What Muscles Does The Stair Stepper Work?

Stair stepping machines are becoming an increasingly popular choice for people looking for a simple but effective indoor cardio workout. They boast the same range of health benefits as climbing a traditional set of stairs, with the added bonus that you don’t have to find an actual staircase to workout on! 

But what muscles does the stair stepper work? Stair stepper machines work a range of muscle groups, primarily in the lower body. These include the glutes, the hamstrings, the quads, the hip flexors, the calves, and the abdominal muscles. Stair stepper machines also provide an effective way of strengthening and toning the lower body, whilst also helping to burn calories, shed belly fat, and boost cardiovascular fitness.

Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at what the stair stepper can do for these individual muscle groups. We’ll also be thinking about why it’s so important to make sure these muscles are kept active and strong.

What Does The Stair Stepper Target?

The stair stepper targets a range of leg and glute muscles, as well as the abdominals. 

It’s worth noting that the stair stepper machine is primarily one for aerobic workouts. It is not going to build muscle in the same way that targeted weights training can.

In order for striated muscle to grow significantly, it needs to be partially broken down by being put under greater strain than it is used to. 

When the muscle fibres are repaired by the body, they come back stronger and thicker. Repeated ‘rupture and repair’ results in bigger muscles.

This sort of muscle building is best achieved by incremental weight training.

However, although the stair stepper may not be the best method for bulking out leg or 

abdominal muscles, it can certainly help tone and sculpt a range of muscle groups. It can also help you burn calories and lose weight, factors which can help any existing muscle appear more prominent.

So which muscles does the stair stepper actually target? 

What Muscles Does The Stair Stepper Work?

Gluteal muscles

Also known as the glutes, this is the muscle group that forms your buttocks. The gluteus maximus, probably the most famous of the set, is actually the largest striated muscle in the human body. 

As well as the gluteus maximus, the gluteal muscle group also consists of the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus. Together they form the dominant group of the posterior chain.

They are crucial for posture and for keeping the upper trunk of the body erect and stable. 

This is often a neglected and overlooked group of muscles. Modern lifestyles can lead to the gluteus muscles being left idle. We sit around a lot, but don’t often engage them actively! 

Climbing stairs or steep inclines is one of the few exercises that effectively targets your glutes. Stair climbing machines are therefore a perfect way of exercising and toning this often neglected set of vital muscles. 

Hamstrings

Your hamstring muscles are the set of muscles running up the back of your thighs. They are an extremely powerful set of muscles, important in the posterior chain but also vital for general mobility and lower body strength. 

The specific muscles within this group include biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. 

Sports enthusiasts, runners, and athletes of many forms rely on strong, healthy hamstrings for power, acceleration, and drive. Even if you’re not a professional football player, you still rely on these muscles to get around every day and to remain quick on your feet. 

Stair climbing machines are a great way to ensure that the hamstrings are getting worked at an intensity beyond that of everyday walking.  

Quadriceps 

Just as the hamstrings are at the back of the thigh, so the quads are at the front. They work in conjunction with the hamstrings to help control movement and keep us upright. 

Specific quad muscles targeted and strengthened by regular stair stepping are the rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis, and vastus medialis. 

Like the hamstrings, they have great power and great responsibility when it comes to ensuring we can move energetically and smoothly. 

Hip Flexors

The hip flexor muscles are a group that have gained increasing attention amongst everyday fitness enthusiasts in recent years, and for good reason! 

The hip flexor muscles allow us to flex the hip, or bring the knee closer to our chest. They can also play a role in extending our legs.

Too much sitting and inactivity can result in hip flexors becoming tight and underworked. This is a particular problem in our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. 

Lack of hip flexor mobility has been linked to a range of overuse injuries as well as injuries or pain relating to imbalances in the posterior chain. 

Whilst certain stretching exercises and practices such as yoga can help promote hip flexor mobility, stair stepper machines also have a part to play.

The action of stair climbing helps repeatedly flex the hips and lengthen the muscles responsible for this movement. This can in turn help improve pelvic posture and reduce the risk of other injuries elsewhere in the lower body. 

Calves

When people think of ‘leg muscles’, they may think of the calves first. These are the muscles at the back of our lower legs, the ones that are often on show most frequently! 

It’s perhaps no surprise that they’re also a vital muscle group when it comes to our general mobility and stability. The lateral and medial gastrocnemius are the larger muscles positioned on top of the soleus. 

The soleus happens to be one of the muscles in the human body capable of pulling with the greatest force. In fact, it spends a lot of time ‘pulling’ against gravity in order to keep us upright, rather than allowing us to fall in a heap to the ground.

The soleus and its muscle group siblings all play a vital part in running, walking, dancing, and other mobile activities. Stair steppers are a great way to ensure that the calves are getting a regular, targeted work out beyond just usual daily use.  

Like the rest of the muscles in our lower body, inactivity and sedentary daily routines can result in weak, underdeveloped calves. Not only does this leave us less agile, it also leaves us more vulnerable to acute injuries, sprains, and accidents.

Abdominal muscles

Although the stair stepper primarily offers a lower body workout, the action of stair climbing also engages the abdominal muscles. The importance of these much publicised core muscles can not easily be overstated.

Abdominal muscles are often focused on for aesthetic reasons, but the real benefits of having strong, healthy abs go far beyond looking flat and toned in the mirror.

Our abdominal muscles are vital at helping keep us erect, stable, and flexible. They help support our upper body and maintain a correct posture.

Furthermore, there are few mobile, daily activities or movements that don’t in some way engage the abdominals. Simple acts such as carrying the shopping, hoovering the living room, cooking dinner, walking to the shops, or playing with the grandchildren are all likely to require functional abs in some way.

Stair steppers, as part of a varied exercise routine, can also help to keep your abdominal muscles engaged and healthily functioning. 

Final thoughts

The range of movement and level of resistance offered by stair steppers can be a great way of working and toning a range of muscle groups. Although the majority of these are focused in the lower body, the machine also carries benefits for the abdominals.

Our posture, mobility, and resilience against injury can all be markedly improved by regular stair stepping. As well as providing a good, calorie-burning cardio boost, the action of climbing stairs can help strengthen our musculoskeletal system in ways which traditional, casual walking is simply not as effective at doing.

Incorporating a stair stepper into your exercise routine can therefore be an easy, effective way of staying active and engaging a range of vital muscle groups often left underworked by sedentary lifestyles. 

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An ex-triathlete, fitness coach and writer with a Masters in Sports Physiology. Fitness is my passion and I've had my fair share of home fitness equipment tried and tested!