Beginner’s guide: Step machine

Beginner's guide: Step machine

If you want to slim down and tone up, then stair climbing might just be your thing. Yes it’s pretty tough, but it it combines an awesome leg and butt workout with seriously torching fat like little else. If go big or go home is your motto, this is your thing.

Stair climbing outdoors is a popular activity and you’ll find anyone from Victoria’s Secret models to Hollywood’s hottest and hardcore bodybuilders doing it. In fact, many cities have popular local spots that you’ll find packed with people running up and down public stairs to get fit. There’s even a website dedicated to it. If however, you prefer to exercise indoors, then the step machine is a great alternative. As they give an incredibly effective and challenging workout, step machines in gyms are almost as ubiquitous as the treadmill.

There are two types of step machines – the step mill and the pedal variations.

1. The step mill has an escalator feel to it and closely replicates “real” stair climbing. You adjust the difficulty of the workout by speeding up or slowing down the staircase and then keeping pace with it. You can also take two steps at a time to really fry your butt and legs.

2. The pedal-type steppers are more common, are generally smaller, and involve pushing down on pedals so your body stays more or less still. You can increase both speed and resistance to vary the difficulty of your workout. Unlike step mills, you also control the height of your step by simply taking smaller or larger steps as required.

Both types of machine are similarly effective and work the same muscles – it’s really just a matter of personal preference and, of course, what type of machine you have access to. As a general rule, the higher the step, the harder your muscles work so take the biggest step you comfortably can. The main muscles used in stair climbing are…

Area targeted Muscles targeted
Thigh Quadriceps – the muscles located on the front of your thigh and the ones in which you are likely to feel “the burn” as your workout begins to get tougher
Hamstrings – the muscles on the back of your thigh, these muscles work harder when you take bigger steps
Butt Gluteus maximus – the muscles on the back of your hip, these also work harder when you take bigger steps
Calf Gastrocnemius and soleus – your calf muscles, these muscles should be fairly inactive if you keep your feet flat but isfyou rise up onto your toes, they’ll get a good workout, albeit accidentally



Step machines blow many other forms right out of the water for various reasons:

Step machines provide a low impact workout. Unlike jogging and running, which place a lot of impact on your legs and back, there is no such impact when using a step machine. This makes a workout on the step machine much easier on your joints and is especially beneficial for heavier exercisers and those with knee and hip issues

Step machines are easy to use and require no hard-to-learn techniques or special skills. Because no tricky techniques are required and, unlike a treadmill, you can’t really fall off a stepper, you are free to focus on your workout or, alternatively, on watching TV while you exercise without the danger of suffering an injury

If you want to tone your legs and butt while burning lots of calories and improving your fitness, step machines offer a great way to do it all in one simple (but not easy!) workout

Most step machines have an on-board computer programmed with a variety of workouts. They also display speed, the number of steps you’re talking per minute,  distance traveled, and calories burnt. Some will also show your heart rate, which is useful as you can see exactly how hard you’re exercising.

Step machine workouts can be as hard or as easy as you make them – simply adjust your speed and step height according to your current fitness level and exercise goals (see how hard should I exercise?)


The repetitive stepping action can cause knee pain in some users – usually seen as quadriceps tendonitis. Troubleshoot: This condition is easily treated with rest and ice but can also be avoided by avoiding using a step machine too often or for too long

If you’re worried about the size of your calves, you might find that using a step machine increases your thigh and calf size. Troubleshoot: this is often due to poor technique (stepping only with the balls of your feet instead of the whole foot), and/ or using the stepper too often or for too long

Step machines provide a great lower body workout but do not involve your upper body to any meaningful degree. Troubleshoot: Include exercises for your upper body and core to develop a balanced physique or figure

Sometimes people experience numb feet when using the step machine. Troubleshoot: This is a problem easily remedied by moving your feet periodically and wiggling your toes from time to time


As step machines tend to vary from model to model and each will come with their own detailed instruction of use, which you should check before exercising. However, some general guidelines are common to the majority of machines…

Keep your feet flat and avoid coming up on to your tiptoes too much. If you spend too much time on the front of your foot you’ll may inadvertently make these muscles bigger. In other words, press down with your whole foot, including the heel, not just the front of your foot, as most of us are naturally inclined to do.

Your knees should stay over your mid foot and never travel beyond the end of your feet. You’ll remember this from doing squats and lunges! Position your feet to minimize how far your knees move forward of your toes. Too much forward knee travel places an inordinate amount of stress on your knee joint and quadriceps tendon and can cause overuse injuries

Keep your body upright and don’t slouch over the consol. Try not to use the handrails but, rather, use your core muscles to maintain good posture. By keeping your use of the handrails to a minimum, you will burn more calories because your muscles have to work harder. You also get a core workout thrown in for free

Keep your pace roughly steady. Set the resistance and speed of your workout to allow you to maintain around 60 to 80 steps per minute. Going much slower than that can feel laborious, while faster speeds mean you’ll probably have to reduce the size of each step, which will, in turn, reduce the benefits of using a stepper. If you want to make your workout more challenging don’t try to go super fast, instead increase the resistance

Beginner’s guide: Step machine was last modified: February 12th, 2016 by the team
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