Climbing stairs: every step, or every other step?


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The age-old question: is it more efficient to climb stairs one at a time or two at a time? Fortunately, researchers at Penn State have tackled this puzzler in the current issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. They start with a helpful diagram of the two options:


Strangely, the researchers hypothesized that, left to choose their own speeds, the volunteers would take the same amount of time single-stepping and double-stepping, and use mostly about the same level of muscle activation. This isn’t what they observed (is it just me, or is this obvious?): they climbed 22% faster while double-stepping, choosing to take 83 double steps per minute, compared to 109 single steps.

It’s worth noting that these researchers aren’t the first to address this question. A team in Singapore tried a similar experiment back in 2005, but they fixed the step rate (100 per minute for single-stepping, 50 for double-stepping) so that the total time was the same. The conclusion in that case was that single-stepping under these conditions raised heart and breathing rates more, but any calorie difference was negligible.

In the new study, using “natural” stepping rates, the researchers concluded that double-stepping burns about 70 to 90 calories more per hour than single-stepping (678 vs. 592 per hour, on average, for the subjects in the study). Again, this is not surprising: bounding up stairs two a time takes more energy than going up one at a time — if you engage in the activity for the same amount of TIME. But will the time be the same? What if you’re doing a set number of staircases, so that you spend less time double-stepping than you would single-stepping? Which burns more calories that way?

Unfortunately, I can’t find those numbers in the paper. But if my back-of-the-envelope numbers are right, double-stepping burns 15% more calories per hour but takes 22% less time. So if you’re climbing a real staircase (e.g. stadium steps), you’ll get a better workout by single-stepping. But if you’re on a stair machine in the gym, working out for a set amount of time rather than distance, then big steps will burn more calories. Let’s see that diagram again, in case anyone’s confused:


12 Replies to “Climbing stairs: every step, or every other step?”

  1. triple-stepping probably wouldn’t be cardio but strength training. (but we’ll never know until someone actually studies it 🙂

  2. I do two sets of 36 flights 5 time a week while I’m at work. I used to do double steps but now I do single “bouncing” steps. I definitely breath harder with the bouncing singles but I added the bouncing to work the elasticity in my legs and hopefully help my running.

  3. Wow 2 X 36 flights! I “only” do 14 flights 5 times a week at work, and people look at me like I’m crazy.

    I choose single stepping, mainly because I don’t usually change my speed when I double step, so at the same speed it is much harder… plus double-stepping would probably hurt my knees too in the long run…

  4. I run 5 stories in double steps, up and down 4 times per session. It takes about 7 to 8 minutes each time. Run up and walk down. High Intensity Interval Training. I do this 4 times a day at work. 8am, 10:30am, 1:30pm, and 4pm. 4 days a week.

    That equates to 8 flights x 4 sprints = 32 flights in each session.
    4 times a day x 32 = 128 flights per day.

    At times i’ll increase my 4pm run to 10 sprints before i leave work to get in a good sweat.

    I lost 30 lbs in 6 months and now maintain my weight easily. Along with the running i did change my eating habbits to lower carb and kept my calories around 1600 a day. And I’m 39 years old by the way 🙂

    When i first started running i could only run up and down twice two times a day. Eventually i got up to 5 times up and down 4 times a day.

    Now mostly i do the 4 and 4.

  5. Awesome, Jesse — congrats on the success, and thanks for sharing the details of your program.

  6. I walk up stairs 15 minutes a day. Would it be better to increase this to 30 minutes a day or increase the amount of steps that I do in the 15 minutes?

  7. Hard to say without knowing how hard you’re pushing in your current 15 minutes. But my general take would be to hedge your bets: alternate between days where you focus on going longer and days where you focus on going faster. That’s exactly the pattern used by top endurance athletes to maximize their gains.

  8. @alex

    I’m doing about 650 steps in 15 minutes. I’m slow. It does get the heart rate up. Thanks for the advice.

  9. I double and triple step on a regular basis, it’s fun makes my friends wonder how I do it. But really it doesn’t hurt or do anything to my legs anymore. That’s why I sometimes do three steps at a time. One step at a time feels like a complete waste of time to me. I could go up a whole building to the top floor two steps at a time and I’d be barely even out of breath.

  10. I’m always doing double and triple. Doing double is good and makes me fresh all times. Triple more superb for cardio and strength.

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