How to Use the Step Machine & Get the Best Workout

It does cardio. It does strength. What's this insanely effective workout? The step machine. Whatever you do, don't skip it!

Want to be super efficient and combine cardiovascular training and a resistance workout, and have it be super tough? Then stair climbing might just be your thing! If go big or go home is your motto, you’ve found the perfect workout.

This cardio machine is a great strength-building tool for your calves, glutes, quads, and hamstrings. It’s ideal for anyone looking for a low-impact, intensely challenging workout that boosts cardiovascular fitness and strengthens the lower body.

Just like running, you can take this workout outdoors if you don’t have access to a step machine or just prefer exercising under the open sky. Stair climbing outdoors is an incredibly popular activity. In fact, many cities have 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.

However, if you prefer to exercise indoors, then look no further than the step machine. Step machines provide a very effective and challenging workout, and are almost as ubiquitous in gyms as the treadmill.

Read more: Stair climbing – the ultimate strength and cardio workout

– The Basics –

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

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 target your glutes and legs even more.

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. Therefore, take the biggest step you comfortably can while maintaining good form. The main areas targeted in stair climbing are:

  • Front of thighs: These muscles (quadriceps) are where you are most likely to feel “the burn” as your workout begins to get tougher.
  • Back of thighs: These muscles (hamstrings) work harder when you take bigger steps and step through with your whole foot.
  • Glutes: These muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus) work harder when you take bigger steps.
  • Calves: The calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) muscles should be fairly inactive if you keep your feet flat. However, if you rise up onto your toes, they’ll get a good workout.

Step Machine Benefits

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

Low impact. 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. Therefore, if used correctly it should not cause knee pain. However, do avoid it if you have weak or injured knees, as the step machine may cause discomfort or aggravate pain.

Ease of use. Step machines are easy to use and require no hard-to-learn techniques or special skills. Because no tricky techniques are required and, as you are less likely to fall off a stepper than a treadmill, you are more free to focus on your workout or, alternatively, on watching TV while you exercise.

Cardio + strength. If you want to work out your legs and glutes while improving your cardiovascular fitness, step machines offer a great way to do it in an all-in-one simple (but not easy!) workout.

Variety. 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.

Adjustable. 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.

Read more: Training zones – how hard should you exercise?

How to Use the Step Machine


Here’s how to get an insanely good workout on the step machine and make some amazing fitness gains.

  • Grip the handrails lightly. The handrails are only there for your safety, to help maintain your balance. Avoid resting your body on the handles, or holding on to them for dear life by pressing or pushing down on them with your full weight. You can also use the step machine without holding on to the handlebars to give your core a good workout.
  • Stand tall. Keep your body upright and don’t slouch over the consol. Slouching puts pressure on your lower back and stops your legs and glutes from getting a full workout. Keep your shoulders back and look straight ahead. You can stand with an ever so slight forward lean from the hips, to stop your back from overarching and your knees from locking. In other words, avoid standing as straight as a ramrod.
  • Knees should stay over mid foot and never travel beyond the end of your feet. You’ll remember this from doing squats and lunges! Position your feet in such a way to minimize how far your knees can move forward of your toes. Too much forward knee travel is bad for your knees, as it places an inordinate amount of stress on your knee joint and quadriceps tendon, and can cause overuse injuries.
  • Keep your feet flat on the pedal. In other words, press down with your whole foot including your heel, not just the front of your foot as most of us are naturally inclined to do. This helps target your thighs and glutes and stops you from overburdening your calves.
  • Steady pace. Set the resistance and speed of your workout to allow you to maintain a pace of 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 reduces 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.

Problems Using Step Machine



Knee Strain/ Pain

The repetitive stepping action can cause knee pain in some users, usually quadriceps tendonitis. This is the inflammation of the tendon of the quadriceps muscle (front of thigh muscle) at the point where it attaches to the top of the kneecap. Quadriceps tendonitis causes pain just above the kneecap.

Troubleshoot: This condition is easily treated with rest and ice but may also be prevented by keeping your knees over the mid-foot, as well as avoiding using the step machine too often or for too long.

The step machine is best for those who are able to climb stairs without pain. It can be tough on your knees, so it’s probably best to give this piece of cardio equipment a wide berth if you have pre-existing knee joint problems.


Not Landing on Whole Foot

Many people overuse their quadriceps or calves when climbing stairs or using the step machine.

Troubleshoot: This is often due to stepping mostly with the balls of your feet instead of the whole foot. Pushing through with your heels targets your hamstrings more.


You Want a Total-Body Workout

You want a total body workout, but step machines only provide a great lower body workout and do not involve your upper body to any meaningful degree.

Troubleshoot: You do work your abs when you practice proper form. Your core helps keep you balanced and your lower abs work to lift your legs. However, get a really good core workout by going hands-free. When you don’t use the handles your core has to work hard to provide balance and stability. Only do this if you can maintain your balance without gripping the rails and be sure to keep your pace steady.


Numb Feet

You 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.

Easy to use and effective, step machines offer a great alternative to running the bleachers.

Read more: The importance of proper form

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