It was somewhere around floor 30 when I started cursing my decision to climb the 86 flights of stairs to the top of the Empire State Building. My quads felt like lead, my lungs and throat burned from my ragged breathing, a cramp wrapped around my abdomen and my heart was beating in my ears. Not even eight minutes into this race to the top of the sixth tallest completed skyscraper in the United States—a bucket-list event for many people—and all I wanted was an elevator.
There’s a reason why you see college athletic teams scaling stadium stairs, why doctors often use stairs as a barometer for our health, and why fitness professionals tell us to take the stairs and not the elevator or escalator. Stair climbing is a challenge—and a time-efficient way to quickly build cardiovascular fitness and strength.
“In order to be able to generate power in your muscles to climb stairs, especially at a vigorous pace, that produces a fairly significant stress on the cardiovascular system,” says Martin Gibala, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University. “The ability of that system to respond and pump blood and oxygen through your body is fairly significant. In short, stair climbing can be seen as a task of the underlying health of the cardiorespiratory system.”
When it comes to improving cardiovascular fitness, exercises like running or biking come to mind, but rarely stair-climbing. But the research being conducted at Gibala’s lab at McMaster might flip that switch. Recently Gibala’s and his team has tried to determine just how little exercise you can do while still making those physiological and health gains, and studies show that a 10-minute exercise routine, which includes at least a minute of “all out” stair-climbing, can improve an otherwise sedentary individual’s cardiovascular fitness.
“In some of our studies, which have not been conducted using elite athletes, there’s definitely a strength development or power development aspect,” Gibala says. “We’ve measured improvements to cardio fitness, we’ve seen improvements in leg power in our subjects. Every time you climb a stair, you’re required to lift the mass of your body an 8-10-inch height. In some ways it’s a form of resistance training as well, although quite different from heavy barbell squats or something like that.”
Suzy Walsham—the top-ranked woman in the world at tower climbing—got into the sport almost on a whim by entering and winning a race in Singapore, where she lives. Walsham trains by running stairs in her 17-floor residential building—and never the stairmaster.
Walsham points out that tower climbing is more technical than one may think—when climbing, she takes the stairs two at a time, finds her repetitive rhythm for her steps and uses her upper body to pull on the handrail of the stairs. (Yes, that’s legal in tower-climbing races!). Walsham saids that her arms are often more sore than her legs after races.
So how can the average person turn stair training into tangible health benefits? Gibala recommends this workout to start: After a two-minute warm-up, climb stairs at a vigorous pace for 20 seconds (usually around 60 continuous stairs), and recover for two minutes, descending the stairs. Repeat that two more times before cooling down for two minutes, for a total workout that takes less than 10 minutes.
“We’ve seen people do that a few times a week for six weeks, and they can get some quite significant improvement in their cardiorespiratory fitness,” Gibala says. “That will be a benefit for athletes as well, especially athletes that participate in endurance sports or start-and-go sports.”
I made it to the top of the Empire State Building in 20:08. The overall winner of the race, Piotr Lobodzinski from Poland, finished in half the time—10:06 (“Six seconds too slow,” he told me, as he wanted to break ten minutes)—and Walsham finished a few minutes after Lobodzinski, in 12:18, for her 10th Empire State Building Run-Up win. I made it to the top in 20:08, and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I stepped into the elevator to head back down.