The 7 Best Stair Stepper Machines
This wiki has been updated 27 times since it was first published in May of 2015. Climbing stairs is one of the best ways to develop cardiovascular health and lower body and core strength. These stepper machines not only provide low-impact aerobic exercise at a variety of intensities, but they let you enjoy them when you're standing at your desk or in front of the TV. We've ranked them here by their durability, resistance capabilities, and fitness tracking features. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
July 29, 2021:
A small handful of subpar and out-of-stock models were given the axe during this round of updates. Instead, we added two important selections that should over most people's needs. The Bowflex M3 Max isn't their most expensive model — Bowflex equipment can get very costly — but it looks and operates like a high-end piece of equipment. Alternatively, the Sunny Health & Fitness S020027 has an especially small footprint and moderate cost, and offers comprehensive ankle and lower leg workouts that many options can't quite match.
March 30, 2020:
First and foremost, any users who think they might have trouble balancing on a stair climber, even just at first, should get a model with some kind of handles. As easy as it is to store something like the compact Stamina InStride Pro Electronic under a bed or in a closet, the risk of falling is high. Use in front of a television can even exacerbate this, as it can complicate the way your brain uses your vision to orient itself and maintain equilibrium.
The most serious climbers out there should consider something from high up on our list, like the StairMaster 10G Gauntlet Series or the Precor CLM 835 Commercial, both of which you're likely to see in commercial gyms. The Stairmaster, in particular, uses a very different system than the rest of the options on our list, essentially creating a hinged, slow-moving treadmill that unfurls its steps as you climb. It's probably the closest thing to the actual sensation of ascending a flight, but it's an extremely expensive choice.
Some users will want to be able to work more than just their legs while they go. For those purposes, it's important to look for things like optional lateral motion as you see in the Goplus 2-In-1 Air Climber. This can help engage the core more fully and increase the abdominal burn. It can also throw your balance off more than straight climbing would, so be careful. Then, there are options with attachment points for resistance bands, like the Stamina InStride Pro Electronic. These are generally preferable to using free weights, as they're a little easier to control, and if you need to drop them to protect yourself from falling or hyperextending, they don't pose a danger to your feet or the floor beneath you.
The Long Climb Toward Fitness
These springs provide a small amount of recoil to get your leg positioned for the following step on that side.
When I was offered a job working one summer in Chgnik Bay, Alaska, I figured I'd have the run of the place, climbing up little mountains, running all over the land, and generally keeping in great shape. Unfortunately, a few brown bears had other ideas about the ownership of that space, and anyone who didn't walk around up there with a gun walked around with a fat can of bear mace. I wasn't much interested in either prospect, so, I didn't get a lot of running in.
Fortunately, there was a room in the trailer dorms I occupied with a few other employees that housed an old stair climber. It wasn't a particularly nice model, even when it was new, and it was far from new. It squeaked and creaked and bore my weight and effort with a great deal of distress until it finally broke just two days before I returned to the contiguous states.
A lot of machines might have been waiting for me in that dark little room, but I'm grateful that it was a stair climber because they provide such a thorough workout. The most obvious muscles that a stair climber works are the quadriceps, those big muscles on the top front of your legs. But stair climbers also work your calves, glutes, hamstrings, and all the muscles of your core, creating a total mid-to-lower body cardiovascular workout while incurring next to no impact on your joints.
Most stair climbers are either spring-loaded or piston-operated. When you step down on a spring-loaded stair climber, your body weight combines with the pressure you exert downward to stretch a spring coiled beneath the step under either foot. These springs provide a small amount of recoil to get your leg positioned for the following step on that side. The piston-operated machines work much the same way, as your weight and exertion push air out of a metal tube through a small opening. The air pressure creates the resistance and the recoil.
A few of the newer stair climbers on the market incorporate wheels into the traditional design. The resistance in these models comes from an internal adjustable belt akin to what you might find in some rowing machines and recumbent bikes, while the rolling motion reduces impact and mimics the movement of an elliptical machine.
Some stair climbers also offer additional workout options to complete the experience, usually targeting one or more of the upper body's muscle groups, since the stair climber itself already does such a good job working your lower half.
Keeping Fit For The Long Haul
The difference between the spring-loaded and piston-operated stair climbers is minimal at most. You may feel a difference in the recoil action of one over the other, but their durability and ease of use are nearly identical. The wheeled models present a more stark comparison of style, and this is where your decision making process ought to begin.
The difference between the spring-loaded and piston-operated stair climbers is minimal at most.
While the wheeled models make for a compelling, low-impact stair climbing experience, they have a more limited range of motion that the older styles of machine. That means you might find yourself frustrated with their ability to really help you burn off excess energy. At the same time, their size and articulation allow you to use them comfortably from a sitting position, so you can put them under your desk while working and keep your heart rate just a little bit elevated. That can literally mean the difference between a life cut short by heart disease and a long, healthy retirement.
If you decide you want to stick to the more traditional builds, your decision will likely come down to size before anything else. Some of the traditional stair climbers on our list boast central columns designed assist you with balance and upper body exercise while you climb. If you're someone without a knack for the balance beam, this might be the safer bet for you.
You might simply not have the space for a full-sized stair climber. In that case, regardless of your balancing prowess, you're going to need a smaller machine. Since we've established that the difference between the springs and the pistons isn't enough for you to base your whole decision around it, you should look at the availability of added exercises among the smaller stair climbers. Some of them have dedicated pegs to which you can attach resistance bands and other upper body workout implements.
A Successful Debut
For 70 years between 1929 and 1999, the National Sporting Goods Association Trade Show attracted innovators, inventors, success stories, and scam artists from around the country to meet, network, promote, and profit in the sports market. It was there in 1985 that three engineers from Oklahoma led by Lanny Potts first introduced the StairMaster 5000.
The first exercise unit of its kind, the StairMaster worked more like a treadmill than the stair climbers of today, but instead of rotating a flat belt around two rollers, the StairMaster rotated an entire set of stairs, appearing three at a time, for consumers to climb. They came to the show loaded with studies about the benefits of stair climbing, and their product exploded in popularity.
Since then, Tri-Tech, the company responsible for the StairMaster, and their legions of imitators have refined the design to include only two steps that don't need to go anywhere for you to get a workout on them. They simply rebound one after the other as you pump away on your little legs, getting healthier and stronger one step at a time.