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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: