The stair climber and treadmill are two of the most popular pieces of exercise equipment across gyms and homes. Both offer a variety of workout options, from easier to grueling and muscle-building to cardio.
Some people swear by the stair climber while others only use the treadmill.
So which is better? In this article, we will break down the benefits of each and dive into the research to determine whether the stair climber or treadmill provides a better workout.
Table of Contents:
- What Is A Stair Climber?
- What Is A Treadmill?
- Stair Climber vs Treadmill For Glutes
- Stairmaster vs Incline Treadmill For Weight Loss
- Stairmaster vs Treadmill: Which Burns More Calories?
- What Are The Price Differences?
- Comparing the Stair Climber vs Treadmill: A Summary
What Is A Stair Climber?
The stair climber, also referred to as Stairmaster or stair stepper, is a type of exercise machine that simulates climbing stairs. The stair stepper was invented in 1983 by a trio of engineers in Oklahoma. The stair master was finally patented in 1987, which led to a boom in popularity and the creation of similar machines.
The stair climber looks like a miniature staircase with individual steps that revolve up and down continuously. The machine user will stand on the steps and climb stairs, just like you would on an actual staircase. Machines have multiple options to adjust speed and resistance levels to create different workouts.
The stairclimber is most commonly used as a cardio workout for its ability to burn several calories. It can also build strength in the lower body, including calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glute muscles.
Stair Stepper Muscles Worked
The main muscles worked by the stair stepper are the lower body, including calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. The hamstrings are activated when flexing the knees, while the calves, quads, and glutes are activated during the pushing motion of the steps.
It also works the hip flexors, activated when lifting the legs. Lastly, the stair climber also works the heart and cardiovascular system. The exercise on a stair climber helps elevate the heart rate, which keeps the heart healthy and improves endurance.
Stair Climber Calories Burned
Like any exercise, the exact number of burned calories will depend on several factors. For a 30-minute workout, the Stairmaster will usually burn anywhere from 180 to 260 calories.
The speed setting is one major factor affecting how many calories are burned, as moving faster can significantly increase the total calories burned. Another important note is that heavier people will typically burn more calories because they have to carry more body weight, so greater energy is required.
For example, a 175-pound man will burn more calories than a 130-pound man doing the same workout.
Benefits Of The Stairmaster
A Stairmaster workout might be difficult, but the pain is well worth the benefits. I’ll go over some of my favorite perks here, but there are so many of them, that we even did a whole article on it. For additional information on stairmaster perks, head to our article on 17 Benefits of the Stair Climber.
Some of the benefits of the stair master include:
- Cardiovascular Health: Like other exercises, the Stairmaster helps elevate the heart rate, which helps improve cardiovascular endurance.
- Burn Calories: Most stair stepper machines today have screens that display estimated calories burned, making it easy to track. You can burn more calories by increasing speed.
- Strengthens Core: While the lower body muscles are the primary focus of the stair stepper, the core is activated to help stabilize and maintain posture. Strengthening the lower back and abdominals can help avoid injury and prevent lower back pain.
- Helps Bone Density: Just like running on a treadmill, weight-bearing exercises help improve bone density and can help prevent bone diseases like osteoporosis.
- Stronger Lower Body: The stair stepper helps build leg muscles, including quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes. The stair stepper is especially great for building muscle in the calves and glutes compared to running on a treadmill.
- Low Impact: Stair climber machines provide low impact workouts, which means they slowly elevate your heart rate and put less pressure on your joints than high-impact exercises. A stair climber machine requires you to push off your legs, whereas the treadmill has you landing on your legs with high impact onto hard surfaces. Over time, the stair stepper can strengthen joints and reduce joint pain, whereas treadmills put stress on them.
Stair Stepper Cons
While there are several benefits of the Stairmaster, there are some minor negative aspects.
- Not A Full Body Workout: The stairmaster truly focuses on the lower body, which can be good or bad. If you are looking for more of a total body workout, the treadmill or other machines might be better.
- Possible Injury: This machine can be tough to use, especially at higher speeds. Start slowly and work your way up to avoid injuries such as tendonitis, muscle strains, or overuse injuries.
- Can Be Difficult: Despite having different speed options, the stair stepper has far less variability than running on a treadmill. Beginners may struggle to complete five minutes on the lowest setting of a stair stepper, whereas, on a treadmill, they can find a manageable speed.
What Is A Treadmill?
A treadmill is a type of cardio equipment with a moving belt on a flat surface created to simulate outdoor running or walking. It’s the most popular piece of home exercise equipment and the most popular cardio machine in gyms.
The earliest forms of treadmills were created as forms of punishment until 1913, when the first US patent for a treadmill training machine was issued. They’re now used for cardiovascular exercises, including walking and running.
Treadmills have evolved with technology and today include numerous features such as targeted heart rates and various resistance levels, including an incline option.
Treadmill Muscles Worked
The treadmill works the body very similarly to the stair stepper, with both primarily affecting the lower muscle groups, including the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, and glutes.
You can specifically target the calves and glutes more by doing an incline treadmill workout such as incline walking. The treadmill also works secondary muscles in the core, including the abdominals and lower back muscles.
Running will target the abdominal muscles more, so try increasing speed to help attain a six-pack. The shoulders, back, and arms are also minorly activated, primarily acting as stabilizing muscles.
Calories Burned During A Treadmill Workout
As we mentioned above, the amount of calories burned will vary from person to person because it depends on several factors. All things considered equal, running outdoors or on a treadmill is the best and most efficient way to burn calories.
A study compared the energy expended in calories from various fitness machines, including both the treadmill and the stair stepper machine.
The treadmill produced the highest energy expenditure, meaning it burned the most calories compared to the stair climber and other machines. The treadmill also produced the highest heart rate, with the stair climber second1.
On average, the typical person can burn anywhere from 150-300 calories in one hour walking on a treadmill, with speed being a major factor, among others. When running, you can burn closer to 550-700 calories per hour. Studies have shown that running burns more calories than walking, leading to significantly greater weight loss over six years2.
For a 150-pound person, walking on a treadmill at a brisk pace of 3.5 mph will burn roughly 258 calories an hour. Running at a 10-minute mile pace of 6pmh will burn approximately 680 calories per hour in the same 150-pound individual.
Benefits Of The Treadmill
In addition to the calories burned, the treadmill has other benefits over the stair stepper.
One study found that running is more effective than stair-climbing for sports-related effects. They found that aerobic capacity measured in VO2 max increased by 12% on the stair stepper compared to a 16% increase from running.
The running group also decreased their run time by 11% compared to only 8% in the stair stepper group, which shows the treadmill is better for running performance results than the stair stepper3.
Other benefits include:
- Convenience: Treadmills are extremely convenient to use, making it possible to walk or run at any time of day, regardless of weather. This is especially helpful for people who live in climates that aren’t ideal for running, including freezing cold or extreme heat. They can be found at any gym or fitness center or easily purchased for an at-home gym.
- Variety of Workouts: Treadmills offer a much wider range of possible workouts than a stair stepper. Treadmills have a much greater range of speed settings, making them more customizable and safer. They can also have incline options, interval training programs, and other training programs to choose from. For example, you can opt for a HIIT treadmill workout or you can find a treadmill workout for weight loss.
- Improves Heart Health: All forms of exercise benefit overall heart health, and the treadmill is among the best. Treadmills offer low-intensity aerobic exercise and technology to measure heart rate. Hitting a target heart rate zone and maintaining constant heart rates helps strengthen the heart muscles and lower blood pressure, decreasing the risk of heart disease. On the other hand, stair steppers are typically very high-intensity.
Can Improve Mental Health: We know that all exercise is good for relieving stress and overall mental health, but running is perhaps the best. You have likely heard of “runners high,” a euphoric feeling that occurs in runners due to the release of endorphins. Studies have shown that just 10 minutes of moderate-intensity running release endorphins and enhance arousal
While the treadmill offers several great benefits, a few minor negatives exist.
- Space Requirement and Cost: Treadmills can be rather large, often requiring a large space or room.
- Tough On Joints: Although running on a treadmill is better than running outdoors, treadmill workouts still put stress on the joints. While treadmills try to limit impact, the constant foot strikes to the ground can cause joint damage in the knees and ankles. A stair stepper is a lower-impact option. If you have prior injuries, you should consult a healthcare professional before using them.
- Can Be Boring: The best part about walking or running outdoors is taking in the scenery, something that does not apply to treadmills. Some people can get bored by the repetitiveness of treadmills and lack of engagement, especially at lower speeds. Many gym machines have built-in audio or video screens to watch television while exercising.
Stair Climber vs Treadmill For Glutes
The gluteus maximus, or glutes, are the largest muscle in the body. They are located in the buttocks and play a vital role in hip extension, thigh abduction, and external rotation of the hips.
While building the glutes is essential for having a strong core and legs, it also plays a large part in balancing the physique. Using the incline feature on treadmills significantly increases the strain on the glutes, but the stair stepper is more effective at building muscle.
One Redditor backed this up in a thread about the Stairmaster for cardio, saying:
“The Stairmaster is definitely more taxing on your legs, more anaerobic. I usually go for about 30-45 minutes on the Stairmaster. The 10 minutes are the hardest, just push through and then it will get easier.” (source)
Further, in the study I mentioned above that looked at various exercise machines, they also measured lactate concentration, which indicates the amount of lactic acid. The amount of lactic acid will increase the more strenuous a workout is. Of all the machines, the stair stepper had the highest lactic acid concentration, showing it worked the muscle the best1.
A separate study compared several different exercises’ impacts on gluteus maximus activation levels. Of all the exercises, the step-up and its variations (lateral, diagonal, and crossover step-up) had the highest level of glute activation, above squats, hip thrusts, deadlifts, and others5.
These studies show that the stair climber is more effective at building muscle, specifically in the glutes. Interested in adding a stair climber to your home gym? Check out these 9 Best Stair Steppers!
Stairmaster vs Incline Treadmill For Weight Loss
When it comes to weight loss, the incline treadmill is the better option compared to the Stairmaster, and running on the treadmill burns the most calories.
One study compared fat oxidation levels on the treadmill, elliptical, and rowing ergometer. The results showed that fat oxidation was significantly higher in the treadmill group6. Although this study did not use the stair stepper in the experiment, plenty of research shows that running on the treadmill is the best cardio exercise option for weight loss.
The other study referenced above that compared stair climbing to running on a treadmill produced very similar results for aerobic capacity and run time, with the data supporting stair climbing as an effective alternative to running3.
An important thing to note is that stair steppers can be used at very high intensities, which can significantly increase weight loss compared to lower speeds.
I personally prefer high-intensity Stairmaster workouts for weight loss, but that’s because of the stress running puts on my knees. Other people like walking at an incline on the treadmill to take the pressure off their joints, such as this Redditor
“I incline walk on a treadmill for an hour when I know I should work out but I’m just not feeling like exercising. It gets me off the couch. It gets me into the gym. I gets my heart rate up. But it’s not so exhausting that I can’t handle it when I’m tired. According to my Fitbit I burn as much incline walking for an hour as I would running a medium speed for 45 minutes. So it’s worth it for me. But I do think the incline does amazing things for my butt. The take away is, do the exercise that feels right for your body when it feels right. Even if you’re just incline walking for a short time, it’s better than not working out at all. I find it’s a great “day off” workout.” (source)
Both pieces of equipment can be very effective at weight loss when used properly, but if you’re going to run, the treadmill is the most efficient for weight loss. The takeaway, as our Reddit friend said, is that the best option for weight loss is whatever form of exercise you will do consistently.
If you are in the market for a treadmill that will help support your weight loss goals, check out our article on the 7 Best Incline Treadmills.
Stairmaster vs Treadmill: Which Burns More Calories?
As I touched on above, the number of calories someone burns will vary based on factors like age, weight, level of fitness, and metabolism.
Studies show that when all other factors are the same, the treadmill is more efficient at calorie burning than the Stairmaster. A significant factor in determining the number of calories burned is the intensity, and stair steppers require high intensity to burn calories.
On the other hand, you can burn hundreds of calories by performing low-intensity steady-state training, LISS, on the treadmill. Treadmills offer several different programs and options that can burn calories regardless of speed or intensity. The stair stepper is a great way to burn calories, but overall the treadmill is better.
Another great way to increase your weight loss is by performing high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is a type of intense workout routine that alternates between a slower pace and intense effort periods.
What Are the Price Differences?
While treadmills and stair stepper machines can be expensive, they should be considered an investment in your health.
When discussing how much a treadmill costs, treadmills are typically priced between $500 and $3,000 for the largest, most expensive options. Nowadays, there are several smaller and more affordable options under $500, with some foldable options as cheap as $100.
Stair stepper machines, on the other hand, are relatively expensive, with the average machine costing between $2,500 to $3,500 or higher. Like treadmills, there are cheaper options that are much smaller and more affordable.
If you are looking for a great budget option for stair steppers, I recommend Sunny Health- SF-E3919. This machine has a heavy-duty steel frame that holds up to 260 pounds. With pulse-sensing grips, dynamic handlebars, and 8 levels of magnetic resistance, this stair climber ensures you get a good workout in.
This versatile machine combines the best of stepping and striding in one intense movement. Climb to a vertical height of 9 inches and stride a horizontal distance of 5 inches…
And for more great stair climber options, check out our article on the 9 Best Stair Steppers For All Budgets!
As for treadmills, the treadmill is not only cheaper but also more efficient at burning calories than stair steppers. One of the best budget-friendly options is the Horizon Fitness T101. This foldable option has a max speed of 12 mph and comes with a lifetime warranty on the frame and motor.
All Horizon treadmills are engineered with our unique three-zone Variable Response Cushioning System so you can work out longer, with less fatigue and…
Looking for more treadmill options? We’ve got tons! Check out our articles on the 10 Best Folding Treadmills or for something different, these 9 Best Manual Treadmills.
Comparing the Stair Climber vs Treadmill: A Summary
We just went over a ton of information on two awesome pieces of workout equipment! If you’re still trying to decide which is better for you, you can use the following table to compare them side by side.
Simulates climbing stairs
Simulates outdoor running or walking
Invented in 1983 by a trio of engineers in Oklahoma
First US patent issued in 1913
Lower body muscles: calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes
Lower body muscles: hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, and glutes
Helps improve endurance
Helps improve endurance
180 to 260 calories burned/30-minute workout
550-700 calories burned/hour (running)
Variety of workouts
Only works lower body
Space requirement & cost
More effective at building glute muscles
Incline treadmill workouts can target glutes
Helps with weight loss
Treadmill burns more calories
These are some of the most common questions we get related to the stair climber and treadmill.
Why is the Stairmaster so hard?
The Stairmaster requires strength and endurance of the lower body, combined with the balance requirements and high intensity, making it difficult for several users. Try starting slow on the lowest setting to get used to the machine to avoid injuries.
Is stair master better than running?
This answer depends on your goal – the stair stepper is better for building overall lower body strength while running is better for burning calories.
How long is a good stair climber workout?
A beginner may only do a 10-20 minute workout, but a more advanced user can do 30-60 minutes or more.
Is it better to do stair climber slow or fast?
This depends on the user’s ability and experience. A more experienced user may use it at the top speed, but it can also be very effective at slower speeds.
Does walking on an incline build glutes?
Yes, elevating a treadmill or walking on an incline will help build glutes. Walking on an incline activates the glutes because the incline puts resistance on the body.
Is the stair climber a full body workout?
No, the stair climber is primarily a lower-body workout. It also works the core slightly, but there is little to no upper body work.
Does treadmill or stair climber build more muscle?
The stair climber builds more muscle, specifically the calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes.
Stairmaster vs Treadmill: Which is better?
The Stairmaster and treadmill are two of the most popular workout machines, and both have several benefits.
If your goal is to burn calories and shed body fat, the treadmill is the better option. If you are looking to build lower body strength and improve physical performance, the stair stepper is the better option. Using an incline treadmill can help put more strain on the calves and glutes compared to a regular treadmill, but the Stairmaster is best for building the glutes.
Both are fantastic pieces of equipment and help burn calories efficiently, so the best option really just depends on your fitness goals.
Are you Team Stairmaster? If so, head to our article on the 9 Best Stair Steppers. Team Treadmill? Check out our articles on the 7 Best Incline Treadmills and the 10 Best Folding Treadmills.
- Zeni, A. I., et al. “Energy Expenditure with Indoor Exercise Machines.” JAMA, vol. 275, no. 18, 8 May 1996. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8618368/.
- WILLIAMS, PAUL T. “Greater Weight Loss from Running than Walking during a 6.2-Yr Prospective Follow-Up.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol. 45, no. 4, Apr. 2013. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4067491/, https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e31827b0d0a.
- Loy, S. F., et al. “Effects of Stair-Climbing vs Run Training on Treadmill and Track Running Performance.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 25, no. 11, 1 Nov. 1993. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8289616/.
- Damrongthai, Chorphaka, et al. “Benefit of Human Moderate Running Boosting Mood and Executive Function Coinciding with Bilateral Prefrontal Activation.” Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, 22 Nov. 2021. www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-01654-z, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-01654-z.
- Neto, Walter Krause, et al. “Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, vol. 19, no. 1, 24 Feb. 2020. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039033/.
- Filipovic, Michelle, et al. “Maximal Fat Oxidation: Comparison between Treadmill, Elliptical and Rowing Exercises.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 1 Mar. 2021. https://doi.org/10.52082/jssm.2021.170.