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To improve muscular endurance in your legs, Wickham suggests performing the same resistance exercises that you would for improving strength, such as squats, bridges, deadlifts and calf raises, but stick to a higher rep count and lower weight — or no weight.

Body-weight squats are an excellent move to add to your routine, especially since you can target muscular endurance by knocking out several reps per set. You can also incorporate more aerobic exercises like walking, swimming and bicycling into your week to improve overall cardiovascular fitness.

If You: Have Trouble Stepping Up

You Might: Have Reduced Mobility

Mobility is the foundation for every movement you perform. Walking up the stairs, for example, requires your joints to move a specific amount. But when your joints are tight, Wickham says they restrict movement, making it very difficult to perform daily tasks.

Wickham says the most common mobility issues that prevent you from properly walking up stairs include tight hips and ankles. "Having tight hip flexor muscles prevents your hips from properly extending, which makes it difficult to complete a full step up," he says.

"Having limited ankle dorsiflexion range of motion is usually caused in part by having tight calf muscles, and tight calf muscles restrict your ability to get your ankle in the proper position needed to perform a step-up," Wickham says.

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To improve your hip and ankle mobility, he recommends performing stretches such as half-kneeling hip flexor stretch or ankle stretch.

Move 1: Half-Kneeling Ankle Stretch

  1. Get into a half-kneeling position with your right leg in front and bent to 90 degrees, left leg behind you with the knee, shin and top of the foot resting on the floor.
  2. Keep your torso upright and lean forward. The right knee will go forward while the heel remains in contact with the floor. You should feel the stretch in the calf of the front foot.
  3. Return the knee to the starting position and repeat.
  4. Do 10 times on each leg.

Move 2: Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

  1. Get into a half-kneeling position with your right leg in front and bent to 90 degrees, left leg behind you with the knee, shin and top of the foot resting on the floor.
  2. Keep your torso upright and press your hips forward, raising your left arm up and overhead. You should feel this stretch along the front of your left hip.
  3. Hold for 15 seconds, then switch sides.

If You: Feel Pain in Your Knees, Hips or Ankles

You Might: Have an Injury

If pain is getting in the way of climbing stairs, Wickham says you likely have issues with your knees, hips and/or ankles.

"The most common areas with pain or injury is your knees," he says. Knee pain is caused by numerous factors such as a traumatic injury or repetitive wear and tear of the joints due to poor mobility. "Having tight muscles and joints causes compensation in other joints, which can lead to pain and injury."

When one or more of your joints can't do their job, another joint has to take over, Wickham says. The problem with this scenario is the joint that is compensating was not designed to do this.

For example, if you have poor ankle mobility, your knee will compensate. "This results in poor movement at the knee, which leads to knee joint wear and tear and eventually, knee pain and injury," he says.

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If pain is preventing you from walking upstairs, Wickham says you need to address the reasons that caused your pain in the first place. "Often, this pain or injury is due to having tight muscles and joints. In this case, you need to improve your hip and ankle mobility using the movements and exercises noted above," he says.

Wickham says walking sideways up the stairs is a movement modification that can help when dealing with pain or injury in the short term because it puts less stress and demand on your knees and hips.

But if you're dealing with pain or injury caused by a traumatic event such as a fall or accident, he says you may need to see a healthcare professional such as a physical therapist.

If You: Feel Unsteady or Fear Falling

You Might: Have Coordination or Balance Issues

Coordination and balance go hand-in-hand when performing any movement, Wickham says. "When you have poor coordination or balance, you will have difficulty performing movements, especially movements that require single-leg movement and balance such as walking up stairs," he says. This can make walking up stairs dangerous since it can increase your risk of falling.

"Any exercise or movement performed in a slow and controlled manner, while concentrating on the areas that are moving, will improve your coordination and balance," says Wickham. The key, he says, is focusing on the specific muscles and joints that are moving while performing an exercise.

If possible, Wickham recommends performing the exercises in a quiet area away from distraction. Some examples of coordination and balance exercises include hip and ankle circles (full range of motion), single-leg marches, single-leg balance and single-leg deadlifts.

Single-Leg March

  1. Get into a glute bridge position: Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, feet flat on the ground and knees bent. Squeeze your glutes, press into your heels and drive your hips up.
  2. Raise the right leg off the floor and bring it toward your chest. The left heel will stay in contact with the ground.
  3. Return the right leg to the floor and raise the left leg and bring it toward your chest. The right heel will stain in contact with the ground.
  4. Return the left foot to the floor and continue marching by alternating legs.
  5. March 20 times total, 10 each leg.

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